On the Water: Roosevelt Island’s Changing Face

By Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker
Genevieve Belmaker is a former reporter and editor with The Epoch Times.
December 5, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

The East River is key for New York City, both practically and in terms of esthetics. I pass over it on my way to work in Manhattan from Brooklyn, and always enjoy taking in the view. As Epoch Times waterfront reporter, I’d venture to guess I spend much more time than the average New Yorker thinking about our waterways.

My musings on what could be turned into a newspaper story have led me to keep a close eye on Roosevelt Island, that odd little encampment in the middle of the East River that runs alongside Manhattan from 86th Street to 46th Street. The island has a colorful history. As the former site of a penitentiary, mental health facility, and quarantine area for smallpox victims, the island hosted a varied cast of characters over the years.

These days, it’s home to about 12,000 fairly typical, largely middle-class New Yorkers.

In the past few years, developers have set their sights on the strip of land—which is so narrow you can see the river on both sides—and its expiring Mitchell-Lama affordable housing contracts. Throughout New York City, the Mitchell-Lama program is a source of over 44,600 affordable rental and cooperative housing units for moderate- and middle-income families. Some of them have yearslong waiting lists, and others have so many prospective tenants the buildings have stopped taking new applicants.

One of the Mitchell-Lama buildings on Roosevelt Island, called Island House, has already been approved for conversion to a privatized building with some rent-stabilized units. The next building that could possibly go that way is called Rivercross. A 377-unit building, it is one of four Mitchell-Lama structures built on the Island in the 1970s, known collectively as the WIRE buildings.

A vote this week will determine whether the Rivercross becomes privatized or not. According to the building’s general manager, the final results should be available by Friday.

If affordable housing is an issue in New York City at large, Roosevelt Island is like a microcosm of that. The coming years will only bring more change.

A partnership between Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology will bring students and related campus staff and infrastructure. The Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute will offer interdisciplinary dual degree programs in the applied information-based sciences. The campus will take up most of the southern tip of the island below Queensboro Bridge with a more than 2 million square-foot campus. Though it won’t be officially completed until 2037, it is expected to generate 1,000 campus and construction jobs.

Whether or not Rivercross votes to privatize, the placid environment of Roosevelt Island and the view from the train are in for some major changes.

Genevieve Belmaker is a former reporter and editor with The Epoch Times.