Assorted Ideas

Roosevelt Island's Main Street Problem

Roosevelt Island’s

Main Street Problem…

The legacy of a bad solution.

Roosevelt Island’s Main Street problem may never be perfectly solvable, but it can get better. Meanwhile, we need to accept the facts.

Roosevelt Island's Main Street Problem
Roosevelt Island’s Main Street problem is self-created isolation, a canyon that defies life on a river.

Roosevelt Island History in Reverse

You may not see it at first. Things stack up in predictable patterns. You walk down the street, you see the fronts of buildings because that’s what anyone expects. Backsides are forgotten in alleys, hard to reach, wasted spaces.

But on Roosevelt Island, the opposite is true.

I lived here at least a year before the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and discovering that the Chapel of the Good Shepherd’s rustic front entrance looked away from Main Street. You also can’t see it from the river.

Walk all the way around to see the country church facade that welcomed indigents. But the almshouse workers are gone, and we’ve still got a backward church

Anyway, I should’ve noticed. Look with a clear eye, and you find no obvious entrance on Main Street.

What I’d been looking at every day really looked like what it was. The back of a building, featuring a ramp to the basement.

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Roosevelt Island’s Main Street problem extends…

Walk a little farther south to Blackwell House. The pattern’s repeated. 

Blackwell House, always under construction.

An inviting front porch shaded by a tall tree. But don’t be misled. You’re gazing at the back door. There’s an historic plaque. In a proper universe, it would be around the other side.

But wing around to the other side and find a broad, welcoming front porch, sweetly appropriate for its day.

Blackwell House was built on a natural knoll facing the river. On the far shore was Ravenswood, bucolic and destined to become New York City’s first suburb.

Main Street was inexplicably designed to circle past its back door.

A hopelessly unattractive power plant grows across the river in Queens now, but the area was once filled with trees.

About the WIRE Buildings

Why do the original Roosevelt Island housing complexes – Westview, Island House, Rivercross and Eastwood – defy the notion that they’re on an island?

Founding father Edward Logue saw sweeping river views, but that waited until Southtown caught on.

All four buildings shun the water and the skyline, crowding instead into a narrow, sun-deprived canyon.

Worse yet, lurking behind them are baffling pathways and courts as well as a row of what look like afterthought mother-in-law apartments, all of which obstruct river access and views.

Roosevelt Island’s Main Street problem happened because the state mismanaged financial restraints by building a canyon. Facing in. Away from the water.

Not just a lack of imagination…

My first impression of Main Street in the canyon reminded me of campus dormitories at the University of Buffalo, buildings maximizing space to house as many students as possible on limited real estate.

Later, I saw a more sinister reminder.

Driving from Austria into Hungary, where decades were wasted under socialist rule behind the Iron Curtain, you first see concentrated urban space in the Hills of Buda. An old neighborhood overlooks the Danube. But it’s broken up in places because the Soviets replaced single family homes with monotonous worker housing, quashing personality and artful design.

Recently, a visitor from Europe was overheard, looking across Main Street past the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, comparing the architecture to “early Stalinist.”

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And filmmakers come to Main Street for it’s East Berlin look. Or so we’re told.

That’s unfair because once inside, you find living quarters that contrast the external dullness of the building. Arresting views, exceptional amenities and a community defying the harness of socialism.

But standing on Main Street or walking by the WIRE buildings, you wonder why planners hid the waterfront. A single artery obscures the East River as if it’s not on an island.

Why would anyone build a Main Street, in a planned community yet, that it skirts the rear end of an historic church and an even older farm house?

Main Street Shadows

Eight years after Hudson and The Related Companies struck a deal with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. intended to spur development on Main Street, we still see numerous vacant storefronts.

A bakery, a hardware store and a chiropractor did business not long ago. There was a thrift shop. And lots of unpaid rent.

Unlike RIOC, which did so for years, Hudson and The Related Companies can’t subsidize businesses that aren’t viable.

Virtually every business that closed on Main Street left a pile of debt as a parting gift to Roosevelt Island.

Each struggled to the end, but few, if any, will ever repay RIOC. In the end, the business models didn’t work, no matter how much forgiveness RIOC invested.

Demographics are a big issue on Main Street, given that businesses have little chance to draw off-Island customers. Low population density coupled with discretionary spending limits prevents the variety of businesses local residents want unless rents are lowered or they are otherwise subsidized.

How many bakeries thrive the wealthier, more densely populated Upper East Side? How many hardware stores?

If a successful formula is one of each for every 10,000 residents, which is what surviving on Roosevelt Island requires, bakeries and hardware stores would open on every block.

They don’t, and economics are the reason. Internet shopping’s made it even worse.

Roosevelt Island’s Main Street problem is reality itself

It was never realistic to expect small retail businesses to survive unsubsidized on Roosevelt Island.

But even if demographics run aren’t favorable, infrastructure built backwards makes all obstacles harder to overcome.

You can’t take advantage of those sweeping river views Ed Logue wanted.

Southtown also teaches us that an island needs to make a big deal of being an island. Planners chose a contrary esthetic for the first buildings, and that can’t be reversed.

Reimagining the Main Street Canyon

These are ideas for the challenges of a Main Street weirdly built inside out, and we should find them.

But the most important thing is that, as a community, we have the resources to jostle the status quo. Struggling businesses and limited community engagement aren’t inevitable.

But who’s going to lead?

David Stone

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