RIYP Loses Beacon Franchise at PS/IS 217

by Briana Warsing

The PS/IS 217 Beacon program will soon get a new off-Island operator, ending the Roosevelt Island Youth Program’s 19-year tenure overseeing the community enrichment program.

The deadline to submit a proposal to the City’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which manages all Beacon programs, occurred on Tuesday.


Steve Kaufman & Charlie Defino of RIYP (2002)

The Youth Program (RIYP), led by Executive Director Charles DeFino, was ruled out as a contender for the new contract when PS/IS 217's principal, Mandana Beckman, refused to sign off on its proposal. (In a procedural change this year, DYCD required the heads of host schools to give approval to potential applicants). The group had tried to rally community support for their inclusion with a petition and letter-writing campaign. A second Island organization, Island Kids, also planned a bid, but was denied the needed signature.

Questions about which group will run the Beacon program (and the summer camp) starting in the fall, have left many parents who depend on the afterschool program uncertain about their plans for the coming year.

RFP Controversy

In response to the principal’s decision, DeFino sent a letter to parents accusing Principal Beckman of abusing her power.

“We were invited to an interview with the principal and her hand-picked committee of teachers and off-Island parents, but the interview was a sham, with the outcome predetermined,” DeFino said in the letter. “We were not given an opportunity to make a presentation, but were just asked to answer some questions. It was clear from the interview that this committee had no interest in the quality of our proposal. We believe that the principal of PS/IS 217 is abusing her power and withholding her signature out of personal bias.”

Beckman has declined to comment on the contents of individual applicants’ presentations. But according to DYCD spokesman Mark Zustovich, principals are required to complete a form outlining why they chose not to sign partnership agreements with any organizations that were denied.

Five bidders for the Beacon contract interviewed with the School Leadership Team (SLT), which includes the principal, the PTA president, and the United Federation of Teachers chapter leader. PS/IS 217’s team also includes five members of the school staff and five parents, three of whom are Islanders. (One Island parent did not attend the interviews.)

According to multiple sources who were present, the RIYP interview was contentious (see editorial, page 2). One SLT member described RIYP Treasurer Steve Kaufman as “aggressively interrogating” Principal Beckman, repeatedly asking her whether she would sign off on more than one group. Others who were present agreed with that description.

According to these sources, Beckman refused to make a commitment to how many applications she would sign, leading him to repeat the question multiple times until Beckman stood and opened the door. Two observers said they thought Beckman intended to call security. At that point DeFino reportedly said, “Let’s get out of here.”

In response to an inquiry from The WIRE, Kaufman disagreed that the meeting was “contentious.” He said that he did “press” the principal multiple times to state her intent to sign multiple RFP applications, and that she told him his questioning made her uncomfortable.

DeFino’s letter went on to state, “We are asking that we are included in the process and given a fair opportunity to continue serving our community; otherwise an agency which has no experience or relationship with Roosevelt Island will be awarded the Beacon contract. This decision will negatively affect youth service on Roosevelt Island for at least the next decade.”

Beacon Summer Camp

Despite the fact that RIYP will no longer be the Beacon provider beginning in September, the group is still contracted to provide services through the end of August. A source from DYCD confirmed, “As of today, RIYP’s registration to run the summer program has not been withdrawn.”

However, multiple RIYP employees have told parents and community members that RIYP must either significantly scale back the Beacon Summer Camp, or cancel it altogether. Registration for the popular camp was held in April.

DeFino did not return any requests for comment and Kaufman declined to address this issue in his response to The Wire.

But according to DYCD, RIYP has already accepted funding for, and agreed to provide, summer Beacon services. DYCD has provided the group with a total of $134,690 ($94,490 for the Beacon Summer program plus $40,200 for their afterschool summer expansion programs). In addition, RIYP received $100,000 from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) for a time period running from April 1 through October 1 as part of the extension for its Youth Center contract. RIOC made clear, at the board meeting granting them the extension, that the funds could be used to support the Beacon program, and they are not meant exclusively for youth center use. RIYP also received $14,000 from Ben Kallos’ office.

A DYCD source familiar with the contract said that all Beacon providers were informed of their summer budgets prior to the release of the RFP and had ample opportunity to commit to, and prepare for, the summer programs. The source also clarified that the program is funded through the summer, and the failure to secure sign-off from the principal on the RFP should have no impact on RIYP’s ability to provide the summer camp. Moreover, DYCD does not allow providers to borrow against future funding to provide services. According to the source, “Anticipated funding for the 2017-18 school year cannot be used for programming this summer, regardless of a provider’s financial status.”

