Roosevelt Island: Community Unfocused

Can RIOC Be That Clueless?

Updated 4 days ago David Stone
Can RIOC Be That Clueless?
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

There's still some space left before we plunge into the Jerry Blue level of frustration. But RIOC’s lack of community engagement, expanding cluelessness under the combined “leadership” of Andrew Cuomo and Susan Rosenthal, leave us with limited fresh air, and it’s escaping fast.

RIOC’s Cluelessness With Susan Rosenthal

Susan Rosenthal’s smart, energetic, easy to like. Most of us would love to have her as a next door neighbor. She can be funny and charming and is frequently both.

But she’s also, as we wrote when she was first appointed President and CEO, unqualified by experience to lead a mission in community development.

And it shows.

Here are a few of the most obvious examples.

 

Susan Rosenthal
Susan Rosenthal
File photo: RIOC / Erica Spencer-El

An RFP for Operating the Roosevelt Island Youth Center Sours

What first scrambled my trust in RIOC under Rosenthal were disclosures shared by activist Frank Farance after he acquired documents involved in last spring’s failed Request for Proposals for running the Youth Center.

The Roosevelt Island Center for Community Development, RICCD, joined Island Kids in competition with the Roosevelt Island Youth Program, the only manager the Youth Center has ever known.

RICCD, lead in part by disgruntled ex-employees of RIYP, is widely suspected of working behind the scenes to push RIOC into an RFP where one had never been needed before.

A critical, unexplained error by RIOC lawyer Lada V. Stasko allowed RICCD to continue into a final stage of evaluation for which it failed to qualify. RICCD fell short of the lowest qualifying score in the penultimate round, but Stasko, apparently of her own volition, rounded RICCD’s score up to let them continue. 

It’s not known if either Island Kids or RIYP were notified, but the RFP was essentially contaminated at that moment, and had Farance not hit RIOC with a FOIL request, we’d probably never have been told. 

Changing the rules after the game begins is dirty pool, no matter who’s in charge or their intentions.

Worse still, released documents also showed that scorecards filled in by evaluators were  subsequently altered by parties unknown in a way that resulted in a tie between Island Kids and RIYP with RICCD a disruptive third.

Although Farance came down hard with charges of corruption, no solid evidence is available of that to date, and as far as anyone knows, no one is taking the trouble to look further.

What makes this so damning for RIOC is that when strong evidence of questionable behaviors and possible bid rigging by RIOC employees — including an attorney — surfaced, involving a highly charged community issue, the State responded with silence.

No explanation has been forthcoming from RIOC about Stasko’s waiving of the rules midstream or the allegedly doctored score sheets.

It seems to have missed Rosenthal and her Albany handlers that consensus and trust are critical to a small, tightly knit community like ours. Open communication, critically lacking at RIOC, is essential.

Lack of attention to community concerns is, simply, about as clueless as clueless gets to be.

Tale of Three Landlords

Can RIOC Be That Clueless?
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

While we have cited RIOC for egregious favoritism toward Grenadier/Manhattan Park in a dispute over sub metering violations — there’s more to come on that story — the contrast between RIOC’s treatment of Westview and Southtown leases is eyebrow raising on its own as the State agency bends to accommodate one landlord while turning a cold shoulder toward residents elsewhere.

While Rosenthal teamed up with Hudson in something comparable to a bull rush in football to pass Amendment 5 of the Southtowns ground lease, approving changes that open the way for Buildings 8 & 9, foot dragging has been more the style with Westview’s efforts to make a graceful exit from Mitchell-Lama.

The September approval of Southtowns Lease Amendment 5 required Board Members to surrender due diligence and fiduciary duty to pass changes with which none were familiar or lose a golden opportunity for an increase in affordable housing.

While the final deal may be good for the community, it’s never good when no one on RIOC’s Board has adequate time to review, consider and debate. 

Rosenthal demanded that it be approved anyway on a “Trust me” vote.

Contrast that with an exit plan negotiated over many long hours by the Westview Taskforce and owner/sponsor David Hirschhorn. It earned overwhelmingly support from tenants in a vote more that a year ago.

