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Is Roosevelt Island, Like Doug Flutie, Now Way Too Short?

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Roosevelt Island is too short. Like the relatively tiny NFL quarterback, Roosevelt Island’s ambitions exceed its capabilities, but nobody wants to come out and say it. The results, though, are profound and probably not fixable.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

Playing as an NFL quarterback, Doug Flutie‘s passes shot up out of a shrinking wall of linebackers and lineman, source unseen. At 5’ 10″, Flutie chaffed at being dissed as too short for the position. He adapted, but a concrete-hardened village cannot.

He fought back with brains, flexibility and speed, but it never made him any taller. Roosevelt Island can relate.

Roosevelt Island is too short

Roosevelt Island is too short: The Doug Flutie Factor

In a game against the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo’s defense knocked down a Payton Manning’s pass. Manning is 6′ 5″. 

“He’s too short!” a frustrated Flute, the Bill’s quarterback, yelled from the sidelines.

He hated it being pegged, insisting he was tall enough and that his successes proved it.

A Heisman Trophy and a legendary professional career, most of it in Canada, couldn’t erase the stigma.

Flutie was unique, creative, versatile, one of a kind, but he, like Roosevelt Island, really was too short. Scrambling, compensating for his height, did not set NFL general managers hearts aflutter.

At least, he didn’t lie about his height

Out of the box projections for Roosevelt Island’s eventual population sported a suspiciously round number: 20,000. Never trust round numbers because they are always guesses. But that was enough people it was thought, for making Roosevelt Island a self-sustaining community,.

20,000 Roosevelt Islanders fueling a vibrant Main Street retail, community and government infrastructure… It all made sense.

In the beginning, New York State sent subsidies downstream from Albany, covering shortfalls as new buildings went up.

But the state, under Governor Mario Cuomo, burned as a budget battleground. The annual subsidy vanished long before the Island’s General Development Plan was near complete.

This left Roosevelt Island dependent on developers and groveling.

We don’t know where fantasy population numbers, at that time, making the 20,000 count appear within reach, came from or why they were accepted as accurate.

My guess: Roosevelt Island was unique, and with nothing to compare with, some bureaucrat pulled the number out of the orifice of his choice.

No one disputed it. How could they? Compared with what?

The Doug Flutie Factor

Worse than the fictional, bloated population estimate, there was no coherent plan to get to 20,000.

The WIRE buildings — Westview, Island House, Rivercross and Eastwood (now Roosevelt Landings) — went up first. Pioneers settled in for an experiment seeding community from scratch. That part worked because the early community really was close knit, people sharing something that was like nowhere else.

The beautiful things about the WIRE buildings are still there today. Generous living spaces with creative floor plans. There are all-season swimming pools and community meeting rooms.

The first Roosevelt Island library was built by residents, including Alice Childress, in Westview.

But the Doug Flutie Factor was already entrenched. Our own WIRE Core Four was home for no more than 6,000 people, probably less.

Where would we get the other 14,000?

Imagination?

Faking population figures was standard practice by the time I got an assignment for covering the 2010 Census. Deception and frustrations already seeded the mess known as Shops on Main.

When we’re not getting the facts, it’s obvious that we can’t deal with them

The Core Four making up Roosevelt Island were too short, like Doug Flutie. They didn’t take us close enough to 20,000, and also like Flutie, you couldn’t fix it.

Still can’t.

The factor spread, but Roosevelt Island is still too short

Manhattan Park, the first complex springing to life beyond the WIRE borders, tops out at 22 residential floors. (The uppermost floors along River Road are tagged “23,” but the 13th was skipped on the way up.)

Struggling to get apartments leased, Manhattan Park launched full page ads in the New York Times. There were big rent concessions.

Once you got people here, they’d love it and stay.

Manhattan Park also paid for the first Red Buses to make commuting easier and invested in the expansion of Motorgate. 

But even full, it didn’t bring in enough new bodies to compensate for shortfalls everywhere else.

Among newer additions, the Octagon tops out at 13 floors. And Southtown’s high rises are smaller than towers going up across the East River in Long Island City.

That doesn’t add up… to anything approaching the necessary 20,000 for self-sufficiency, if even that’s enough.

Others developments followed.

That’s not a real problem, in and of itself, honestly.

We’re probably right sized for the hometown originally sought, close-knit, united in goals.

One goal, ironically, was to stay small, less in demand, off the beaten track, not infected with the flaws of the big city nearby.

It’s not a problem until you get to the pesky issue of generating revenue to pay for RIOC and make it rewarding for merchants investing in Main Street.

Hudson-Related’s insistence that Shops On Main pay Manhattan level rentals is all you need to know about why there are so many empty spaces and so little variety in what we do have.

RIOC and partner Hudson-Related can rhapsodize all day about eclectic new businesses energizing the corridor, drawing scads of foot traffic. Shop owners were promised that for years, but the blinders came off for residents long ago.

We aren’t ever going to have enough people here for a thriving, unsubsidized business community because, like Doug Flutie, Roosevelt Island’s too damned short.

Height is the only way we’d ever get to 20,000, and it’s also, like Doug Flutie, too late, even for a Hail Mary.

Roosevelt Island is too short, and facts bear it out

Dreams are great, but facts pay the bills.

Last census, 2010, Roosevelt Island hit a new high — 11,661 residents

There were complaints of an undercount, but a long look at the details did not support that in any serious way.

Local media eager to sell ads and RIOC, eager to pitch Main Street retail, kept pushing the now clearly fictional 14,000 number that’d been drilled into local awareness. Sometimes, they goosed it up as high as 16,000 with nothing whatsoever to support it.

When we’re not dealing with facts

Since then, a gorgeous new set of apartments went up in Southtown Building #7, Blackwell Park as its historical and charming backyard. And Cornell Tech created an environmentally friendly, landmark residential tower, The House.

But between the two, they can’t compensate for the loss of Goldwater Hospital’s 1,000 plus residents.

The result is, we may be somewhat shy of 2010’s census in real time. The saving grace may be an increase in student transient housing as more individuals fill up converted apartments than families were ever able to. 

Let’s be realistic.

We have only two more Southtown buildings to go, and then, the GDP is done, no more apartment complexes possible without slicing off our green and open foundation. That means roughly a thousand more Roosevelt Islanders.

Cornell Tech’s campus projections can’t even be guessed at since future build outs are only speculation, but a final count of around 2,000 stable residents is probably on the high side. 

Looking back, you can only regret that no one did serious planning, settling instead for imaginary numbers, finding ways to deal with an inevitable gap.

And higher resident counts may never have been feasible anyway. 

If Manhattan Park was 35 stories instead of 22 and The Octagon 20, are there enough potential renters and coop buyers for filling up all those extra floors? We’re never going to know that, but there’s good reason to doubt that many more people can be coaxed out into the East River by Tram and already overcrowded subways.

Bottom line: At best, Roosevelt Island will top out somewhere under 15,000, the bulk detached from the WIRE core. 

How much longer do we wait to accept the facts and start devising real solutions for Main Street? 

Realistically, the corridor doesn’t have too many empty storefronts – it has too many storefronts, period, until some group more imaginative than Hudson-Related and RIOC step up with some solutions.

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