by Dick Lutz
On Thursday evening in one of the shortest RIOC Board meetings on record, the Board approved a rate structure to be charged to Island organizations and others for use of facilities that RIOC controls.
For the present, it insures the future of The Main Street Theatre, which had initially seemed threatened by RIOC’s plan to charge for use of the Cultural Center.
Most of the details were worked out behind the scenes, then refined in a meeting of the Real Estate Development Advisory Committee (now styled REDAC). In that meeting, responding to revised State rules, RIOC President Charlene Indelicato described RIOC’s situation as a “brave new world” as she explained the plan, at that point near final but still a work in progress.
The “brave new world” comes about because the State government’s Authorities Budget Office has decreed, in effect, that State authorities and public benefit corporations (of which the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation is one) can’t make grants or give anything away.
Perhaps by design, REDAC met, with plenty of space for interested residents, in The Main Street Theatre, part of the Cultural Center at 548 Main Street, now available for use after a multi-year renovation project that followed the 2012 flooding by the storm called Sandy.
“There’s very many challenges we’ve faced with the Cultural Center,” Indelicato said in a preamble, then continuing (click here for word-for-word audio), “The original use was very limited. You are a growing community. There are new groups coming in, and all of these groups must be treated in a fair and equitable manner. That is not to say that we are putting the old groups aside and saying that there’s no space for them, either. So we have to come to some area... There are also other issues involved with the Cultural Center and also community groups that have been here many years and who’ve provided a great service to the community.
“However, this is a brave new world. Public authorities, public-benefit corporations, have been under great scrutiny... You all know that, you’ve all lived through it, you know, in a variety of ways as to what was investigated, what was not investigated. The fact of the matter is is that I don’t believe anybody was doing anything wrong before, but they weren’t doing it right, and they weren’t being overseen in a particular manner. So now we have to live with whatever we have in front of us, and there are procurement issues; there are fairness issues which that I agree with completely, and there – the least of it being is making money for RIOC, because, in truth, RIOC, when we spend money, we spend it on the community. We spend it on capital projects. And I, I, this, areas like this, there’s not a lot of money in this. Whether you have $10 more or $5 more doesn’t matter. You need to have... You have a fiduciary duty to upkeep your, your, your areas. We would like – remember, this is a basement. There’s nothing – I mean – it is beautiful, and now I think it is very nice, but it’s a basement; it leaks. And it leaks and it’s going to leak, because the pipes undernea – on this building, are old, and they haven’t been replaced, and that’s – that’s the reality of – of the thing. The other thing, it’s a basement. No matter how many sump pumps you put, no matter how much waterproofing you do, no matter how much you work to make this flood-proof, it’s just not. It’s just not. Hopefully, we can minimize the damage. What we want to do is not even to break even, but not to have this ha – you know – take a lot of money from other areas away. We believe that if people have a vested interest, a monetary interest in it, they’ll take care of it better. We’ve had a lot of problems – not that it wasn’t taken care of before, but it wasn’t in really good shape either, before...”
Indelicato continued in the same vein, a bit later saying, “So I would like to dispel that issue about making money on this, and regardless of whether we make money or not, which we really don’t, it goes back into maintenance of this building, and this building is high-maintenance. So I want to turn it over to Erica [Spencer-EL]...”
Indelicato continued, however, commending and defending her staff. “I have a staff that has worked very very diligently. We may not have gotten it completely right, and we are open to many many suggestions. However, we’ve done the best we can and we’re going to do this for this year and we’ll move along and if we have a better suggestion, if something works better, you change it. The only thing that we’re all interested, and I’m sure you’re all interested, is that everybody gets treated fairly and everybody gets to use this when they want.”
(Audio of the meeting is available on the RIOC website.)
Spencer-EL explained, “We used this opportunity, after Sandy, to reevaluate the space, and to find ways that we can accommodate not just two groups, but groups that sometimes request space but are denied because space is not available. It’s frustrating for me to tell them no...”
But later, when staffer Donna Masly, who handles applications for use of RIOC-controlled space, was asked how often groups are refused access to space, she answered, “Very, very rarely. We always come up with something.”
Indelicato interrupted Spencer-EL’s discussion to cut to the chase: “What we’ve sort-of suggested to the [RIOC] Board is with the Cultural Center, the size of the permitted spaces [the rental rates will be]:
• 340-620 square feet (a smaller room), $30/hour resident, $60/hour non-resident rate
• 620-1030 sq. ft., $40 residents / $80 non-residents
• 1030+ sq. ft., $50 / $100.”
