Dick Lutz
Dick Lutz

Here’s a survey question:

On a scale of 1 to 10, how critically important to Roosevelt Island is an ice cream shop like Main Street Sweets?

Presuming everyone living on Roosevelt Island answered that question, I suspect it would score poorly for a variety of reasons.

But here’s a different context for that question:

1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it that Roosevelt Island have a vibrant retail scene?

2. On a scale of 1 to 10, in your opinion, how important is an ice cream shop as part of a vibrant retail scene?

Years ago, survey results put an ice cream shop high on the wish list of Roosevelt Islanders. But Main Street Sweets has failed, and proprietor Scot Bobo swears it’s not the rent, but a lack of traffic. Simply put, not enough customers, despite the wish list.

But if Roosevelt Island had a vibrant retail scene on Main Street, an ice cream shop – perhaps one with a bit more seating (the adjacent shop is vacant) – might do very well. If we imagine that the former Trellis had opened a year or two ago (it’s been closed for just over 27 months, nearly two years longer than originally projected), we could imagine Main Street Sweets succeeding as the dessert spot that extends dinner-time conversations into a chance to linger over coffee and a sweet treat.

Jump-Starting Main Street Retail

Roosevelt Island was founded with an understanding that the community – as a whole community – would have to be subsidized to be jump-started. That meant, among other things, that retailers were encouraged by low rents to give the Island a try. For years, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) was pretty relaxed about collecting rents. That was never policy; it was hardly deliberate. It just seemed to be just one more example of New York State’s confounding ineptness in running a community. But struggling retailers were led into skating along, doing their best, sometimes falling behind in rent without consequence, waiting for the vibrant retail strip that would validate their original decision to give the Island a try.

Ineptness at RIOC seemed to go away when, finally, momentary governor Eliot Spitzer appointed Steve Shane as President of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. Shane saw the need to bootstrap Main Street retail with low rents.

But all this occurred at a time when the New York State Legislature was reacting with appropriate disgust to George Pataki’s attempts to turn over property along the Erie Canal to a developer friend, and to put a giveaway price on Hudson Yards. The result was a law that required New York State agencies to get fair value for its holdings – a perfectly reasonable idea on its face, but one that put temporary brakes on any effort to reboot Main Street into vibrancy.

That did not mean the need for bootstrapping went away.

As a result, the RIOC Board of Directors decided to transplant the problem to the profit sector. A request for proposals brought only one that was viable – from Riverwalk developer Hudson/Related (H/R) – and there we stand, virtually still, today. H/R has worked with a couple of sub-contracting real estate operations, but a continuing surplus of empty storefronts tell us that there’s not yet any real traction. (Meantime, the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association must pay rent for its space and turn to Public Purpose Funds to help pay the bill – effectively a direct pipeline of the community’s non-profit funds into private hands.)

What are we doing? Does this meet the spirit with which Roosevelt Island was founded?

To be fair, it’s not easy. A key problem is geography. Octagon residents bus through, rarely stopping amid the WIRE buildings (Westview, Island House, Rivercross, Eastwood/Roosevelt Landings). Southtown (Riverwalk) residents have little reason to come north, and the old WIRE buildings don’t have enough spenders to support a retail strip that today offers little that’s inviting.

A commercial center displaced from the transit hub has little chance.

Yet, Wholesome Factory is doing well. It’s within steps of a bus stop, so it captures Octagon residents for the last-minute forgotten item or a quick ready-meal from the hot table. And it fills a need more serious than an ice cream shop. It is making its contribution to the retail scene, but vibrancy remains elusive because it’s hit-and-run shopping rather than linger-worthy – and nothing else is close enough to get follow-on patronage.

What Will It Take?

Bootstrapping Main Street is probably helped by the changes Hudson/Related has made – opening up the arcade, hard-selling to bring in Subway, Urgent Care, Wholesome Factory, and – for a while – Main Street Sweets. But it’s not enough, and it’s taking too long. It’s the chicken and the egg. A vibrant retail scene will attract merchants, and nurture vibrancy.

Lower initial rents are in order as a kick-starter. But a real jump-start will require something more: subsidies.

So I’d suggest something radical: Sliding-scale leases beginning at ridiculously low rents, accompanied by metrics that allow H/R to share in success (through rents) only lightly at first, and then push leases toward something more realistic for H/R’s need to profit from having taken over the retail strip from RIOC. Even subsidies may be necessary – the kind of encouragements envisioned when Roosevelt Island was founded. Subsidies fit the original plan for Roosevelt Island – the idea that an investment would be required to prime the pump.

Low retail rents and subsidies would eventually pay off for Hudson/Related, which has a considerable stake in its Riverwalk housing. More inviting numbers – and subsidies for shops that depend upon (but don’t yet have) vibrant surroundings – are in order. Subsidies would provide a bridge to the day when a growing Cornell Tech might add some traffic to the Main Street strip. They’d make the WIRE buildings’ housing more attractive to apartment-hunters. They’d serve the community, and, in my view, in this matter, the community needs serving.

Are Subsidies Possible?

Perhaps we now have enough distance from the Hudson Yards/Erie Canal scandal to find some route to a program of this kind with New York State participating. Perhaps RIOC could participate without arousing the ire of the legislative capitalists who expect every worthy enterprise to be worthy strictly on financial grounds, regardless of need. But H/R has the lease and the control to move forward on its own based on the long-term view that its Southtown properties will gain in value once the Island, as a whole, is welcoming to vital retail. Perhaps H/R, given amazingly good deals on ground rent for its Main Street constructions, could invest more in making Main Street retail work. And perhaps our legislators can join to persuade the federal Small Business Administration (or a State equivalent) to underwrite the jumpstart we need.

One More Thing

And perhaps – at long last – somebody can put up signage on Main Street that increases the possibility that visitors will somehow become aware that there are things here worth visiting once they’ve taken the Tram ride over across the west channel.

The lack of signs is just a sorry symptom of the failure of free enterprise and government to fulfill the promise of Roosevelt Island: Somebody must start paying attention to this overall retail need, decoding what’s required, and doing it.

Tags: Dick Lutz Retail Island Observer

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