Called Blackwell Island beginning in the 18th century, this 147-acre, two-mile-long island in the East River was sold to the City of New York in 1828. It became home for the city’s poor, housed within quarantined hospitals, alms houses, a lunatic asylum and a penitentiary, warranting the name Welfare Island in 1921.
By 1961 the island was desolate, and Victor Gruen proposed an urban renewal scheme to transform the neglected island into a residential enclave. In 1969 the city established a 99-year lease with the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), who adopted a master plan devised by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. The plan envisioned a new town model of two medium-density residential clusters – Northtown and Southtown – interspersed with public spaces, and also addressed infrastructure, transportation, retail areas, civic institutions, schools, and hospitals. The Office of Dan Kiley and Zion & Breen were hired to study roads and open space in the pedestrian-focused scheme.
The plan was completed within eight years, and included mid- and high-rise apartment and commercial blocks designed by well-known architects. Parks were integral to the overall plan, with Blackwell Park designed by Kiley, the Promenades designed by Zion & Breen, and Lighthouse Park designed by Nicholas Quennell Associates. Several nineteenth-century landmarks were also restored and preserved. In 1973 the island was renamed for Franklin D. Roosevelt, during which time Louis Kahn was commissioned to design a memorial park honoring Roosevelt’s four freedoms speech, which was not completed until 2012. Today, the island is home to more than 14,000 residents.