Volume 16 • Issue 40 | March 5 - 11, 2004

Governors Island president meets with C.B. 1

By Syd Steinhardt

Much is in store, but much is still uncertain, for the future of Governors Island.

That was the message of the head of the new organization overseeing the island’s redevelopment in an appearance before Community Board 1’s waterfront committee a week ago.

In a slide presentation, James Lima, president of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, updated the committee on planning for the island’s future, a process that is already underway and will continue through spring 2005.

A teardrop of land one half mile from Manhattan’s southern tip, Governors Island was a U.S. military installation from Revolutionary times until the U.S. Coast Guard closed its base there in 1996. After protracted negotiations, the federal government sold it to the state and city of New York for one dollar on January 31, 2003.

The state and the city then created GIPEC to guide the island’s redevelopment. Ninety-two of its 172 acres are designated as a national historic district, leaving 80 acres available for a variety of uses that have yet to be determined. Those uses must make the island economically viable while retaining its historic and civic character.

“The whole island is a park,” said Lima, a former New York City Economic Development Corporation official who was appointed to his post in July by Mayor Bloomberg. “It will just have other things in it.”

Lima reports to a 12-member board headed by Randy Daniels, one of Gov. Pataki’s six appointees and the secretary of state in New York. The mayor appoints the other six members.

One feature of the redeveloped island will be a permanent exhibition highlighting its history. Lima said that researchers combing through the island’s archives in New York and Washington have unearthed letters written by George Washington. He also screened a photograph of Wilbur Wright in one of his flying machines attempting to take off from the island.

Lima also showed a series of overhead and ground-level photographs of the island in its current state. They displayed existing facilities, such as historic Castle Williams and Fort Jay, along with open spaces and vistas of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.

There are 62 buildings with one and a half million square feet of space on the island that can be converted for other uses, he said. One such building is Liggett Hall, a McKim, Mead & White structure completed in 1930. A former barracks that housed as many as 1,375 soldiers, Liggett Hall can be used for a conference center, a hotel, or a variety of purposes.

In addition, the City University of New York has expressed an interest in locating its Honors College on the island, he said.

The rest of the island could host a wide menu of events, and Lima emphasized the desire to keep as much of it open to as many people as possible.

“We want to come up with ways to say yes to public access,” said Lima.

Lima said that he hopes to quadruple the number of walking tours that the corporation currently offers. He also foresaw bicycle paths, concerts, artist studios and even cross-country skiing in the future of what he called the “idyllic retreat.” Asked about future retail development, Lima, who moved his six-person staff to the island a few months ago, replied, “first we’d like a sandwich shop.”

The island is in the C.B. 1 territory, but Brooklyn’s C.B. 6, citing its closer proximity to the island, passsed a resolution in November asking the mayor to transfer the island to Brooklyn. But C.B. 1 counters that the island has been part of Mahattan since 1783 and was sold to the Dutch by the Manhattas Indians, who also sold Manhattan. In addition, the ferry to Governors leaves from Lower Manhattan. The territorial dispute did not come up at last week’s meeting.

Questioned by C.B.1 members after his formal presentation, which members seemed to like, Lima admitted that he did not know where the money for any proposals that may arise will come from, since the corporation’s three-year $30 million budget does not include a separate capital budget. He said that he could tap federal funds for infrastructure improvements and maintenance for facilities such as the ferry slips. Currently, the world’s largest crane is driving piles into the existing slips to accommodate the current fleet, each of which can carry 499 passengers but can be upgraded to carry 1,100. He also said that the island was eligible for Liberty Bonds.

Despite the obstacles, Lima drew a grand comparison in describing the project he is charged with nurturing.

“We’re creating the next Central Park in New York Harbor,” he said.


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