David Stone

After an emotionally charged debate, not over the merits of the deal, but over the abrupt way it was pushed before an unprepared Board, an amendment opening the way for Southtown buildings 8 and 9 passed on 5-2 vote. In the agreement, 47% of new housing meets affordability standards.

RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal chats with Board Members Smith and Kraut before the meeting.
RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal chats with Board Members Smith and Kraut before the meeting.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Discussions for the agenda item barely got underway before Board Member Fay Christian interrupted, making a motion that the item - "Authorization to Enter into the Fifth Amendment of the Southtown Development Agreement" -  be tabled because there had not been enough time or materials provided to consider it.

"We should not be given items a day or two before meetings," she protested. "Besides that, I need more materials.”

Board President Susan Rosenthal quickly stepped in. “The timing is critical,” she said, arguing against a delay.

But for Christian, it was personal.

“I'm tired of being pushed.”

“I'm uncomfortable with it too,” Board Member Margie Smith added, supporting Christian.

Smith's and Christian's objections echoed and were reinforced by past frustrations where resident Board Members were rankled at being asked to vote on key hires, budgets and other items without preparation.  

Vice President and CFO Kim Quinones hastily explained the rush.

She, other RIOC staff, consultants and Southtown developer Hudson worked into this week to patch a deal together that lives up to community commitments to affordable housing.

But what pushed the request for Board approval is a chance to get City subsidies for the first time that make possible such a large chunk of affordable units. Public Authorities Law and the need to meet City deadlines left RIOC with little choice but to seal the deal in September.

"The last thing you want to do is to get kicked into June," the next open date for applying for subsidies, explained Hudson Partner David Kramer.

Board Member David Kraut took a conciliatory approach, asking how much time was realistically available for the Board to act. Was it feasible to accommodate Christian by delaying the vote for a week?

"It’s a matter of accountability," Kraut said. "If we can’t see the documents, we can’t vote on it."

But pragmatism got the best of him, and he voted against tabling the vote anyway and, eventually, for approving the amendment.

HCR representative Alex Valella confers with General Counsel Jaci Flug.
HCR representative Alex Valella confers with General Counsel Jaci Flug.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Certainty Amid Confusion

The Board's enthusiasm for affordability was never in question. What stirred debate and Christian's ire was a complicated package with profound implications for Roosevelt Island put on the table without enough time for her and other Board Members to do their jobs.

Affordability housing the Board voted for in the past "was not actually done," Christian argued. "Look at who actually moved in to the affordable housing."

A consensus is that earlier agreements were too weak and allowed the expected affordability component to evaporate after one year.

Quinones insisted that the agreement stiffens the rules to prevent that happening again.

As residents in the audience struggled to pick up details of the deal being debated, Quinones introduced several experts who tried to untangle knots of uncertainty and managed to turn down the heat through thoughtful, objective analysis.

Agreement on Amendment 5

Because documents were not distributed publicly, we can't report on specific details, but one certainty that prevailed was on the merits of the deal Quinones presented. 

Even Christian, who tried to delay the vote and said, "No," in the end, believed that, at least superficially, her high standards for affordability were met.

After her motion to table failed in a 3-3 tie, with Howard Polivy and Margie Smith supporting her and Kraut joining State agency Members in opposition, the agreement edged closer to a vote.

Alex Valella, who chairs RIOC Board Meetings on behalf of Housing and Community Renewal Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas, has consistently been a respected voice of experience on various issues. He helped tip the final result toward approval when he said he'd had time to read the entire agreement and liked what he saw.

It was easier for him, he explained to a still unhappy Christian, because "I see these things everyday."

Kraut offered his own rationale for approval, appealing to reason. Eventually, he said, the Board was going to vote in favor of the amendment, no matter what. Delaying for a week would only make it harder to meet City deadlines and create unnecessary risk.

The motion to table defeated in a tie vote, Valella's and Kraut's contributions influenced Howard Polivy to switch sides.

Amendment Five passed on a 4-2 vote, with Christian and Smith holding firm in disapproving an agreement they were not given enough time or materials to responsibly consider.

Construction is expected, pending City approval, to begin next year on Building 8 and in 2019 for Building 9.