Residents Vent: Enough Now with the Exhaust Fumes and Official Silence


Days before Christmas, residents planted longstanding complaints on the desk of a new manager at Island House, venting about exhaust fumes, fast on the heels of a perfunctory welcome. Fed up after years of walls of silence from RIOC and prior management, residents pleaded for Jamie Cohen’s help.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily/News

Cohen probably hadn’t enough time to put up all this pictures or, realistically, set his feet firmly on the new turf. And then came December…. when residents vent about exhaust fumes for the first time.

On the 22nd, a petition with 51 apartments joining in landed on his desk.

“First and foremost,” it read, “congratulations for taking over the management office of Island House. We wish you success in delivering the many responsibilities this entails.”

From there, things went downhill fast.

The writer accused Nisi of “operating in violation of existing codes.” And it complained of the popular restaurant “pumping foul odors and stench from its kitchen.”

Worse, it does so without filters, sending pollutants wafting across Island House’s main entrance and up the exterior walls.

The violations go back “at least ten years,” the petition claims, but that’s a clue demanding a closer look. Why would conditions as egregious as those described go more than a decade without a fix?

Residents vent over exhaust fumes from this area.
Nisi’s exhaust releases cooking odors and contaminants below Island House’s second floor directly across from the main entrance.

RIOC, owners of the structure, ignored every complaint.

No one with much experience dealing with the state agency will be surprised, of course. RIOC’s tactic of choice, when confronted with challenges it doesn’t like, is silence, their well-known “bunker mode.”

More on that later.

First time I heard residents venting about exhaust fumes…

A summer evening in 2019, dusk gathering in the canyon, I ran into friends who live in Island House on the sidewalk outside Nisi.

They complained about the old problem that never gets fixed but backed off when I offered to cover it in The Daily. Nobody, it seems, wants to be caught criticizing Nisi, a reliable community fixture that’s fought hard to survive.

Over the years, Nisi hung in there with residents through thick and thin. Its owner, Kaie Razaghi is both responsible and well-liked.

Because no one wants to point fingers, I will.

But my finger will not point in the direction of Nisi’s owners. Instead, blame goes where it belongs: at the feet of RIOC and Hudson Related, companions in hobbling Main Street.

Historical correction…

Nisi neither designed nor built the building. They just rent there and are no more responsible for the basic infrastructure than apartment renters are. And for that matter, the cooperative managing Island House is in the same place.

Responsibility sits with RIOC or it predecessor, the Urban Development Corp. (UDC), now doing business as Empire State Development.

The original developers created the nuisance RIOC now refuses acknowledging. And both appear content letting Nisi and Island House take the heat.

Residents vent about exhaust fumes elsewhere…

Interestingly, Nisi is not alone. Complaints also rose about the dry cleaner and deli with similar exhaust issues. And RIOC’s equally invisible on both.

In fact, concerns about the dry cleaner’s operations first sparked our interest. According to NYS DEC, “Federal regulation does not allow use of perc solvent in a co-located residential facility after December 21, 2020.”

PERC is a chemical, perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene. It’s the solvent used by about 85% of U.S. dry cleaners, and that includes Roosevelt Island’s.

Experts consider PERC a likely human carcinogen, and thus, the new rules.

Years of complaints to both RIOC and Hudson Related, assigned responsibility for Main Street businesses, have not provoked any action from either.

But observers report seeing equipment removed from the facility at about the time the federal regulations went into effect. We can’t confirm, however, that PERC fumes are not still wafting into Island House apartments.

And that’s…

Because we reached out to RIOC and Hudson Related, and they did what they always do…

The parties responsible put their heads in the sand.

In December, we sent an email to both Shelton Haynes, RIOC’s president, and David Kramer at Hudson Related.

We wrote of concerns “raised about the business not being prepared for new PERC regulations that went into effect in mid-December. Observers have since reported equipment being taken out of the facility in the last several days. This raises questions about the business’s viability because, if indeed the old dry cleaning equipment was moved, there is no way for the standard processes to continue.”

We added: “We’ve reviewed multiple complaints about exhaust ventilation violations at the dry cleaners as well as at Nisi and Bread & Butter Market. Noxious fumes as well as fire hazards are an ongoing concern for building residents.”

