Volume 18 • Issue 40 | February 17 - 23, 2006

Rendering of a proposed aerial gondola linking Governors Island to Lower Manhattan.

That’s 125 million dollars, not lira for this island gondola

By Josh Rogers

Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Dep. Mayor Daniel Doctoroff have tapped renowned architect Santiago Calatrava to design an aerial gondola connecting Governors Island to Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn for even less money than the two, dollar-a-year city officials make.

Calatrava, who already has two projects to reshape Lower Manhattan, may get a chance to do a third if Wednesday’s announcement proves to be the charm and a decade of promises to develop the 172-acre island come to fruition. Calatrava’s work may be gratis but the gondola and cables will not come cheap: $125 million.

“What we are presenting is not only a sketch of a simple idea, it is the result of a maturation,” said Calatrava, who designed the World Trade Center PATH station under construction and a distinctive, 800-foot, condo tower planned for South St. He worked on the gondola design with STV Inc. and Leitner-Poma of America.

Calatrava, whose designs, sketches and sculptures are on exhibit at the Met, said the Sept. 11 attacks drew him to the city from Spain. Though 9/11 was horrific, he said the city also “gained a sense of the tragic” with the attack that gave it a historical significance comparable to three other cities that rebuilt — Jerusalem, Rome and Athens.

On Wednesday, the city and state also announced the release of a request for proposals to develop the island and they hope to select a developer by September and finalize an agreement by the end of the year. An environmental impact statement will take at least a year, and under the most optimistic scenario, construction of the island’s next use could begin by the end of next year. The gondola project will be dependent upon implementing a plan for the island, which the Coast Guard left in 1996 because of high maintenance costs.

Photo image of what the island could look like if you razed all of the buildings outside the historic district.

Many of the same ideas that have been kicking around for Governors were mentioned as possibilities at the announcement: a hotel-conference center, university, museums, historical center and a marina. One third of the island is an historic district made up of buildings and military facilities dating as far back as the Revolutionary War. Under an agreement with the federal government, housing would be prohibited unless it relates directly to the island’s use such as faculty homes for a campus. The new plan for the island will also include a 40-acre park and an esplanade that circles the perimeter.

When the federal government returned Governors to New York for $1 in 2003, Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg toured it together and talked about building a City University of New York campus that would free up room for city high schools.

The mayor said Wednesday the plan was hard to implement because the island’s draw also has costs. “It’s advantage is it is isolated,” Bloomberg said. “That’s also a disadvantage.”

Doctoroff said the city and state have worked hard over the last three years and are finally in a position to turn the island over to a developer. He is chairperson of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, a state-city authority charged with managing and developing the island.

Rob Pirani, executive director of the Governors Island Alliance, said he has concerns the gondola may “cream some of the tourists off the ferry. It may create more demands for subsidizing the ferry service.” Pirani, also a director at the Regional Plan Association, helped start the Alliance 11 years ago in an effort to bring civic groups together to advocate for opening the island to the public.

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
The Admiral’s Quarters Building.
One of the roadblocks has been finding uses that generate enough traffic to keep ferry service affordable, but that allow for open space and historic building preservation. The city and state plan to continue ferry service with the gondola system. The island now opens in the summer on selected days for public use.

Pirani does see appeal in the tram and thinks the best part of the island plan is “the idea of iconic architecture and the idea of creating links on the waterfront.”

The gondola will leave from an area near the Governors I. ferry in the Battery Maritime Building, close to Battery Park, the East River waterfront section that is being renovated and Hudson River Park. It will leave from Downtown Brooklyn at the end of Atlantic Ave., near the southern end of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

It will take four minutes to reach the island from each borough and about 6,000 passengers would be able to get to the island from the tram every hour. Weekdays, it could be a commuter line transporting about 2,000 people an hour from Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan in about 10 minutes if the system went in only one direction during rush hour.

The cables holding the gondola look like a decorative bridge and Calatrava, also an engineer, assured reporters the high, narrow structure could withstand harbor winds. It will not touch the water, which will make it easier to get environmental approvals.

U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who announced an island plan for parks, a hotel/conference center and a biotech lab last year during his mayoral campaign, released a statement Wednesday praising the mayor and governor for focusing on the island but he added that an “elevated gondola as a method for visiting the island would be an expensive and ugly diversion from the common sense travel option — the ferry.”

Pirani, who has attended many Governors Island announcement ceremonies over the years, had a feeling this one might actually happen because of “the focus of the mayor and deputy mayor — making it part of their legacies.”

Doctoroff said everyone he has spoken with agrees “this is an opportunity we will never have again.”



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