David Stone
A vibrant community but too short...
A vibrant community but too short...
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Sometimes, NFL quarterback Doug Flutie's passes seemed to shoot up out of a shrinking wall of linebackers and lineman, source unseen. At 5' 10", he chaffed at being dissed as too short for the position. He fought back, but it never made him any taller. Roosevelt Island should be able to relate.

Too Short: The Doug Flutie Thing

In a game against the Indianapolis Colts, while Flutie played for the Buffalo Bills, 6' 5" Payton Manning's pass was blocked at the line of scrimmage. 

"He's too short!" a frustrated, good for a laugh Flute yelled from the sidelines.

Doug Flutie at the U.S. Open in 2009
Doug Flutie at the U.S. Open in 2009
Photo: Edwin Martinez, Creative Commons CCO 2.0

He was sick of it. A Heisman Trophy and a legendary professional career, most of it in Canada where he's still considered by many to be the best quarterback to ever play in the CFL, couldn't erase the stigma.

Flutie was unique, creative, versatile, one of a kind... but he really was too short for the NFL where scrambling, his most useful skill for overcoming physical limitations, was devalued.

Roosevelt Island's Doug Flutie Factor

Out of the box projections for Roosevelt Island's population were a suspiciously round number - 20,000 - enough it was thought to make a self-sustaining community, once fully built out.

That is, able to support all those Main Street storefronts and the government infrastructure need to run the place. In the beginning, the State, responsible for development under a 99 year lease, set aside subsidies in its annual budget.

But New York under Mario Cuomo became a budget battleground, and the annual subsidy vanished in the early 90s, long before the General Development Plan was anywhere near complete. This left Roosevelt Island hopelessly dependent on developers and, some might say, groveling.

If you haven't learned to distrust perfectly rounded numbers - say, 20,000, for example - yet, this should help you get there.

No one's ever been able to explain where the population projections came from or why they were thought to be accurate. My guess is, Roosevelt Island was so unique in concept that some bureaucrat just pulled the number out of the orifice of his choice and nobody else had enough status to object or be heard if they did.

Worst of all, even if 20,000 Roosevelt Islanders turned out to be optimal, no coherent plan was in place to get us there.

Local shops can thrive... as long as there aren't too many.
Local shops can thrive... as long as there aren't too many.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

First built were the WIRE buildings - Westview, Island House, Rivercross and Eastwood (now Roosevelt Landings) - populated by adventurers putting down stakes in an experiment that seeded community from scratch.

The beautiful thing about the WIRE buildings are still visible today, inside, generous living space, creative interior designs, and with a shot at community building rare for the time. There are all-season swimming pools and places to for neighbors to gather.

Residents built the first Roosevelt Island library in Westview.

When you look at it, though, the Doug Flutie Factor was already entrenched. Our own, Hall of Fame worthy Core Four was home to no more than 6,000 people, probably less. Where would the other 14,000 come from?

From imagination, it would seem, since faking total population figures was standard practice by the time I covered the 2010 Census. Deception and frustrations it lead to had already seeded the disaster now known airily as Shops on Main.

When we're not dealing with facts, it should be obvious that we can't deal with the facts

But I digress.

The Core Four were too short, like Doug Flutie, to nudge us far enough into the 20,000 range, and also like the endlessly likable quarterback, no one could do anything about it.

Still can't

The Factor spread, probably from necessity.

Manhattan Park, the first complex to spring to life beyond the WIRE borders, tops out at 22 Floors. (The uppermost floors along River Road are tagged "23," but the 13th has been extracted on the way up.)

That may have been a good number because Manhattan Park struggled to get its apartments leased out, launching full page ads in the New York Times and offering powerful rent concessions. Once you got people here, they'd love it and stay.

Overcoming a significant obstacle, Manhattan Park also paid for the first Red Buses and invested in the expansion of Motorgate. 

We know now that it worked. 

Others developments followed.

The Octagon tops out at 13 floors. Southtown's collection of high rises seem smaller in contrast to towers going up across the East River in Long Island City on similar footprints.

That's not a problem. We're probably right sized for the one-of-a-kind hometown we traditionally sought to be, close-knit, united in our goals - one of which ironically is to stay small, less in demand, off the beaten track.

It's not a problem until you get to the pesky issue of generating revenue to support RIOC's upkeep standards and to make it rewarding for merchants to invest on Main Street.

Hudson-Related's lightweight between the ears insistence that Shops On Main pay Manhattan level rentals is all you need to know about why there are so many empty spaces and so little variety in what we do have.

RIOC and partner Hudson-Related can rhapsodize all day about how eclectic new businesses will energize the corridor and draw scads of foot traffic, something interested investors have been promised for years, but the blinders came off for residents long ago.

We aren't ever going to have enough people here for a thriving, unsubsidized business community because, like Doug Flutie, we're too damned short.

Height is the only way we'd ever get to 20,000, and it's also, like Doug Flutie, too late in the game.

Facts Bear Me Out

Dreams are great. Facts are what pay the bills.

Last census, 2010, Roosevelt Island hit a new high - 11,661 residents. 

There were complaints of an undercount, but a long look at the details did not support that in any serious way.

Local media eager to sell ads and RIOC, eager to pitch Main Street retail, kept pushing the now clearly fictional 14,000 number that'd been drilled into local awareness. Sometimes, they goosed it up as high as 16,000 with nothing whatsoever to support it.

When we're not dealing with facts...

Since then, a gorgeous new set of apartments went up in Southtown 7, Blackwell Park as its historical and charming backyard. And Cornell Tech created an environmentally friendly, landmark residential tower, The House.

But between the two, they can't compensate in residents for the loss of Goldwater Hospital's 1,000 plus.

The result is, we may be somewhat shy of 2010's census in real time. The only saving grace may be an increase in student transient housing as more individuals fill up converted apartments than families were ever able to. 

Let's be realistic.

We have only two more Southtown buildings to go, and then, the GDP is done, no more apartment complexes possible without slicing off our foundation. That's roughly a thousand more Roosevelt Islanders.

Cornell Tech's campus projections can't even be guessed at since futures build outs are only speculation, but a total estimate of 2,000 is probably on the high side, much of that already in place. 

Looking back, you can only regret that no one did serious planning, settling instead for imaginary numbers, to come up with ways to deal with an inevitable gap.

And higher resident counts may not have been feasible anyway. 

If Manhattan Park was 35 stories and The Octagon 20, are there enough potential renters and coop buyers to fill up the extra floors? We're never going to know that, but there's good reason to doubt that many more people can be coaxed out into the East River by Tram and already overcrowded subways.

Bottom line: At best, Roosevelt Island will top out somewhere under 15,000, the bulk far removed from the WIRE core. 

How much longer do we wait to accept the facts and start devising real solutions for Main Street? 

Realistically, the corridor doesn't have too many empty storefronts - it has too many storefronts, period, until some group more imaginative than Hudson-Related and RIOC step up with some solutions.