When asked to comment, DYCD spokesman Zustovich said, “All current Beacon providers, including RIYP, will receive funding to provide services this summer at a higher level than ever before due to the administration’s increased investment in the Beacon Community Centers. DYCD is in communication with RIYP leadership and, if they decline to provide programming through the summer, DYCD will explore other options to minimize disruption of services to the young people and families of Roosevelt Island.”

Both RIOC and DYCD declined to comment on what would happen to the money already allocated to RIYP if the organization declined to fulfill their existing contract by failing to provide summer services. DYCD did say however, that, “If RIYP changes its mind, DYCD would immediately begin the process of finding another provider in time for the start of summer sessions.”

Island Kids

Although it’s also out of the running for the Beacon contract, Island Kids will continue providing its paid afterschool program at PS/IS 217 for children in pre-K through second grade. According to Director Nikki Leopold, the schedule will include snacks, homework help, enrichment programming, free play and outdoor time.

The longtime Island not-for-profit organization has provided support to the families of Roosevelt Island for 23 years. It also offers toddler classes and support groups, including the Island’s free baby group.

For the upcoming school year, the organization plans to expand its program to include enrichment classes for families who do not need full afterschool care. Classes will run for 45 - 90 minutes in 12 week sessions. They say they will release the schedule of classes within the next few weeks. The classes will take place at 536 Main Street.

Leopold also says that, in line with the Island Kids’ mission to serve the entire Roosevelt Island Community, they expect to offer scholarships to those who might otherwise not be able to participate in the program.

The Main Street WIRE

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RI Condos Outpace Manhattan Pricing

by Briana Warsing

Corcoran real estate broker Ben Garama is trying to set a Roosevelt Island record with the Island’s first ever $2 million listing. The three-bedroom condo at 415 Main Street, which has been on the market for three weeks, has already attracted multiple offers, leaving its owners with a tough, but welcome decision – take the highest offer, or wait for the asking price. Either, according to Garama, will set an Island record.

It’s a milestone that comes at the same time that real estate sales in nearby parts of Manhattan have remained relatively steady.

“This year is a really crazy year for Roosevelt Island. I’ve seen condo prices increase ten percent,” says Oren Liberman, a real estate broker with Halstead, who has represented many buyers, sellers, and renters on the Island over the past seven years. According to Liberman, $2 million might break the sales record, but it wouldn’t break the Island’s square-footage record. An apartment in 455 Main Street broke that record at $1,417 per square foot. For comparison, he points to a listing he has just on the other side of the Queensboro Bridge at 401 East 60th Street (known as Bridge Tower Place). The two-bedroom, two-bath condo is listed for $1.7 million, amounting to $1,376 per square foot.

“In the last two years some of the Island’s apartment prices went up by 15-20 percent but Manhattan prices stayed stagnant,” says Liberman. “The Island used to be the cheaper option for Manhattan, now it’s the better option than Manhattan.”

Taking a Chance on RI

415 Main Street, named Riverwalk Court, is the Island’s only purely condominium building. (Neighboring 455 Main Street is primarily condominium except for the first few floors, which are owned by Weill Cornell and rented at a subsidized rate to postdoctoral associates and their family members.)

The current owners of apartment 7G, Gianluca Macciocca and Brian Hooper, are leaving the City for larger digs in Poughkeepsie, NY, where they are trading Riverwalk Court’s amenities and luxury styling for a 5,000 square-foot historic home. “We love the Island, we will miss it a lot,” says Macciocca. Hooper adds, “I was a little angry at Sportspark for closing the pool for half a year.” He participates in the Masters Swim program there.

In their eight years here, the two men say they’ve seen the Island really grow.

The couple purchased their three-bedroom, three-bathroom home for $1.2 million after seeing renderings of the building back in 2008. “At the time, it seemed like a lot,” says Hooper. While it was under construction they spent a year renting at the Octagon.

“This is a premier apartment,” says Garama, pointing out the special position that G-line apartments like his clients’ hold in the building. “It is the only three-bedroom line in the building, and the only [three-bedroom] line in either 415 or 455 that is Manhattan-facing.” And, according to Garama, only 415’s G-line offers a three-bedroom apartment with three full bathrooms in either of the two condo buildings.

