AVAC Crisis: How We Got There – And Now, Can We Fix It?

AVAC Crisis: How We Got There – And Now, Can We Fix It?

For those of us who’ve lived on Roosevelt Island for decades, an AVAC crisis is something we never thought we’d see. But now, after over two years of repeated breakdowns, we’re deep in one, while RIOC bunkers in denial. They may have no choice.

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Toward the end of the video in yesterday’s AVAC article, an engineer makes it clear. Money must be invested in the AVAC system because wear and tear have so seriously slammed it.

It’s sort of like a car that only gets to the repair shop when something breaks. Neither new tires nor shocks improve the ride, and a fresh paint job? Forget about it. Simply put, mechanical systems that don’t get regular maintenance wear out. Then, you either throw them away or cough up cash for major repairs.

It’s a situation a lot of government installations face because, once the headlines fade, nobody looks at the hard work of keeping infrastructure safe and working. Bridges fall. Computer systems crash. And Roosevelt Island’s AVAC is not immune.

About the AVAC Crisis: In Perspective

A 2016 Atlas Obscura article said this:

“…a plan was put into motion to build a residential community from scratch on Roosevelt Island. Like Walt Disney World, this provided ample opportunity to improve things planners felt were lacking in organically developed communities. The island would be virtually car free (residents could park vehicles in a central garage), would feature a European-style promenade good for walking, a variety of housing options to encourage diversity, a student-focused public school system and buildings designed by prominent architects. And an AVAC.”

Roosevelt Island in the 1970s. Library of Congress.

It continued: “Today, some of the lofty goals set for Roosevelt Island haven’t quite come to pass. A 2014 report from Columbia University declared the quest for diversity “not entirely as successful as planned,” and cars are much more a part of island life than its designers hoped.

“But the AVAC did work. Roosevelt Island is a magical land devoid of curbside garbage bags and noisy garbage trucks.”


They might want to look again.

Two Problems Lacking Solutions

Along with other Roosevelt Island founding plans, the AVAC was a great idea, but like the “sweeping river views” imagined, it was never properly realized.

First, there was the poor planning, although more immediately, there’s the history of abuse.

What goes down the chutes…

One of my first assignments as a freelancer for the old Roosevelt Island print newspaper was assessing the Island’s infrastructure. Fifteen years ago, Tom Turcic, a smart engineer working for RIOC, spent a couple of hours with me.

He showed me the maps on the walls in his office, his pick list of needed projects and the process through which his staff responded to resident complaints and requests.

But the AVAC got most of the attention. The big problem then was from people throwing everything but the kitchen sink down the chutes. Well, maybe the kitchen sink too.

Turcic recalled pulling a computer monitor – they were much bigger then – out of the tubes.

But my editor and I spotted something important that everyone else missed. An AVAC crisis was built in because virtually nobody knew the rules about how it should be used.

It continues today.

Check any building. Nowhere will you find one with clear instructions at the drop down locations. Residents are even more mobile today. They move in and out with increasing frequency, but not a single posting tells them what should and should not go down the chutes.

In a lot of places, the door says “Rubbish,” but no limitations appear. Although only a small minority try stuffing mattresses and bed frames in, it should surprise no one when they do.

If they aren’t told, how can they know?

My editor and I came up with a solution. Alongside my article, we included a sidebar with AVAC Dos and Don’ts.

But to my knowledge and although RIOC loves blaming residents for blockages, that’s the only teaching moment the AVAC system has ever experienced.

But Poor Engineering and Lack of Maintenance is the Real AVAC Crisis

Professionals working with the AVAC recognize an incredible challenge when thinking up fixes. That is, the original main lines cross under the buildings directly instead of alongside with feeder tubes.

Put in painfully simple terms, replacing, upgrading or making major repairs requires getting into the foundations. Full replacements would cost multiple millions. Many multiple millions.

What makes this even harder is RIOC’s unspoken lack of resources for infrastructure. Last year alone, its cash flow dropped by $5 million. And that’s where money for repairs must come.

And although RIOC, under its current talent-light management, does not openly say so, both Tram operations and Sportspark hemorrhage red ink already, further sinking cash flow.

Other elements, like electrical controls, lag far behind current technology even after RIOC invested over a million in community funds. The Business Insider video accompanying yesterdays article shows them looking more like something from the Smithsonian than active controls.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s a tough, tough question. The AVAC crisis results from design mistakes when the state tried economizing in the ’70s. And RIOC has no taste for educating residents on correct usage and keeping them educated.

As they did when the Tram was failing, years ago, the state legislature may someday float rescue cash, but until officials frankly acknowledge the situation, that isn’t happening.

But an AVAC crisis nor any other crisis is not the position from which the best solutions emerge. We are fighting – again – the perils of failing leadership. At a very high cost.

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