It appears that members of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) have at last found something they can all agree on.
At its November 1 Common Council meeting, RIRA members unanimously passed a resolution opposing a three-year, $225,000 plan by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) to install holiday decorations around the Island and requesting, instead, that the money be allocated to support the Island’s non-profit organizations.
Upon passage, spontaneous applause erupted from the council. It was a rare show of unity and amity from a group that often gets criticized for infighting and indecision.
In October, the RIOC Board of Directors voted 4-2 to approve a three-year deal with Neave Décor, in partnership with real estate developer Hudson Related, to decorate Main Street with lights, snowflakes, stars, and reindeer. Under the agreement, RIOC would be responsible for $150,000 of the $275,000 price tag, spread over the course of three years.
A rendering from Neave Décor shows planned installations in Southtown.
Two Directors, Island residents Margie Smith and Faye Christian, opposed the plan. Smith questioned the wisdom of spending the money on rentals.
“We’re spending $225,000 over three years, but we don’t own anything,” Smith said at the time. She also objected to the fact that RIOC would be spending $50,000 each year for a few weeks’ of decorations while the Corporation budgets only $100,000 in public purpose funds to support all of the Island’s nonprofits each year.
RIRA’s Common Council agreed.
Introduced by longtime Southtown representative Aaron Hamburger, the resolution passed by RIRA calls on RIOC to cancel its contract with Neave Décor and instead use the money to bolster the coffers of RIOC’s public purpose grants, which are awarded each year to qualifying Island nonprofits. Applications for this year’s public purpose funds have already been collected and RIRA will soon schedule dates for the public session.
RIRA does not officially have a say in RIOC’s contracts; their objection will be purely advisory. However, since all RIRA representatives are elected and are Island residents, the group believes the resolution is meaningful.
During discussion of the resolution, several Common Council members characterized the expense for holiday decorations as misguided.
“To do this extravaganza when our community struggles to get funding, I see it as a slap in the face to the community,” said RIRA’s Vice President and Manhattan Park representative Lynne Shinozaki. “The lights don’t even go over the entire Island. It’s centered around Hudson Related property.”
According to Neave Décor’s proposal, the additional decorations would start at the Tramway plaza and ferry landing and then extend northward to include Main Street as far as the Westview arcade.
“At the very least, from our point of view, RIOC’s priorities are messed up,” said Rivercross representative Laura Hussey. “It’s a stretch to come up for funding to Roosevelt Island non-profits. The holiday spirit is great, but the amount of money allocated for these decorations, compared to the fact that the amount allocated for public purpose funds has not gone up for years now, is a problem.”
Erin Feely-Nahem, chair of RIRA’s Public Safety Committee, also charged RIOC with being out of touch. “Do we really need reindeer and snowflakes? There are so many needs on this Island, like public purpose funds and feeding people who don’t have food. What do we get out of this $150,000? We could put the money toward our organizations that actually do something; instead we get nothing besides a picture next to a tree! This isn’t the Roosevelt Island I know and love.”
Other representatives called the proposed decorations insensitive, arguing that they only spoke to a subset of the Island’s population.
Southtown representative Janet Falk noted that, between November 1 and January 1, there are 29 holidays celebrated by various religions and nationalities.
“Most of the decor that’s planned will be Christian and secular, but we are a multicultural and international community. I think having more than one Christmas tree is extravagant and we should be more respectful of our multicultural community,” she told the council.
Island House Alternate Frank Farance called RIOC’s plans offensive and obscene. “I’ve looked at the calendar; Christmas is coming December 25 next year. We have plenty of advance notice to get it right and be sensitive to the needs of our community,” he said.
In a rare show of agreement, he also praised Hamburger’s resolution, saying, “This motion is perfect.”
“I’d like the record to show that Frank said, ‘The motion is perfect,’ and Frank and I never agree about anything,” Hamburger announced to the group.
Farance immediately corrected Hamburger, “Let the record reflect that Frank said ‘Aaron’s motion is perfect.’”