Why RIOC Shouldn't Go It Alone

September 30, 2018

It was only two and a half years ago that RIOC paid consulting firm Fitzgerald & Halliday $70,000 to spend 11 months finding out what the community’s vision for Southpoint Park is. A community advisory committee was created and included representatives from more than 20 Roosevelt Island organizations. The goal was to establish a vision for the park to be determined by the community. Though nothing came of the plan the community made together, it was an inspiring approach that made sense for an Island community of active, longterm residents who have a history of being involved in the decision-making in their community.


Back in September 2014, new planters and benches marked the first phase of the renewal and redesign of the Good Shepherd Plaza. That project started as a RIOC-held town hall, and turned into the Streetscape committee led by Vicki Feinmel. To get community buy-in, Feinmel put notices under the apartment doors of everyone who faced the plaza – apartments in Rivercross, Island House, and Roosevelt Landings – and invited all of those residents and the RIRA Planning and Island Services committees to an introductory meeting to work on the project.


Both of these projects followed a model of gathering community input and allowing community members to give of their time and expertise in service of their community.


The contrast with what is happening with current projects impacting community space is glaring.


Parents arriving for the first day of school were surprised to find that the playground used after school everyday, Al Lewis Playground, was fenced off and closed. There had been no community input on the work that was being done, nor was there much information about what was being done, save a RIOC press release. RIOC says new play equipment is coming next spring. But for what ages? With what features? I know more than a few parents who might have an opinion and some valuable insight on that.


Of course, the biggest example of this is the Octagon Soccer Field, a space used daily not only by soccer programs but Island kids and adults looking for a pickup game or bit of exercise. RIOC closed it abruptly in mid-August—with no notice even to the organizations that had reserved it for summer camps and leagues, causing one youth soccer program to leave the Island altogether. To this day, though, no work has commenced on it. Not only that, no RFP for the construction has even gone out. It’s been discussed at various RIOC Operations meetings, but no real details about what prompted its very abrupt closure have been given, nor has any substantive information about the future plan been offered.


Certainly, neither RIRA’s Island Services Committee nor the community-at-large have been included in the design plans, and unlike the Sportspark, no survey or assessment on community usage, complaints, or need has ever been done.


When they do seek input, the current RIOC administration prefers to meet with a small group of self-selecting residents—residents who may or may not be representative of the community at large—to help make decisions behind closed doors. This is what they’ve done with the Youth Center programming and it’s how they’ve approached playground renovations thus far.


Roosevelt Island has an unusual governmental structure, where there is no direct representation; we can’t vote someone out because their vision of the Island doesn’t dovetail with ours. With four RIOC board seats empty, the three residents that sit on the board don’t have much power or control. As such, it makes it that much more important for RIOC to find ways to engage the community on these issues. Government works only by consent of the governed. Right now, our rents pay for everything. RIOC is self-sustaining; it is not funded by the State. Under the current administration, this is taxation without representation.


I get the slippery slope in asking us what we want—some of us can’t agree on anything. And I understand what RIOC must feel they are getting into if they invite us to the table. But in a place like this where our rent pays for our green spaces and services, it is necessary.


And it is what we, as Islanders, should be demanding.


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