Another G-line apartment sold for $1.75 million in early May of this year. “The Island is going crazy,” he says. “This is the story.”

A Vision Dimming

In 1969, when architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed Roosevelt Island’s master plan, the Island was conceived as a utopia for the working and middle-class. Most of the apartments were subsidized through State and federal programs such as the Mitchell-Lama program, which offered State-sponsored housing for moderate- and middle-income households.

When Southtown was developed, panic about losing the Island’s economic mix followed. “We are in the midst of vast change, and real estate is the prime consideration,” Matthew Katz, a former president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, told The New York Times 12 years ago. “The Island is being set up for gentrification, which means that middle-class housing will disappear.”

Between 2000 and 2010, a building boom on the Island increased the number of housing units by over 50 percent. For the most part, that housing was market rate. According to the Island’s General Development Plan, only 25 percent of Northtown and 40-60 percent of Southtown was supposed to be market rate. The remainder of the housing was intended for middle and lower income residents. In the meantime, three of the Island’s four Mitchell-Lama buildings have left the program, and the fourth, Westview, is on its way.

The Draw

According to Liberman, one thing that has driven up sales prices on the Island is the fact that buyers currently don’t have to pay property taxes. “It's important to mention that Roosevelt Island condos have a tax abatement until 2025, while [a building on the other side of the bridge] has no tax abatement. Tax abatement makes a building more appealing, which is a big draw for the Roosevelt Island condos, even as prices have begun to surpass condos found in Manhattan.”

Liberman also sees the Island’s newest neighbor as a draw. “No doubt, the biggest draw right now to Roosevelt Island is the Cornell Tech campus, which really put Roosevelt Island on the map. It has helped drive sale prices up. Across the bridge in Manhattan, prices have held steady for the past two years.”

“I am a big believer of the Island,” says Garama. “I’ve sold here for seven years and people double their money. The first two things I always say to people who don’t know the Island is: where do you see another place that has three forms of transportation, and, where do you see another place like the Island anywhere else?”

Garama calls the Island “a niche market,” and contrasts it with the Hudson Yards neighborhood in Manhattan. Bounded by 30th Street, Twelfth Avenue, 34th Street, and Tenth Avenue, Hudson Yards was planned, funded, and constructed under a set of agreements among the City, the State, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Garama says the project shows that you can’t just build tall buildings and try and make a neighborhood. On the Island, however, “there is something already here, a real history, a soul.”

Hooper and Macciocca agree. “Based on what we saw in Manhattan and this, there was no competition.”

And it’s not only newcomers to the City who feel that way. Liberman says he has helped three or four buyers who grew up on the Island. “They left Rivercross [a cooperative at 531 Main Street] and all they want to do is get back.”

Perhaps the biggest winner when it comes to the Island’s residential real estate is Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which is the single largest owner of apartments on the Island. They own four floors comprising 52 apartments in 480 Main Street, and a quarter of the apartments at both 455 and 425 Main Street. They also own the 258-unit apartment building at 475 Main Street, in which they house staff.

“They are a real estate monster,” says Liberman.

War on Rats at PS/IS 217

by Briana Warsing

Roosevelt Island’s public school, PS/IS 217, made headlines last week – much to the dismay of school officials and some parents. On Monday, crews from two local news channels showed up to film rats romping around the back of the school, where the rodents have built a sizable colony and raised alarm among Island residents. The story was even picked up by the British news site Daily Mail.

Officials from the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) say that efforts to eliminate the rat population at PS/IS 217 are already underway, but warn that it may take as much as six to eight weeks to see significant improvement.

Getting Help

On June 1, the school hosted a closed door, multiagency meeting that included a walk-through of the infested area. Attendees included a representative from Ben Kallos’ office, a director and rat expert at the DOHMH, DOE Director of Facilities Tim George, as well as representatives from the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), the DOE Office of Sustainability, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, Public Safety, school staff, the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, and others.

At the walk-through, rat expert Caroline Bragdon from the DOHMH estimated there are 100 rats at the site. “It takes a long time for infestation to develop,” she said.

Bait boxes had already been positioned around the exterior of the school, but Bragdon said they were improperly placed. She also said she’d observed one dead rat behind the school and expressed confidence about resolution of the issue. “I have seen other cases like this. That’s why I know Kevin O’Sullivan [from DSNY] so well. We just go borough to borough and school to school.”

