Bad Planning, Unrepaired

How the Main Street Canyon drags down Roosevelt Island...

Updated 3 weeks ago David Stone
A year ago, Nisi reopened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but it needs vibrant neighbors and community support to thrive.
A year ago, Nisi reopened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but it needs vibrant neighbors and community support to thrive.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

The modern community on Roosevelt Island started with genuine promise, brightened with liberal hope for economic balance. With New York City in trouble, plans for the City of Tomorrow on the East River stepped away from the rubble, defied angry real estate developers but never reached its full potential. What went wrong?

Why were the WIRE buildings set like this...?

Years ago at a New Year get together, I met a guy who took part in planning Main Street. He was unable to explain why early construction deliberately limited, even blocked, riverside access. Walking through the WIRE buildings' colorless canyon, you could imagine you weren't on an island at all.

Why?

What he made clear were the good intentions. He was troubled that it came out like it did.

If you read pioneers' observations, you get the impression that the power of community was so strong mistakes weren't noticed until Manhattan Park disrupted the pattern. Reactions to the "Northtown" development were visceral.

How the Main Street Canyon drags down Roosevelt Island...
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Early on, one legacy resident, then Vice President on the Common Council, Manhattan Park spurred resentment by designing a park facing the street, not an unrelieved entrance like the WIRE buildings. 

This probably makes no sense to you. It didn't to me either.

At Council meetings in the early '90s, where I represented Manhattan Park, my complex was unblushingly referred to as "Snobs Knob."

Market rate rentals made us outsiders, snobs to unwelcoming pioneers.

Later, during my second term, other Council members dissed Southtown's early developments as "Millionaires' Row."

In raw, relative terms, it was stupid, driven by established residents' pique over buildings that parted from the routine in the Main Street canyon. It was always more about the "outsiders" living in them.

Why the canyon failed

A couple of things, working together, let Main Street roll on for decades as the failed space it still is, pockmarked with empty storefronts, devoid of color.

People move here because they love the one of a kind ambience, a small, even somewhat rural town tucked inside a big city. Uniqueness builds community. We share crowded red buses, cherish the Tram and shake our heads at RIOC's bumbling. We're in it together.

But government, assigned to build out a planned city, fumbled it.

How the Main Street Canyon drags down Roosevelt Island...
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Did you ever watch one of those near-comical NFL plays where a dropped ball gets chased down the field as one player after another can't quite get a handle on it? Finally, it's knocked out of bounds.

In spite of all the action, nothing's changed.

That's where we are.

It seems obvious enough, given the open spaces within and adjacent, that the original planners expected something creative to be done to enliven Main Street, not just leave unadorned facades to form a dreary canyon.

The evidence is there, if not obvious. All the WIRE buildings share space and potential for amenities exceeding what's found elsewhere. Disappointment's limited to the outside.

Opportunities were wasted because the bureaucracy didn't trust the community enough to give it a voice, assigning a patronage contaminated public benefit corporation to develop a town in which it's never been invested.

RIOC President Susan Rosenthal was recently quoted as saying Amazon employees would move here as soon as they discovered that Roosevelt Island was a great place to live and raise a family.

It's ironic because she doesn't live here and neither has a single one of her predecessors. None of her senior staff lives here, and none that I'm aware of ever have. 

Managers assigned to run the place never demonstrated any belief that Roosevelt Island's a great place to live, far from it. In fact, when a law was circulating through Albany that would require RIOC's President to live here, Rosenthal told me she wouldn't have taken the job under those conditions.

How's that for an endorsement?

How the Main Street Canyon drags down Roosevelt Island...
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

So pioneers who started their own library, forced the State to keep the Tram running and established a local government of their own (generally ignored by RIOC) were given little say in how the island should be developed.

And RIOC keeps fumbling and never recovering.

Two Major Failures

RIOC's failure to develop Main Street as a vibrant community space became suddenly apparent when the Farmers Market relocated in Good Shepherd Plaza. Residents from all corners flocked to the open air offerings. Business picked up, sales increased, and foot traffic aided other shops.

Since this wasn't RIOC's original idea and was taken only because helix repairs forced the move, it shouldn't be a surprise that the State agency's never been able to come up with much of anything else on a regular basis to make use of the center of town.

It's a shame because something as simple as a lively flow of ribbons and banner from building facades could make the space instantly more welcoming. Welcome signs at the borders of the canyon are a no-brainer for anyone not paid by RIOC.

Why, I'm wondering are none of the Fall for Arts murals in Good Shepherd Plaza of Capobianco Park? Why isn't there a single prominent Welcome to Roosevelt Island sign anywhere? (No, the RI Welcome Sign promoted by RIOC and Hudson isn't what its name implies. It's a simple, over-priced novelty that a majority of Islanders would prefer to haver removed.)

The other major failure is both more obvious and intractable. 

Without subsidies, Main Street was built with too many storefronts for the population available to support them.

It should come as no surprise that RIOC made a mess out of managing retail along Main Street before Hudson and the Related Companies took a shot. Many stores were so far behind in rent that, if they hadn't failed already, they did soon after the conversion.

When I served on the Common Council, my committee was assigned to help Main Street retail improve. That was 25 years ago. The circumstances changed only because Hudson and the Related Companies demanded that businesses upgrade their looks and practices.

Say what you will about rents demanded, the businesses that survive are distinctly better.

Wholesome Factory stands out as an example, quality products at fair prices. Nisi's been reborn, and we've even got a couple of national chains serving us.

But the empty storefronts are as much a plague as ever, and some businesses are fragile enough that competing newcomers may shutter as may shops as they open.

No one seems willing to accept the inescapable: we have too many storefronts, not too few businesses.

In the old days, RIOC subsidized businesses by default, ignoring unpaid rents that went on for years. Even then, Main Street was never full.

A plan that included rows of shops on either side of Main Street should've included methods for keeping them open.

Projections for Island population - a peak of 20,000 - that might've been enough to make Main Street viable were fantasy.

Last census (2010) showed us at 11,661, a deceptive figure because roughly 20% of those counted were in Goldwater and Coler Hospitals, populations unlikely to sprinkle cash between Rivercross and Westview.

Since, Goldwater was demolished, making way for Cornell Tech with fewer residents. Southtown added a building, but when the 2020 census rolls out, we're not likely to be far beyond 2010, certainly nowhere near the 20,000 once projected.

Maybe the old figure was just wishful thinking. Maybe, when the rubber hit the road, we were simply built too short. There seems no realistic way to advance much farther after Southtown adds a pair of new buildings in a couple of years. Then, we'll top out around 15,000. 

What happens then? Will we still cling to starry-eyed visions of Main Street packed with vibrant retail businesses? Or will we find new pathways to viability?

It matters because with the Main Street canyon holding on as the center of our island universe, the remainder of the community is fragmented, we lose our identity and the shadows deepen.

It's up to community leaders - building managers, a revitalized Common Council, business owners - to pull together in common cause. It's clear enough that RIOC's not up to the task or even realistically invested in the community.

Who's going to step up?

If ever we needed a new generation of leaders, we need them now.

 

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