You’d think Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) President Susan Rosenthal’s biggest concern would be the recent revelation that the $1 million per year New York State was supposed to pay by the end of 2018 – some $23 million to$25 million in all – may go unpaid. But you’d be wrong.'''' According to Rosenthal, “The Cornell money is not why I’m here. I’m here to get things done.”
Rosenthal was appointed RIOC President in October after serving as Acting President for seven months. Prior to that, Queens-born Rosenthal served as the corporation’s general counsel after a 38-years-long career as an attorney in the private sector. She feels that RIOC needs to be less focused on collecting money and more focused on spending it to shore up the Island’s crumbling infrastructure.
The Cornell Money
Of the promised State funding, Rosenthal believes that receiving that $1 million was never an absolute. She says the funding was always subject to budgetary procedures.
“The State didn’t really promise that. If people believe it was an absolute promise, that’s not what it says,” explains Rosenthal. “What I’m trying to tell you is this: we can’t ask the State for money when we don’t need it. You can’t expect the State to give you money when you’re sitting on money. [We need to] show the State we spend and we’re competent at spending. By spending money we can say to Albany, ‘look at us, we’re doing stuff.’ I think that’s why we can’t sit here and say we are going to get the $23 million or $25 million by December of 2018... There are plenty of other places in this State where the money is needed.”
Rosenthal points out that RIOC currently has plenty of money in the bank. “In the last five years we didn’t spend,” she says. According to Rosenthal this surplus is due to years of deferred maintenance.
It’s a trend Rosenthal plans to break. “I am hopeful that we will spend over $10 million, maybe even $15 million [this year], and next year we’re budgeting over $25 million. We have a capital plan for five years; that is a real capital plan.” This plan was approved at Thursday’s RIOC board meeting.
As for how RIOC plans to spend all that money, Rosenthal says they are working on designs for $15 million worth of seawall railings. She says RIOC also plans to spend millions in Motorgate to stop the water from dripping down.
There’s the bike ramp too. RIOC will know in January if they were awarded a State grant for a ramp intended to give bicycles a safe exit from the Roosevelt Island bridge to the eastern promenade. Rosenthal says that if they don’t get the grant, RIOC will build the ramp anyway. Cost is projected to be between $3 million to $5 million.
If RIOC is swimming in money, there’s a reason for that.
“My point is that everything has been neglected,” says Rosenthal. To remedy that, RIOC is taking on projects that are long overdue; Sportspark is a big one.
According to Rosenthal, RIOC has invested $5 million in renovating Sportspark, including the roof, the pool and the boiler.
“[We] just started fixing the [Sportspark] pool. We couldn’t find a vendor. [Regarding the roof]; the skylights were delayed. It should be done by Christmas. I’d rather be conservative and say it will all open by January 2. We thought we’d be able to move more quickly.”
She says, “The bathrooms and locker rooms are gross. It’s an embarrassment.” The locker rooms are part of the capital plan. “I remember when I first got here,” Rosenthal recalls, “Dr. Grimm said to me, ‘Can we do something about the locker rooms?’ She was embarrassed.”
Rosenthal also has strong opinions about the Youth Center, describing it as “grotesque.”
“When I walked in I couldn’t believe it. The board didn’t understand that this was our property. It’s disgusting. We have a plan to fix it in steps so we don’t have to close it and the work is going to start before the end of our fiscal year.”
There is good news on the horizon for Blackwell House too. The historic house is scheduled to be renovated, to the tune of $1.4 million. The funding agreement has been signed. Rosenthal says, “Permit applications are being filed this week or next week.” Once renovations are completed, the first floor will be public space.
Another item on Rosenthal’s list of priorities is the Renwick Ruin, the former smallpox hospital at the southern edge of Southpoint park. “I am desperately concerned about the Ruin,” says Rosenthal. According to her, just stabilizing the former Smallpox Hospital will cost $25 million. The Ruin is on RIOC property and RIOC is currently spending a small amount of money to ensure a piece on the top doesn’t fall off. The Four Freedoms Conservancy recently funded an engineering study to permanently stabilize it. The report, to be prepared by Robert Silman Associates, will also include plans to make the site accessible to the public.
