Feds & city gear up for Governors Island’s expanded season

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BY ZACH WILLIAMS   |  Governors Island may have a small stature compared to the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan 1,000 yards away, but the value of the East River tract is growing within the local community, National Park Service officials told members of the C.B.1 Financial District Committee on March 5.

A presentation to the committee was just one of several recent efforts by federal and city caretakers of the 172-acre island to inform the public on the current reshaping of the former military installation off the southern tip of Manhattan. Construction of new scenic heights atop the island as well as the introduction of new commercial vendors are underway as officials prepare for the season opening on May 24.

Increased ferry service to seven days, a lengthened season and a dramatic increase in visits from the general public in recent years is also encouraging the park service to aim high with programming beyond the periodic discharge of artillery fire, said Patti Reilly, superintendent of Governors Island National Monument.

“Our tours have been climbing and climbing in terms of people coming out. The popularity is going up. We’ve had a 60 percent increase since 2008,” she told committee members.

The federal park agency manages 22 acres of the island, concentrated around Fort Jay and Castle Williams. The Trust for Governors Island maintains the rest of the island on behalf of New York City, which bought these 150 acres land for $1 in 2003. The Trust is currently spearheading efforts to make the island a destination for activities as diverse as baseball, dining and the enjoyment of panoramic views from the comfort of hammocks.

Also on tap this year is the expansion of the New York Harbor School and a new biking concession further reflect the multifaceted nature of this new incarnation of the historic island, Elizabeth Rapuano, spokesperson for the Trust, wrote in an email to Downtown Express

“In addition to the completion of the new park spaces and construction of the Hills, the Trust is proceeding with an ambitious infrastructure program to ready the island for expanded tenancy and activity,” she wrote. “These projects include repair and replacement of the 2.2 mile seawall, upgrading electric and telecom systems, restoring potable water to the island and stabilizing historic buildings.”

While applications for state alcohol licenses often arouse debate at community board committee meetings, one such application for a new vendor to be located on the uninhabited island faced no such barrier during the meeting March 5.

Memorial Day will mark the opening of 30 new acres of public spaces on the island. In the meantime other potential tenants remain to be approved as well as the permits submitted by community groups to utilize new infrastructure.

Joshua Laird, who became commissioner of national parks of New York Harbor seven months ago, told the committee that managing the island and other sites as famous as the Statue of Liberty and as relatively obscure as the African Burial Ground offers him a unique opportunity.

“One of the reasons I took this job was to take on the challenge that while people know a number of these sites they don’t realize they are national parks,” said Laird, who oversees 22 sites and approximately 27,000 acres of land for N.P.S.

Laird, who previously worked for the city Parks Dept. for 17 years, said “the idea that the park service is just the wide parks of the West isn’t really the case.”

Tourists also bring money to the island and local economy as a whole, Laird added. According to research conducted by U.S. Geological Survey economists and released by N.P.S. on March 4, 348,249 visitors to Governors Island inspired more than $28 million in economic activity in 2012 alone.

While citing such data from the report, N.P.S. officials emphasized that Governors Island serves a purpose beyond generating revenue.

Activities such as historical interpretations by rangers in flat hats attract visitors towards a time when the island played a key role in the coastal defenses of the fledgling United States.

“Imagine yourself in a magazine, someone actually vividly reliving the trials and tribulations of people during that time period… There’s a lot of excitement about what we’re going to be doing this year,” Reilly said.

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