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Roosevelt Island’s Retail Resurgence

Roosevelt Island doesn’t get a ton of attention most of the time, but that’ll change when Cornell and Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology, open a joint 12-acre campus at the Island’s southern end in what’s being billed as a major boon to NYC’s tech economy. It’ll be the latest chapter of many for the narrow, two-mile long island in the East River.

The Island didn’t always go by the same name. Its first widely used moniker was Blackwell Island, a nod to its largest landowner in the 1700s and early 1800s, says New York Historical Tours co-founder Kevin Draper, who recently showed us around along with Eastern Consolidated principal Adelaide Polsinelli (snapped on the tram overlooking the island on the way there from Manhattan).

The island was a private estate when the city bought it in the 1820s and set to work building the city’s Smallpox Hospital at the southern end as well as a mental institution (parts of the ruins of the smallpox hospital are being stabilized and preserved).

If you’re over 50 or so, you may remember when it was called Welfare Island, a reference to its history as a home of public welfare institutions. When proposals to develop it as a mixed-use residential community were circulating in the early ‘70s, architect Louis Kahn pushed to name the island after FDR, feeling he owed much of his success to New Deal programs (plus, by around that time, the word “welfare” had taken on a connotation that wasn’t likely to make folks flock to the island).

Kahn’s original design for Four Freedoms Park at the island’s southern tip was just completed within the past couple of years—about 40 years after it was first drafted. The site's had a series of proposals for commercial development including a hotel, but none of them came to fruition. Every detail of the plan was built exactly as Kahn designed it—though the view’s evolved since then with recent building booms in LIC, Williamsburg and many parts of Manhattan.

As you walk north from the park, you'll hit two retail strips: “Southtown,” near the F train station and the famous tramway, and Main Street, the island’s main north-south drag. Adelaide says the island's retail vacancy rate has gone as low as 50% in recent years. But she tells us that number's gotten a steady boost since Hudson and Related, which have developed seven luxury rental towers on the island in recent years with two more on the way, took over ownership of the island’s retail from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp through a 99-year ground lease in 2012.

Though Adelaide says it’s far from seeing its full potential, she points out that Roosevelt Island has something few places in NYC have: a captive audience. Residents of the island spend around $150M a year at retail establishments, Adelaide says, but just under $18M on the island itself. “You have to find the retail that residents truly need,” Adelaide says. Which is what Adelaide’s team is working on doing. She says she has six deals in the works to bring indispensable retail to the island's 14,000 residents

It won’t hurt that the new tech campus will bring an estimated 2,000 students and hundreds of faculty and staff by the time it's fully completed in 2043, according to Cornell Tech's website. To help meet this coming demand, a program’s been set up to convert a portion of the island’s original Mitchell-Lama housing stock to luxury condos. Snapped: 555 Main St.

Existing residents will have an option to buy a rehabbed unit, like the duplex that Corcoran’s Deanna Kory (snapped) showed us at 555 Main St., for a steep discount—in the ballpark of $200/SF, Adelaide says. And to help preserve the area’s affordable housing stock for the long-term, if folks who buy through the program later sell, it can only be to moderate-income buyers who’ll also be paying well below market rate. Of the units being sold in the building at market rate, Deanna says, about 85% of buyers are folks coming from outside of the island.

Scot Bobo, a resident of the island for the past 21 years, opened Coach Scot’s Main Street Sweets in a 600 SF storefront in December of 2012. He says the look along Main Street improved dramatically when Hudson Related gave face-lifts to the storefronts along the strip, making signage more visible and giving the shops, which are housed in Brutalist buildings that date to the island’s original development in the ‘70s, a more inviting feel. New retail on Main Street over the past few years includes a wine shop, a deli and a natural foods market, and Scot says foot traffic’s up from when he first opened. With the island’s population poised for a surge of affluent residents, many with kids, Scot says he’s happy to have the market on sweet treats cornered. “It gets better and better every year,” Scot tells us. “We’re happy to be here.”