What is Roosevelt Island? A simple question with many answers, none definitive. Because Roosevelt Island is many things, a work in progress, and it depends on who’s looking and what they’re looking for…
By David Stone
Roosevelt Island Is…
…an experiment, a work in progress, but results linger on a permanent horizon.
More than other places, Roosevelt Island’s present connects only in symbols with its past. Artful, historic icons anchor the Island, top to bottom, but play secondary roles in daily life.
Because in the middle of the 20th Century, New York City and State pooled resources and ideas and invented Roosevelt Island as an idea more than a place… a “city of tomorrow.”
The town started over, almost from scratch, a place like no other, uniquely committed to economic integration.
A community, then, more open than any other in America. That value’s changed but not lost through cultural pressures absorbed over four decades.
But Roosevelt Island’s a contradiction too, detached and different than the City, also very much like it. Enriched by the elements that created it.
Starting here and continuing in future articles, we’ll take a look at this vibrant experiment and its chemistry.
And we’ll take in its historic anchors, the parks, playgrounds, people and housing.
We’ll also look at what needs fixing.
History Interrupted: 1969
As a decade in turmoil chugged to a dark end, during its bleakest period, New York City came up with a dream, a City of Tomorrow.
The urban landscape was falling apart, crime-ridden, badly governed, graffiti-smeared, people leaving for better lives elsewhere. The city sat on the border of bankruptcy, but somehow, its leaders rose above it with hope, handing over — and probably saving — a narrow slice of Manhattan schist.
The rock, layered with landfill, massaged by East River tides, stripped of its legacy as a dumping ground for the unwanted, got a new name, a plan and people.
Minnehanonck. Hog Island. Manning’s. Blackwell and Welfare… All those names peeled off when Roosevelt Island was born in 1973.
Soon, the core WIRE buildings — Westview, Island House, Rivercross and Eastwood — housed a new community.
Sadly and irreversibly, though, planners failed to meet founding urban planner Ed Logue’s vision of a village opening to sweeping river views and sunlight.
Original urban planning sin
As peculiar as anything else about Roosevelt Island, the WIRE buildings form a Main Street canyon denying its on a narrow island. Views of the East River are blocked… as is sunlight. This is not fixable.
Starting with Manhattan Park, all market rate building complexes after the WIRE buildings took Logue’s cue. And respected those sweeping river views he treasured.
All that notwithstanding, Roosevelt Island thrived instantly with a pioneering spirit. The first residents adventured on faith to a community with few services, isolated and little known, joining in a creation like none before it.
Get to know Roosevelt Island in history…
- The Queensboro Bridge / Greater Astoria and Roosevelt Island Historical Societies
- Roosevelt Island (Images of America) / Roosevelt Island Historical Society
- Damnation Island / Stacy Horn
Who lives on Roosevelt Island?
Local media as well as government, for years, insisted local population was greater than it is. The media used the inflated number to bark for more advertising revenue. And RIOC? As far as we know, they just whistled along.
But even whistling has consequences. Empty storefronts and marginal businesses are Main Street regulars. No genuine solutions are on the horizon for the failures deception nurtured.
The 2010 census delivered reality. Some kept pushing a higher number, as much as 15,000, but at last official count, we had all of 11,661 residents. And the reality of pandemic scarred New York is likely to show a drop off from there in the 2020 census.
The trouble with the reliable count, coupled with other demographics, is that it’s not enough for supporting the businesses and services locals want. That requires subsidies, but the subsidies dried up a decade ago.
Original projection for a self-sustaining Roosevelt Island: 20,000, but that’s not possible because housing was simply built too short.
Breakdown in 2010
“The racial makeup of the island was 54.4% white, 23.4% black, 14.9% Hispanics or Latinos of any race, 20.0% Asian, 0.6% Native American or Pacific Islander, and 5.4% other races,” according to the Stewardship Report.
Enhancing diversity, 42.7% of the population was born outside the U.S. Many of those are diplomats connected with the United Nations and embassies.
Ten years passed since that census, and there have been big changes.
The most impactful was Goldwater Hospital’s closing. A long term care facility, Goldwater was demolished, making way for Cornell Tech, a graduate university.
Over 1,000 residents left with the hospital, but Cornell Tech added a few hundred with its innovative passive building, The House.
And one new building opened in Southtown, adding roughly 550 residents.
With other factors mixed in, the 2020 Census, of which we’ll know little for a couple of years, is likely to disappoint with coronavirus driven losses.
What About Housing on Roosevelt Island?
Roosevelt Island has eight housing complexes, each unique, together offering an eclectic mix of choices. North to south…
Coler Specialty Hospital/NYC Health & Hospitals
Born as Bird S. Coler Hospital in 1952 is a 500 bed long term care facility. Actual population is not publicly known, but it’s rumored to be shrinking. The City’s effort to control healthcare costs threatens its longterm existence, and the property has been up for sale for years.
With rentals built into 13-story wings extending from an historic landmark lobby, The Octagon was recovered from ruin in 2006.
In 1834, it was the main entrance of the New York Lunatic Asylum, made famous by Nellie Bly‘s exposé. By the turn of the century, the Octagon was abandoned, ravaged by fire and neglect, but architects Becker & Becker saved the building. Landmark status came in 2007.
All apartments are in wings enclosing a landscaped park, and the eight-sided tower is again an entrance with amenity spaces through the upper floors.
