At the September meeting of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA), a group comprised of elected representatives from each residential building, members accused the Island’s governing body, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, of steamrolling over residents’ concerns and routinely failing to engage with the group.
“Something needs to be done to better the relationship between RIRA and RIOC,” Dave Evans told the group.
Members say they are routinely left out of RIOC’s decision-making process, their emails go unanswered or are rebuffed, and their resolutions are largely ignored. Vice President Lynne Shinozaki likened RIOC’s treatment of RIRA, and the Island community at large, to a fungus. “We are left in the dark and fed shit.”
RIRA Vice President Lynne Shinozaki Presents Lydia Tang with an award for her work on the Cherry Blossom Festival while RIRA President Jeffrey Escobar looks on
The assessment follows a year of little to no cooperation between the two organizations and comes months before Islanders will be asked to vote in a new council of RIRA members.
“Our voices are being less and less heard,” said Shinozaki. “What I find more disturbing and more distressing is that we expressed our displeasure, but there was a consensus for them to move forward anyway. We are being steamrolled.”
Shinozaki was referring to a November 2017 meeting, at which RIRA members unanimously passed a resolution opposing a three-year, $225,000 plan by RIOC—in collaboration with real estate developer Hudson Related—to install holiday decorations around the Island and requesting, instead, that the money be allocated to support the Island’s non-profit organizations. In February, they also voted unanimously against putting up the RI monument, even temporarily. In both cases, their resolutions were ignored.
“I imagine everyone has noticed the large RI monument at the exit of the Tramway,” Janet Falk told the group. ”Having a large stone base under concrete does not look very ‘temporary.’ We are governed by a Board to which we have very little input. We do not have true representation here; all of their terms are expired.”
Members say other offers to provide valuable input to renovation plans—including the Island’s playgrounds and Sportspark—have also been rebuffed.
In the summer of 2017, when RIRA’s Island Services Committee (ISC) learned that RIOC was holding discussions about upgrading the Island’s playgrounds, committee chairman Aaron Hamburger asked to have a member of the ISC involved; the group had a lot of input in the past, with members of the Roosevelt Island Parents’ Network polled by the ISC to assess both need and want from the parent community. The response from RIOC’s Parks and Recreation director Mary Cunneen was that they would “not be adding to the current group.”
Regarding Sportspark’s renovation needs, RIRA provided RIOC with a 24-page report of community feedback. But a meeting to discuss the findings with RIOC President Susan Rosenthal was cancelled. Meanwhile, last October, RIOC had commissioned Cornell Tech to conduct a survey that they ultimately used to inform their Sportspark renovation and planning. But according to the ISC, the Cornell Tech survey was incomplete. For one, they say, it left out two important groups, the seniors and the disabled who are regular users of the facility. They also didn’t consult the external groups who use the Sportspark, including the RI Marlins, the Island-based swim team which pays to reserve many hours of pool-time.
“This is an example of a group that did very strong advocacy work and it was ignored,” says Falk. “I think we are doing our jobs. Then RIOC decides that it doesn’t want to listen to us and makes its own priorities on the Island paramount.”
“They just turned us down on it,” said Frank Farance. “There is something wrong with the relationship.”
Some members pointed out that there had been successes in the past year, though largely from outside RIRA’s official body.
After meeting with a small group of Southtown residents in the spring, RIOC revisited its running race policy and agreed to limit road races to two per month, eliminate all 10k events, and no longer stage the race course near residential buildings. Likewise, when Octagon representative F. Scott Piro complained to RIOC and the media about the cars blocking the promenade outside the RIOC warehouse at 680 Main Street, RIOC’s public information officer, Alonza Robertson, immediately wrote back, “I spoke with our executive team and we feel you are 100 percent correct.”
Another example is the 4,000 signatures Wildlife Freedom Foundation founder Rosanna Ceruzzi obtained in order to get the water turned back on at the Southpoint cat sanctuary, after RIOC had turned it off at the end of June.
