Mistakes Were Made

On Roosevelt Island: Arcades, Failures In Need of a Fix

Updated 1 year ago David Stone
Arcades on Main Street
Arcades on Main Street
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Reminiscent of our own lingering problem on Roosevelt Island, the City Planning Commission approved a plan to "turn a shadowy, windswept realm into moneymaking retail space." They want office towers in Lower Manhattan to rid themselves of their arcades.

"Pedestrians prefer sidewalks to the gloomy, moribund spaces," an article in the New York Times repeats the obvious.

Here on Roosevelt Island, planning mistakes persist, and our predictably unique version of arcades add to the challenges.

During the years when the romance with urban renewal still breathed, city planners encouraged arcades in downtown Manhattan, in the 1960s and on into the 1990s. In exchange, limits were loosened on allowable building space.

The first Roosevelt Island residential buildings were built then, too. While the idea for Lower Manhattan was to imitate successful European street plans like the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, our local spaces were closer to what you find in more friendly, middle class towns like Bologna.

In both cities, arcades protect pedestrians from rain, snow and summer sun while successfully encouraging commerce and community. They cater to different groups, Paris's to wealthy shoppers and tourists, Bologna's to everyday folks getting around town.

If you're like me, you've appreciated the recesses in front of Roosevelt Landings, Westview, Manhattan Park and Motorgate when weather conditions make sidewalks unpleasant. We close our umbrellas and pop them open again when we walk out of the shelter.

But mostly, we skip the soulless recesses in favor of a stroll past Good Shepherd Plaza and the exposed line of friendly shops beneath Island House.

In referring to the effort to walk back arcade development in lower Manhattan, Carl Weisbrod, the chairman of the City Planning Commission, declared, “This effort is to reclaim and make this into an active, lively corridor.”

Attacking the problem of arcades is quite a different matter here. There is no lively past to reclaim. Main Street was always like this.

Any effort to turn ours into "moneymaking retail space," as the Planning Commission hopes to do downtown, has been underway with limited success by Hudson since they assumed responsibility from RIOC, by contract, in 2011.

Hudson's problem is more daunting.

Lower Manhattan has an advantage we will never have - lots of foot traffic generated by flocks of office workers jammed into a relatively tiny space among office towers.

RIOC dealt with it in a way Hudson can't. To keep businesses open, they let rents fall months, even years, into default.

Objective observers recognize that our Main Street may never have the population density needed to support a robust array of thriving businesses. But aren't there other options?

Hudson made positive steps by opening up and remodeling the arcades along Roosevelt Landings. And you can't help noticing the energizing effect delivered by Public Safety with its bright red design.

More of the same is coming, we hope. A Main Street where more people interact under pleasantly orchestrated arcades would not only improve business prospects, it would be a step in the direction of unifying a community too often separated by the absence of an attractive, inclusive identity.

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