Opened in 1989, Manhattan Park was the first complex outside the WIRE Buildings. It consists of six buildings, four 21-story market rate rental and two Section 8 federally subsidized towers.
All four market rate rental buildings along River Road are under renovation with 30 River Road completed.
Manhattan Park is centrally located with the Island’s parking garage, supermarket and bridge to the mainland across the street.
Completed in 1976, Westview has 360 units. Part of the original Mitchell-Lama supported Roosevelt Island development, tenants voted in favor of an affordability deal in 2017. But a tortured conversion driven by bureaucratic foot dragging continues.
A deal reached between the owners and RIOC in July, 2018 lingers without closure. The primary snags are within the Albany jungle.
Westview’s apartments are large, by New York City standards, with coveted skyline views.
Roosevelt Landings (Previously Eastwood)
In 2019, L+M Development Partners agreed to buy Roosevelt Island’s largest complex. Their plans include returning at least half the apartments to affordable standards established by Mitchell-Lama.
Roosevelt Landings, at the time using its original name, Eastwood, made a clumsy exit from Mitchell-Lama. It left affordable standards weakened and its senior population endangered.
L+M promises to restore original Island values.
As it went private, Island House stuck close to the original idea of Roosevelt Island as a mixed income community. A strong task force worked out a deal, then fought to wedge it past a stubborn Cuomo machine in Albany.
With large rooms and a central location in the Main Street canyon, it markets bargain-priced homes at the heart of a strong community.
Exiting Mitchell-Lama in 2014, Rivercross coop owners left affordability out of their plans.
The homes are roomy and quiet. Standard amenities include an exercise room and a well-kept pool.
Sale prices top $1,000,000.
Managed by the Related Companies, Southtown is eight completed buildings and one more still on the planning board.
Most are market rate units, consistent in size with New York City standards. That is, small anywhere else. But wise design elements open up living quarters with floor to ceiling windows and space-saving interior elements.
What is Roosevelt Island’s Transportation Story?
Roosevelt Island has an abundance of transit options, but that comes with a caveat. Overcrowding is routine; solutions are not.
Subway service began here in 1989. A giant step forward for commuters and essential for growth.
F Trains connect with the Sixth Avenue line in Manhattan and the main underground artery in Queens. Connections to all city lines are easy.
But not easy are prolonged congestion issues. Pre-pandemic, rush hour trains and even some on weekends were packed. Waiting for multiple trains before finding room to get on was not uncommon.
The general filth in the station doesn’t help, and neither does the MTA. The State-run behemoth turns a deaf ear on appeals, routinely claims it’s doing all it can.
But as Governor Cuomo found, the MTA is comfortable with failure. They are here, for sure.
In late August, 2017, Ferry Service fulfilled a wish. The brainchild of Mayor Bill de Blasio build a landing adjacent to the Tram.
On the Astoria Route, ferries connect easily with Midtown at 34th Street and Wall Street. Popular with tourist in summer — and crowded. But larger boats are in the pipeline.
The Roosevelt Island Tram
Tram cabins first lifted off Roosevelt Island in 1976, intended to survive only until the subway line opened.
But that took over 20 years, and by the time it did, the community was hooked. RIOC agreed to, not just retain the system, but rebuild it.
Today, cabins run by cable from 2nd Avenue and 60th Street alongside the Queensboro Bridge to Roosevelt Island. And back.
The Tramway takes part in the MTA’s MetroCard system, including free transfers. Run times are every fifteen minutes, except during rush, when they run twice as often.
Travel time, station to station: 4 minutes. Have your camera ready. It’s over fast.
MTA Bus Service
The Q102 bus links to Queens and the major Queens Plaza transit center, after traveling the length of Main Street. But the MTA promises changes, this year, and full service may end in the fall.
RIOC Red Buses
A unique benefit for Roosevelt Island is free bus service shuttling passengers with frequent stops along Main Street.
Buses stop at all building complexes, but crowding is common during rush hours. The era of gigantic strollers and huge shopping carts, all of which board without restriction, adds to the problem.
Also typical of a less courteous age, notices setting aside seats for the elderly and disabled are ineffective. Children especially grab the seats before others board.
Roosevelt Island Is Parks and Playgrounds
Manhattan Park and The Octagon set aside outdoor playgrounds, open to all. RIOC maintains Blackwell Park at he northern tip of Southtown.
But it’s Roosevelt Island’s parks that stand out. Historic parks fill both ends of the island.
To the north, a lighthouse that guided ships through Hell Gate sits at the tip of Lighthouse Park. No longer in use, it was originally the Blackwell Island Light.
RIOC is upgrading the park, adding significant space and making way for Amanda Matthews’s Nellie Bly Monument.
History also accents the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. FDR Four Freedoms State Park, designed by Louis Kahn, serenely nods toward the president’s 1941 State of Union. The speech’s declaration of human rights flavors the United Nations charter.
Four Freedoms Park is buffered by tranquil Southpoint Park and rolling meadows awaiting the final phases of Cornell Tech, decades away.
Jack McManus Field and Firefighters’ Field host sports while smaller green spaces welcome relaxing and meditation.
Historic Icons on Roosevelt Island
The living history of this uniquely planned community contrasts icons left behind.
The Smallpox Hospital, shown above, is one example, along with the lighthouse. But Blackwell House and the Chapel of the Good Shepherd continue serving the community.
The Chapel of the Good Shepherd serves as community meeting center as well as an active place of worship.
Future articles will cover each topic in more detail along with tackling governance, retail and services.