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Roosevelt Island Residents Wage Battle Against Development

Plans for hotel complex are forcing citizens to finally confront commercialism.

June 23, 1998|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It is a fight complete with Revolutionary War images: charges of an autocratic colonial overseer, secret treaties and groups of residents banded together to repel invaders.

Welcome to the battle for Roosevelt Island.

Not just 147 acres of prime real estate dotted by landmarks in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens, the island stands as a piece of urban history--a prime example of the planned community movement, where people of different races and incomes live together harmoniously.

It is small-town America plunked down in the middle of the nation's largest city. Just 3 1/2 minutes away by a spectacular aerial tramway from Bloomingdale's country on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the citizens of Roosevelt Island--some of whom commute by cable car--have enjoyed a sense of separation and distance from big-city worries.

Until now.

The calm has been shattered by plans to build a 355-room Marriott hotel with 26-story twin towers--plus a convention center and condominiums--in a gated community on 10 acres of parkland on the southern tip of the island.

"They are trying to commercialize an essentially residential operation," said H. Patrick Stewart, president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Assn. "It goes right back to George III--taxation without representation."

"The construction will take eight years of trucks coming onto our island, eight years of strangers coming in," complained Jeffrey Hochman, a city planner who lives on the island. "We have the lowest crime rate of any community in New York. We want to keep it that way. . . . It would totally change the fundamental character of the island."

"I think it would look appropriate in the Milwaukee airport," scoffed Judith Berdy, vice president of the island's historical society.

But officials of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. counter that the local economy badly needs improvement.

"For the island to be self-sufficient, we have to complete what was envisioned in 1969," said Michael T. Greason, the corporation's director of communications.

"We need to bring more development to the island. . . . We have 19 mom-and-pop shops, a candy store, a delicatessen, and even they are having a hard time making ends meet. The private population can't sustain it."

Even so, he added, "change is never viewed favorably" among some of the longtime residents.

*

"The bottom line is, we are just another community in the city of New York, and we are the lease administrators," Greason said. "We are not the colonial governors that they envision."

Although part of New York City, Roosevelt Island has a unique operating structure. Key decisions are made by a board of directors, nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Three of the members must be residents.

To understand the protectiveness some islanders feel, a little history is necessary.

In 1828, New York City purchased the land, then named Blackwell's Island--a decidedly unpleasant place with prisons, chronic disease hospitals and an insane asylum.

Charles Dickens visited in 1841--and was glad to leave.

"Everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air about it which was very painful," he wrote.

In 1887, Nellie Bly--the intrepid reporter for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World--deliberately got herself committed to Octagon Tower, the mental hospital, to expose the facility's terrible conditions.

Mayor John V. Lindsay formed a committee in 1968 to explore plans for the island, and the idea of an economically and racially integrated community was born. It was renamed Roosevelt Island, and the first housing units opened in 1975. Today, there are 8,500 residents.

One of them, Richard C. Wade, professor emeritus of urban history at the City University of New York, lectured RIOC President Jerome H. Blue in a letter to the Wire, Roosevelt Island's newspaper:

"We were here years ago. We are here now. And we will be here after you are gone," Wade wrote. "Why do you persist in making irresponsible proposals whose consequences you want to saddle on the island you scarcely know, and will be long gone before they even begin? Why not genuinely consult the residents who have to live with your cockamamie ideas, none of which will ever be built?"

*

On a recent afternoon, teenagers hung out in front of the stores on Main Street as in any small town. A softball game was underway on one of the baseball fields. Along the promenade bordering the East River, senior citizens sat on park benches in the sunshine and exchanged confidences as a tugboat pushed an oil barge briskly upstream.

There are tennis courts, swimming pools--enough greenery that the island was designated a Tree City USA for the fifth year in a row. The award goes to communities significantly contributing to the environment by planting and regularly maintaining trees.

But some residents fear their lifestyle is under siege.

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