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Bright Lights, Small City: Is Tiny Roosevelt Island a Microcosm of Urban Innovation's Future?

BY Nick Judd | Monday, May 9 2011

Roosevelt Island is one of the few urban locales in the country to offer a tram for public transportation — when it works; before it was renovated in 2010, it would occasionally break down, and can still be a shaky ride, especially on windy days. Photo: Shinya Suzuki / flickr

Jonathan Kalkin gets excited when he talks about his latest scheme, a plan to build one of the world's first zero-net-emission parking garages. His eyes widen. His eyebrows raise. We are sitting in Riverwalk Diner on Roosevelt Island, the 12,000-person community sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens in New York's East River, where he lives. He's ignoring a turkey burger that slowly cools on the plate in front of him.

He begins by describing Motorgate, the massive circa-1974 structure that houses the island's main grocery store and parking garage.

"It looks like the place that time forgot," says Kalkin, 32, a principal at a finance and insurance firm who moved to Roosevelt Island in 2006. "It looks like World's Fair, you know, parking garage of the future, and then like, you know, Marty went in his time machine and, like, it didn't work out, and ten years later there's stuff all over the place and it's, you know, it's not what people thought it was going to be."

Turning Motorgate into a high-tech building is one of an interrelated network of plans and projects that Kalkin and a few other tech-savvy islanders have in the works to change the way their neighbors communicate, deliberate, and live.

Jonathan Kalkin. Photo: RIOC

In Kalkin's vision, Motorgate would rely solely on green power, and would be preconfigured to easily accommodate electric cars — customers would buy their own charging station and set them up in their spots. Even if nobody goes for it, he says, the island's municipal government — which is a state public authority, but more on that later — wants to start using more electric vehicles anyway, so at the least, they'll be customers in this plan. But first, the place needs an upgrade, starting with bright LED lighting to replace the ailing system now in the garage.

Roosevelt Island has a long history of taking the mundane and making it cool, in a nerdy way. Trash from residential buildings is pushed to a central processing facility through a series of vacuum tubes; the daily commute for many islanders is a tram, just upgraded in 2010, that carries them as high as 250 feet over the East River on their way to work. For years now, A tidal power company, Verdant Power, has been powering has powered the grocery store in Motorgate with energy from tidal turbines in the East River that were installed as a pilot project.

Since the island is technically a creature of the state, which is running the place under a 99-year lease from the city, the public authority in charge — the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) — has less red tape to wade through in order to implement sweeping plans. Some residents say that makes the island an ideal testing ground for new ideas. The community there is not shy about giving feedback through a vocal resident's association, joining the island's alphabet soup of institutions with the letters RIRA. But it's only recently, locals say, that RIOC began to listen: In 2002, after a long battle with the state in which residents argued their home was being mismanaged, Gov. George Pataki signed a law that required seven of the corporation's nine-member appointed, unpaid governing board to be people who live on the island. (The other two are state representatives.) RIRA developed a list of recommended appointees through independently held elections in 2006 and 2008, but it has no official involvement in the governing of the island.

"Incrementally," says Matthew Katz, the president of the island residents' association, "we are becoming more and more involved with the running of what is essentially a planned community."

But that public authority is still the alpha and omega. Plans there have to comply with rules the state has concerning contracts and budgets, and must win the support of a majority of the now locally controlled board; that's about it. For good or ill, one person with a broad plan can get much done.

Into this steps Kalkin, who has the support of the residents' association — he was a member before he joined the RIOC board. Since Kalkin was appointed to RIOC in 2008, he's been marketing Roosevelt Island as a willing laboratory for companies with new technology to try. He has so far brought in a firm, Streetline, that has provided the island with parking sensors that know when a spot is occupied; those spots were just coupled with meters last week. Buses are tracked in real-time thanks to NextBus, a company that provides GPS tracking devices and a platform that compiles and releases the data they collect. On their cellphones or online, riders can get estimated arrival times based on this real-time data. Through a deal with Verizon, Kalkin told me, there will be free wi-fi in the island's South Point Park this summer. As with the Motorgate plans, to be funded largely by grant money, Kalkin has a financing scheme for each project — he says RIOC is prohibited from operating at a deficit, so it must pay as it goes.

