Winter Wonderland Gravity Tugs South

This Year, Southtown Gets More Christmas, The Rest Of Us Not So Much

Updated 2 years ago David Stone
This Year, Southtown Gets More Christmas, The Rest Of Us Not So Much

RIOC's October 19th Board Meeting worked its way through an early gauntlet of confused and hard feelings, starting with the news that we're probably stuck with the Ugly RI/IЯ sign and continuing with plans for a Winter Wonderland financed mostly by RIOC and strongly slanted toward Southtown. Troubling ongoing dynamics came into play and got results much like others witnessed lately.

The Tactic

Fay Christian again protested the Winter Wonderland proposal because she and fellow Board Members “always have to vote at the last minute,” and Margie Smith made a pitch for alternatives favorable to supporting Island nonprofits.

But in the end, RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal prevailed, summoning a familiar tactic: there wasn't enough time to debate, consider or carry through with any other options.

This or nothing. Approve it now or lose it.

That you'll recall is how the team of Hudson and Rosenthal pushed through Amendment Five to the Southtown lease, allowing a deal for construction of Buildings 8 and 9 without giving the Board time look over the amendment let alone do enough research to understand what they were voting on or its context.

"The timing is critical," Rosenthal insisted then.

"I'm tired of being pushed," Christian fired back.

And from across the table, Margie Smith added, "I'm uncomfortable with it too."

But again, their concerns about voting without enough time to understand the impact of their decisions were nullified as David Kraut and Howard Polivy chucked their "Yes" votes in with the two State representatives and passed, 4 to 2, a Side Letter Agreement proposed by Rosenthal.

So What's In the Agreement?

It's hard not to see this as a minor bonanza for Hudson with RIOC being maneuvered into a position that favors Southtown's developer. 

The Winter Wonderland

Rosenthal's been determined to see something more attractive and brighter for Main Street this holiday season than the traditional display that she found unappealing, last year.

"We can do better," she pledged, and the presentation by Hudson's contractor for the project suggests that we will.

But it's uneven.

Very uneven.

Riverwalk Commons gets four 9-foot tall LED trees and a collection of illuminated stars that will delight diners at Fuji East and Riverwalk Bar & Grill. "Another great opportunity for a photo op,” Hudson's contractor promised.

By contrast, the struggling Main Street retail corridor in the canyon gets a set of 4 and 6-foot tall stars strung down the Chapel of the Good Shepherd Plaza. You'll be able to see them when considering produce at Wholesome Factory or sitting in Roosevelt Island Urgent Care's waiting room.

Plus, poles along the covered walkway under Roosevelt Landings get candy cane wraps, with LED stars overhead and illuminated snowflakes in the atriums.

Just as you get to Nisi, which should be open by then, and Bubble Tea, the fun dwindles until the Wonderland tumbles into Nowheresville just past the retailers in Westview. 

While the Tram Plaza gets a flock of reindeer (but no direction signs) and a single tree by the ferry landing gains faux snowfall lighting, Roosevelt Island's traditional Christmas tree, unavailable because of construction at Blackwell House, is replaced with an artificial tree across the street on the Rivercross lawn, a hop, step and a jump from Southtown.

Manhattan Park, Octagon, Coler Hospital and Gristedes? Nothing, zero, nada and forget about it, respectively.

The Hudson Bonanza

Here's where things get sticky, and before we're done, outside the immediate context of the meeting, they get stickier.

Rosenthal prefaced her presentation by explaining that, after talking to a lot of potential contractors about creating this year's Winter Wonderland, they determined that it couldn't be done for less than $75,000.

Early rumors had it that the number was $50,000 and that Hudson would be footing the bill. It is, after all, their contracted obligation to market Main Street retail.

Then, it got worse. Hudson's contribution would be less than an inconsequential rounding error, just $25 out of $75 thousand. RIOC would take on the rest of the obligation by way of a gimmick - the Side Letter Agreement - in which they will comp Hudson by reducing their annual rent by fifty grand.

The Southtown lease, which is considered by many to be a sweetheart deal, is slightly less than a million dollars per year or, in perspective, well under 5% of RIOC's operating budget.

And now, it gets better to the tune of $50,000 per year for doing what they are supposed to be doing already for Main Street retail. And worse for us because Rosenthal tossed the Board a take or leave it three year deal with no alternatives.

So, if it sucks, it will suck for two more years.

And Hudson collects the benefit, no matter what.

"I don’t see anything here we couldn’t do ourselves and own it," Margie Smith protested. "Two-hundred and twenty-five thousand over three years is way too much and not own it."

"We don't have the skills," Rosenthal shot back. (See Island of Art below)

Undeterred, Smith continued battling to make sense, contending that we can "...wrap ribbon around poles.

"If we’re going to spend the money, I'd rather see our art gallery” do the work, she said.

Rosenthal's comeback was a variation on a familiar theme: "We don’t have the expertise."

Smith kept trying, comparing the $50,000 giveaway with the annual contribution out of RIOC's budget of $100,000 in Public Purpose Funds to help "our nonprofits for something that lasts only two months."

Actually, it's less than two months. After flipping the switch sometime around Thanksgiving, no specific date given, the Winter Wonderland has a seven week schedule, 49 days of lighting up Riverwalk Commons with a nod north up Main Street.

With the other resident Board Members, Howard Polivy and David Kraut, unconvinced, Christian and Smith were unable to carry through with what they believed to be legitimate local interests.

But Wait a Minute, The Island of Art Angle

Because there is no way for residents or media to engage in Board discussions, I forced myself to sit, typing silently, as I listened to Rosenthal's arguments for voting, here and now.

What she didn't share is that, way back in July, in a meeting I patched together, Rosenthal's Winter Wonderland dream was discussed with our most active nonprofits who could help - for a lot less than $75,000 and to much greater benefit to Islanders.

With the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association President Tad Sudol and Vice President Esther Piaskowski Cohen in the discussion along with leaders from Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, Carter Burden Network (which has its own Chelsea Gallery and multiple art classes at the Senior Center), FDR Four Freedoms and, yes, Hudson, we talked about how we could help Rosenthal make her Winter Wonderland come to life with local talent.

We talked about going beyond the limits of what got approved on Thursday, including caroling and performances.

At what point in time did RIOC decide that "We don't have the skills" when she'd already sat in a room filled with experience, talent, skills, ambitions and eagerness?

Unfortunately, no one on the Board got to ask that question because, I'll bet, not one of them knew.

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