Volume 22, Number 38 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 29 - February 4, 2010
Mayor: Move terror trials, but Gov. Isle is dumb
By Julie Shapiro with Josh Rogers
The effort to move the 9/11 terror trials out of Lower Manhattan gained momentum this week, after Community Board 1 catapulted the issue into the spotlight.
Julie Menin, chairperson of C.B. 1, is fighting for alternative locations for the trials, including Governors Island and military sites elsewhere in New York State, such as the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Bureau of Prisons jail complex at FCI Otisville.
Menin called the federal government’s plan to hold the trials at 500 Pearl St. “so outrageous that it just defies common sense.” She is worried about the $200 million annual security cost and the quality-of-life impact on the nearby residents and businesses.
Just two weeks ago, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s plan to put the accused terrorists on trial Downtown looked like a done deal, and few elected officials or Menin were speaking out against it. Last month, Borough President Scott Stringer told Chinatown activists that it was unrealistic to fight the trial location and they should focus their energy on making the best of it.
But after Menin started pushing for Governors Island last week, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Thursday that he was “certainly open to that suggestion.” Menin said she has spoken to several federal officials who are interested in moving the trials, and U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other local elected officials also urged the city to study Governors Island last week.
However, Mayor Mike Bloomberg nixed the idea almost immediately, saying last week that it was “one of the dumber ideas” he’s ever heard.
The mayor made the comment, first reported by DowntownExpress.com last week, at a Gracie Mansion meeting Jan. 21 with about a dozen newspaper publishers, including John W. Sutter, publisher of Downtown Express and other Community Media newspapers.
Local elected officials and community activists immediately challenged the mayor’s remarks, which were quickly picked up by other media outlets.
“It’s not a dumb idea — it’s a really smart idea,” City Councilmember Margaret Chin said of the Governors Island move. “Our neighborhood cannot suffer anymore.”
Nadler, Silver, Chin and State Sen. Daniel Squadron released a statement calling the mayor’s comments “callous” and saying he “demonstrates a lack of sensitivity and understanding for the significant toll the trial may exact on the residents and small businesses of Lower Manhattan.”
Perhaps in response to the mounting pressure, Bloomberg told reporters Wednesday that moving the trial to a different location outside of Lower Manhattan would be a good idea.
“It would be great if the federal government could find a site that didn’t cost a billion dollars, which using Downtown will,” Bloomberg said. “It’s going to cost an awful lot of money and disturb an awful lot of people.”
A Bloomberg spokesperson said Wednesday that the N.Y.P.D. had already determined Governors Island would not work, and the final decision is up to the federal government. Last week, the mayor said he opposed putting the trials on the island because the New York Harbor High School is moving in this September, and long-term plans call for the entire island to be developed as recreational space.
But Menin said Lower Manhattan also has schools and recreational space near the courthouse at 500 Pearl St., and she thinks there is room for a trial on Governors Island’s 172 acres.
Since Governors Island may wind up being unfeasible even if the mayor decides to study it, Menin also floated additional alternatives this week. Her suggestions are all military or federal sites, which means they already have high security. The other sites, West Point, Stewart Air Base and the Otisville federal prison, are all within the Southern District of New York. Holder chose to locate the trial in the Southern District because he said that is where the crime of 9/11 occurred.
Bloomberg told reporters Wednesday that putting the trials on a military base “is probably a reasonably good one,” because the bases are outside of cities and a trial there would not be so disruptive.
In a unanimous resolution Tuesday night, C.B. 1 urged city and federal officials to study Governors Island and the other sites and requested a meeting with Holder. Before the vote, the board heard from a couple dozen residents who are upset about the trials being held Downtown.
“This is a political move at our expense,” said Toby Turkel, former president of the Chatham Towers Board. “It’s unfair — and I think it’s criminal in and of itself.”
The residents were concerned about the security plans Ray Kelly recently announced, which would put a “hard zone” immediately around the courthouse, enclosing Chatham Towers and Chatham Green in metal barriers and posting sharpshooters on nearby roofs. A larger “soft zone” would extend from Canal St. to Frankfort St. and from the Bowery to Broadway, and would be patrolled heavily by officers.
Jan Lee, a member of the Civic Center Residents Coalition, said the security would scare undocumented immigrants away from Chinatown, keeping them from social services they need.
Bloomberg acknowledged last Thursday that the trials in Lower Manhattan would bring more hardship to the Park Row area and said he has asked Kelly repeatedly about the feasibility of reopening the street. Kelly has kept the street closed to protect One Police Plaza. The federal courthouse and detention center where the 9/11 terror suspects will likely be held and tried are across the street from police headquarters.
Silver is scheduled to hold a private meeting with Kelly, a few community board members and some of the affected residents on Friday.
Although C.B. 1 unanimously supported moving the trials out of Lower Manhattan, some board members worried that putting them on Governors Island would ruin the island’s quiet, bucolic environment. And Allan Tannenbaum, a board member, said he favored a military tribunal for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the four other accused terrorists, rather than a federal trial.
“The terrorists are given the rights of citizens and the citizens are treated like terrorists,” Tannenbaum said, referring to the planned security measures.
Another point of contention at Tuesday night’s meeting was who came up with the idea of Governors Island in the first place. Alan Gerson, who left his City Council seat Jan. 1, may have been the first to give public voice to the idea at community meeting in early December. Back then, Menin was arguing that the trial should be held in the federal courts of Lower Manhattan, at the scene of the crime.
Marc Ameruso, a C.B. 1 member who also voiced support for moving the trial to Governors Island last fall, Ameruso said in an email that he discussed the island site with Gerson a few months ago. He criticized Menin for being late to join the cause at the Tuesday night meeting.
“To me, it was self-evident from the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t need people from the community to come out and tell me.”
Menin said she changed her mind after finding out that security for a Lower Manhattan trial would cost at least $200 million a year, which she said is too much to spend in a recession and indicates that the location may not be safe. She was also concerned after homeland security flaws were revealed in the attempted Christmas attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
But most of the vitriol at Tuesday’s meeting was directed toward the mayor and his “dumber” comment. The meeting happened before the mayor voiced his support for moving the trials outside of the city altogether.
“I think the mayor owes our community an apology,” said John Fratta, chairperson of the Seaport/Civic Center Committee, of the mayor’s refusal to consider Governors Island. “What he told us is: Drop dead.”
Another unpopular move of the mayor’s is to cut community board budgets by 4 percent in the current fiscal year.
“Now that,” board member Paul Hovitz said, “is a dumb idea.”