The RIOC rent debacle is a dreadful piece of business, when you look at all of it, and impossible with any competent oversight. In the long view, it looks suspiciously like residue spilled from a Cuomo administration packed with corruption and protected patronage.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Details: The RIOC Rent Debacle

At first glance, it doesn’t look so bad. When Westview, where RIOC headquartered for decades, exited Mitchell-Lama, their landlord cut a deal allowing the state agency to stay at 591 Main Street for three more years. The rent: $0

That’s right. RIOC got three years rent free in the deal, just as they had for over 40 years ago.

RIOC worked, rent free, out of Westview for four decades, including the last three years. But in 2021, they made no effort to negotiate a new deal. Does this violate state rules over competitive bidding and its role in making sure citizens don’t get soaked?

They needed three years because a planned move, lock, stock and barrel, to Southtown Building #9 was on the books once the building was up and running. But Hudson-Related never broke ground at the site, leaving RIOC potentially homeless.

Anticipating this possibility, Westview negotiated fourth and fifth year options, including rent no higher than $120,000 annually. Conditions changed radically with the pandemic, however, but the state never sought renegotiation.

RIOC does not deny rebuffing outreach from its Westview landlord about their plans for 591. Finally, they moved without notice.

Chief counsel Gretchen Robinson told RIOC’s board that she reached a deal with Hudson-Related for $75,000 annual rent at 524 Main Street, former home of the public library. More recently, RIOC outfitted it for a never fully explained COVID rapid testing site.

More than a year after NYPL moved out, their sign hangs over RIOC’s main offices.

But of course, with hermetically sealed RIOC, key facts were left out.

What was left out…?

An attentive, accountable board should have had questions. And maybe they did but chose keeping them out of the public forum. An utterly spineless and negligent board would’ve done exactly as they did, though, greenlighting the deal without debate or significant details.

But is anyone with the slightest interest in serving the community would’ve seen red flags everywhere.

First undisclosed detail: The space at 224 Main Street is much smaller than their previous home at 591, making the cost comparison deceptive. And maybe it’s no more than cover for duping residents who, in reality, end up paying all the bills.

Observers know the new location is smaller because the immediate impact required seizing community space that Island community groups used for years.

“RIOC has hijacked the Cultural Center, using at least 2 rooms for record storage an giving two other rooms to the pantry,” one told The Daily.  

The takeover deprives community groups, not to mention MSTDA, of space needed for activities benefiting mostly children and teens.

Religious and arts groups report losing “… three classrooms and the Renwick Dance Studio.” Mostly, these went to RIOC storage transferred from 591, never an intended purpose when residents paid for restoring the Center.

Writer/choreographer John Curtis rehearsed his Christmas show in 2018 in the Cultural Center. The Howe Theatre has also staged premiere works by Jonathan and Kimbirdlee Fadner.

Many activities are curtailed, and the seizures threaten the existence of Roosevelt Island’s pionering Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance.

RIOC did not consult with any of the groups having their operations cut back or ended. Nonprofit leaders report spaces taken away without notice.

Of course, the worst violation of community standards and resident funding was setting president/CEO Shelton J. Haynes’s ass and entourage in detached space on the second floor of Blackwell House.

The RIOC Rent Debacle and Blackwell House

The value of lost Cultural Center space adds around $35,000 per annum to the true cost for the move, based rent paid by nonprofits like RIVAA Gallery.

New total for the RIOC Rent Debacle: $110,000 a year.

And the cost of updating the new offices must count. But because supersecret RIOC blocked all that from view, any estimation would be a guess. So, we’ll leave it out, although that doesn’t eliminate it.

Through the RIOC Tax, residents were forced to pour over a $1 million into restoring Blackwell House. Negligence in overseeing earlier, badly flawed restoration work added hundred of thousands to the cost.

Residents barely raised a protest, though, because the community loves Blackwell at any cost. Historian Judith Berdy guided the state in a quest for authenticity. As a result, the first floor is a daily attraction for visitors.

With the first floor thoughtfully designed for bringing history to life, RIOC seized the second floor for the boss. Even though it’s not ADA compliant, it brings routine daily business into an area never intended for it.

The second floor, however, is an ADA non-compliant space where Haynes parks his butt. Or, according to one local commenter, it’s where he hides.

Adding in Blackwell House costs

The community plunged hundreds of thousands in returning it to use as an historic site. Then, Haynes seized half for office space for himself and his assistant. A generous estimate finds the rental value, including upkeep and housekeeping, at $35,000 per year. That’s $35,000 that can’t be pocketed for raising funds supporting historic promotions.

New total for the RIOC Rental Debacle: $140,000 per annum.

But that’s not all. Because the Big Cheese can’t be expected to take 10-minute walks from Motorgate or, God forbid, ride a Red Bus, Haynes demands four free parking spaces reserved, right across the street, for himself and whomever else he blesses.

According to RIOC’s website, standard charges for parking are $2.00 per hour. So, that’s four spaces at two bucks per for nine hours, five days a week. Do the math. That’s $15,120 a year, using RIOC’s own figures.

That brings the RIOC Rent Debacle’s true cost to $155,120, not counting moving spaces and the staggering loss of goodwill from abusing community standards.

Caution: Because everything RIOC does is shrouded in secrecy, this report includes only the seizures and activities we uncovered. More remains hidden by the state agency.


Some losses can’t be recovered, and many of these fall into that category. RIOC and its board of slugs smacked the community, big time. And we can only hope our new governor takes it into account when she clears out the mess at 524 Main Street and in Blackwell House.

But one last thing… That $75,000 dished out to Hudson-Related looks awfully like an unlawful gift of public funds.

The New York Public Library, the last viable tenant there paid less than half that amount, just two years ago, and given that Hudson-Related had no other offers since NYPL moved out, why is RIOC coughing up so much of the community’s money?

What’s that saying about, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and smells like a duck…?” Well, we may have one whopper of a duck here.

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