Ending RIOC is the smart move for this community…

Ending RIOC is the smart move for this community…

Ending RIOC sounds drastic, right out of the gate, but it isn’t. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation isn’t a real thing. It is a political creation meant for specific purposes, and the core of them are already done. The rest have been so badly diluted by Albany interference, they’re usefulness is limited. This leaves it a drag on the community, a weighty encumbrance of incompetence. It is no longer as much a “public benefit corporation” as an employee benefit one.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Ending RIOC: What Would It Mean?

It still says it is the library and the fogged windows are forbidding, but this is RIOC’s new home.

Surprisingly, in effect. not much. RIOC is an invention. The Urban Development Corporation built the original structures, the WIRE buildings, then handed off to RIOC, which was created out of thin air. Its assignment was to “plan, design, develop, operate, maintain and manage Roosevelt Island,” overseen by NYS Housing & Community Renewal.

They’ve done that, with varying levels of success, but with only one building left for construction, RIOC’s reason for being is tenuous, at best. And expensive as hell.

Planning

RIOC finished the planning stage, years ago. When Hudson-Related constructs Southtown building 9, execution will be too. But in present day reality, the state agency is more obstruction than aid.

Because RIOC failed at getting the build out of Roosevelt Island done on time, Hudson-Related’s biggest obstacle is the length of the state’s remaining lease with New York City. With under 50 years left, lenders balk at high dollar volume lending because the future is uncertain.

Other parts of what looks like planning in the rear view mirror are not, at least in RIOC terms. Four Freedoms Park, one of the most impressive green spaces in the city, came about with scant RIOC involvement, for example. And Cornell Tech was pure serendipity, falling out of Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to technology innovation.

Cornell Tech Campus, built with little state involvement.
FDR Four Freedoms State Park.

Other plans, like the disastrous remaking of Southpoint Park, are more like markers of incompetence.

Design

The general development plan for Roosevelt Island was set before the first resident moved in, leaving only tinkering on the fringes. Ending RIOC won’t change that. In fact, it might help. Because RIOC serves as a buffer against community input, a direct route to how things can open up, once RIOC is removed.

Put simply, for the first time, local residents will vote for those directly guiding its future, with RIOC out of the way. Today, city council representatives, assembly members and state senators serve only advisory roles, and Albany-based controllers ignore them as they wish. Accountability is not built in, and neither is transparency.

The only hint of design born out of RIOC was former President/CEO Susan Rosenthal’s “Island of Art” idea. But that got its crowning touch with The Girl Puzzle in Lighthouse Park. The administration replacing her has been bereft of new or follow up ideas.

From wild shorelines with countless animal and plant species in Southpoint, we got this. RIOC mentions “lush vegetation,” but a prize awaits anyone who finds any.

Ending RIOC: Development

What’s left to develop? Only a single building awaits construction, and that’s already contracted. With little left to do, RIOC surrendered development to pals’ directing moneymaking alterations. Southpoint Park, for one onerous example, went from a community refuge into a sparse venue bordered by the Shelton J. Haynes/Langan Rock Farm.

As presently constituted, it is clear that the insulated RIOC executives, largely established through political patronage and nepotism, cannot be trusted to develop anything. The RIOC board, charged with overseeing things, left its collection of spines at the door.

Operate

Now the core of its responsibilities, this is where RIOC does best. Red buses provide valuable service on reliable schedules as does the Tram. Keeping things clean and mowed is adequate.

But many services – the Tram, Office Cleaning, Infrastructure – are already farmed out to third parties, and the rest could be. Take as examples Cornell Tech and FDR Four Freedoms State Park. Each takes care of its own groundskeeping, and each is at least as well done as the rest of the Island. Asking the state’s parks department to extend its excellent work in Four Freedoms would cost less with no loss in effectiveness.

This intersection is around fifty feet from PSD’s headquarters with multiple marked vehicles across the street. Clearly, drivers have learned they have nothing to fear from ignoring traffic safety right under PSD’s noses.

By far, RIOC’s biggest operational expense is the Public Safety Department, and it is largely a bust. No need to elaborate on the failures since Chief Jack McManus retired – we’ve been there, many times – PSD operates effectively only as limited school crossing guards and modern era meter maids. Replacing the $4 million annual expense is a classic no-brainer.

Ending RIOC: Maintain and Manage

These last two phrases are catch-alls gathering up any loose ends left from real responsibilities.

Yes, RIOC maintains the Island with varying degrees of success, but there isn’t a single thing it does that couldn’t be done better through outsourcing or using state resources already in place. Manage? RIOC essentially invests resources in managing itself and the millions collected from residents in the hidden RIOC tax.

This makes Roosevelt Island very likely the most highly taxed community in the country. RIOC pulls in the majority of its $32 million annual budget from residents and visitors, and for what? All of the above? That’s not worth it.

Conclusion: Ending RIOC

The sad thing is that RIOC could have done so much more with the freedom that being a public benefit corporation brings. What was left out of the original charges, what was implied but never picked up on – the most vital element was community engagement.

While some leaders did better – Shane, Indelicato, Rosenthal – too many did far worse. The current administration is the most bunkered and resistant to community influence of all. But embracing a vibrant, eager to be engaged community could have made RIOC feel as vital, as much a part of the bloodstream, as treasures like the Tram.

Nothing kept RIOC from hooking up securely with Roosevelt Islanders, but political patronage and Albany remote control blocked it. Governor Cuomo made it worse – make that much worse – and Hochul has done no better. At this point, the damage is done, and it’s too extensive to repair.

Details, details…

Ending RIOC seems drastic until you recognize that, in essence, it is nothing more than an extra layer of bureaucracy. On top of an already outrageous pile. And it has been done before.

When the Urban Development Corporation handed off to RIOC, started from scratch, it was a blip on the New York radar. Responsibilities, including contracts and finances, were simply moved from one bureaucratic orbit to another. It wasn’t complicated, and it shouldn’t be now.

Sure, vested interests, especially the crowd that has long seen Roosevelt Island as a patronage dump, will howl. That should not be an obstacle to doing the right thing for people who live here.

State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and Senator José Serrano are sponsoring legislation that alters RIOC, bringing more local control. But why not go the whole way? Ending RIOC isn’t just feasible, it’s advisable.

And it’s the right thing for Roosevelt Islanders.

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