Volume 18 • Issue 24 | Oct. 28 - Nov. 3, 2005

Downtown Express file photo by Talisman Brolin

Episcopal church on Governors Island

Planning for Governors Island continues its slow drift

By Daniel Wallace

Governors Island from an aerial view within New York Harbor looks like a flattened ice-cream cone. But to many New Yorkers awaiting the island’s development, it looks more like the lone piece of a puzzle that has been abandoned.

The 172-acre former Coast Guard base, whose sprawling lawns, historic buildings and breathtaking views have been mostly off-limits to the public for so long (204 years) that many are unaware of its presence, was transferred by the federal government to New York State and City in 2003 amongst a buzz of general excitement.

But for some, that excitement has turned to frustration.

“There’s all this talk about the future of the island,” said Michael Fishman, an adjunct professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. “But in the meantime we’re giving away its present. And we’ve been doing that for a long time.”

Paul Kelly, the interim president of Governors Island Preservation Education Corporation (GIPEC), which currently owns 150-acres of the island and is responsible for its development, said he is aware of this sentiment and wants to see the island opened for public use as soon as possible.

“We know we need to get the island moving,” he said. “It will take between $217 million and $368 million just to rebuild its infrastructure and we need the state and city to commit to a large portion of that.”

In order to secure community involvement GIPEC has scheduled a number of public information sessions to discuss the planning process. At an Oct. 19 meeting at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Kelly outlined the planning work accomplished thus far.

“In March of this year, GIPEC issued a Request for Expressions of Interest,” Kelly said. “And we received over 90 responses.”

Kelly said developers, investors and commercial and non-profit organizations responded to the request with proposals for the National Historic Landmark District, which encompasses the northern end of the island and the 22-acre National Monument owned by the National Park Service; the 80-acre southern portion of the island, all of whose buildings according to GIPEC bear no historic significance and will be torn down; and the Battery Maritime Building, which will be the primary port of entrance from Lower Manhattan.

“But we really have no idea, at this point, what the end-product will look like,” Kelly said. “The process for development is set, but the results of that process are far from determined.”

Kelly said the process includes the drafting of a general project plan and a preliminary infrastructure plan, which will be accomplished by January 2006; a Request for Proposals in February, for which they hope to receive responses by May 2006; more public information sessions and meetings; an environmental review that will take between 12 and 18 months; and finally, by the end of 2007 or the beginning of 2008, they’ll be ready to sign leases and begin development.

But the length of this process has caused many community activists to clamor for the opening of the island for interim public use.

“I think we should get people using as much of the island as soon as possible,” Fishman said. “I want to see kids playing soccer, people walking the lawns, the activation of the ball fields — just people there.”

Although GIPEC has been allocated $30 million for initial work by the City and Sate Fishman believes the government needs to commit to much more.

“It probably takes between $8 million and $12 million just to keep the island from falling apart,” he said. “So no significant restoration has taken place.”

Robert Pirani, the executive director of Governors Island Alliance, a civic coalition that includes over 100 organizations, agrees.

“You know, coming to planning meetings about Governors Island is a little like déjà vu all over again,” said Pirani, who is also with the Regional Plan Association. “We want to see the mayor and governor commit to $200 million to build the park space that they promised to build years ago.”

Dan Doctoroff, New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development who has been appointed GIPEC’s chairperson, said Mayor Bloomberg is making Governors Island a top priority of his second term — assuming there is one, he added lightheartedly.

“We are ready to move forward with a sense of urgency that you don’t often see from government,” Doctoroff said.

At the Oct. 19 meeting Doctoroff called Governors an “island in the center of the world…. But I won’t mislead anyone. This is not going to be easy. Development of an island poses unique challenges.”

After Doctoroff’s speech a slide show on the projection screen behind the platform outlined four conceptual models of the island’s potential development. The models varied drastically.

The Minimum Build Island represented a leafy cultural development project in which the southern portion of the island is landscaped but left completely undeveloped and the northern historic district is renovated.

The Destination Island was a Disney-esque theme island whose main purpose would be tourism. It was compared to Futuroscope in France and Ontario Place in Toronto.

The Iconic Island was a vaguely-described proposal compared to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and Millennium Park in Chicago. In this model the sea-wall at the island’s south-eastern tip was broken to create a wetland area for research and water sports, like kayaking.

The Innovation Island suggested that Governors Island host a technology center for applied ideas and institutions of research and development.

“But these are just suggestions,” Kelly said. “And no matter what, with the parks and the esplanade, it will always be our goal that Governors Island be a public place.”

Members of Community Board 1 have expressed support for an interpretive center, ballfields and active recreation, and interest in the idea of building a replica of the Globe Theatre in Castle William.

Kelly said certain aspects of the island’s development are non-negotiable. There will be an esplanade around the island’s perimeter. No private vehicles will be allowed on the island and there will be no permanent, private residential developments (timeshares are okay). There will be no casinos. And the island will be public, unique, eco-friendly and economically sustainable.

After the Oct. 19 meeting members of the audience came forward to the microphones in the aisles and asked questions and stated their concerns. An amateur architectural historian who is a member of Governors Island Alliance, and who introduced herself as Lynn, said it was imperative to renovate the island in consistency with its historical architecture.

“Well, the north island is a historic district that will not be meddled with,” Kelly responded. “And if we do go for a different feel in the south island, it doesn’t mean the architecture won’t be good.”

“Well, with all due respect I disagree with you,” Lynn said. “Good is in the eye of the beholder. And I don’t know why you’d even consider a Disney World type thing.”

Despite sharp disagreements Kelly said he is optimistic about the planning process.

“We have a great team on board,” he said. “We have support from the mayor’s office and from the state; and we’re ready to push ahead.”

Fishman said he is hopeful for the future, but not optimistic.

“I’m not optimistic that we’re making the most of it,” he said. “Because we would have already been doing this. What can we open now? That’s what we should be asking.”


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