David Stone
Real Estate Advisory Committee Members (from left) Kraut, Christian and Shinozaki during discussion of the "RI Welcome Monument."
Real Estate Advisory Committee Members (from left) Kraut, Christian and Shinozaki during discussion of the "RI Welcome Monument."
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

If you were lucky enough to watch from a chair in RIOC's newest - and now packed - conference room, you might reach an obvious conclusion that the Real Estate Advisory Committee casually blew off resident sentiments, turned a blind eye on accusations of fraud and melted their convictions under the watchful eye of a real estate developer, approving all outstanding funds to support a short stay for the controversial RI Welcome Monument placed right where Hudson wanted it.  You might, but is that really what happened?

The Real Estate Advisory Committee, running late after a conference about the pending Youth Center award ran long, started predictably with Chair Howard Polivy introducing a summary of survey responses collected during and briefly after the RI Welcome Monument prototype was displayed on a frigid afternoon at the Tram Plaza on February 3rd.

In ballots collected and reported on by Public Information Officer Alonza Robertson, sentiment ran heavily in favor - 41 for and 20 opposed - of breathing permanent life into the 9-foot tall, red Helvetica fonts.

Board Member Margie Smith countered that the Residents Association Common Council, which claims to represent all 12,000 Island residents, passed a unanimous resolution to have it scraped, and Historical Society President Judy Berdy, who has lead opposition to the installation, had more - and worse - in that vein when she was allowed to speak.

But Hudson's David Kramer, whose company partners with RIOC on the RI sculpture as well as an elaborate system of wayfinding signs that complete a larger package, had an ace up his sleeve.

Kramer's newly relaxed position proposed approving all funding but making the installation's placement near the north entrance at the Tram Plaza provisional, giving it six months to win over hearts and minds, after which it could be moved elsewhere, if necessary. Kramer's concession was as unanticipated as it was significant.

After discussions about timing and graffiti, Board Member Fay Christian voiced the committee's general sentiment, "Six months is a reasonable trial."

Berdy, now given a chance to speak, was angry.

RIHS President Judy Berdy has her say against the "RI Welcome Monument."
RIHS President Judy Berdy has her say against the "RI Welcome Monument."
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Robertson's report, written just two days after the display, ignored an unknown number of emails RIOC received later. (Berdy waved dozens on which she'd been copied and turned them over to the committee.)

Ballots handed out by RIOC instructed parties too busy (or cold) to fill them out while the display was up to email RIOC, listing a specific address for comments. None of those received were in the report provided to the Board by Robertson.

The report "...does not give anything to our community. Neighbors went out of their way to express themselves, and RIOC is ignoring them. Our community deserves better," Berdy protested.

Board Members did not disagree, but neither did they change their minds.

Mike Shinozaki objected that the Board had not been given all the information available and necessary for consideration, a not uncommon complaint under RIOC President Susan Rosenthal's watch. David Kraut agreed but said he favored the six month trial anyway. If it doesn't work, “we’ll saw it off,” he pledged.

Berdy was outraged.

"You rigged the ballot. It’s fraud," she bristled.

General Counsel Jaci Flug waded in. "I'm sorry," she offered, conceding the mistake and promising to look into how it happened - in the morning, that is, after the motion passed.

But the discussion moved ahead anyway. Relentlessly.

As the committee considered the trial, now truncated to three months, The Daily asked about criteria for the trial. What level of sentiment, pro and con, would make a difference.

Kraut barked that they'd figure something out.

Then, acknowledging Berdy's frustration but insisting on a broader view, he offered a carefully worded explanation, citing "many stakeholders" - those who were not named Berdy or influenced by her - that had to be considered. 

Hermetic though that was, it exposed a likely underlying and undeclared rationale for the committee's action.

Summing up...

  1. All available information, taken in whole, showed a marked disapproval for the RI Welcome Monument, especially from residents.
  2. The Residents Association Common Council voted to chuck it unanimously.
  3. Information significant to the decision had never been provided nor included in Robertson's report.
  4. The three-month trial comes with no criteria, that is, what level of approval - or disapproval - is going to objectively guide choices down the road?
  5. Not a single resident stepped forward to speak in favor.
  6. The Real Estate Advisory Committee passed the motion anyway, without a dissenting vote.


But when the smoke cleared, the Committee's action wasn't as strange as it seemed.

Quick approval of Kramer's offer of a trial suggests that the Committee'd been made aware of it long enough before the meeting to reach a consensus. After substantial investment by both RIOC and Hudson, Committee members were persuaded that junking the artwork without giving it a chance to prove itself, as Kramer argued, made little sense.

Adding credence to this understanding is the RIOC Board's and the Administration's visible trust developed in their long association with Kramer who's represented Hudson here for 25 years. A comfort zone has clearly been established. It wasn't worth jeopardizing over a small feature of a larger signage project that has enthusiastic approval.

Clumsy handling by RIOC executives, once again, worked to make the process look and feel more disrespectful of community concerns than it really was. What's with concealing emails from residents they'd had in their files for weeks?

But if you can get past the administrative ineptitude, the compromise reached between Kramer and the Committee was both informed and wise.

Residents will have a fair chance now to consider the RI Welcome Monument in fair weather, day, night and on weekends, with or without tourists clamoring for photo ops. 

According to Hudson's Alex Kaplan, who's headed the signage project, if all goes well, the monument as well as wayfinding kiosks stationed around the Island will be up by mid-summer. Kaplan gave October as the outside limit.

Who knows? In the meantime, Islanders may even grow fond of 9-foot, red Helvetica fonts in public spaces.