Isle Fly Away

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A prophetic chronicler of Governors Island warned in 1913 of the danger of allowing the anomalous small island in New York harbor to “sink to a level of mere commercialism.” It took 85 years, but now, as the federal government hurries to rid itself of ownership of the long-time military base, local politicians are distancing themselves from the debate and “mere commercialism” is rearing its head.

Since the 1770s, Governors Island has been a quiet military base closed to the public. But two years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard decided to shut down operations on the 172-acre property, leaving the federal General Service Administration (GSA) to seek out a new owner. GSA is looking first to see if there is a federal, state or city agency willing to maintain the island for public use. If it can’t, however, the property could go on the block for private sale sometime in the next few years.

Having escaped the dense urban development that characterizes most of the five boroughs, the island’s open space, commanding views and harbor location have inspired numerous ideas about its future use, including an historical museum, the 2008 Olympic Village, tourist and veterans’ accommodations or a university campus.

Responding to the overwhelming call by community groups in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn for greater access to open space, the Regional Plan Association, a foundation- and corporate-funded planning group, has instead proposed transforming the island into a harbor park.

Resulting from an early-spring, three-day brainstorming session of design professionals, park managers, real estate experts and community leaders, RPA’s plan envisions a grand lawn, ball fields, an amphitheater, marina and waterfront promenade, as well as restaurants, guest houses and facilities for nonprofit organizations.

The conversion of hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space to residential use in Tribeca and the Wall Street area, combined with Battery Park City’s eventual completion make the need for park land acute, explains Paul Goldstein, district manager of Community Board 1. “Lower Manhattan has a very fast-growing community, and we don’t have these facilities,” he says.

Along with the city and other local agencies, the community board hired the Urban Land Institute, a group that creates and evaluates urban redevelopment plans, to explore prospects for the island. Last October, the institute determined that revenue from hotels, conference centers and historically-based entertainment could generate sufficient income to sustain the park. Additionally, RPA’s preliminary analysis predicts an economic boost to adjacent communities.


Creating a plan is the easy part, however. Getting it off the ground is another matter. RPA has discussed its park proposal with city officials. But Robert Pirani, director of environmental programs at the organization, says the city’s attitude has been uncooperative. Officials simply tell him, “We’re handling it.”

Yet city and state leadership on the issue has been nonexistent, charge frustrated community and civic groups. “The city has been working in a vacuum,” criticizes Goldstein. “It makes sense to form an enti-ty to oversee Governors Island, but we need political leadership to step forward or we’re going to lose a tremendous opportunity.’

Manhattan’s East Side Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney, and a handful of others have suggested creating a public nonprofit agency modeled after the Battery Park City Authority to run the island, Strategy and management decisions would come from a joint group of city, state and federal representatives.

But the city won’t even discuss the island’s future or Maloney’s suggestion unless there’s a promise of federal cash to cover maintenance and operating costs. At a July congressional hearing, Deputy Mayor Randy Levine said he thought it was more appropriate for Washington to make the city an offer that included maintenance aid for the island, rather than the federal government expecting the city to come up with a plan.

Although GSA estimates a $10 million yearly price tag for minimum maintenance and ferry access, in March the Department of City Planning estimated it would cost $25 million to $30 million for full public access and ferry service–and Levine recently pegged the figure at closer to $40 million. “The issue is who pays for it,” says Craig Muraskin, an aide to the mayor. “The federal government should provide resources to help redevelop the island. We cannot do a thing until then.”

Given the city and state’s unwillingness to assume any liability for the island, a self-sus-taining plan may more easily garner support. The City Club, a venerable civic group that seeks to promote efficient government, will soon propose a model based on a Greenwich Village-scaled residential community that includes profitable uses, such as land leases, retail and historic attractions, while leaving the central space open and accessible to the public. “We’re convinced we can make something that’s self-sustaining,” says Craig Whitaker, an architect and adviser for the group.


Already, political stalling has been costly. While the Clinton Administration informally made an offer to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, proposing that the city or state buy the property for one dollar if it went to public use, a June congressional budget resolution puts the island’s asking price at $500 million. Congress wants the property sold in 2002–a gimmick to help Congress meet its commitment to balance the federal budget. Now, getting a better deal or an earlier sell date will require additional legislation.

At that price, the city’s hopes of finding a buyer, even a private developer, may be slim. “There is absolutely no one in the world that we’ve met with that thinks that number [$500 million] is realistic,” says Muraskin. As a result, City Hall has put its search for a buyer on hold. “The city is not pursuing anything. We have no plan. This is a federal process. They’re in charge.”

Meanwhile, GSA will begin an environmental impact statement process this fall to decide whether to keep the island or sell it off. The agency had originally planned to transfer ownership as soon as next fall, after the LIS is completed. But Congress complicated those plans.

Yet despite city and state officials’ arguments that an island park may not be feasible, many observers remain optimistic. “What if people had said that about Central Park?” asks Congressman Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Governors Island. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Gian-Claudia Sciara is a Manhattan-based writer on land-use and transportation issues.

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