It was always a long shot, and realistically, Roosevelt Island was lucky that Amalgamated Bank kept its Main Street branch open as long as it did. Finding a replacement would be hard, but with leadership and a strong community effort, there was a chance. Creativity might’ve helped too, but there wasn’t much of that either.
by David Stone
When Amalgamated announced, in July 2020, that it was closing its 619 Main Street branch in September, the most appropriate response was, “What took you so long?”
A trend away from bricks and mortar locations was underway, and the coronavirus pandemic accelerated it. Still, the news created an uproar on Roosevelt Island.
Walk-in banking was always part of the plan for the community, starting on Day One. Relative isolation plus a high concentration of elderly and physically challenged residents demanded it. And whenever one bank pulled out, a replacement was found.
Community-oriented Amalgamated was a good find. While offering the standard banking services, they engaged. Basketball backboards in Capobianco Field soon sported their logo.
But times change, and the business of banking did too. Automated tellers operating 24 hours a day were everywhere, and online banking gathered momentum. The business case for a friendly local branch evaporated, not just on Roosevelt Island, but across the city.
Could Roosevelt Island Buck the Trend?
If so, it was going to take a community effort and a coordinated one. Influential people stepped in. State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright went on a hunt for replacements, and then-Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer reached out to a variety of organizational groups.
But the first person to step up was Westview’s managing partner David Hirschhorn. The bank was on his property, and there was a fortuitous coincidence. At the time of Amalgamated’s notice, RIOC Acting-President Shelton J. Haynes was in his first full month in office.
Wanting to engage in general, Hirschhorn saw the bank challenge as a good starting point. He reached out to Haynes, and they soon talked in detail. Hirschhorn explained his belief that getting Amalgamated to stay or finding a replacement was an uphill battle.
What few others knew at the time was that, closed or open, Amalgamated had a year to go on its lease for the space in Westview. In other words, business was so bad, the established bank preferred paying rent on unused space over staffing it.
As their conversation ended, Hirschhorn recommended that Haynes check with his state associates to see if any incentives were available for securing a new bank for Roosevelt Island.
But that was the last he heard from Haynes for more than a year. What, if anything, he did in the meantime is not known. Reacting to criticism shortly after taking office, Haynes shut down all media communications. RIOC was in what is known as “bunker mode,” shielding its internal operations from community oversight.
As far as anyone outside knows, he was twiddling his thumbs or playing chess, the whole time.
Why Did Discussions Fail Between Haynes and Hirschhorn?
A RIOC insider explained the issue in a larger context of the relationship between the state agency and the developer.
“RIOC leadership was outmatched by him, and they didn’t want to deal with him. They preferred “… going… “through an intermediary. When that would fail, they would completely freeze him out.”
That insight soon appeared correct.
The Bank Open House
Pressured to do something by elected officials handling a barrage of community complaints, RIOC set up a Bank Open House, but that wasn’t until October 2021, more than a year after Amalgamated cleared out.
The elected officials pushing RIOC, especially Seawright and Brewer, were committed, but the state agency arranged a clown show. All the amateurish angling and the lack of insight and integrity plaguing their operations came into play.
First of all, although RIOC organizers told everyone to meet up at 619 Main Street, the now-empty Amalgamated location, nobody bothered to tell Hirschhorn or anyone else at Westview about it.
As a result, when Haynes, RIOC Vice President John O’Reilly, several electeds and bankers met up there just before noon, they couldn’t go in. Goofy as that was, RIOC got lucky because when they belatedly called Westview, Hirschhorn happened to be in and available.
He hustled over, opened the space up and took part in the presentation.
But RIOC’s Branch Bank Presentation Was Doomed
The most serious question when government agencies misrepresent facts isn’t so much that they’re lying, undermining trust, but that they’re lying for a reason. That is, they don’t want the truth known.
While RIOC openly favored an idea so cockamamie you had to laugh through the pain, they misrepresented the most viable location for bringing in a bank: 619 Main Street, right where they were standing. It would require less investment because it was already physically outfitted for the purpose.
RIOC described it as “A central location in the bustling Roosevelt Island community.”
The definition of “bustling” is “full of activity.” Anyone standing outside, waiting for the key’s arrival, knew that was baloney. But they got other facts wrong too.
According to RIOC’s brochure, 619 was “Excellent space with basement area for a safe.”
619 doesn’t have a basement, and a safe was already there. On the main floor in plain view.
The cockamamie idea
Opposing the inaccurate 619 bullet points in the brochure sat a colorful, much larger set extolling the virtues of a nonexistent storefront in Sportspark. Among its strong points was being “across the street” from Cornell Tech as well as a “pool” and a “gymnasium.”
The Big Fail
RIOC tried keeping the Bank Open House secret for reasons only they know, but anyone can guess. In the Haynes era, the state agency’s mania for evading accountability grew. If nobody knows you did it, you can’t be blamed when it fails.
That’s what leadership boils down to with RIOC.
In the meantime though, Hirschhorn tried salvaging the situation. In addition to community concerns, he hoped to avoid a vacancy in Westview’s retail strip.
He sought banks on his own, with the help of friends in the business, and asked for honest objective assessments. He even offered to make Amalgamated the preferred lender as Westview privatized and new mortgages were needed.
But without state incentives, no realistic chance existed. And that would require some effort from RIOC that would aid a developer who they increasingly saw as an opponent. The community and its needs never seemed to enter into it.
RIOC, in familiar style, promised to update the community on their progress in luring a bank into the preposterous Sportspark location. But anyone checking in would see that the reconstruction underway did not include anything resembling the promised storefront.
The promise was always bogus, and instead of updates, RIOC wrapped itself in deeper silence.
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