Volume 17, Number 45 | April 1 — 7, 2005

Agency begins search for Governors Island ideas

Admiral’s Quarters in Governors Island’s Nolan Park.
Photo by Peter Aaron

By Ronda Kaysen

Call it a coming out party for Governors Island.

The serene teardrop of land, half a mile off of Manhattan’s southern tip, is ready to hear what ideas the private sector has in store. The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, the city and state agency that maintains the property, released a Request for Expressions of Interest for its ward this week and is now waiting for ideas to flood the gates.

“We need to find people who have a passion and vision for this island and can do things that are feasible and do them really soon,” James Lima, GIPEC’s president, said at a Community Board 1 Waterfront Committee meeting this week. “It’s an amazing location, a sleepy little place that so many New Yorkers have never been to.”

The mile-long swath of land, peppered with historic buildings, was once a U.S. military installation from the American Revolution 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.

Ninety-two of its 172 acres are designated as a national historic district, leaving 80 acres available for a variety of uses. After months of planning, GIPEC has released a R.F.E.I. with hopes that developers will consider uses for those precious 80 acres that make the island economically viable.

The agency is also open to ideas for the 22-acre National Monument owned by the National Park Service, the 70-acre GIPEC-owned historic portion of the island, and the Battery Maritime Building on Manhattan’s southern tip, from which Governors Island-bound ferries depart.

“We really think of the island as a whole park that has a lot of really exciting elements,” Lima said, citing a hotel, a restaurant and a business or culinary school as possible future Governors Island residents.

Pretty as it is, the island is in need of serious renovations. It needs an $80 million water system overhaul, including water supplies, sanitary sewers, storm drains, a sea wall, voice data and phase one of a streetscape. This doesn’t include a new marine infrastructure or money for a new public park.

GIPEC is also looking to build a micro tunnel to carry water from Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn to the island. Currently, usable water is pumped in through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which Lima fears will be unreliable as the sole source of water for the island in the case of a catastrophic event. The agency has already spent $200,000 to design for the tunnel, but it has not released an estimate for the cost of the tunnel itself.

Restoration costs do not end with the water supply, however. The 1.5 million sq. ft. of historic buildings on the island also need a structural overhaul, a project with its own multimillion-dollar price tag. None of the buildings have fire systems and many of them are in poor working condition.

Lima does not expect private developers to want to foot the bill for infrastructure. Instead, he has his eyes on public funds for the infrastructure-related costs. “As the story becomes clear, people will see that that these are relatively small numbers,” he said of the restoration costs.

Public money has been trickling in. For the past two years, GIPEC has maintained its operating budget with $32 million from the city and state, funds that will need to be renewed in March 2006. The city and state gave the agency an additional $30 million in capital funding for the next 18 months. That money is earmarked for critical restorations to the historic buildings, particularly the fire systems, Lima said. U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler secured $4 million in federal funds recently for the island.

Although no organization has officially applied yet, some high-profile groups, including the City University of New York, have expressed interest in setting roots off the coast of Manhattan.

Perhaps the most widely publicized applicant is the New Globe Theater, a proposal that includes a $78 million restoration and renovation of Castle Williams, part of the National Monument.

The New Globe Theater proposal would place a Lord Norman Foster-designed adaptation of the original Globe with a glass rooftop in the center of the three-tiered, cylindrical structure. The proposal also includes a day care and education center at the former Post Hospital in the Colonels’ Row District of the island. “The fort on its own may not attract people, but a Norman Foster-designed building is different,” Barbara Romer, the project’s head, told the committee. She hopes the Park Service will cover the $30 million restoration cost for the castle.

R.F.E.I. applications are due in May, although Lima anticipates the deadline may be extended.


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