RIOC Operations Committee Shows Growth But Has No Roots

RIOC Operations Committee Shows Growth But Has No Roots

RIOC operations growth was on display on November 23rd, 2020, and presentations were strong. But something was missing: residents.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

RIOC operations growth, the missing element…

Under the leadership of acting president/CEO Shelton Haynes, RIOC board meetings evolved with staged presentations aimed at educating board members. Haynes wants the governing body to better understand the value of what goes on under the RIOC roof.

The Nellie Bly memorial project is an exceptional example of community involvement.

And there’s plenty worth taking pride in. Whether it’s a walk of projects by head groundskeeper Matthew Kibby or a granular view of human resources from director Tajuna Sharpe, much impresses.

But a glaring vacancy is so routine with the state agency, you might miss it. There is virtually no evidence that residents’ needs, values or interests are ever considered.

Why this matters…

It’s all about recognizing the community paying all the bills.

RIOC is remote enough as a state agency that people living here, especially newcomers, might imagine that the operations are somehow funded out of Albany.

So, they do their thing, and we like it or we don’t. It’s uncomplicated.

But the truth is different because, through the largely obscured RIOC tax, residents pay for the vast majority of expenses. It’s invisible because the money’s collected from rents and coop fees, and it’s never made clear that RIOC depends crucially on residents… but does not seek any kind of advice or consent on how the money’s spent.

RIOC’s operations growth as well as its daily activities aren’t possible without the RIOC tax.

The only other significant source of revenue is the Tram, and those fares are mostly paid by you know who, too.

Resident interests barely blinked at in RIOC’s operations growth

Any observer of the recent Operations Advisory Committee meeting is likely impressed. (Watch the meeting here.)

One oddity is that the staff shining so brightly consists of hires by former president/CEO Susan Rosenthal. She’s currently suing for unlawful termination, and the change is only a matter of style, not content.

But the insular nature that prevails over 591 Main Street and its extensions is glaring. RIOC operates within its own self-contained universe and sets its own values, goals and guidelines.

The community’s lucky because all those are mostly compatible with existing values, but that wasn’t always so.

And accepting the status quo now carries risks for the future.


Forget for a moment that not once did anyone on the board or within the RIOC operations group mention resident involvement. That’s glaring enough, but a disturbing trend rises.

Kibby, for example, is a genial, experienced, well-intended groundskeeper, but his operations are sealed off within RIOC. There’s scarcely a hint of interest in input from anyone living here.

Led by committee chair Michael Shinozaki, Kibby elaborately defended the radical reshaping of a section of the promenade when his crews decapitated inkberry trees that shaded residents for years. They were also a buffer against street-level activities above.

He conceded that, had he known how strongly locals felt about the plants, he’d have approached it differently.

So, why didn’t he know? Where were the executives on this?

The obvious implication: residents are of interest only when they complain, and then, it’s too late.

Worse, wrapping up, Kibby talked about showing the board, at some future time, his “vision” for Roosevelt Island. How does such a vision breathe in an environment without roots or airflow?

Here again, RIOC operations growth is like a hydroponic plant. It never touches the ground the rest of us walk on.

Examples #2

Human resources head Tajuna Sharpe detailed an impressive, elaborate setup geared toward training and retaining quality hires.

She talked about incentivizing staff and getting their buy-in. Her track record for increased diversity would make any progressive’s heart melt.

But all you need to know for enlightenment is that, for all of that quality work, there exists not a shred of interest in recruiting anyone who lives here.

What governmental body, except RIOC, has no residency requirement or even goals?

It’s a disgrace and an insult that the state goes about its business with virtually no community roots and no interest in getting some.

RIOC operations growth, the good and bad in capital projects…

Likely, Susan Rosenthal’s best hire was chief financial officer John O’Reilly. His wrestling together a smoother financial operation yields benefits all around, but a less recognized value is his experience in capital projects.

An additional benefit is O’Reilly’s gift for engaging community members and valuing their concerns, attributes all too rare with RIOC.

Starting with a report on the rehabilitating Roosevelt Island’s crumbling 19th Century Lighthouse, O’Reilly noted getting local historian Judith Berdy’s buy-in on authenticity.

And going on parallel, the anticipated Nellie Bly Monument relied on a committee, including residents, in selecting designer Amanda Matthews.

The community benefits from both because RIOC welcomed residents at the table, but they’re exceptions…

… because, then, you’ve got the friggin Palace of Versailles bike ramp…

Senior project manager Prince Shah, ably sharing the spotlight with O’Reilly, tipped off the contrast when he outlined the source of the project.

The idea of a bike ramp adding to the existing helix came from a “Queens study” that had little or nothing to do with residents.

Completion is a couple of years away, but the design phase continues. And at the moment, it includes a helix-style ramp within the helix that will obliterate more trees and park space already neglected by RIOC.

The cherry trees brighten the area every spring, but then, the state leaves the area a dumping ground for construction scrap of unknown origin.

Residents are barely involved, and there’s little evidence that anyone wants this outside RIOC and some groups in Queens wanting to ride bikes here. Cornell Tech is also interested in linking an associated bike lane with those circling the campus.

But here’s the problem with this element of RIOC operations growth.

We know that our public safety department can’t handle the volume of bikes on the Island already. Do we benefit from an additional glut of bicyclists scattering strollers along what once were peaceful promenades.?

Children no longer safely play hopscotch or other games for fear of bikers, and seniors openly express fears about walking among the uncontrolled bikes.

Riders on sidewalks, going the wrong way on one-way streets and whizzing through crosswalks are already an epidemic.

How much more are we expected to sacrifice in favoring bicyclists from Queens? The community was never consulted, but RIOC’s plunging ahead regardless.

RIOC operations growth and the tourist thing…

Among insular RIOC’s shortcomings is an endemic failure at considering the longterm impact of attracting more outsiders to the Island.

Because none of them live here and none ever have, RIOC executives remain clueless about the difficulties operations growth visits on residents.

Pre-pandemic Trams were packed full on weekends, and overcrowding on the subways is routine. So, what happens when tour groups flock here for Nellie Bly tours?

When the egregiously reinvented Brooklyn Bridge Park North (formerly Southpoint) drags in tourists, how long will Tram lines be?

And all this is before Cornell Tech expands and Southtowns fully occupies its last two buildings, adding roughly a thousand more residents…

Come on, RIOC. You’ve added high-quality staff, and you can do better.

But until you bring residents to the table, the growth of your operations will have no roots, and that’s not good for anyone.

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