"I mean, I'm a big nerd, so, this stuff really excites me," admits Kalkin, who is a principal at an insurance and finance firm by day. He sees the Motorgate's modernist innards and thinks of what it could be. So he called Trey Taylor of Verdant Power, the tidal energy company that has turbines nearby in the East River that are already powering the Motorgate complex.

"I told them why don't we make this place, like, the most sophisticated parking garage on the planet," Kalkin told me. "Let's just sandbox, and go crazy."

But as with all of the numerous plans Kalkin has set in motion, enthusiasm may reach farther than impact. What he and the rest of the RIOC board do is fodder for Rick O'Conor, who maintains the island's most popular blog, Roosevelt Islander.

Existing apps like the ones powered by NextBus, O'Conor points out, only benefit people who are savvy enough to use them — leaving out a wide swath of the island, which has a significant senior population who may or may not have smartphones. And NextBus in particular only works when it's on; O'Conor says he's noticed that drivers don't always remember to engage the devices when they start on their routes. Kalkin's non-technical plans also get mixed reviews; O'Conor says he disagrees with Kalkin about what to do with the island's residential buildings that are now in the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, for instance.

Issues like these come up in a now constant back-and-forth between O'Conor and the board and its staff. O'Conor, who works in commercial real estate, says that RIOC has become more open over the last few years, releasing meeting agendas and other information on its website, for example. But part of this is by necessity; with the advent of Roosevelt Islander, residents had an open forum to poke and prod at RIOC's doings in real time.

"I think a lot of it had to do, frankly, with my blog," O'Conor says.

The blogger's first post was a 2007 rant about RIOC charging a fee for entry to that year's Fourth of July celebration, delivered in all caps — because, he says, he just didn't know any better. Steve Shane, who was then the president of RIOC, responded, and the email exchange became the first of many exchanges in which O'Conor became the interlocutor with government on behalf of his readers — the classic pattern for local bloggers. Now, his blog is a center of civic conversation, and recently celebrated its 500,000th visitor since 2007. A recent blog post spawned an extended discussion about whether the island was becoming more expensive and inhospitable to poor and working-class residents, racking up 22 sharp-tongued comments; two or three less vehement ones are par for the course for each post.

As RIOC and the island's residents' association become more savvy, that dynamic might change. The residents association now has a Facebook page — albeit with only 34 supporters — and a slew of new websites. RIOC's Facebook page is regularly updated with photos and news, and has nearly 200 fans — not bad for an island of 12,000. Kalkin, who is the chairman of the board's finance operations committee, uses his iPhone and iPad to track Roosevelt Island Twitter mentions obsessively, and replies to questions or complaints. For O'Conor, this is friendly competition — especially as it seems that the newer developments on the island are attracting a young professional crowd of new settlers.

"RIOC is trying to get people to go directly to them," O'Conor told me on a recent afternoon. "Go on their wall and tell them what their problem is. And of course it's competition to me but, well, so be it."

We sat outside the island's single Starbucks on a sunny afternoon, interrupted often by a quiet hello from someone O'Conor has come to know in his 12 years on the island. He told me that in Roosevelt Island terms, he's still a newcomer; comments on his blog frequently come with bona fides like "I am a 29 year resident" or "I am a 27.5 year resident." Even so, even old-timers come to Roosevelt Islander to comment and discuss their community's news of the day — for now. He's not sure what the next online forum will be in their wired community laboratory, a microcosm, perhaps, of things to come.

