A Developer's Point of View

'This beautiful island..." Q & A with Hudson's David Kramer

David Kramer, The Hudson Company
David Kramer, The Hudson Company
Photo courtesy, The Hudson Company

No other developer has had the impact on Roosevelt Island as has The Hudson Companies, builders of Southtown, the landmark Passive House on the Cornell Tech campus and managers of Main Street retail, working in partnership with The Related Companies. Hudson Partner David Kramer has been at the center of things for the last 25 years. We asked him to share his views on the past, present and future of Roosevelt Island.

RID: You’ve worked with projects on Roosevelt Island for two decades. Can you give us a quick run through of what you’ve worked on and accomplished?

Hudson and Related were designated to develop Southtown in 1997. We have subsequently:

  • Demolished the Central Nurses Residence
  • Built Fireman’s Field
  • Built 7 Riverwalk buildings
  • Created the Riverwalk Commons and the Blackwell Playground
  • Developed retail stores facing the Riverwalk Commons 
  • Signed a Master Lease with RIOC to operate 33 stores on Main Street
  • Developed The House at Cornell Tech in partnership with Cornell

RID: What do you consider your greatest success and your greatest disappointment?

I think Riverwalk has turned out beautifully—the residential apartments, the retail and the open space. Cornell Tech having the largest Passive House building in the world is a big deal. Main Street retail hasn’t succeeded nearly as quickly and thoroughly as we expected. But it’s coming!

RID: On a more practical topic, tell us about Buildings 8 & 9, especially the affordability component.

We hope to close on Building 8 in June. The plan is for it to be an affordable building with apartments leased to households at 60%, 80% and 130% AMI (area median income). What does that mean? Depending on household size, incomes can range from $40,000 to $125,000. Once we close on RW8, we’ll get to work on RW9. 

RID: Let’s get some controversy out of the way. Share your thoughts on the RI Welcome Monument and the fuller project it’s part of.

I don’t think it’s much of a controversy. Starting 2 decades ago, we always felt there should be more of a WELCOME TO ROOSEVELT ISLAND moment arriving on the island. I always felt it was a huge disappointment that you ascend the escalator at the F station, and your first glimpse of this beautiful island is the MTA venting structure. Roosevelt Island should have its own version of a Hollywood Sign. Or the Brooklyn sign, Welcome to Brooklyn, Fuggedaboutit. At the same time, when we started operating the Main Street master lease, we wanted to help the retailers with visitors to the island. There’s no wayfinding on the island, so it doesn’t occur to the stream of tourists to go buy a slice of pizza or some bubble tea. This is something RIOC should have done 30 years ago. So we took the lead on helping out, and the solution is a comprehensive wayfinding system for the island as well as a welcome monument. The wayfinding is a mix of directional signage as well as maps, along the lines of the You Are Here maps you see in malls. For the welcome monument, we hired a top design firm to come up with a Welcome moment for all the visitors arriving at the Tram. I think it will end up being great. I also saw a great idea in the Wire recently from David Enock, who suggested we experiment with different fun finishes for the R & I letters that are temporary and removable. So I wouldn’t say it’s controversial, I would say Islanders love their island and are very protective of it and don’t embrace change so easily. 

RID: Recently, we’ve seen two new openings, plus the return of Trellis as Nisi. What’s coming up, and what do you consider the most important factors for a successful business on Main Street?

Onda will open as a Mexican restaurant in 548 Main Street, and Café Eleanor will open as a panini café at 503 Main. They’re both in the incredibly long, tortured process of getting permits and building out their spaces. If you don’t think it’s a complicated process for retailers to build out a space and open, just ask Kaie from Nisi. One of these decades the New York Public Library will open their brand new library. And Bubble Cool just opened. I think successful businesses simply need to be smart, experienced operators with good services, good products and affordable to the community. The tenants at Wholesome Direct or China One or the Wine Store or Fuji East never complain to me about their business. 

Seen here; The Residential Passive House at Cornell Tech, the largest of its kind in the world.
Seen here; The Residential Passive House at Cornell Tech, the largest of its kind in the world.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

RID: Moving the Green Market to Good Shepherd Plaza has raised awareness. Any suggestions for further activating the area?

As much as possible. Good Shepherd Plaza should be the epicenter and nerve center of the island. It could host anything—concerts, Smorgaburg, juggling acts, Speakers Corner, skateboard competition, whatever.  I wish that between RIOC and all the community groups, there was a concerted effort to activate the plaza; it would be a great boost for the island and help the retailers immeasurably. 

RID: Our community is dispersed. We’re interested in ideas for bringing more Cornell Tech people as well as Riverwalk and Octagon residents to Main Street businesses. Any suggestions?

That’s a big question we always struggle with. Every year, we think, this is the year that Main Street tips and more residents from Riverwalk patronize Main Street. When Gristedes finally completed their renovation—which we’ll take credit as landlord for helping to instigate—we thought, now Main Street will be a thoroughfare for all the island residents. When the wine store opened, we thought, now here’s an excuse for residents throughout the island to traverse Main Street. When Nisi reopened, etc. It’s a little bit like Dayenu—it should have been enough for us. Our latest thinking is that if we recruit a yoga studio to Main Street, that use could help unify many different submarkets on the island. 

RID: Regarding community support, are there ways for Hudson to become more active, for example, by sponsoring programs at the Senior Center or supporting local artists by placing their work in your buildings? 

We support a lot of groups currently. We’re trying to help RIVAA stay in their current space and offer an under-market rent; and we married RIVAA with Cornell Tech for a few years to help them pay the rent. But the truth is that between the residential ground rents and retail rent that we pay, we’re making massive contributions to RIOC. In our most recent residential building, Riverwalk Point, between ground rent and taxes (when they’re no longer abated), that one building will be contributing $3 million to Roosevelt Island. 

RID: Finally, what do you find best in Roosevelt Island, and what’s most challenging?

Roosevelt Island is beautiful, peaceful and an easy place to live. The views, the open space, the community engagement are ideal. I think we’re 1 better middle school and a slightly more charming retail corridor away from being the perfect place to live in New York City. 

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