Pay to play: Governors Island Trust wants to develop park to pay bills

The Trust for Governors Island seeks a rezoning of the island idyl to all for the development of research and educational institutions, as well as hotels and a convention center.
Associated Press / Mark Lennihan

BY COLIN MIXSON

The city wants to transform Governors Island into an education, research, and hospitality hub, and is seeking Council permission to lease out more than 30-acres of seaside property in a bid to pay the island park’s increasingly pricey operating fees, according to the isle’s head honcho.

“Our goal is to be financially self-sufficient,” said Michael Samuelian, president of the Trust for Governors Island.

The Trust for Governors Island — a non-profit organization steered largely by Mayor de Blasio appointees — has worked to transform the 172-acre former U.S. Coast Guard base into an idyllic playland for New Yorkers since the city takeover in 2010, and the trust presided over the opening of more than 30 acres of parkland and public spaces in 2014, in addition to a series of highly vaunted, landscaped hills rising more than 70 feet above sea level in 2016.

But the snazzy island greenspace doesn’t pay for itself, and taxpayers are currently paying the lion’s share of a $20-million budget that only accounts for a 6-month season, which the trust hopes to expand into a year-round operation that will see costs likely double, according to Samuelian.

“It’s a theoretical number, but I can tell you it would at least double if we became 24/7, 365-days a year,” Samuelian said.

In an effort to relieve tax payers — as well as entertain them — the trust is pursuing a scheme to redevelop some 4.5 million square feet of land along the island’s southern coast, while working within the confines of a federal deed restriction that prevents the construction of purely residential buildings, such as condominiums.

Instead, the island’s stewards envision a scholarly application for its relatively virgin coast, and is preparing to begin the public review process for a rezoning that would permit the construction of research and lab spaces, and academic institutions complimented by dorm rooms and faculty housing, which are permitted under the residential deed restrictions.

The trust — which controls 150 acres of the island — is also pursuing a secondary use for the development space for use as hotels, a conference center, and privately operated recreation facilities, which in the area surrounding Yankee Piers could rise up to 300 feet tall.

The upcoming redevelopment push follows a 2013 rezoning that will allow the reuse of 1.35 million square feet of 50 existing historic buildings located on the north-side of the island, all or most of which will be rented out by the trust for office and classroom use, or housing for students.

The trust is currently gearing up to compile an environmental impact statement in advance of a public review process expected to begin in March next year. Representatives will be meeting with members of Community Board 1 on Sept. 13, and hosting a public scoping hearing at the Battery Maritime Building on Sept. 26, where locals will have an opportunity to testify and voice any concerns they have about the project.

If all goes according to plan, City Council will vote on the rezoning before the end of 2019, and, if approved, the trust will begin issuing requests for proposals in 2020.

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2 Responses to Pay to play: Governors Island Trust wants to develop park to pay bills

  1. This commercial development of this park land, something that goes back to a Giuliani/Pataki plan may not be what the community desires. President Clinton, upon transitioning the Island from the military to the City, appeared not to want this at all: it was to be simply a park for public enjoyment. If capital is needed, one might look to the Central Park Conservancy for guidance.

  2. Governors Island was never going to be commercialized. Lets stick to that plan.
    Vince McGowan,

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