A Rocky History
Ideally, say RIRA members, the two organizations should utilize what the other can offer, with RIOC using RIRA’s intel, the experience of its members to inform their decision-making on projects and to develop appropriate policy affecting the Island and its residents. Some of RIRA’s elected advocates have been volunteering their time for decades and have a deep knowledge base about the residents and the needs of the community, know the best ways to reach them, and get desired, and they say, necessary, feedback.
Council member David Lawson describes the concept as a more "structured relationship" between the two groups. In this way the actions by both institutions could be "mutually reinforcing." He doesn't believe RIRA was ever intended to be a watchdog for RIOC, but rather a "collaborative ally" that could use its connection to residents to draw attention to issues and projects tackled by RIOC. Lawson believes RIOC should participate in RIRA meetings to hear about residents' concerns and that should be able to RIRA formally influence RIOC decision making.
According to Erin Feely-Nahem, longtime chair of the Public Safety committee, that happened under former RIOC President Charlene Indelicato (2013-2016). “As far as being open and being accessible to the real issues, [RIOC] now seems to be holding back. They’re more bureaucratic than they used to be. Under Charlene, RIRA was the organization she brought things through. With public safety, she’d pull us in to deal with issues.”
In the past, RIRA activism has led to nominations for members of the RIOC board, a requirement that Islanders get five of the seven public seats on that board, saved the Tram, and preserved the local post office which was being considered for closure. They also led the community in an effort to oust former RIOC President Jerry Blue (1996-1999) from his post.
During the three years Blue served as President, he so curtailed the flow of information between his office and Island residents that then-RIRA President Patrick Stewart was said to have accumulated a foot-high stack of requests and responses for documents obtained under the Freedom of Information law.
At one point, RIRA raised close to $20,000 from residents to oppose a RIOC initiative to turn the mini-schools (now the Child School and Legacy High School) into condos.
“RIOC likes to hand-pick five or six people, hold a meeting in their offices, and then claim they’ve had the input of the community,” Stewart complained in a May 1999 RIRA President’s column. “Well, it’s just not that easy, as anyone who has ever participated in any public service will understand...RIRA’s job is to work for the good of the community, the entire community, and, thanks to the dedication of the remarkable people you have sent to the Common Council, that job is being done tirelessly and thoroughly and with a commitment that will not rest until the job is done.”
Some RIRA representatives contend that the arrangement Stewart described under Blue is exactly what is happening now.
Longtime resident and community activist Shinozaki has served on RIRA since 1991. “I’ve seen a host of different presidents,” she said. “Each has their approach in how they interact with committees. There were years where relationship was dramatically worse than it is now. With Jean Lerman (RIOC President early-mid1990's) we had no relationship whatsoever. But we had great interactions with Charlene.”
A 1994 WIRE article asks for increased RIRA Feedback
Feely-Nahem agrees, “There have been better times, there have been worse times. We do have access to the PSD chief (Jack McManus). Every month he comes to our meetings. But I don’t think we have as good an understanding as we did under Charlene, who was much more likely to hear both sides. I felt like it was a much more open relationship. It is from the top down. So, yes we see Jack. He is serious; he shows up, but we have a hard time when it comes to accountability of actions.”
Farance, who served as RIRA president from 2008-2010 and is currently third alternate for Island House, suggested that the council invite RIOC personnel to their upcoming meetings. It looks like RIOC agrees, RIOC’s public information officer Alonza Robertson confirmed that, “Beginning this fall, a RIOC staff member will start attending RIRA’s monthly meetings.”
As to what can be done so RIRA’s ability to be part of the larger Island-wide conversation doesn’t change depending on who is RIOC President, Shinozaki says, “I am not sure what the best remedy is, but I think that the essence of the problem is a lack of responsiveness to the community.”
She suggests forming a Roosevelt Island commission where all powers have a seat at the table. For example, the Queens Borough President as well as the politicians in Manhattan would be stakeholders with votes. She said, “We are always going to be at the mercy of whoever is RIOC president. We should create a structure to help accountability.”