About the Four Freedoms Conservancy, Rosenthal says, “Frankly it was very nice of them to do [the study]. It’s not their responsibility; it’s unfortunately ours. We’re going to put our heads together and figure out where we can go for money. This [study] is just to stabilize, not to decide what we’re going to do with it... That’s a priority for me and I am reaching out to the Parks Department [New York State Department of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation] to get some help from them.
“My big problem,” says Rosenthal, “is getting all of these projects done without that big a bench.” According to Rosenthal, she’s restricted to a two percent increase in operational expenses each year, making it hard to hire additional staff.
Another challenge Rosenthal faces is the lengthy procurement process required for any new projects.
“[The process] was put into place for ethics reasons and they are good reasons,” she says. “I can’t pick up the phone, call my brother-in-law and say, ‘Come here and fix the pool.’ There should be a level playing field and the best person, regardless of whether I know them or not, should be given the job. But because of that ethical consideration, there are postings, and bids, and RFPs, and ratings, and reports. Having spent 38 years in the private sector, I am not used to having my hands tied like that.”
The RIOC Team
“We have a great team. I think a lot of the community thinks so. They really care about the Island. They want it to look great; I think it does look great,” says Rosenthal discussing her new hires. “Today a new Director of Engineering started. We had a consultant who was great, but he only gave us one day a week.” Rosenthal says that by bringing in more management, there is more accountability and better results.
“Shelton [Haynes, VP of Operations] is fantastic. He’ll say to Fernando, who’s been here for 30 years, ‘I want to see your schedule, who’s doing which part of the Island.’ These guys, while they always did a good job, are happy they’re really organized. All of a sudden everybody is accountable.
“I think it’s really important that everybody takes pride in their work, and I think that’s what the new management team is really trying to do. I know there is a [perception] that we’re the ‘other,’ but I don’t feel that way. We are trying to listen more.”
She credits her background as a lawyer for what she views as RIOC’s primary role on the Island: “that we’re here to serve.” She says, “That’s what lawyers do, they serve people. We’re here to serve this community. We have no other agenda.”
Rosenthal says she is interested in engaging more with the community. “My signature accomplishment is that my door is always open, I am ready to listen, and there’s been a steady stream.”
As an example, she tells the story of bumping into Eva Bosbach, Roosevelt Island Parents’ Network coordinator, on the Tram one day. “She was complaining to me about the lack of community space. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have free community space. I said, ‘Let me figure out how to make this available.’ And we’re going to make it available. If there’s stuff we can do to make people feel good, why not. The space is there. This will be rolled out, probably by January 1. It’s not for a group of kids to have beers, but for public, educational purposes.”
As part of her open door policy, Rosenthal says she welcomes the community to the table to brainstorm and look for solutions. She understands that the people who use these facilities, and experience certain parts of the Island – the playgrounds and the fields, for example – are the ones best suited to make certain types of suggestions.
On Not Being an Island Resident
Rosenthal lives nearby, right on the other side of the Tram, but she doesn’t live on the Island. She doesn’t think where the CEO lives should matter. “This is a small community [with a small pool of would-be applicants] so I don’t really get that.” Besides, she says, “I feel like I’m here. I come for concerts, gallery openings. I’ve been to every classical music concert at Good Shepherd. This is the best kept secret. This is a fantastic place to live. [Roosevelt Island] is like a little small town. How can this be Manhattan?”
Despite all of that, Rosenthal acknowledges, “There are a group [of Islanders] that would really like to secede from the union. Without the State, that Red Bus wouldn’t be waiting for you when you get off the Tram. I grew up in Queens. When we had snowstorms, there was snow for weeks. Here, our guys, if they have to stay overnight, your snow is removed. I’d like to think that maybe people will start appreciating the services the State provides. I really do feel that the people who live here have an advantage over the people who live in the City.”
About Main Street Sweets, Rosenthal says, “If we don’t go to the retailers, they won’t survive.” She thinks maybe Cornell and the next two Southtown buildings will make a difference, explaining that, “People fear change but I think this change is going to be good. It will bring more retail here. Main Street can use a shot in the arm.” Personally, Rosenthal would like to see a bakery, a hardware store, a couple of boutiques, and some more nice restaurants with outdoor seating. “I love outdoor space and I love outdoor music. Maybe Trellis will bring something exciting… The Cornell property is fantastic. I can’t wait to have a cocktail on the roof of the new hotel.”
Rosenthal says, “I love this job because you can make things happen.”