As expected, neither answered.

Haynes put up a wall after we challenged him about toxic wastes in Southpoint, back in July. And Kramer’s been silent since asked about his plans for safe access to The Sanctuary beer garden he leases out on the waterfront. Today, a year and a half later, that site’s accessible by car only through an active parking lot and a fire lane.

But The Daily is not alone. These two “civic minded leaders” have solid track records of silence toward the cooperative and individual residents on these issues.

Residents vent about exhaust fumes, but what can they do…?

Under the Cuomo administration’s protection, RIOC’s intransigence and lack of accountability increased after Haynes took over for illegally ousted Susan Rosenthal. Without effective board leadership, change is unlikely, and Cuomo’s stacked the board with head nodders.

Keep in mind, Hudson and the Related companies are both real estate developers, a term warming the heart of Cuomo’s campaign committee. The next time a Cuomo controlled group stands up to one, snap a photo like you’ve seen the yeti.

Our elected officials? Try finding one that doesn’t take orders from Albany. That would be another yeti.

But all hope’s not lost.

RIOC’s shown an inclination for acting when residents make enough noise. Even lackey’s dislike public embarrassment.

It’s up to you, Roosevelt Islanders, if you want responsible government to do its job.

Make your objections known. By phone. By email. Even by letter. But don’t be silent.

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  1. David, as you know I live above Andy’s/Trellis/Nisi for two decades. Largely, I don’t have a problem with Nisi and if I did, I’d certainly tell them about it. Prior to COVID time, I’d occasionally smell bacon in the morning – not it my apartment, but around the entrance ramp to my building. It wasn’t an ongoing smell, but an occasional whiff maybe every two weeks, but it would be gone right away. Again, nothing worth complaining about. I remember there were people complaining a while ago – and the complainers were in the Island House courtyard – not sure how air would flow that way, even before the Island House lobby was reconfigured.

    As for the filters, Nisi has smoke filters – this was a sticking point in their lease negotiation as (I recall) they had some advanced technology that had to get approved, but they seem to work well. Honestly, compared to any other restaurant, their “fumes” seem to be minimal.

    As for Hudson Related, they are the MAIN problem. They are a very very poor landlord as merchants tell me that H-R isn’t really equipped to handle small size merchants like those on Main Street. In Island House, as per the Main Street Retail Master Lease, H-R was supposed to install submetering of water in the merchants and H-R dragged its feet so long, the tenants (residents) of Island House almost lost their residential rate for water supply.

    If you start off thinking H-R is super incompetent and super clueless, we’ll you’re 99% right. I’ve worked with other commercial managing agents, none of them are incompetent, they are enthused about their merchants. H-R is the complete opposite. And the Main Street Retail Master Lease is an experiment that has completely failed.

    Furthermore, when the Main Street Retail Master Lease was signed, H-R was given approx $3 million to improve storefronts (to be precise, RIOC would forego H-R rent payments to RIOC. Part of that money was to refurbish the Eastwood and Westview arcades (remove windows, replace ceilings). Other money was left over, which could have paid for a “stack” for Nisi, but H-R drags its feet.

    In multiple ways, this isn’t a Nisi issue, this is a RIOC/H-R issue as, clearly, both RIOC and H-R want that merchant to be a restaurant, and restaurants will have exhaust. Unfortunately, RIOC/H-R shift focus to Mr. K and Alex – the real issue is: if you (RIOC/H-R) want a restaurant there, then you’ll need to buy the exhaust stack as part of your desire to take over all the Main Street retail. No restaurant (with the kind of low volume Island merchants have) could afford to include building an exhaust stack.

    Really, RIOC/H-R should spend the money allocated for efforts like this as part of the Main Street Retail Master Lease.

    • Other than the fact that a number of people feel more strongly about the exhaust fumes, I agree with you 100%. The Main Street Retail deal is a worst ever, and Hudson’s only taken more advantage of RIOC over time.

      We’re exceptionally lucky to have Kaie and Alex, especially after what they’ve had to go through to survive here.

      Thanks, and I hope you will consider contributing your expertise here, from time to time.

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