“The Island Nobody Knows”- Revisiting Roosevelt Island's Master Plan 50 Years Later

In 1968, Mayor John Lindsay tasked a 22-member committee with developing ideas for the underutilized, though ideally situated, Welfare Island. At the time, the narrow sliver of land in the East River was home to abandoned institutions and crumbling buildings. Urban renewal projects, and the enthusiastic social activism that guided them, were transforming neighborhoods all around the City, and the island’s close proximity to Midtown made it a prime candidate for development.

In what architect Robert Stern called “one of the most self-conscious, serious post-war efforts to make a serious contribution to urbanism”, architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee drew up a master plan for the Island, known as the General Development Plan (GDP), based on the committee’s recommendations.

The GPD laid out a vision for an island utopia. It would be a vehicle-free “Town in the middle of the City,” where New Yorkers from all walks of life, ages, income levels could live together surrounded by nature while still benefiting from all that the city had to offer. Everyone would have a view and the only street, Main Street, would run north-south. Main Street would only be only available to emergency vehicles, minibuses (now known as the red bus), bicycles and necessary deliveries and would house the Island's commercial and public facilities. Instead of cross streets, pedestrian walkways would bisect the island between buildings.

Johnson & Burgee's Roosevelt Island masterplan. Credit: The island nobody knows, 1968

The GDP imagined a haven for middle-class families, the disabled, and the elderly. In 1969, the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a state public corporation, signed a 99-year lease with New York City for the land. In 1973 the Island was officially renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Island. The GDP was annexed as Section 2 of the Lease Agreement.

So, how true to the Island’s mission – to create this “new town” in the center of New York – are we 50 years later? While the vision and intent of the GDP was closely followed by the original WIRE buildings, subsequent development challenged the notion that the goals set out in the 1969 document are anything more than suggestions. A look at the original GDP and the changes made to it over the past decades reveals just how much has been lost – how easily these idealistic goals have been undercut by quick money from developers, and continue to be, the dog park being installed on RIOC property north of 480 is one such current example.

Watch Roosevelt Island: an island place, 1980 for some perspective on how this worked in practice.

A Bold Vision

The 1969 GDP broadly outlined housing, public amenities, and open space on the Island. It envisioned development of 5,000 housing units occurring in two phases: the first, Northtown, would encompass 60% of the Island’s housing; the second, Southtown, would make up the other 40%. The two developments, clustered together, would result in a third of the Island being designated as open space. It was designed to be car-free, and ensured that families would have adequate space, no matter their income, and that there would be housing specifically for the elderly.

The GDP also laid out the financial breakdown of housing, clearly intending the Island to serve as a place where anyone – no matter their income – could settle: 55% of the housing was set aside for subsidized housing (including 10% specifically earmarked for elderly tenants), 20% was to be “Middle Income,” and 25% was allocated to “Conventionally Financed” market-rate housing. Further, it stipulated that the units would offer bedroom distributions to ensure accomodations for a substantial number of families with one or more children, as well as hospital employees.

The GDP provided for several public facilities, including a K-8 school serving 2,000 children, a library, community rooms, daycare centers, facilities for the elderly, and two swimming pools. There would also be a Town Center, a focus for Island life containing commercial facilities “sufficient for the daily needs” of residents and workers, to be located in Southtown. Additional facilities included a Town Harbor and a glass-enclosed shopping arcade, as well as Fire and Police stations, and a garage.

Town Harbor, from The island nobody knows, 1968

The GDP also earmarked generous open spaces on the Island, most of which would contain landmarks. These were Lighthouse Park (3 acres), Octagon Park (25 acres), Blackwell Park (approximately 6 acres), and Southpoint Park (10 acres). It allowed for seven acres of open space under the Queensborough Bridge, to be developed as a sports park. (Because construction of what is now known as Roosevelt Landings encroached on Blackwell Park, about three acres immediately north of 580 Main Street, comprising what are now Capobianco Field and Al Lewis playground, were added).

RIOC Takes Over

Development of the Island was projected to be completed within eight years – an ambitious plan by any measure. In reality, Northtown’s development wouldn’t be fully completed until 1989 with the construction of the Manhattan Park complex. Southtown’s development is still in progress.

In 1984, the State’s Urban Development Corporation, which oversaw the initial phase of development, was replaced by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), whose mission is “to plan, design, develop, operate, and maintain Roosevelt Island.”

Over time, fiscal and other difficulties led to delays in development, the abandonment of certain aspects of the GDP, and the amendment of language that resulted in the Island we have today. In all, it has been amended twice in the past 50 years: first in 1990 and again in 2003.

While the changes to the document seem relatively minor, their impact has been significant.

