David Kramer’s been active in building and selling Roosevelt Island since ground was first broke in Southtown. He’s been criticized and praised, but he’s never gotten his message out unedited. We thought it was time.
By David Stone
For the following Question and Answer article, we promised to ask tough questions and give the Hudson Companies president full freedom in answering. Kramer, for the record, is responsible, in partnership with the Related Companies for building and managing all eight buildings in Southtown, the groundbreaking, passive House at Cornell Tech as well a Shops On Main.
Questions and Answers with David Kramer
Roosevelt Island Daily: Ten years ago, you led Hudson-Related’s effort in securing a contract with RIOC for what became Shops On Main. The Wall Street Journal quoted you saying you were going to “shock and awe.” But that never really happened. Did you find conditions different from what you expected or is there something else that explains why it’s been more of a struggle?
David Kramer: It’s definitely harder than we thought. I think our assumption going in was that RIOC seemed particularly ill-suited to be a retail landlord and all the situation needed was better decision making, some tough love, thoughtful tenant selection, capital investment to update some very tired looking retail, and voila, shock and awe. Like almost everyone, we were incredibly unimpressed with the retail on the island for years, whether it was the hardware store with their 15 year old movie posters in the window or the card store with Jesus figurines positioned next to Lysol products in their storefront. We just assumed the transformation would be pretty immediate. I’d give us an A for effort, and I’m pleased with the current state of affairs, but there’s no doubt that the quiet nature of Roosevelt Island as a bedroom community during weekdays; the overall challenges that all of retail has faced battling the internet; and finally Covid have made our journey longer and harder than we assumed. Having said that, I could make that statement about literally every project we work on—that it ended up being much harder than we thought.
RID: Considering all that, why do you consider Shops On Main a success?
DK: We’re a success because we have emerged from Covid with most businesses open and operating and paying rent; we only have 1 1/2 vacancies in the entire corridor of stores (we no longer include Westview retail); the stores look better with a more attractive arcade, storefronts and lighting; and we’ve managed to add important retail uses, whether it’s a wine store, a pet store, a yoga studio….all that were repeatedly requested by island residents over many years. Even Gristedes/Foodtown has cleaned up its act and improved considerably. When we first started working on the island, folks were apoplectic about Gristedes.
RID: What are the biggest challenges to come in creating a successful retail corridor, keeping Roosevelt Island Main Street in mind?
DK: The challenges will continue to be maintaining high standards for the stores, who need to be profitable businesses, and trying to continue to help direct traffic and demand to Main Street to support them. The island can be a collection of silos and Main Street needs more business from the non-WIRE buildings.
RID: As your name and/or Hudson-Related have become tightly identified, right or wrong, good or bad, with perceptions about Main Street retail, to what extent are you responsible for conditions?
DK: I’m not sure what you mean by conditions. Our responsibilities include decision making about tenant selection and facilities maintenance for the spaces. Some folks, particularly you (!), would like to see us micromanage the retail operations themselves, making sure everyone is complying with all applicable laws. We do some of that, and spend plenty of time torturing our tenants with compliance issues, but there’s also a huge municipal regulatory system out there that we can’t hope to replicate that is also responsible for legal compliance.
RID: Leaving retail behind, what do you consider your strongest contributions to Roosevelt Island?
DK: We’re proud of the whole kit and caboodle: 8 beautiful Riverwalk buildings, the House at Cornell Tech, the Riverwalk Commons, retail on Main Street and in Riverwalk. And more good stuff is on the way: the 9th Riverwalk building, a new dog run and the Commons East.
RID: For the sake of clarity, can you explain how your partnership with Related works? Southtown residences are some of the finest in the community, but your role is not well understood.
DK: Hudson and Related have been 50/50 partners on Roosevelt Island since 1997. Depending on the project or topic, one or the other of us takes the lead. Hudson has taken the lead for a while with Main Street retail.
RID: Some residents perceive your relationship with RIOC as somewhat suspect. Special deals, like being let off the hook for lighting and restrooms at Firefighter’s Field, seem questionable. Do you get special treatment? And if so, why?
DK: If anything, we usually feel taken advantage of, as in, let’s get the real estate developers to pony up for this or that. In the case of Firefighter’s Field, we weren’t let off any hook. We made a contribution to RIOC in the exact same amount; they may have decided to revise what they wanted to do with the funds, but that didn’t benefit us. David, stop buying into this tired narrative of us pulling any strings! In fact, when Riverwalk 8 was approved, we were pretty angry about the negotiation with RIOC and felt pretty taken advantage of. The fact that I have had a friendly working relationship over the years with Shelton or Susan or going all the way back to Rob Ryan and Jerry Blue does not equate to special treatment.
RID: As a non-resident but interested bystander, any thoughts on the lack of democracy on Roosevelt Island? Residents, for example, including in Southtown, foot the majority of the funds paying for RIOC, via rents, etc., but have no say in how they are spent. In fact, RIOC brags about not getting cent from the state, a strange claim when Roosevelt Islanders, through taxes and fees, pay millions to the state in addition to the RIOC tax. Any thoughts?
DK: From my vantage point, Roosevelt Island is way more democratic than a typical NYC neighborhood which tries to fight City Hall. Here, the Councilman and Assemblywoman play large roles impacting the island. Part of what makes Roosevelt Island special is that so many people are engaged, committed, pissed off, happy, opinionated, annoyed…I actually think of the place as a functioning democracy. You can get a lot more accomplished being a squeaky wheel here, in what’s basically a small town run by a local administration, than if you live on the Upper East Side. And big picture, I think the challenges and operations on the island are a million times better than where the island was 20 years ago.
RID: Finally, in terms of compliance with building and health codes, some Shops On Main stores are not meeting legal standards. Jupioca, for example, has never been inspected by the DOH, and the Sanctuary was built out with DOB permits. When approached about these issues, RIOC says those are “Hudson properties,” although there really is no such thing. It’s all state property. What are you doing to encourage or, better yet, enforce compliance?
DK: I think I answered this above, but if any store is not complying with applicable law, isn’t that what calling 311 is for? I don’t think it’s always an issue for Hudson/Related or RIOC. Think of it this way, if you’re walking down 2nd Avenue and you think a Chipotle is not ventilating their air properly, you’re not going to research who the building owner is or if someone owns the retail condo, you’re just going to call DOB or DEP or 311. This shouldn’t be any different.
RID: Anything you would like to add?
DK: We need all islanders to spend more time and money buying their toothpaste and their smoothies and their hot pot noodles from their local stores. We’ve been trying to promote local shopping with the RI welcome letters and Wayfinding Signage, efforts that this blog was not in the least bit supportive of. We’re always open to suggestions about how we can direct more business to Main Street. Please buy local, Roosevelt Islanders!
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