a project under construction

Roosevelt Island Shops for More Stores

By Pervaiz Shallwani

Exit the F train station on Roosevelt Island and the scene could resemble many other Manhattan residential neighborhoods.

A Starbucks, a Duane Reade, pizza and sushi places, an upscale sports bar and other retail businesses occupy eight spaces in Riverwalk, one of the newest developments on the narrow, two-mile-long island.

But a larger group of stores in older buildings farther north along the island’s drab Main Street corridor isn’t doing as well, with more than a quarter of its 34 shops vacant. Residents can cite a laundry list of businesses they would like to see open in the area.

“We desperately need a bakery,” said Judith Berdy, an island resident since the 1970s and president of the island historical society. “We need a fish store. We need a produce store. We need a florist. We need some more restaurants.”

The state agency that runs Roosevelt Island is trying to do something about those needs. It recently gave the developers of the Riverwalk project a 30-year lease to lure new business and spruce up 100,000 square feet of retail space on Main Street.

“The one missing piece is having good retail on the island. To us that has always been the Achilles’ heel,” said David Kramer, the head of Hudson Cos., which built and runs Riverwalk together with Related Cos., another developer. “Improving the retail will help our residents, but as an investment it’s got to work as a stand-alone project as well, which we expect will be the case.”

Revitalizing the retail strip comes after a 40-year government effort to remake the former Welfare Island into a mix of luxury and affordable homes. More than 14,000 residents now live on the island resting in the East River with picturesque views of Manhattan and Queens. Last year, the island’s well-known tram connecting with Manhattan—originally intended as a temporary link when it was built in 1976—was re-opened after a nine-month upgrade.

A project currently under construction is a memorial and monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt being built on seven acres on the island’s southern point. The private project, based on a design by architect Louis Kahn, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2012 as Four Freedoms Park.

Just north of the future park is Goldwater Memorial Hospital, one of the sites that the Bloomberg administration is offering to universities in competition to open an applied-sciences campus in the city.

Planners, developers and officials from schools including Stanford and Cornell universities have been visiting the island regularly to prepare their proposals for the project that are due Oct. 28; a winner is expected to be announced by the end of the year. Stanford has said it would bring 2,200 graduate and Ph.D. students and 100 faculty to the new campus. Cornell expects 2,000 students and 200 faculty.

As a residential community, many view Roosevelt Island as largely a success.

“We have been delighted,” said Christiana Park, 33 years old, who moved to the island from Union Square. “It was cheaper. There are great views. I like how quiet it is but it’s one stop from Manhattan and one stop from Queens.”

Hudson’s Mr. Kramer says that fewer than 10 of 1,200 apartments in six buildings he has helped develop currently sit empty. A look at Roosevelt Island properties on StreetEasy.com turns up nine available properties ranging from $550,000 for a one-bedroom condo to $1.3 million for a three-bedroom unit.

Providing people with places to spend money on the island is another matter.

“I mean we absolutely need the revitalization of the retail,” Ms. Berdy said. “It’s so sad to walk here and to look at the stores that never even lift their gates.”

Resident Abigail Corrigan, 35, agreed. “We definitely need another grocery store,” the stay-at-home mom said, echoing a complaint of many on the island.

The Roosevelt Island Operating Corp., a state agency assigned to oversee development on the island in 1969 when the city was facing hard financial times, says it long has had a difficult time filling the Main Street shops. It hopes the Hudson-Related team can do for Main Street what it has done with retailers in the Riverwalk buildings.

“Getting a master lessee, and an expert that does that all the time, I am hopeful will speed things up and make it more efficient,” said Leslie Torres, the president and chief executive of the state agency.

Kaie Razaghi, the owner of Trellis, a diner on Main Street, says fellow business owners are excited about the planned revitalization, but worried that their leases might not be renewed. Some now are operating month-to-month.

Mr. Razaghi has five years left on his lease. He wants to spend money to fix the place, but said he wants assurances he won’t be kicked out five years from now.

“Everybody is concerned,” he said. “I have been here 15 years. I have put my life in here. I am excited about what they are doing, but I want to be part of it.”

Mr. Kramer said that “as leases come up for renewal—whether Trellis or other stores—we’ll be discussing improvements as part of the lease commitment.”

The Main Street revitalization got under way at the beginning of August with a survey of what residents would like to see. One candidate is a wine store—the owner of one on the island died and the space hasn’t been leased again.

“That seemed to be an obvious one,” Mr. Kramer said, adding that a pet store and ice-cream shop also got high marks.

“We are quite bullish that if we can be successful with our eight stores in Riverwalk, then we can be equally, if not more, successful with our stores on Main Street. There is more foot traffic on Main Street,” he said.

Ms. Berdy, the longtime resident, said she also wants to be an optimist. “I love the island. I am just skeptical about some of the plans,” she said.


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