The plan stalled immediately when it arrived at RIOC, which holds the master lease that must be amended, and has not budged for more than a year.

RIOC exposes its cluelessness again because neither Rosenthal nor anyone from the Board has seen fit to communicate with anxious residents, leaving them dangling in suspension and jeopardizing an arduously negotiated plan.

Taskforce members and residents expected RIOC to promptly approve the lease amendment since the exit approved by a large majority closely resembles one already successfully managed with Island House.

But RIOC refused and hasn’t offered any explanation or genuine reassurance.

Sources tell The Daily that an exorbitant, unanticipated increase in lease payments was demanded by RIOC, derailing the plan and threatening to increase costs for residents. 

RIOC has declined multiple requests for comment.

Worries that politics played a role in RIOC’s intransigence were discouraged by Hirschhorn, who is a Republican from Connecticut, but if politics haven’t played a role, it’d be a rare exception in the galaxy where Andrew Cuomo rules.

RI/IЯ “Monument” Fiasco Just a Prelude

How our community looks to residents, the message it sends, matters to those of us who live here, but RIOC has sent its own message that the State’s choice in tastefulness comes first, residents third.

Southtown Real Estate Developer Hudson lands a close second.

RI Monument presentation
RI Monument presentation
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

First signal that RIOC cares little for resident concerns arrived with the controversial RI/IЯ icon, built by Hudson in collaboration with RIOC.

After a prototype was rushed around the Island as if pursued by gluttons of good taste, stopping in three places over two inconvenient hours, many residents said they hated it while others, including RIOC and Hudson, loved it.

What makes that disrespectful exhibition worse is that, as it turns out, it was not carted around to seek community comment at all.

A thorny question of why it was carted from Tram Plaza to Rivercross Lawn in three hops got lost when, at the next RIOC Board Meeting, Rosenthal dismissed complaints, declaring, “It’s already being built.”

Fortunately, protests from historian Judy Berdy along with Broad Members Margie Smith and Fay Christian forced Rosenthal to back down.

It was discovered, in a subsequent review, that the RI/IЯ “Monument” was not the done deal Rosenthal claimed but was still subject to approval for both design and location by a Board Committee.

Those decisions haven’t been made yet or reported back to the full Board, but RIOC’s disregard for public opinion whips in the unhappy breeze as another red flag of disregard for Roosevelt Island values. 

That the pair of commonplace but gigantic, red Helvetica fonts was dangled in front of the community for a faux review is inexplicable. Neither RIOC nor Hudson had any intention of heeding resident comments. All decisions were made behind closed doors without any kind of consensus sought.

If that sounds like Big Brother or Big Sister knows best, get used to it.

Undeterred, Rosenthal and company forced another last minute vote that ended up approving another Southtown lease amendment aimed at funding “Winter Wonderland,” a dispersed set of holiday decorations and installations arranged by Hudson.

RIOC shoulders the major load of financing the $225,000 deal and, at the same time, avoids competitive bidding by granting Hudson $150,000 in reduced lease payments.

In return for that investment in money paid to both Hudson and RIOC by residents, the community was given no say whatsoever about “Winter Wonderland.”

No valid explanation was offered about why RIOC bypassed local artists in turning everything over to Hudson, which also ignored local talents.

Roosevelt Island doesn’t have the skills, according to Rosenthal, even though RIVAA’s membership includes painters who’ve shown and sold artwork around the globe along with sculptors and an architect.

Take a long look at the generic, off the shelf fixtures being hung, off the rack trees parked in Riverwalk Commons, etc. 

Does anyone honestly believe that locals, including the pros at RIVAA, kids and seniors in art programs around town, couldn’t have done better and, very likely, for a lot less?

What’s Wrong With RIOC?

You could probably do a pretty substantial graduate thesis answering that one.

But the question is larger, and a better question might be, how did a landmark urban ideal like “Roosevelt Island” get derailed? 

The community can’t walk away without taking some of the blame.

The longer narrative is that the founding of Roosevelt Island as a one of a kind community emerging from what was — arguably — New York City’s worst conditions was a miracle few thought possible.

