Carmen, a 30-year resident of Roosevelt Island, remembers when mom-and-pop shops lined the main commercial drag of what was once an enclave of affordable housing in the middle of the East River. Now most of the storefronts on Main Street are empty and much of the retail space surrounding the gleaming, luxury condos of the Riverwalk complex remains vacant, despite a steady stream of new residents to the 2-acre island over the past few years.
“There used to be a pizza parlor, a fish store, and that office building there used to be a sports bar,” Carmen recalled on a blustery December evening, shifting her groceries to point out each abandoned shop.
“There was a Bigelow’s pharmacy, but they had to partner with Gristedes to survive… I knew the bakery owners and they really got a raw deal… They had some back rent, then they had a flood and RIOC wouldn’t repair it, so they lost their lease. The rest is history,” she sighed.
Most long-time residents fault the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC)—the government-appointed board created in 1984 to regulate the conversion of subsidized housing units to fair-market rentals—for failing to preserve an adequate supply of affordable housing or the unique demographics of the community in its pursuit of development.
While the development of fair-market housing has certainly widened the gap between the 10,000 original residents of what was once dubbed "welfare island" and the occupants of the 1,500 new luxury apartments completed in the past two years, the gentrification of Roosevelt Island has been a gradual process. The island’s much hyped transformation began in 1989, when RIOC green-lit the first market-rate rental development, Manhattan Park, and did not accelerate until RIOC approved two luxury residential complexes in the middle of the past decade—the nine-building Riverwalk development and the Octagon, Becker and Becker’s 500-unit rental development at the site of the former New York City Lunatic Asylum in the Northtown area.
Four Riverwalk buildings have been completed and two more will be ready for occupancy next fall, RIOC President Steve Shane said in a phone interview. The completion date of the remaining three depends on the market and the progress of sales, he said.
The Octagon opened on April 2006, and the building was fully occupied by the following October, according to Bruce Redman Becker, the project’s developer. It is now 97 percent full, and apartments rent for $48 per square foot.
Mr. Shane acknowledges that development has shifted the demographics of Roosevelt Island to a “more mixed-income community," but says the board is not responsible for the closure of small shops.
“Some of the merchants continue to thrive and some went out of business, but rents didn’t rise. Several Northtown tenants lost leases because they stopped paying rent,” Mr. Shane said. “The critical mass to support their businesses just wasn’t there, but presumably when more people enter the island the critical mass will be obtained.”
But since Northtown began its retail hemorrhage five years ago, between 2,000 to 4,000 new people have joined the community and the population of Roosevelt Island is expected to swell to 16,000 over the next decade, according to Mathew Katz, president of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association. Meanwhile, services have improved only marginally since larger retailers have not flocked to Roosevelt Island, aside from Starbucks and Duane Reade. The choice of eateries on the island is limited to a diner and a Chinese Restaurant, and almost all residents interviewed eagerly mentioned the anticipated opening of a Japanese and Italian restaurant.
In a scene straight from small-town America, two acquaintances on line at Duane Reade during the post-work rush talked about the delayed opening of the new pizza parlor.
“It would be really nice to have a few more restaurants and maybe a grocery store that didn’t sell overpriced, moldy food,” Jamie Weller, a 24-year-old law student at St. John’s University nearing her first year on Roosevelt Island, said during a study session at Starbucks.
Services and amenities on the island have gotten better since the new people arrived, according to accounts from various long-time residents, but not enough to offset the costs. People complained about increased commuter traffic, overcrowded streets and sports fields, and the lifting of a ban on dogs in new condos. But the worst consequence of development has been the destruction of what residents characterized as a small-town community.
“The people who’ve always lived here don’t like the new people because they don’t get involved in the community. They are not even facing the same side of the river,” said 22-year old Amanda, who was born and raised on the island.
Even newcomers notice the widening gap between residents of subsidized housing and renters paying up to $3,500 a month for an apartment.
“You’ve either got a bunch of yuppies who came here to pay $2,400 for a condo, or old people who came 30 years ago to get away from the city. There’s no in-between,” said Ms. Weller, the young law student.
Though new developments are required by law to have an 80:20 ratio of market-rate to affordable housing, Mr. Katz said neither the Octagon nor Riverwalk has filled this requirement yet, though three Riverwalk buildings are still slated for construction.
"Our fear is that affordable-housing units will become low-income ghettoes like the senior and Section 8 housing in Manhattan Park did," he said. "The difference in amenities was huge. Market-rate buildings were carpeted and had doormen, and the others had a couple of security guards."
Mr. Becker said residents of the Octagon—the first building to be built on the Island in 20 years—went through an initial period of “breaking ground” but has since been “fully assimilated” into the community. Though Becker and Becker does not have any more land under contract on the island, Mr. Becker said they would be interested if more becomes available and “have an interest in the redevelopment of the retail sector … where there is a lot of room for improvement.
“We would like to see more space in [Northtown], where there is enough space, but it just needs to be repositioned … We’d like to see that happen sooner than later,” he said.
Despite insufficient transportation and a lack of goods and service, Mr. Katz called the island’s gentfication "a crying shame," but believes it will continue “no matter what."
“There is a possibility people will look at Roosevelt Island and see that the transportation isn’t adequate, restaurants aren’t adequate, and there are no movie theaters,” he said in a phone interview. “But they could also see what I did, that it has a neighborhood feel and is a very nice community to live in. I don’t know, we’ll see.”