high rise residential

Affordable Island in the Sun: Roosevelt Island Maintains Its Mix

Big City | Ginia Bellafante

When completed, the Riverwalk residential complex on Roosevelt Island will have 2,000 units, 800 of which will be classified as affordable. Development has progressed with the island’s character in mind.

Gus Christensen was, until six months ago, a managing director at Evercore Partners, the boutique investment bank, a position preceded by stints at JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and an education at Wharton. Some years ago, befitting that profile, he was a Republican; but eventually the religion of the free market lost its hold on him, so much so that his politics migrated aggressively to the left. Last week he posted on Twitter a link to a tabloid piece about a billionaire who was buying a $70 million pied-à-terre for his children at 740 Park Avenue, with the hashtag #Signoftheapocalypse.

Mr. Christensen is running for the State Assembly in the 76th District, which runs east of Third Avenue on the Upper East Side and includes Roosevelt Island, a community that might be seen as a template for the kind of equitable and more economically integrated city that he and other progressives, fearing the eclipse of all but the wealthiest faction of the plutocratic class, want to see achieved.

Roosevelt Island, which is considered part of Manhattan and not Queens, was famously conceived as a utopia for working- and middle-class New Yorkers in 1969, and the architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed its master plan. Most of the apartments on the island were subsidized through state and federal programs, and various buildings were developed to house tenants of different income levels, so that someone receiving a Section 8 grant, for instance, might live next to a teacher in a rent-regulated unit.

A decade ago when several luxury rental and condominium buildings were planned and began to appear — especially on the previously undeveloped south end of the island — an inevitable panic about the evaporation of the area’s unusual alchemy followed. “We are in the midst of vast change, and real estate is the prime consideration,” Matthew Katz, a former president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, told The New York Times nine years ago. “The island is being set up for gentrification, which means that middle-class housing will disappear.”

That has not happened, in part because of the regulatory policies in place, and because development, most of it the result of a partnership between the Hudson and Related Companies, has progressed with sufficient attention paid to the island’s character. Before it is completed, Riverwalk, the complex of buildings toward the south end (which includes staff housing for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), will total 2,000 units, 800 of them affordable to families making roughly $68,000 to $125,000 a year, David Kramer, a principal at Hudson, told me. You are likely to meet doctors on Roosevelt Island, but you are far less likely to meet arbitrageurs.

None of the three restaurants in the newly developed quadrant of the island is rarefied. One is a pizza place run by a former police officer. Another is a Japanese restaurant run by a family who had been operating an old-school Chinese takeout place on the north end of the island. The third, the Riverwalk Bar & Grill is, as Jeff Escobar, the current president of the residents association, said, “tremendously popular with everybody.” An ice cream shop on Main Street, the island’s retail corridor, caters to the tastes of children, rather than the palates of adults who demand rose-hip sorbets, and is run by a longtime resident known as Coach Scot.

“The fear,” Mr. Escobar said, was that Roosevelt Island “would become the waterfront in Long Island City,” which is to say a haven of single financial types and internationalists. But it attracted families instead. “If anything,” he said, “the old-timers now wish the newcomers were more integrated into life in the middle of the island.” In some sense, Roosevelt Island suffers from the inverse of the problem afflicting most gentrifying areas; even long-term residents believe that Main Street could benefit from higher-end retail services, which they feel would bring the micro-communities together more fluidly. “When the organic grocer opened, people initially complained about the pricing, but that backed down,” Mr. Escobar said.

Many residents of Roosevelt Island are working to preserve those apartments developed through the Mitchell-Lama program that are at risk of aging out of affordability and commanding market rates. In an effort to preserve the social balance, two buildings are pushing plans to allow residents to buy their apartments at low cost but keep them from reaching market rates for another generation or so.

The impression left after walking around Roosevelt Island is not of a place rife with the “Yuppies Die” class warfare that seems palpable in many parts of Brooklyn. What residents worry about isn’t so much the prospect of more luxury housing, but more housing of any kind, this particularly in light of the coming applied science campus from Cornell University and Technion of Israel. The population of the island has grown by 20 percent over the past 10 years, and the demands on infrastructure are intense. One real problem for Roosevelt Island, as Mr. Christensen put it, is that “there are just too many people on the F train in the morning.”


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