With decay and violence spoiling New York from subways to aboveground neighborhoods, a few idealists still managed to secure commitment to build a “City of Tomorrow” on this narrow strip of Manhattan schist carved out over millennia in the East River. 

Real estate developers with their own ideas hated it when so much of the profit incentive got chucked aside in favor of progressive ideals. They’ve been clawing back for over forty years, and current conditions suggest they finally won much of what they wanted.

But the men and women who plan and build buildings and communities are not inherently evil. Quite the opposite, they provide a useful service, especially in dynamic urban areas like New York. 

The problem is the absence of any counterbalance to keep ambitions in line with human needs.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, led by firebrand Patrick Stewart, stood toe to toe in a battle with Governor George Pataki’s head of RIOC, Jerome Blue.

The condensed version is that the Common Council under President Stewart defeated Blue.

But we soon got greedy. 

Steve Shane at the Tram's 40th birthday party
Steve Shane at the Tram's 40th birthday party
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

With opportunities suddenly available for increasing self-governance, a small group of elites centered in Rivercross made a grab for power. The Maple Tree Group, energized in part by a belief that they ought to have more authority than others based on their being owners, not mere renters, organized a movement in a community too politically unsophisticated to otherwise assert itself. 

Organized like the only center of gravity in an unsettled universe, the group took control of elections to seat the first locally elected RIOC Board Members, then moved on to emasculate the Common Council by taking it over, merging in without elections as the Government Relations Committee.

With the once influential Common Council now organized around the goals of a small selection of elites, the community in whole — as once represented by the Residents Association — lost its voice and its power.

When a Maple Tree Group coalition banded together on the Board to oust RIOC President Steve Shane, moneymaking emerged as the driving force in Island development for residents as well as builders. 

RIOC went off the rails because the community was stripped of its power to resist.

With no one credible left to speak for all residents, it came as no surprise that Governor Cuomo seized RIOC as an asset for patronage appointments.

Still, Cuomo’s first appointment for leading RIOC, Charlene Indelicato, was a good one.

Indelicato was an experienced community manager from Westchester who, in three years, rooted out the corruption that poisoned Leslie Torres’s administration.

And Indelicato is responsible for what may be the best hire RIOC ever made, recruiting Jack McManus to replace Keith Guerra, bringing Roosevelt Island a neighborhood friendly community policing model.

But as Chaucer is credited with saying, “All good things must come to an end.”

They did.

After three years, Indelicato left RIOC’s helm, turning the authority over to Susan Rosenthal who was given the official title of President/CEO six months later.

All appearances suggest that Rosenthal was appointed for no other reason than patronage. Nothing in her resume suggested the slightest skill or qualifications for managing a community development organization.

Cuomo, no surprise, never explained the appointment, and it sailed through a lame Board that complains much but stands up in unison rarely. 

After a year, we can see that the appointment was as unfair to Rosenthal as it was to Roosevelt Island — unless you assume that she came here to fail at bringing the community together.

Consensus governing is an art lost to us, these days, as Rosenthal, smart and well-intended as she may be, fails repeatedly to seek or honor broad counsel from residents. 

Instead, as we saw with the heavy-handed management of directing public purpose funds to the unqualified Roosevelt Island Seniors Association, decisions are based on flatterers with not much else to do than lobby for their personal causes. 

When a master mechanic is called for, you don’t send in a gifted philosopher. Nor when a sensitive community organizer is needed do you send in a leader who sees community through a legal lens that favors technical nuance over empathy.

Is this what a community looks like?
Is this what a community looks like?
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

That’s what’s wrong with RIOC. The Governor feels free to appoint whoever fits his needs, and the community is too weak to resist.

We can thank the Maple Tree Group for destroying community cohesion. 

But better yet, we can get involved with the Common Council and reinvigorate it. Most building complexes currently have vacancies available to be filled by resident activists.

Why wait until next year’s elections?

Why not rebuild the Common Council to be the powerhouse it was under Patrick Stewart before the Maple Tree Group usurped its resources?

The resources are there, if someone will step up to lead them.

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