Island Retail: Comings and Goings

Earlier this month, the Dayspring Church was quietly evicted from their space at 851 Main Street. The Baptist denomination had occupied the small church tucked into a corner on the west side of the Island near the New York City Department of Environmental Protection site and the Octagon building since 1997, first as Redeemed Christian Church of God and then, starting in 2003, as Dayspring Church.

851 Main Street, formerly the Dayspring Church

In October, in a lengthy Facebook post, Dayspring’s pastor, Dr. Olusegon Obed, made an appeal for “urgent financial aid.” He wrote that because of “ministry travails and trials, ups and downs, twists and turns, resulting in a considerable decline of membership and attendance,” the congregation had fallen far behind rent payments and were trying to raise $60,000 for past due rent and interest, plus another $50,000 for repairs and renovations.

Ultimately, they were unable to raise the funds. A Marshall’s notice on the door, dated January 14, says the property now belongs to the landlord, Hudson Related.

A Little History

The chapel was originally constructed in 1924 as the Episcopal Chapel of the Holy Spirit, for the former Metropolitan Hospital, now the site of the Octagon residential building. Prior to being Metropolitan Hospital, the New York City Lunatic Asylum was located there.

When Metropolitan Hospital moved to Harlem in 1955, the chapel was effectively abandoned, save for the hospital's chaplain, who remained in the chapel's rectory for another couple of decades. The chapel was constructed from gneiss quarried on the Island and boasts a steep slate roof and stained glass. The sanctuary seats between 180 and 220 people.

In the years prior to Dayspring’s arrival, the building was neglected. Eventually, unused, it fell into disrepair. Some parts of the sanctuary acquired mold. Pastor Obed and his congregation revived the buildingand, at considerable cost and a great deal of energy and effort, renovated it completely. Much work had been done to restore the outside, and they wholly redid the interior.

Dayspring Church

Obed was the founding and senior pastor of Dayspring Church. He and his wife, Pastor Elsie Obed, relocated to the United States from Nigeria as pioneering pastors for the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) in 1991. In 2003, Pastor Obed retired from the RCCG ministry and founded Dayspring Church. The couple made a life here. Both of their children attended PS/IS 217. Attached to the chapel, the four bedroom rectory housed the Lilies Christian School for some years, run and founded by Elsie Obed.

In an interview Pastor Obed gave in Ecologies of Faith In New York City: The Evolution of Religious Institutions, Obed explained his goal was for the congregation to become a truly multiracial and multicultural congregation. He described Dayspring as a church of new beginnings and he did not want to preclude that goal by focusing on specific groups or cultures. At the time, there was a membership of about 100, with an average attendance of 80.

The Master Leaseholder Agreement

In mid-2011, the Roosevelt Island Main Street Master Leaseholder Agreement between RIOC and Southtown developer Hudson/Related (HR) was signed, making Hudson/Related responsible for enforcing the Island’s current leases.

Roosevelt Island storefronts, from Main Street Retail Study, October 2009

Ultimately, HR took on the responsibility of 35 storefronts comprising 100,000 square feet, for a 30-year period. In Southtown, HR had already brought new retail to the Island. They had developed six Riverwalk buildings and added DuaneReade, Nonno’s Focacceria (now Piccolo Trattoria), Fuji East, Starbucks, Prestige Cleaners, Riverwalk Bar and Grill, and Swan Salon (soon to be Jupioca). This arrangement was intended to give the community a competitive and vibrant retail environment, and remove government, and the bureaucratic hassles that come with it, from the real estate business. Not all Island business had had leases, but HR pledged to honor those that did.

First Casualties

As part of HR’s management, by the summer of 2014, the hardware store was evicted. The Thrift Shop was next, about a month later. A petition to keep the Thrift Shop open received hundreds of signatures. Former RIRA President Ellen Polivy wrote, “This store serves an important community service. Find a place for them and give them an affordable rent.” Former RIOC Board member Dr. Kathie Grimm, wrote, “I agree,” in response to the previous comment, “RI needs the Thrift Shop.” Many Islanders who were happy that RIOC was out of the the real estate business and believed that HR would bring positive change and better options, had become ambivalent.

In a painful blow to many Islanders, Main Street Sweets, opened by Islander Scot Bobo in 2012, closed after four years of business, in 2016. Bobo insisted the problem was not the rent, but that Islanders did not frequent the shop often enough.

In 2015, the lease for the Cards & Gift Shop expired. Apparently, HR offered the store smaller premises but the parties could not reach a deal. Islanders wanted to know how Main Street supported stores prior to HR's arrival, and why not now? It’s complicated; one reason was that in the old days stores paid little rent – $9.00 a square foot in some cases – and some of them paid nothing at all. Some were years behind in rent when they were forced out. Others, like the Thrift Shop, had never had a lease.

One of HR’s first initiatives was to improve the look of Main Street. The dingy old glass fronts along the arcades were quickly replaced by lighting, paintwork and signage, and new Island-shaped benches. In line with that they added wayfinding signage in 2018, something that had long been discussed. Soon after the signage went up, the Riverwalk Bar & Grill, which opened in 2009, announced it would close in early September of 2018.

New Leases

Along with Jupioca, HR predicts a spring or summer opening for both Café Eleanor, to be located at 503 Main Street (off the Rivercross lawn) and Hot Pot restaurant Liukoshui at 568 Main Street. The Roosevelt Island Muslim Society has leased the space that formerly belonged to the St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Parish. The Catholics now have new digs at 504 Main Street. HR has no update regarding the Mexican Restaurant Onda, which was initially scheduled to open in the summer of 2017 in the 2000 square foot space located at 548 Main Street. At one point, that space housed Constantine’s Bakery.

BubbleCool, the bubble tea shop located in Main Street Sweets old space, next to Nisi opened in mid-2017, followed by the Music & Playstation later that year.

Riverwalk Bar & Grill

According to Russell Murphy, from Risa Heller Communications, HR is still searching for a tenant for the Riverwalk Bar & Grill Space. Adib Mansour, chair of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association’s Children Youth & Education committee is looking for something classy, “I think a good bar/restaurant would be a great idea. Something classy, where they serve real drinks, not diluted. A good family fun restaurant.” Alternatively, Mansour would like to see a Home Depot.

Carlos Chavez, library manager and his staff agree that a place like The Jeffrey would be appropriate in the large space. The Jeffrey, located right across the tram at 311 East 60 street serves locally-roasted artisanal coffees and an assortment of breakfast pastries and growlers of beer-to-go from the morning rush through the early afternoon. In the afternoon and evening, The Jeffrey morphs into a craft beer and cocktail destination 29 draft beers, typically local, and a small food menu including paninis, cheese and charcuterie, and snacks.

idig2Learn’s Christina Delfico wants to see more food options on the Island, “We need more food and the space is restaurant ready, burgers and healthy food options and breakfast make sense.”

Kristi Towey sees a growing need for programming on the Island that is not being met by Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance. The executive director wants to offer more variety and opportunity to the community. “I personally would love another location for MST&DA. I would put more dance classes, martial arts and tumbling/basic gymnastics in it. We do not currently have enough space to accommodate more programming and we have to apply to use the space. Sadly we do not have the funds to rent and build a space to offer that programming. [RIOC offers community space permits at the Roosevelt Island Cultural Center and MST&DA applies for and secures permits to run their non-profit].”

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