New York City

Busted! Southpoint Park Hoax Exposed

A Southpoint Park hoax was exposed yesterday when a newly open RIOC released the three-year old redesign plan approved in 2017. That plan got trashed in 2020 for a whole new direction, but nobody seems to know why.

By David Stone

“Project staff from Fitzgerald & Halliday, Inc. (FHI) for the Community Plan for
Southpoint Open Space
project gratefully acknowledge the contributions of
the Roosevelt Island community,” it begins.

“This collaboration… throughout the design process was integral to the development of this Plan.”

RIOC’s board approved it in February 2017, but then, it mysteriously disappeared until 2020.

When they replaced it, as if by magic, with a whole new, wholly changed vision.

Smallpox Hospital Ruins, RIOC Southpoint Park
The Renwick designed Smallpox Hospital topped RIOC’s list justifying changes to Southpoint Park. But that was 2016, and by 2020, it wasn’t even an afterthought.

So, what happened?

Southpoint Park Hoax Exposed

So much is weird and unexplained about the switcheroo pulled off by the recently departed Susan Rosenthal’s RIOC, it’s hard to pick the strangest.

Get the big picture 24/7: Roosevelt Island News

But let’s start with this…

Nowhere in the concept, development or final 2017 plan is there the slightest hint of toxic waste, now the centerpiece for radical proposed changes.

It’s mind-boggling. In 2014, as activist Frank Farance found from a FOIL request, toxic wastes were reported from borings along both shorelines. RIOC administration as well as its board knew about it, but neither acted.

There’s no record of a public announcement, even though residents, from kids to seniors, freely used Southpoint.

Was it negligence? Were toxic levels too low for concern?

A bigger question: why hasn’t RIOC explained?

Before ripping up a popular community sanctuary, replacing it with a mini Brooklyn Bridge Park for which nobody asked…

The battle for openness…

Before acting president/CEO Shelton Haynes turned on the lights at RIOC, his predecessors led a six year battle to keep a shield up, a darkness in place.

There’s a rule of thumb in investigative reporting: When there’s nothing to hide, people don’t hide anything. It sounds trite and obvious, I know, but keeping it in mind matters.

What the Southpoint Park hoax exposes, clear as day, is three years of hiding while a whole new brew stirred at 591 Main Street on Roosevelt Island.

Download a copy of the approved 2017 Southpoint Park Plan…

Southpoint Park Plan That Drowned

You may wonder what drowned the 2017 Southpoint Park plan, but with Rosenthal gone, the secret may be safe. Yet, given Governor Andrew Cuomo’s behind the scenes control, political maneuvering makes a solid candidate.

…And our elected officials — Seawright, Serrano, Kallos — along with RIOC’s board, an amen chorus in community deception.

The plan had some flaws. Not many Islanders, only around 700, participated in spite of FHI’s efforts, but the original intent and the final plan were clear.

Hatched under Rosenthal’s predecessor, Charlene Indelicato, the process opened up on a May evening in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

RIOC community liaison Erica Spencer-EL corralled a noteworthy panel, pulling from the Common Council, community groups and CB8. You had Matthew Katz, Jim Bates and Margie Smith among a couple dozen volunteering ideas.

What was the Southpoint Park planning goal…

Overall, it would “…guide the future of Southpoint Park and the Smallpox Hospital for the next ten years.”

President Rosenthal highlighted the main need as a plan for the historically protected hospital. While RIOC invested millions in securing the structure behind protective fencing, no viable future ever emerged.

Everyone loves it, but nobody knows what to do with it.

That did not change, not with either plan.

Although FEMA funds awaited and it was a must, restoring the seawall was not a hot button for anyone but RIOC. Maybe the community members took that much for granted.

A range of enhancements emerged, however, and fifteen earned board approval in the final draft.

None required radical changes for Southpoint Park, certainly nothing remotely like the total revamp now pushed by RIOC.

As a result, the Southpoint Park hoax we exposed is a complete flip, a replacement of what the community wants with something RIOC prefers.

But, we emphasize, nobody knows why…

So, what did the community want?

Ironically, welcome and openness keyed the community’s wishes.