"Really, there's just going to be one place," O'Conor mused aloud. "Is it going to be RIRA, is it going to be RIOC, is it going to be the Roosevelt Islander blog? I hope it's the Roosevelt Islander blog, but there's nothing I can, I can't do anything other than continue what I'm doing and hope that people select, you know, select it as the avenue."

What remains to be seen is how much any of these online improvements impact offline life, but changes are in the works that will make technology projects more important. Stanford University has expressed interest in locating a campus on the island, a plan solicited by the New York City Economic Development Corporation as part of the city's desire to stand up another engineering program in the city. Recent research shows that newcomers to a community can use blogs and social media as an easy way in. If the Stanford plan pans out, it stands to reason that a Stanford graduate student in computer science, for example, would go online to get community news — meaning that the relevance of online conversation in that tiny community will only grow.

Alongside this possible change, an initiative, now nearing approval, would lease all 34 stores on the island's Main Street retail corridor to a joint team from Hudson Companies and Related Companies, which are real estate heavy hitters here in New York. The idea here is that Hudson and Related will only have to go through all the bureaucracy that comes with leasing state land just the once, freeing individual sub-lessees from the same hassle and making it easier to fill the drowsy street. (Update: Kalkin points out he's been in a lead role on this initiative for a long time.)

This is where Kalkin's Motorgate scheme comes in. By improving the garage and finding ways to lower the cost of parking, his thinking is that people will use it instead of parking in the street. That frees up parking on Main Street, which makes it more attractive to potential commercial tenants. The cycle then completes, but not until Kalkin and Taylor, from Verdant Power, do something just because they can and it might be cool: Using a state Department of Energy grant, which Kalkin says was recently approved, to pay to make Motorgate ready to accommodate charging stations for electric cars, and a proposal from Verdant Power to scale up its tidal operation to provide more energy to the garage, create a parking scheme that generates a reduction rather than an increase in carbon monoxide.

I asked O'Conor, the blogger, about these plans. He says there are plenty of people on the island who would much rather have a new park bench than a new iPhone app.

"The question is, what's the most important, what's more important in terms of the delivery of municipal services to the population?" he said. At another point in our conversation, one of the island's Red Buses squealed loudly — maybe a busted timing belt? — as it pulled away from a stop. News, he proclaimed, half-joking. "Is it the run of the mill operations of making sure the bus runs, and the streets are cleaned, or is it promoting the technology? Sometimes just talking more about the technology turns people off."

These two issues are interrelated in ways that nobody fully understands. Kalkin wants to use a service called Roadify, which merges official public transportation schedules with user reports of how bus and subway systems are actually working, to take the real-time transportation information and display it in real-time maps at strategic locations, showing trams, buses and subway trains pulsing like blood in Roosevelt Island's veins and arteries — a living map of a living island, and the means for its residents to get moving. And when Vinicius Fortuna, a Google software engineer living on the island, decided he could build a better app for figuring out where the bus is — showing locations on a map rather than arrival times — he just went ahead and built one for Android phones. His app has already attracted a competitor, along with 500 to 1,000 downloads on the Android Market. Fortuna was also recruited by the residents' association for his tech smarts — roping someone into the conversation about how the island should run who, he told me, had no knowledge or interest in it until he was directly invited.

Maybe this is a model for government innovation: Take one guy with a lot of ideas and turn him loose, to a degree, in an environment that's rich with watchdogs, partners like Fortuna, and users who are providing feedback. Or maybe it isn't; many of these plans are still in their early stages, still just plans, although funding is lined up.

"He gets a little carried away with a lot of that stuff," O'Conor told me about Kalkin. "But I'm glad he's trying, to you know, do new things."

Update: O'Conor asked to clarify his "disagreement" with Kalkin on Mitchell-Lama housing on the island:

I think I said that I may disagree with what is going on with the Rivercross Privatizations, there are others, but I have not been able to get enough information about the specific provisions of the Plan. I disagree with the secrecy surrounding it and the lack of transparency in this instance.