We're Growing Apart

Roosevelt Island & RIOC, a Bad Marriage Gets Worse

Updated 48 weeks ago David Stone

Roosevelt Island & RIOC, a Bad Marriage Gets Worse
© Roosevelt Island Daily

Two events this week show, in no uncertain terms, how far we’ve drifted from Roosevelt Island’s original vision — the City of Tomorrow, now a Land of the Lost with memories stitching it together. 

Short Dose of History

It’s easy to forget, these days, that the idea of Roosevelt Island proved that good intentions were still possible, fifty years ago, in a city ravaged by crime, stunted with political ineptitude, seasoned with corruption and raw with racial conflict.

Especially now because, as New York City ambitiously renewed itself since then, Roosevelt Island went the other way, losing contact with its founding ideals.

A community planned for the most prized undeveloped real estate in any borough, a two mile long projection of rock — Manhattan schist, the same stuff you see protruding in Central Park — defied convention. It slapped back the heavy hand of real estate development, a hell of a task in those days, determined to use available resources to settle a mixed income, racially balanced and, a miracle for people with disabilities, barrier free community.

Such idealism couldn’t build anything today, when cash is king and people an inconvenience to be managed, but wonder of wonders, it did then, penetrating one of the darkest veils ever to shroud New York City.

In a bid to fortify prospects for success, the City transferred authority for development to the State’s Urban Development Corporation, which not long thereafter handed control over to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, RIOC, a public benefit corporation created specifically for the City of Tomorrow. 

Roosevelt Island & RIOC, a Bad Marriage Gets Worse

Quick Hop to the 1990s

When we came to Roosevelt Island, it was for a move into Manhattan Park, the first market rate housing complex and the first to make a clean break from the WIRE buildings that were the community’s foundation.

First time elections came around, driven by a plan hatched with a friend to reverse the Island’s restrictions on dogs, I ran for the Common Council and won, top vote getter for our complex, and soon found myself leading a committee hoping to save the Tram from mothballs.

The dog thing? It never went anywhere. The City of Tomorrow, I was told, was not going to have canines peeing on every available surface while their mindless guardians allowed fecal gifts to be left on the promenades, sidewalks and playing fields.

What you need to know now is that the distance between the community and RIOC that’s so apparent today was barely discernible, then. President Jean Lerman and her primary assistant Barry Chafetz were familiar enough to be, for a certain contingent of residents, recognized as a profanity: “Jean and Barry,” preferably said with a sneer.

But I found them anything but what that implied.

When I approached them, at Common Council President David Kraut’s suggestion, they readily stayed late at 591 Main Street to meet with me. In the first floor conference room, they threw open the books — too soon for digital bookkeeping — showing Tram expenses bleeding red, the shuttle buses contributing to a gathering pool.

With State government under Governor Mario Cuomo, which had a penchant for crying poor while raising taxes higher than the rest of nation, removing financial support for development years before the Island neared targets for self-sufficiency, Roosevelt Island’s transportation systems handcuffed everything else.

Tram fares, locked into whatever the MTA approved for subways, could not be raised. Something had to be done.

Unlike today, RIOC was eager to work constructively with the community on solutions, even where disagreement was often acid.

A resident group lead by the irrepressible Al Weinstien drew a line in the sand. The Tram must continue operating during the hours already in place, back and forth on pulleys, every 15 minutes, no cutbacks.

Some parts of the compromise reached in a solution were hard to swallow. RIOC began collecting 10 cent fares on the previously free Red Buses, and a Tram Console Operator, whose main task seemed to be watching cabins float across the East River while resting a coffee mug next to an uncrowded console that didn’t control anything, had to be jettisoned.

Kraut called together the community for a well-attended Tram information meeting in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Everybody got a chance to air their concerns.

Before the meeting, Jean Lerman called me. She worried that no one would speak up positively about the State agency she managed. I promised to vouch for her and Barry’s cooperation and good intentions.

Indifference to community concerns hadn’t infected the executive offices yet, and although Lerman, a former State Assembly Member, was certainly a political appointee, RIOC was nowhere near prosperous enough to become the landing strip for political rewards it’s become today.

Long Jump to 2018

Roosevelt Island & RIOC, a Bad Marriage Gets Worse

20 years and a mixed bag of political appointees with varying — mostly insufficient — qualifications later, this week, RIOC moved to off-load the core of its infrastructure initiatives to a third party, a move that promises to take operations on Roosevelt Island even farther from a community that’s already lost most influence with the State agency.

Recent developments with RIOC’s Board have made it clear that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s appointees will do as they like, regardless of the wills of resident Board Members or the community at large. Agreements to amend Hudson Related ground lease, one to critically change affordability for new buildings and another to give away 150 grand for the seasonal Winter Wonderland, a misnomer if ever there was one, were ramrodded to approval without adequate review or consideration.

Resident Board Members have shown no gift for forming a coalition, good news for the Governor, and are further hampered by two empty seats he refuses to fill.

Singing a familiar tune, RIOC’s navigating a new Owner’s Representative deal the community heard about only because we stumbled on a pre-bid conference and asked. 

Jean Lerman’s concern for community consensus has been replaced by whatever pleases the largely invisible minion inside 591 Main Street.

A path well worn…

Charged with developing Roosevelt Island, RIOC has already stepped aside, outsourcing Motorgate, Information Technology, Tram operations and Main Street retail. A drop-off in community satisfaction accompanied assignments to outside management that distanced residents from day-to-day operations.

Stinginess as an integral ingredient in Public Purpose Grants reflects RIOC’s structural indifference to community building and values.

Outsourcing infrastructure will leave RIOC without much left besides public safety, shuttle buses and groundskeeping, any of which may come next.

As outsourcing moves the State agency farther from contact with residents, it hasn’t resulted in any reduction in employment.

What we get instead is an ideal nesting place for political rewards. Executives are hired and put in place without much of a search, as far as we know, beyond friends of the governor. Qualifications for jobholders are so deficient, consultants are routinely recruited to manage the managers.

You might conclude that RIOC’s real task, rather than developing anything, is to provide employment for the appropriately loyal.

The new Owner’s Representative award is a predictable development, more of the same, which will add another layer of bureaucracy, without any consequence for internal employment levels or interest in the concerns and values of local residents.

In the beginning, I mentioned another event that signaled the distance between the community and those running core operations on Roosevelt Island.

It might’ve escaped your notice — it certainly escaped RIOC’s — but the Roosevelt Island Senior Center held its Annual General Meeting on Thursday, February 8th.

The meeting was remarkable as it demonstrated the successful rebirth of an operation critical to Roosevelt Island’s elderly, one that, just two years ago, was ridden with crime and mismanagement. 

The Carter Burden Network jumped in to the rescue on perilously short notice, stood tall and firm in spite of resistance from a small contingent of residents more interested in turf than in seniors needing a trustworthy place to go.

The result, today, is a thriving community meeting place, active all day with classes and training, an example of what any Senior Center ought to be.

What proved an eye-opener for me was that, although the meeting room was packed to overflowing, no one from RIOC attended or even sent best wishes, their detachment from the community is so pervasive. 

Neither was anyone from RIOC favorite, the Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, which claims to want to work cooperatively with CBN, present.

The RIRA Common Council? Absent too.

An outside agency, receiving no supportive funding from RIOC, Public Purpose Grants or otherwise, is doing the essential work of supporting the community while the State agency, as far as anyone can tell, is busy tending to the needs of real estate developers friendly with the Governor and completely and willfully unaware of much else.

We may have come a long way, but someone took a wrong exit, leaving the community behind on the way to erasing an urban dream.

Now, just how do we get our island back?

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