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Last Weekend: Our Roosevelt Island Problems In a 3-Day Nutshell


Some things couldn’t be avoided – or evaded – last weekend. Because leadership does not make the grade here, our Roosevelt Island problems never go away. They nag, annoy and sometimes pose serious threats, leaving many wondering why no one steps up and demands better.

Our three day weekend started small.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Some problems are intractable. There’s no fix markedly better than the issue, but that’s not the case here. It’s what makes the situation baffling. Homo sapiens, as a species, stepped ahead of all the others because they excelled at problem solving. They were intellectually gifted and driven.

And I’m using “they” because “we” doesn’t fit on Roosevelt Island. Here, things fester until they’re woven into the fabric. Stolid, underpowered leadership drowns every good intention.

Last weekend: Friday

Unofficially, in New York City, weekends start around noon on Friday. Nobody sets up Friday afternoon meetings, and anyone who can get away with it avoids the office.

Last weekend, we hopped on the Tram and glided over to Trader Joes under the bridge. Every time now, I wonder why the ride is so much bumpier than before, the landings so slow. Of course, RIOC not only lacks an answer, they apparently lack awareness. It just never comes up with their brain trust, no matter how many residents notice or stop riding.

But the situation, coming back on Friday, prompted concerns for the weekend ahead. It was early afternoon, not even rush hour, and the cabins were already packed. Tourist bumped residents aside while scurrying for seats and windows. Twenty or so were left behind on the platform.

No sign of public safety officers anywhere. Nothing new here.

“When a new hot spot appears for day trips and tourism, there’s always a driving force behind it. In the case of Roosevelt Island, that driving force is Shelton Haynes, CEO of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation…”

That’s the first line of Haynes’s most recent self-promotion on your dime: Shelton Haynes On Why Roosevelt Island is Becoming NYC’s New Hot Spot.

…where residents depending on the Tram battle tourists for space in the cabins. Long lines abound, and if you’re physically challenged, forget about it. The Tram is no longer an option for you on most weekends and during busy times in tourist season.

And “…that driving force is Shelton Haynes,” an outsider who never fully engaged with residents or shows up for work much.

How we got here…

From his first days at the helm of RIOC, Haynes forced his “vision.” The community be damned or maybe just ignored, he assigned his Communications Team to “branding and marketing” Roosevelt Island. He trotted out its manager, Erica Spencer-EL, for a board presentation right away.

RIOC’s board of dinosaurs is gaga for PowerPoint. It was a hit.

What he hoped to gain is not clear, but the results are nothing good for those of us living here. Increased Tram ridership shot liability insurance rates into the stratosphere in 2023, adding stress to an operation already losing money by the bucket.

Riding a cabin, sandwiched between pushy tourists, you can imagine cash falling out with the MTA catching some, insurance companies more. Total annual losses: Over $2 million and mounting.

So much for branding and marketing. What makes this worse is Haynes’s refusal to accept the mess let alone come up with any plan for it.

The second floor at Blackwell House and wherever the rest of his executive team bunkers isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with Rhodes scholars.

Saturday, A Day Off

Last weekend, it was more like golden oldies day with the same songs played over and over again and nobody lifting the needle off or pausing the turntable.

Let’s set the stage.

This is Island House, one of the most successful Mitchel-Lama projects in New York City, certainly the best on Roosevelt Island. Kofi Annan lived there. So did internationally admired poet Nina Cassian, and her partner Maurice Edwards. Edwards, among many other things, led the Brooklyn Philharmonic.

Less well-known names – the artist Georgette Sinclair and animal rights activist Rossana Ceruzzi – call Island House home. It’s a great, unified community space.

Which makes what’s happening to the building and its residents even more distasteful.

Problems arise from the duo of Hudson-Related and RIOC’s control of the street level retail space, not the coop’s management, whose appeals to H-R/RIOC largely go unheeded.

The proximate issue, on Saturday, was construction work at Bread & Butter Market that sent sparks flying, creating an immediate threat of fire. And fire is even more of a threat because of the RIOC-created and supported Chief Kevin Brown Fire Hydrant Blockade cutting off FDNY access to the nearest fire hydrant for no sensible reason.

Why this is allowed by FDNY and supported by RIOC is anyone’s guess. But it threatens the lives of residents, especially in island House. Somebody forgot that “seconds count” in emergencies.

Bread & Butter’s owner admitted that he did not have DOB permits for the work, but that’s common among Hudson-Related/RIOC operations. The Sanctuary, for example, never posted a single DOB permit as they built out the old church.

RIOC and Hudson-Related, at the time, both blamed the other for zero enforcement. After all, the law is really only what gets enforced, and The Sanctuary was neither the first nor the last.

The work finished now, Bread & Butter’s owner, pushed by Hudson-Related, is willing to get the necessary permits retroactively. But not without a complaint that resonates along this dreary strip.

But, then…

“They should be focusing their complaining on the store selling drugs to 12 year olds,” he said, and everyone knows what store he means.

No one has proven that the nameless head shop one door north of Nisi sells drugs to kids, but with so many other failures, who needs it?

Hudson-Related, where a representative insists that the business owners promised a nice Hallmark style store, says they’ve tried evicting the head shop without success in court.

But with street crime increasing on Roosevelt Island and the lobby of Island House filled with the skunk-like oder of marijuana, the underlying story is that, in large part, Main Street Retail stinks too. Especially along this strip and the area when RIOC sunk its nameless offices behind frosted glass.

And from beneath Island House, the good folks living there get cooking stench directly from Nisi’s poorly designed exhaust vents, joining the pot stink and garbage smells from one end to the other.

And that’s not to exclude numerous fire hazards ignored by H-R/RIOC and augmented by RIOC’s cuckoo fire hydrant blockade.

Last Weekend Powered by an Early RIOC Exit

While Team RIOC vanished during the smoke-polluted air crisis, leaving behind just copied and pasted state advisories and a RIOC Day postponement, the community worked through the mismanagement messes left behind.

On Sunday, it was the red buses. Hats off to whatever driver made his way to work because he or she appeared to be alone, circling the Island without a schedule in a roughly half-hour, unpredictable loop.

It was a blow for some residents who need the transportation for various reasons and for Coler personnel who need the buses for work a mile and a half away.

Completing the picture, no alerts or advisories drifted out of RIOC’s half-million dollar communications team. And no wonder, Team RIOC was busy upstate, enjoying the weekend in Westchester County, leaving a hapless Haynes behind with no one to write down the words for him.

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