Indelicato emphasized that what she was saying did not apply to The Main Street Theatre and Dance Alliance (MST&DA), but to other groups. The Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association, which rents from Hudson/Related, says it is in trouble because of the rent charges (story on page 12). The Roosevelt Island Garden Club is apparently pleased with its arrangements for the garden area.
Responding to a comment from the resident gallery, Indelicato added, “It is a community, Sherie, and it is a community. And I am not going to sit there and make one group happy in the community, as opposed to another group in the community that is very unhappy, and if you can figure out a better way to make everybody happy, then you have solved world peace.”
RIOC Board member Margie Smith, who is not a member of REDAC but would vote it in a week, said, “I have a problem with the rates for the residents. I think they’re too high. I think they should be lower. How do we get that?”
“What would you suggest?” Indelicato asked.
“I would suggest half,” said Smith.
Indelicato responded, “That’s a very low rate. I don’t think we would be meeting our fiduciary duty at that level. [But] I believe we can drop it a bit... We can do $5 off... $5 an hour.”
Smith insisted. “I’d want to do half.” She then explained her position. “I’m OK with that, because basically the cost of maintaining the space falls back on us – still falls back on the community that has given us that money, anyway. No matter how you look at it, the community’s paying for it. And if we can lower it here and make it up in ground rent or whatever, it’s still the community paying for it, but it’s not as much of a burden on the non-profits... I’d like to get it as low as we possibly can.”
A discussion followed about the various kinds of individuals and organizations seeking to use the spaces involved (both in the Cultural Center and in the Good Shepherd Community Center). But Smith zeroed in. “I’m talking about the non-profit resident rates. That’s what I’d like to get down. I don’t have a problem with the the profit[-making users] going higher...
Indelicato responded, “OK, what we can do... What we can do is different rates for non-profits and profits.”
“I’m fine with that,” Smith responded.
That led to a discussion of what organizations might qualify as non-profits, leading to a summary by Smith. “So there would be three rates – resident non-profits, resident profits, and non-residents.”
Indelicato explained that religious groups are being treated as simple non-profit organizations, an approach that avoids an issue of separation of church and state.
Representing the Island’s Lubavitcher community, Rabbi Zalman Duchman asked about why the Main Street Theatre is being treated differently in arrangements for the space they once “owned” and used without fees. “The Main Street Theatre contributes to the community at large,” Indelicato said. “It is a community theater that is open, and functions with children of any religion, any race, any socioeconomic area... The other groups (and we’re not calling them religious groups) are groups that function for a particular group of people, and not for the Island as a whole. The issue is that [MST&DA] is open to everyone in the community. It doesn’t require any particular belief.”
Smith added, “The Island’s General Development Plan points out these particular entities. There was money to build these particular organizations up.”
A member of the Island’s Muslim community who did not provide his name suggested that his religious group attempts to provide a service for the entire community by communicating about itself, dispelling misconceptions. “I think this definition of being of service for the entire community, or a closed group – I don’t see how it can [rule] us out.”
Discussion of that issue ended there, but RIOC attorney Don Lewis provided an explanation of why MST&DA is being treated differently – being able to use the theater space without charge, for example: “What Margie was saying, and it’s accurate, is that in the GDP there’s language about a comprehensive set of community facilities. There’s some suggested such as youth centers, community centers, that type of thing, and a similar thing to that is a theatre that has been here many, many years.
“I’ve been working on the Island for three years, but I’ve seen a lot of these faces out here, longtime residents, and you hear over and over again how long the theatre has been here and how great the theatre has been for the community. So with the Cultural Center finally now renovated, with all the other spaces going to be permitted out under the terms Donna had shared, we’re of the opinion that the theatre is the kind of facility that is good for the Island. We at RIOC don’t run theaters, we don’t know how to run theaters, so what we are proposing to do is to enter into a non-exclusive license with the Main Street Theatre [& Dance Alliance] where they would essentially help us run a theatre and upkeep the theatre.
“However, they would not have exclusive use of the theater, so if another group came in and they wanted to use the theater in their activities... How that scheduling will be done, Donna [Masly] will work that out, and that is essentially what will be going into the agreement. We still have to review the agreement with the theatre people, but that is the general idea.”
By Thursday night of this week, officers of MST&DA had reviewed the proposed agreement. Lewis said they “were ready to sign it” on the spot.
Indelicato added, “Next year we are going to RFP it [send out a Request for Proposals].” But she indicated that MST&DA would enjoy favored vendor status because of its history on the Island: “However, one of the important things is the history that these groups have with the Island. We don’t want to have others groups just come in and say, we can do it better.”