In 2000, Roosevelt Island had less than 10,000 residents. Since then, 1,331 new apartments have gone up or are under construction. Another 1,160 are expected within the next five years.
These new structures will pile thousands of fresh faces–and Fresh Direct trucks, as one resident put it–onto the sleepy spit of East River land once officially called Welfare Island, possibly changing it forever.
In 2006, tenants moved in to the Octagon, Becker and Becker’s 500-unit luxury restoration of the insane asylum on the Island’s north end. The real colossus, however, is the nine-building Riverwalk development, a joint project of Hudson Companies and the Related Companies. Currently, five buildings are completed, a sixth is under construction, and the last three are "this glimmer in our eye," said David Kramer, one of Hudson’s principals. The fifth, Riverwalk Court, is 35 percent sold.
Mr. Kramer estimates that about a third of the buyers currently live on Roosevelt, but in all, the Riverwalk buildings could bring 2,500 to 3,000 new residents to the Island. This represents a population increase of between 27 and 32 percent since the 2000 Census.
"All these folks will be incorporated into the community," said Matthew Katz, the president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA). "The problem is, we’re an island!"
An island that is only 147 acres, with only one road (Main Street), one grocery store (Gristedes), and one coffee shop (Starbucks), which went up in the last two years.
"It’s very funny," said Eric Schwartzman, who writes the Roosevelt Island 360 blog, "where a lot of areas are like, ‘We already have too many Starbucks,’ on the island, when that first came, people began to feel like, ‘Hey, we’re part of civilization!’"
Mr. Schwartzman was lured to the Island by the Mitchell-Lama housing subsidies at the Rivercross building, where units regularly sell for under $50,000. Two years ago, he moved here from Stuyvesant Town with his wife and kids, now six and four. Although Mr. Schwartzman notes that he has yet to see playgrounds overrun with children, he does worry about how the Island’s infrastructure will support the population growth–and what would happen in an evacuation.
Buyers at Riverwalk Court, part of that massive Riverwalk development, generally fall into three categories: Manhattanites looking for inexpensive but convenient real estate; current Roosevelt Islanders choosing to upgrade; and "people who appreciate Roosevelt Island as a quiet enclave … who are picking Roosevelt Island in lieu of living in Queens or New Jersey or Long Island," said Mr. Kramer, the Hudson Companies principal.
For new residents, Roosevelt Island is an urban suburbia, a landscaped refuge from cramped quarters in Chelsea, the Upper East Side or the East Village.
At the same time, veteran Islanders notice their close-knit community changing. Everyone I spoke with mentioned that the population–which includes United Nations employees, Memorial Sloan-Kettering oncologists and senior citizens–is getting younger. Old-timers notice a more affluent populace, with closer ties to Manhattan.
"One of the things that I loved about the Island in the earlier days is that it was truly international," explained Marie LeBlanc, a multilingual teacher who has lived there for 15 years. "And it seems like more New Yorkers, people that have been living in New York for a while, have been moving to Roosevelt Island."
Long-time residents worry that their affordable housing will turn market-rate. There are fewer areas for kids to play; parking spots are more difficult to find; and public transportation is strained.
On the other hand, "Roosevelt Island needs the extra population," said Mr. Kramer. "When you walk down the street, when you are standing at the Starbucks, it’s not crowded enough. It’s one of the few neighborhoods you can say that about in New York."
There is new bustle on Saturday nights, noted Jonathan Kalkin. Newcomers like the 29-year-old Mr. Kalkin, who sits on the board of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the public body that manages the Island, are getting involved in local politics. For Mr. Katz, the president of RIRA, this is a positive.
"The people who built this community in the ’70s and ’80s are getting older now," said Mr. Katz, "and we’re very glad to have an infusion of young blood on the common council. People with new ideas and new energy are very, very welcome."