The Roosevelt Island Residents Association should soon address what could ultimately become its number one screaming priority: extension of ground leases past 2068.

The background lies in the arrangement between New York City and New York State. With the exception of the Cornell property and the Coler property, the State controls Roosevelt Island by virtue of a lease from the City. It runs out in 2068 – just about 50 years from now. The residential buildings of this community are built on land that is subleased by the State to the building owners. New York City will take possession again in 2068.

That means that every residential property on Roosevelt Island is a diminishing asset.

It means that, should Island owners fail to secure an extension of the lease from the City well before 2068, residential properties here will diminish in value toward zero.

Sooner, not later, that will become a crisis with immediacy, despite 2068 being 50 years in the future. The reason is that a young family, buying a home here now, must ask these questions: Will I be able to sell this property in the future? Will this property increase in value over the years? Or decrease in value? A prospective purchaser – say in 2025, just 10 years from now – will have to worry that when he is ready to sell – in 2045, say – with only 23 years remaining on the lease, no one will consider it a reasonable purchase.

Until recently, the answer seemed obvious: Of course the City will extend the leases! Of course they’ll protect us. Of course they won’t pull the land out from under us. It would be inhumane to displace so many people.

But it’s important to look at the changing nature of Roosevelt Island. We are soon to become an important east-coast tech center with the arrival of Cornell Tech, where important square footage of a limited Island will be devoted to improving the economic lot of New York City as a whole. We can reasonably anticipate that, as Cornell Tech fills out its acreage south of the Queensboro Bridge, this question will arise: Wouldn’t it be smart to provide for additional academic-tech development on the Island? Faculties and graduate students will need housing. Other universities may wish to co-locate.

In short, a future mayor like Mike Bloomberg might well ask: For the City as a whole, what is the highest and best use of the Coler property and other spaces on Roosevelt Island? If additional buildings are to be taken for purposes similar to those represented by Cornell Tech, they would likely be in the aging Northtown, which, by 2068, will be approaching age 100. The reasoning would be, Let’s clear out those aging properties and make that land available for another university, or for expansion of Cornell Tech.

But we have not yet reached the point where there is such a mayor, and such thinking has not yet taken full root. Now is the time for the Residents Association, with whatever political clout it can muster, to organize the resident-owners of Rivercross, Island House, and Westview, and the developer-owner of Roosevelt Landings, to negotiate with the City for the extension of the lease past 2068.

Those who own full buildings (meaning much of Southtown, Manhattan Park, and Octagon) might be tempted to go it alone, leaving behind those buildings where owners are fractured communities of co-op owners – meaning Westview, Island House, and Rivercross (the WIR trio of buildings).

It is well known that real estate interests have great power over the City and the State governments, and, working alone or together, they might protect only their assets. That would leave the owners of the oldest Northtown buildings to work alone. In this, today and in the future, the individual owners in the WIR buildings, through their boards, have common cause with the developers, and at least some amount of political clout – representing families and individual citizens.

If not now, when? By 2058, apartment values will be hard-hit. By 2048, buyers will be aware that 2058 is just 10 years away, and by 2038 or 2028... Well, you get the picture. Now, we have some time on our side, but the days, months, and years will leak away faster than we can imagine. Failure to anticipate this crisis, and to deal with it in a timely manner, will produce a far more serious crisis in the future.

This should be high on the urgent to-do list of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association.

Tags: Island Observer

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