Feel That? Roosevelt Island Just Slipped a Little Farther South

Feel That? Roosevelt Island Just Slipped a Little Farther South

With the deal for Riverwalk 9 closing, Roosevelt Island continued its 20-year tilt farther south. This plants the community identity roughly a football field down Main Street from where it started. It’s undeniably a good thing, but what does it mean for the future?

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Cornell Tech played the wild card here. It’s the one thing that was never even hinted at in the Island’s General Development Plan designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. The plan projected residential and commercial use along with plenty of green space.

No one then imagined a world-class technical graduate university. But in just ten years, Cornell Tech has shaped the course of research in New York City.

Along with it came international attention and an influx of the youngest best and brightest in the world… and, inevitably, a flood of tourists not always easy to contain.

And a shout out to FDR Four Freedoms State Park, always part of the plan but in beauty and scope now well ahead of expectations.

Ballet Hispanico on FDR Four Freedoms State Park’s Rainbow Flag in June.

Beyond all that though, Roosevelt Island is about community. While Cornell Tech and Four Freedoms State work at connecting with residents and resident groups, the community itself doesn’t do so well.

Tilting Farther South Without But Disconnecting

With all major transportation nested within a small area, it was inevitable that Southtown would become the town’s center. Of necessity, almost everyone travels through Southtown.

But Southtown is not the heart of Roosevelt Island. Not yet.

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Even as activities shift farther south, Roosevelt Island’s heart still beats in the Main Street Canyon. The largest concentration of locals makes their beds in homes from Rivercross north through Westview.

Lost behind a lack of appreciation for one of the finest clusters of brutalist-designed housing in the U.S. are some of the finest, spacious and people-oriented homes in New York City.

The homes are roomy and often affordable. Some are split-level, taking advantage of the functional space.

The WIRE buildings remain the core of Roosevelt Island’s soul because those who move here stay, strengthening the sense of community. Virtually nowhere else on Roosevelt Island has that in volume.

But there’s a problem. No one has figured out how to bridge the gap in cultures, north and south.

Cultural Diversity Isn’t Always an Easy Fit

Going back 30 years, the first split from the WIRE buildings forming the Main Street Canyon was Manhattan Park. As the first market-rate rentals on Roosevelt Island, the new addition was far from welcome.

While some pioneers welcomed the newcomers, others were bitter. Manhattan Park got a nickname: Snobs Knob. A Vice President in the Residents Association confided that the established residents disliked the new community because it had green space in front instead of abutting the street.

It was preposterous, of course, but as a matter of record, resentment toward newcomers was always in the mix.

And it carried over to Southtown. The first buildings along East Main, homes to many young people with internships at Memorial Sloan Kettering, were nicknamed too. Entrenched locals tagged the street “Millionaires Mile.”

Most of that has melted but secure connections have not replaced it.

Tilting Farther South Differences

Building out a nine-structure new community in markedly different times presented builders Hudson and Related Companies with unique challenges.

Real estate dynamics dictated that the developers could not create homes with spaciousness on the scale of the WIRE buildings, but they did many things right.

Strikingly, the Riverwalk buildings were the first to meet the founders’ vision of “sweeping river views.” For reasons never fully clear, the state Urban Development Corporation ran contrary to the original concept.

The graceful facid of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and even its historical plaque is hidden from Main Street.

Almost as if disguising Roosevelt Island’s place within the East River, the WIRE buildings blocked the views from Main Street. Although the apartments sport spectacular skyline views, Main Street – built like a box canyon – does not.

A single street through the middle creates unimaginable mistakes. Two major historical sites – Blackwell House and Chapel of the Good Shepherd – present visitors with their rear ends.

Deep shadows combined with a lack of upkeep by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) discourage anyone out for a stroll. Boxes designed to break up the monotony of the street no long sport trees. Instead, they’re homely trip hazards.

Virtually no steps are ever made to beautify the area. Even during the December holidays, low-power decorations are sadder than exciting.

A Different Look in Southtown

Because Southtown is open by design, decorating is more about landscaping and horticulture. Buildings sport floral gardens all along the sidewalk, and in the Commons, benches welcome conversations and unplanned meetings among neighbors.

Even affordable housing in Southtown looks fresh and modern, not distinguishable on the outside from its market-rate neighbors. Open skies, communal areas, successful businesses and those sweeping river views mark the area as very different from the Canyon.

And while they can’t match the WIRE buildings in size, Southtown apartments are smartly architected. Spaces are well utilized. And where coops dominate, there is less churn among neighbors moving in and out after short stays.

The question is: do disparate Roosevelt Islanders have enough in common to nurture a strong and diverse community? This matters because the stronger the community, the better able it is to meet challenges, some of them longstanding.

FAQ: What Are the Challenges Facing Roosevelt Island Today?

  1. How can we improve the quality of life for residents?
  2. What is the future of the Island?
  3. How can we manage tourism on the Island?
  4. What is the role of the RIOC in island life?
  5. How can we better utilize Roosevelt Island’s parks and green spaces?
  6. What are some ideas for new businesses or attractions on Roosevelt Island?
  7. How can we make Roosevelt Island more sustainable?

Who will become the next years’ leaders? And can they get Roosevelt Islanders thinking of themselves as a larger and fuller community?

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