Southpoint Park is dead. Imagined as community space for Roosevelt Islanders, it was killed by RIOC over the past year. There’s more to the story than publicly known, much more, because the state concealed its motives from public view. But as far as observers can tell, there was no verifiably good cause for killing Southpoint.
By David Stone
Understanding that Southpoint Park is dead means taking a look at its life. Consider the plaque mounted at its opening in August 2011.
In 2021, the green space now a concept without a wisp of community approval has been bulldozed and uprooted. The redesign, according to RIOC, reflects Brooklyn Bridge Park.
But that admired urban oasis rose out of industrial ruins scaring a long shoreline. The Southpoint redesign overwhelmed an already successful park meeting its initial goals. Nobody was complaining; so, why?
The official answer surprises, then surprises again.
And if the community isn’t driving change, who and/or what is?
Southpoint Park: The Start
Southpoint was always part of the plan for Roosevelt Island, but the opening took until 2011. Tons of waste from hospitals, labs and factories had to be carted out, even before landscaping.
That got complicated, though, when toxic wastes were found in soil samples.
But RIOC found a creative solution. Using stones leftover from the ruins of City Hospital as borders, engineers laid a membrane down over the toxins. Then, they further padded it with fresh topsoil.
The protected area covers the small hill and sloping meadows now the center of the park. Only openings preserving space for existing trees escaped the membrane.
Future trouble remained, though, because large sections, from the stone walls to the shore, on both sides, went untreated.
In 2014, tests by Langan showed those areas riddled with untreated toxic wastes, all the way down to Four Freedoms Park.
Yet neither Langan nor RIOC notified anyone, not visitors strolling through, many with children, nor people working there. Wildlife sanctuary volunteers cared for animals inside the poison zone daily for at least five years without any warning.
But a less obvious threat turned up later…
Contracting for the clean up was overseen by Fernando Martinez, a RIOC vice president later caught taking kickbacks. The Southpoint Park clean up was one project cited when he pleaded guilty to multiple felonies.
Some observers believe the kickbacks themselves were funded by using substandard materials and inadequate labor. Shortcuts, they suspect, were taken
Later, we learned, even before RIOC blasted its redesign through over community opposition, firing up the bulldozers, that RIOC never tested the membrane’s effectiveness.
The Roosevelt Island Daily specifically challenged RIOC president/CEO Shelton J. Haynes on it, but he never answered, evading a documented promise.
Why RIOC ignored common safety measures is one of many questions swirling in the soup of unknowns.
The Fitzgerald & Halliday Plan
In the spring of 2016, Southpoint Park not yet five years old, RIOC president/CEO Susan Rosenthal announced engaging Fitzgerald & Halliday for creating a “community plan” for the space.
During this time, the areas surrounding Southpoint have undergone significant transformations with the opening of Four Freedoms Memorial Park and the development of the future site of the Cornell Tech campus. In light of these changes, this Plan provides an opportunity to work with the community to determine whether any improvements are needed to enhance this resource for the Roosevelt Island community and develop a plan that incorporates those improvements. Overall, the main goal is to ensure Southpoint continues to be a key resource for the entire Roosevelt Island community.Fitzgerald & Halliday/Introduction for the Community Plan
So far, so good, but what fired up this million dollar call for a study? Certainly, a windfall coming from Cornell Tech played a role because, now, RIOC saw itself with deep pockets.
But those pockets belonged to the community, not the state, and maybe they were being picked.
Pinned down by the Roosevelt Island Daily, Rosenthal said the major cause was a crying need for “doing something” about the Smallpox Hospital ruins in Southpoint, just north of Four Freedoms Park.
RIOC needed, she said, a long term plan for preserving what was left of the historic structure. The community agreed on that.
But by the time all was said and done, the historic hospital was as abandoned as Moses in the reeds, palmed off on a nonprofit striving for restoration funds.
This rendered the cover story bogus, but Fitzgerald & Halliday helped make the medicine go down.
A real community plan…
Whatever the motives behind hiring the design firm, their work was conscientious, true to the mission and successful.
But from Day One, there was something odd about the project, and it involved RIOC’s hands in the pie.
A Community Advisory Committee pulled together by the state for providing community input was more than a little odd. Nonexistent groups, such as a Manhattan Park Tenants Association, were cited as resources for populating the committee. And once seated around the table, the final group reflected the same old insular gang from the Common Council and the Maple Tree Group.
The idea was right, but the execution strange.
When I reported on it in The Daily, I got an angry call from RIOC’s community liaison, Erica Spencer-EL.
She offered no plausible rebuttal, but the coverage pissed her off. And I pissed her off even more by not melting in the heat of her anger.
Surprisingly, though, and in spite of that, Fitzgerald and Halliday worked through months of community meetings and came up with an impressive plan.
It’s long, and it’s detailed, justifying the $1 million investment. Virtually no one had a gripe about it. It was a responsive plan with plenty of community in it, but maybe not enough RIOC.
If this plan proves a success…
“If this Plan proves a success, it is a testament to the community’s collective contributions across an extended series of meetings, presentations, workshops, and discussions,” it says.
“RIOC plans to move forward with this plan, starting this year,” Rosenthal added.
“We would like to thank the entire Roosevelt Island community for their energy, time, and commitment, as well as FHI for facilitating this process. We look forward to the next phase as we work together to enhance the current features of Southpoint Open Space as a natural, attractive, and usable space for all to enjoy.”
RIOC’s board unanimously approved the plan in January, 2017.
And then, they dumped it.
A Southpoint Park Plan in Eclipse
Two years later, under new operational management and vice president Shelton J. Haynes in charge, RIOC called a community meeting, presenting implementation choices for residents in the Good Shepherd Community Center.
Without any explanation, a new plan, one vastly more expensive, replaced the popular FHI planned already approved.
The event, which never asked about swapping out the FHI plan in favor of another by RIOC’s established partner Langan, was strategic.
It featured, as I later told Haynes, a sales strategy known as “closing on another point” or “getting to yes.”
The strategy works this way. Without ever asking the customer about a choice between Plan A or Plan B, the salesperson leads him or her through a series of choices, all about Plan B. By the end, the process drags the customer into the salesperson’s preferred choice through a sequence of indirect choices.
While a variation, RIOC’s tactic erased the community-based FHI plan and got votes on the plan the state devised on its own.
How and why the switch was made is not known. However, observers see real estate interests manipulating RIOC into a plan they wanted. There’s no clear proof, but no one’s come up with an alternative explanation.
Developers believed an organized tourist draw as better at enhancing property values than wild community gardens.
RIOC’s story is that the Langan plan simply extends the FHI plan, but that’s a lie.
The plan now polishing off the killing of Southpoint Park is a complete remake.
Without community input. And yet, it ran straight over community protests.
Bulldozing Over Community Opposition to the Southpoint Park Redesign
But it was more than a protest against bulldozing Roosevelt Island’s last remaining shorelines. What about the toxic wastes skipped over without testing?
Days before the destruction began, RIOC staged a community tour of the project. With Rosenthal out and her replacement, Haynes, keeping his hands clean, RIOC sent in CFO John O’Reilly.
O’Reilly is an expert at overseeing construction projects. His task, as it turned out, was dismissing arguments by protestors, clearing the way for Langan’s crews.
State assembly member Rebecca Seawright came along. At first, she signed on in support of Save Our Shorelines but, then, unaccountably flipped to the state.
Andrew Cuomo, RIOC’s absentee landlord, had just helped out her troubled reelection campaign.
Southpoint Park is dead, although, no doubt, RIOC will stage a celebratory reopening.
All the usual suspects will be there, but the open spaces and wild gardens won’t be.
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