David Stone
Cornell Tech, in progress, not just world class technology inventions, but the key to Roosevelt Island's future.
Cornell Tech, in progress, not just world class technology inventions, but the key to Roosevelt Island's future.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

For RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal, circumstances couldn't be more fortunate. Miles of neglected infrastructure and other needs are begging for attention, and thanks to a Cornell Tech windfall, there's money to do something about it.

In ordinary years, RIOC relies on ground leases, the Tram, Motorgate and an array of use fees for cash to govern Roosevelt Island and its development. That means running a public safety department, for example, cleaning the streets, keeping the AVAC system running, developing our parks, interacting with the owners and developers of multiple housing complexes and more.

But 2019 will be far from normal.

Cash flows in from making way for Cornell Tech to be built, in one juicy lump sum, giving Rosenthal and her team tools for continuing a robust attack on sagging, legacy infrastructure with some left over for otherwise undoable projects.

August, 2018, a project to replace decrepit seawall railings was underway.
August, 2018, a project to replace decrepit seawall railings was underway.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Rusted, discolored and broken seawall railings and a critical bridge helix on life support, for a pair of active examples, have not escaped RIOC's attention. 

Nor that of Rosenthal's predecessors.

Ten years ago, on one of my first freelance assignments for the Main Street WIRE, I sat with Steve Shane, the RIOC President's office being the first stop in developing a status report on infrastructure. We were already in sad shape, and he knew it. 

Not only were there doubts about  sufficient funds for doing something - anything - about the precarious helix, there wasn't even a good idea about what could be done. Running a ramp directly off the bridge would mean tunneling through PS/IS 217, an unlikely proposition, but how else would you close off the helix for repairs?

Later, I wrote a fresh installment focused on concerns over our deteriorating seawall and the once red, now pink and/or rusted railings, many perilously planted in cracked foundations. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney reminded us that she'd help in any way she could, if a project ever got started.

A treasure, historic Blackwell House, being restored from RIOC's capital budget.
A treasure, historic Blackwell House, being restored from RIOC's capital budget.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Conditions did not improve.

For a decade, RIOC crossed its figurative fingers and hoped for a miracle.

Cornell delivered one.

Because the City retains ownership of land on which Goldwater Hospital was built as part of the deal to develop Roosevelt Island, "a city of tomorrow," Cornell needed only a small strip surrounding the property belonging to RIOC to complete its plan.

Negotiations, with then President/CEO Charlene Indelicato representing RIOC and driven largely by two independent evaluations of the land's value, resulted in New York State agreeing to pass through $1 million of Cornell's money annually for 50 years in return for rights to develop on property encircling the campus.

Acknowledging a pressing need for infrastructure upgrades, the deal called for RIOC receiving instead an advanced present value payment of approximately $25 million, this year.

Let the projects begin.

An Unusual Budget

For a fiscal year beginning on April 1st, 2019, RIOC's Board, in December, voted on a budget that includes $30.7 million in revenue. It still has to gain approval by the State, and as former Board Member Marge Smith once pointed out, what goes north to Albany doesn't always come back unchanged.

But nothing is expected to alter the general picture.

Essential Roosevelt Island Helix repairs clogged traffic in June, 2018.
Essential Roosevelt Island Helix repairs clogged traffic in June, 2018.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

More than half of RIOC revenues comes from ground leases and residential fees, essentially taxes on renters and coop owners collected by landlords and turned over to the State agency.

Other significant sources of income are Motorgate and street parking fees, Public Safety reimbursements, commercial leases and Tramway ridership.

That's generally what RIOC lives on, paying 144.5 full time equivalent salaries - and numerous contractors - for staff who do the invisible paper-shuffling any government requires, drive the buses, patrol the corridors, collect the trash and countless other tasks dedicated to keeping Roosevelt Island running.

Capital expenses, for equipment and infrastructure, generally get less money than that needed for day-to-day operations. 

But, again, this is no ordinary year, and RIOC's proposed budget calls for $34.6 million in capital improvements, a staggering figure even if less than last year's $41.5 million.

The bulge is only made possible by that lump sum payment from Cornell. We get so much more than a gracefully developing campus and a world class technology incubator out of this deal.

Sportspark's upgrade accounts for a good chunk of more than $8 million committed to sports fields and parks, and the majority of $20 million in infrastructure improvements goes for completing work on the Roosevelt Island Bridge helix and upgrading miles of seawall railings.

Historic and landmark structures get $1.7 million, mainly to finish restorations at Blackwell House and to continue stabilizing the Renwick Smallpox hospital ruins.

Without the Cornell Tech windfall, as history shows, many of the capital and infrastructure improvements would take years to accomplish, considering funding restrictions, if done at all.

Two budgets back, Rosenthal put the full muscle of her office into persuading the Board that aggressive commitments to infrastructure would earn the State's trust and keep revenue flowing. 

She was right, and Roosevelt Island looks structurally safer and more appealing than it did as recently as a year ago.

Soon Blackwell House will reopen, a treat most residents have never experienced, and in addition to the above projects, we'll finally have a working elevator for the Tram on Second Avenue. 

RIOC's budget, a kind of infrastructure itself, sets the foundation for lasting improvements, a trend we hope continues after Cornell Tech stops tickling the till with so much abundance.