Despite the colony, Pauline Ferrante, Community Liaison from DOHMH, confirmed that there were no health-code violations by the school. DOHMH does not write violations against DOE schools.

The Plan

At the June 1 meeting, the DOHMH recommended a plan that they say will reduce the rat activity at the school by 80 to 90 percent within six to eight weeks.

The plan is threefold: extermination, sanitation, and habitat removal.

Extermination involves the use of the bait boxes. Bragdon said that, to do it right, there should be weekly treatments and two methods should be used: burrow baiting, as well as secure baiting. Burrow baiting is the practice of treating the rat burrows with rodenticides and attacking the rats where they live. According to PTA President Erin Olavesen, a DOE exterminator has been coming at least weekly to monitor the bait stations.

Bragdon also recommended placing signage around the treated areas informing the community that rodenticide had been applied.

Sanitation

The second piece is to eliminate the rats’ access to garbage. “Rats won’t eat the bait unless the garbage problem is solved,” said Bragdon. The day of the walk-through, Bragdon described the area as “clean, neat, and organized.” But, as community members have noted, trash is often left out for long periods of time.

“I think the biggest thing is not leaving refuse out all day and overnight and identifying storage solutions for trash,” said Kevin O’Sullivan from DSNY. “It sounds like the school has not been storing [the trash] right.”

As to what other schools do, he said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Some schools have refrigerated storage for refuse inside their buildings, while others work with the Department of Transportation to have external storage on the sidewalk.

Just this week, PS/IS 217 received new closed-lid containers for storing the cafeteria’s waste in between trash pickups from the DSNY. According to Olavesen, this should reduce the amount of time that the trash sits exposed at the curb. (The school is still required by DSNY to remove the trash from the bins and leave bags on the curb before it can be picked up by DSNY trucks.)

O’Sullivan also said that, “From DSNY there have not been any issues, we have a good relationship with the [school] custodian.

Other Manhattan public schools have organics recycling that diverts food waste from the trash. However, Joy Rifkin, a zero waste coordinator from the DOE Division of School Facilities, said that PS/IS 217 is not currently eligible for the program. “It’s expanding, so eventually you’ll have it.”

The DOE did recently supply the school with a new recycling sorting station and students are now asked to sort out recyclables, liquids, and trash at breakfast and lunch.

Habitat

Finally, to completely get rid of rats, it is necessary to take away their home. Norway rats, like the ones at the school, live in the ground and make their nests under buildings, in basements, on creek banks, and in sewers or piles of garbage. It is therefore necessary to remove any piles of wood, throw away all trash and debris, and cut down or thin out any dense plant growth.

DOE contractors arrived on Thursday to remove raised planters along the school wall where the rats had built a network of tunnels.

And according to Principal Beckman, a long-term solution is in the works. Contractors have already come out to the school as part of the required open-bidding process. The plan going forward is to lay cement directly outside the school cafeteria, and then put a layer of mesh with gravel on top beyond that, so the rats are unable to nest there.

The DOHMH says that, as long as the garbage area is kept clean and garbage is sealed in containers, additional widespread paving should be unnecessary.

Aftermath

RIOC President Susan Rosenthal described it as a productive meeting. “The only question is speed...This is a really serious problem that has gotten too big, but I think we are all committed to solving it.”

“There is a threefold plan, things are in the works, and people need to bid,” said Principal Beckman. “First, kill the rats, and do that forever so they disintegrate and so they don’t migrate. The bed has to come out. The weekly bait thing has to happen. And we will build the sidewalk.”

Beckman expressed resignation with the way the system works, saying, “You know, different agencies, they move at their own pace. Think about the bins, we asked for them three weeks ago. You can’t speed that up.” She then added, “I feel good that we have no infestation inside and no violations.”

Pamela Stark, executive director of the neighboring Roosevelt Island Day Nursery, who has found two dead rats inside their walls said, “I am grateful to the community members that helped draw much needed attention to this issue. I'm also grateful to the team at RIOC which was the one public entity that mobilized quickly to help the community.”

Before leaving, Bragdon expressed confidence in the plan and advised the DOE to return to their important work, “You know, the actual education of the children.”

DOHMH is offering a rodent academy for Roosevelt Island residents on June 29. No RSVP is necessary, and it will take place at the Good Shepherd Center from 5:30-7:30 p.m.