Roosevelt Island Gambles on a Brighter Future

People walk along the Roosevelt Island Main Street east corridor on a Saturday afternoon. (Hezi Jiang/NYCityLens)

People walk along the Roosevelt Island Main Street east corridor on a Saturday afternoon. (Hezi Jiang/NYCityLens)

Last January 22, A Person of Interest film crew dressed Main Street on Roosevelt Island to look like a scene in East Berlin. The cold concrete architecture and the depressing atmosphere made the transformation very easy. Good Shepherd Plaza became Leipziger Platz, and the Trellis Diner was turned into an outdoor Berlin coffee bar.

“It’s sad how easily they were able to make it look like East Berlin,” Pop Culture Brain said on its website, “but it’s even more sad that it looks better as East Berlin.”

It would be much harder to shoot that scene on the island today.

Good Shepherd Plaza is undergoing a makeover. Landscapers started to plant the flowers in the soil last week, and new wooden and stone benches will be installed soon. “There was absolutely nothing. Nothing. Not a flower, not a plant,” said the initiator of the makeover project Vicki Feinmel, a resident of the island since 1984. “I was so desperate for improvement. I knew that this area got so much potential.”

Next to the plaza, Trellis Diner is encased in wood, as if in a big box. The owner, Kaie Razaghi is doing a big renovation — 17 years after the diner’s opening. “Number one, the restaurant is old. A lot of things are falling apart. Number two, a lot of things are happening on the island—New people, new school, new buildings going up!”

Razaghi is one of the Island leading changers. With the news that Cornell University is opening a new campus on the island, and a new building of Riverwalk Residence with 1,050 units is finishing up, positive changes on the Main Street corridor are starting to pick up.

Efforts to revitalize the island began five years ago when Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the landlord of the retail corridor, published a 54- page detailed study on how to make the Main Street retail strip vibrant. Following a suggestion, on August 1, 2011, the corporation entered into a Master Sublease Agreement with Hudson Related Retail LLC, the new developer, to redevelop and operate all the retail spaces on the Main Street, a total of 34 storefronts. “We want it to be Main Street U.S.A.!” said Arianna Saks-Rosenberg of Hudson Related.

Hudson Related had brought in a Subway sandwich shop, an ice cream store, and a greengrocer in the past three years. The greengrocer, Wholesome Factory has become the most popular shop on the island. Larraine Lasker, who has lived on the island for 37 years, said, “Best thing that happened on the island is the organic market Wholesome Factory. The scallions, you can’t get it anywhere else: two bunches for a dollar!”

Hudson Related just signed on with an urgent care medical facility in July. And on October 13, a liquor store, Island Wine & Spirits, just had its soft opening, after residents had been asking for a wine shop for years.

Hudson Related has also signed new leases with old tenants, such as Trellis Diner and Gristedes Supermarket. Residents used to complain about the price, the food quality, and the shopping experience at Gristedes all the time, but since the opening after a 3-months renovation, many residents agreed that Gristedes is doing a better job. Mike Rivera, the grocery manager said, “People will never be happy, but they are definitely happier.”

Besides the stores that are going through transformations, the corridor itself has had cosmetic renovations. Hudson Related had invested more than 2.4 million dollars on developing the Main Street as of December 31, 2013, according to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation 2014 Annual Report. New ceiling, new benches, new doors, new signage, and new LED lightings are installed, making the strip starts to look like a modern town.

The past three years were not easy for Hudson Related. In May 2012, The company’s principle David Kramer told The New York Times that an additional eight leases are expected to be signed within the next six months, which might include ethnic restaurants, a bakery, a pet store, a florist, and a shoe-repair shop. However, none of those deals ever happened. “There were several businesses we got very far down the pipe, but didn’t work out,” said Hudson’s Saks-Rosenberg. There are still five vacant stores that wait to be signed.

Hal Shapiro, managing director of Winick Realty Group, which does retail leasing, said the problem is that many people don’t really know the island. He needs to explain things about it, such as its beautiful scenery with open space and parks, its population and economic increase and in the past years with finished new residential buildings, and its potential growth since Cornell is coming. And most importantly, he pointed out, that the island is underserved. He said, now he is talking with three potential tenants—a Thai restaurant, a daycare center, and a bank, asking for 50 dollars per square feet.

“Things are happening,” said Shapiro. Saks-Rosenberg agrees. Five years ago the Main Street Retail Study said that Roosevelt Island residents do just 12% of their shopping on the Island, she said, “and now people start to really shop on the island and go to the stores, which was not the case two years ago. ”

However, many residents are still used to their off-the-Main-Street shopping habits. Rachelle Sumersford orders from Fresh Direct online, Fidel Lakew walks across the bridge to the Costco in Queens and gets a cab back, and Dorothy Jefferies goes to Fairway and Agata on Manhattan Island by public transportation.

Will the reviving Main Street be able to gain these customers, people it has lost for years or decades? Will the corridor be attractive for Cornell students and faculties? What will make the people from South part of the town, where the new Riverwalk building and Cornell will be located, come to the Main Street corridor rather than hop on the train or tram that’s closer?

Nobody knows. But one thing for sure, the better every shop is, the better chance everybody would succeed.

Kaie Razaghi and his son Alex come to the island every day from Astoria to work on the renovation of Trellis Diner. He was excited and proud of what he is doing. “We are gonna provide a restaurant dining experience,” said Razaghi. “Now I only have three different burgers. I will have eight when I open up. When I say eight, I don’t mean eight beef burgers with different toppings; I mean eight different meats!”

Razaghi hopes people will come to the Main Street for what he is doing—the modern design of the storefront, the new menu, and the dining experience. “I haven’t been making money for the past two years. It’s either take the money and go buy somewhere else, or put the money in, and take a chance. I put the money in here, and take a chance.”