Low Income and Elderly Erased from 1990 GPD

Since the GDP is part of the lease agreement between the City and State, any amendments to it require the approval of the City. By 1990, when RIOC first amended the original GDP, the vision of Roosevelt Island as a mixed income, diverse, car-free community had already started to fade.

The amended GDP removed from Northtown the 10% housing allocation for the elderly - while increasing middle-income and market-rate allocations from 45% to 60% of the housing units. It also set a different vision for Southtown’s development, making no allocations for low-income housing and, instead, assigning 20-40% of units to residents making less than 148% of the prevailing median income (in 2018, this was $154,364 for a family of four).

A second major change stripped land previously designated as “open space” to make way for private development. The amount of acres granted to Octagon Park shrank from 25 acres to just 15, and the acreage allotted to Sportspark decreased from 7 to 5.5 acres.

Additionally, though less impactfully, the school population was reduced to 850 (about 200 more than its current actual enrollment) and Southtown no longer had a pool included in its plan. Likewise, language referencing elevator accessibility to the Queensborough Bridge was altered to reflect the construction and use of the Tramway as the primary means of transport to and from the Island.

It’s worth noting that the changes to the original GDP were made after Manhattan Park came online, despite fierce opposition from many in the community. Residents opposed Manhattan Park, referred at the time as "the new buildings" because it marked a change in the financial demographics of the Island. Unlike the rest of Northtown, it added housing at the upper and lower ends of the housing spectrum but did nothing to increase middle-income housing; it was the first complex that was not part of the Mitchell-Lama program. Unlike the rest of the housing on the Island at that time, the complex, comprised of five buildings, has one separate low-income building, the other four are market rate rentals.

In addition, the open space under the Queensboro Bridge – presumably part of the seven acres allocated to the Sportspark facility– which had been a baseball field, was closed due to hazardous conditions created by the bridge. Instead, RIOC licensed the land to the private Roosevelt Island Racquet Club in 1989 - an agreement not set to expire until 2034.

The Urban Ecology Center and 2003 Amendment

Further changes came with the 2003 Amended GDP, clearing the way for the construction of the Octagon building. Through the 1990’s, attempts at developing various open spaces by previous RIOC administrations met with fierce resistance from both Island residents and the officials elected to represent them.

The lease between the City and State stipulates that RIOC is responsible for the maintenance and rehabilitation of all Island landmarks, while further stipulating that it is not required to use Operating Funds (those generated by ground rents, operating fees, etc.) to do so. While RIOC could have utilized alternative means of financing through the City or State, it opted instead to pursue private development of the open spaces to secure funding.

The development of the Octagon residential building is one example. Architecture firm Becker & Becker paid for the renovation of the landmarked Octagon tower and then incorporated it into their design for a new apartment complex. The 2003 Amended GDP, unlike its earlier incarnations, contains language for “500 dwelling units, associated parking” and, as all three versions have included but has yet to be realized, an Urban Ecology Center. It is worth noting that the approval of Octagon’s parking garage was approved contrary to the language contained in all versions of the GDP, which emphasize car-free transit.

Main Street WIRE front page, Vol. 22, No. 4 Oct. 6, 2001

Lawsuits were brought by residents against both Octagon and Southtown developments, maintaining they violated both the GDP and, in the case of Octagon, the Open Spaces Protection Act of 2002, a State law enacted to prevent development on designated parkland space. They were ultimately unsuccessful, and the developments went forward.

Where Are We Now?

When Southtown (Riverwalk) is complete following the construction of buildings 8 and 9, the final appearance, and the amenities therein, will be markedly different from what was originally conceived by the GDP. The GDP, in its current version, also does not include reference to Four Freedoms Park, or Cornell Tech – though Four Freedoms had been in plans since the 1970’s.

On the other hand, with the advent of the ferry service, the realization of a Town Center as envisioned in the original GDP, with a Town Square facing Manhattan and a Town Harbor facing Queens, linked by a shopping arcade, is in fact closer today to the original version of the GDP than ever before.

With any grand vision, reality is bound to require change and compromise. For Roosevelt Island, those compromises have come at the expense of open space and inclusion.

Current RIOC President Susan Rosenthal suggests that RIOC’s mandate was to oversee the completion of the development of the Island as laid out by the GDP, and views that work, for the most part, as completed. With the rumors that Coler Hospital would be the next to go denied by officials at the Health and Hospitals Corporation, our open spaces might be temporarily safe from the private development that has threatened them in the past.

What has been irretrievably lost, however, is the income diversity that was originally envisioned – if not mandated, by the GDP. Beginning with Manhattan Park and continuing with the exiting of the original Northtown buildings from the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, market forces and the preferences of developers have time and again superseded the goals of Roosevelt Island as a multi-mix community, part middle income, part low income, with vast amounts of open space that Johnson and Burgee intended.

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