The first four items involve enhancing entrances to the park, even adding a new middle entry.

RIOC: Save this space, Tram Cabins
The community members asked that an old Roosevelt Island Tram cabin be used to welcome visitors with an historic slant. Instead, they still collect dust and graffiti in a cage beneath the helix.

And historical markers, a “comfortable and inviting central space for all, adaptable to a multitude of uses…” came before the first item, #7, relating at all to what RIOC cooked up three years later:

“…access to the shoreline and create comfortable spaces from which to enjoy the scenic views.”

Still nothing about toxic wastes, but how could they? They didn’t know.

“Maintain natural setting that encourages wildlife.” Bring in some vendors. Develop an art program. And recruit some volunteers…

Fitzgerald & Halliday listed them all, suggested designs and included price tags.

The final product was thorough and well-presented, but after board approval, nothing happened.

Not with this plan.

The Southpoint Park Hoax Exposed: What Did We Get?

Toward the end of the process, I asked Mary Miltimore, who led FHI’s effort, if she hoped her team would get the contract for following through on the plan.

“I hope so,” she said.

But we didn’t get anymore of Mary, FHI or anything from their plan.

What we got instead was crafty flimflam, a whole new plan created without community input, busting out of three years in the dark.

Crafty? Yeah.

Almost exactly three years after FHI’s plan was left to rot, Jonna Carmona-Graf, a RIOC vice-president cashiered in June, presented the flip.

Laying out a plan totally unlike the 2017 effort, RIOC used a trick taught salespeople for closing a sale.

Instead of asking your target — in this case, you and me — for a yes or no vote, you ask them which version they prefer.

The scam’s called “closing on a different point,” and RIOC executed perfectly.

Those attending the February 2020 meeting got multiple choices. Crayons and drawing paper occupied creative children. And before anyone knew what hit them, the community said, “Yes.”

It was trickery, of course, and the spineless, unquestioning board of directors woke from slumber long enough to approve. Unanimously.

With virtually no questions.

What’s in the plan…?

You could start with what’s not, and that is, virtually everything the community wanted.

Suddenly, there’s grave concern about toxic waste never before mentioned. And there’s a harsh plan to rip out all of the natural setting the 2017 plan highlighted.

According to RIOC and favored contractor Langan, that involves only 90 trees, which they promise to replace.

But two independent counts — not “guided” by RIOC — say there are over 320 trees.

And RIOC’s unable to explain the discrepancy, simply repeating their number without documentation.

ADA compliance…?

At the very first meeting, legendary Roosevelt Island activist for the disabled, Jim Bates, pleaded for comfortable seating, complying with Americans with Disabilities Act rules.

But you can fuggedaboutit because there ain’t any. A mealy-mouth Seawright in a sleazy pseudo town hall promised to get some.

Later.

Four years hadn’t allowed enough time.

Nothing else in plan properly provides for physically challenged visitors either.

Southpoint Park Plan fails disabled.
Benches without backs, downward slopes on grass, slippery even when not wet, and a youngish crowd welcome RIOC’s exclusionary goals.

And that “natural setting that encourages wildlife…? That’s gone too.

Replacing it is an outsiders vision, sculpted space inspired by Brooklyn Bridge Park, according to the planners. A suburban shopping mall esthetic prevails.

No offending the tourists.

Conclusion: What the Hell Are They Thinking?

In fairness, describing it as thinking is probably unfair. How about conniving?

What was Rosenthal and cohort, the drowsy board, Seawright, Serrano and Kallos nodding “Yes” at?

A dizzying absence of responsibility spills across a canvas of deceit.

We won’t speculate, not here, about why this happened, but why did so many pledged to serve unselfishly jump on board?

But things may be changing for the better as we have a new rendition of RIOC under Shelton Haynes to thank for posting the 2017 plan that’d disappeared, even on FHI’s website.

If RIOC, its board and our elected officials really do represent us, they will can this mess before the damage is irreversible.

Doing nothing at all would be better than wrecking an asset the community values. Yes, we have to do something about the seawall, but in no way does it warrant installing a mini Brooklyn Bridge Park on Roosevelt Island.

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