Governors Island

by Anne Schwartz, July 02, 20021

There is a third island in New York harbor with views just as dramatic as those from the Statue of Liberty, with as much historic significance as Ellis Island, but with none of the millions of visitors of those two islands. Indeed, few people have ever seen it. Governors Island has been off-limits to the public for two centuries. Its last occupant, the U.S. Coast Guard, closed its base there several years ago.

But now the island is poised to become something new. It could become a popular visitor's destination. Or it could be sold to private developers. Its future is as uncertain as its present is unexplored and its past generally unknown.

From Chiefs to Generals to Presidents to a Mayor

Governors Island was originally purchased in 1637 from the Manahatas Indians (for two ax heads, a string of beads, and some nails) for the use of the Dutch governor of New Netherlands. In 1800, New York ceded the island to the United States government, which used it for military purposes because of its strategic value in defending New York harbor.

Three fortifications were built on the island -- the star-shaped Fort Jay (also known as Fort Columbus) on the highest point in the interior, Castle William on a rocky point close by the harbor channels, and South Battery overlooking Buttermilk Channel to Brooklyn. Although no shots were actually fired in war from the island, the fortifications served important military purposes in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and World Wars I and II. It became a Coast Guard base in 1966, and was the largest Coast Guard installation in the country, housing 4,500 people. Among the historic events that took place on the island was the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1988.

The future of Governors Island has been up in the air since 1996, when the Coast Guard decided to consolidate its operations. At one point, Mayor Rudy Giuliani vigorously promoted putting a casino on the island. Seeing the island's potential as a place of history, recreation, open space and tourism, New York legislators and civic groups began pressing the federal government to give the island back to the city to be dedicated to public use.

In 1997, however, Congress directed the General Services Administration to sell the property at a "fair market value" originally estimated at $500 million, and more recently at about $300 million. The sale is supposed to take place in fiscal year 2002, which begins in October of 2001. The General Services Administration continues to maintain the island's buildings, which so far have been kept in good repair, unlike the neglected hospital buildings on Ellis Island. The agency has a Governors Island web site and runs a monthly free tour to the island. The next tour is July 11.

What's There Now

Officially part of Manhattan, Governors Island is located at the mouth of the East River. It covers 173 acres, about half of them created on submerged land built up with fill from the excavation of the Lexington Avenue subway and channel dredging.

In addition to the forts, there are 225 buildings making up a self-sufficient community. City and national historic landmark districts protect the 65 historic structures, including Victorian-era officers' houses surrounding Nolan Park, a grassy sward with huge old trees. There are churches, schools, barracks, a 1,076-foot-long building designed to house and provide offices for an entire regiment, even a Motel 8. The island has tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course, the only golf course in Manhattan. On the newer half of the island are typical 1970s and 1980s-era row houses and apartment buildings plunked down in the middle of flat open space, as well as various services like a gas station and a Burger King.

The very qualities that make Governors Island such a special place - its isolation and harbor location - also add to the costs of development on the island. Any plan for the island's future depends on running ferries, maintaining the island's infrastructure (its docks and seawalls in addition to the buildings, roads, landscape, and water, sewer, gas and electrical systems) and providing services for the people who would live there or visit.

Competing Visions of What Could Be

In 1995, the Governors Island Group was formed by civic-minded New Yorkers, historic preservationists, and those interested in issues of open space and the waterfront. The group advocates for public ownership of the island, full public access including major parks, and uses of the historic buildings that support their preservation and are compatible with public use of the island.

Together with the Regional Plan Association, the group held a town meeting in March of 1997, which was the basis of a proposal and later feasibility studyby the association, an independent planning group. The plan envisioned the island as a public park, visitor destination, and educational resource. It included private uses, like conference facilities and overnight accommodations, that would make the project financially self-sufficient.

When he was asked to comment about the association's proposal, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan revealed that he had made a deal with President Clinton during a helicopter ride over the island. The President offered to help turn over the island to the city for one dollar if the state and city could come up with an acceptable plan for public use. Both Governor George Pataki and Mayor Guiliani were aware of the offer, Senator Moynihan said, but they were "dithering" instead of agreeing on a plan.

Although Mayor Guiliani gave up his casino idea as unrealistic because it would have required a change in the state constitution, a 1999 mayoral task force considered a number of private as well as public uses. Among the proposals were a residential community for 75,000 people and a Tivoli Gardens-style amusement park. The task force endorsed a proposal, from a firm working closely with Columbia University and New York University, that included university housing as well as conference centers, apartments, parkland, and museums.

The state was also working on its own plan.

It took until January of 2000 before Governor Pataki and Mayor Guiliani could agree on an official plan to present to the federal government. A consensus was finally reached on the Governor's plan for a "grand civic space" on the island. That plan calls for a 50-acre park and waterfront esplanade, recreational fields, and an educational center. It designates two sites for branches of major American museums, such as the Guggenheim Museum, which had expressed interest in a sculpture garden on the island.

Among the commercial elements are a large hotel and conference center, offices, restaurants, apartments, and small retail businesses. The historic structures would be preserved. Parkland, recreational fields, and the new museums and other buildings would replace the non-historic buildings on the southern half of the island. A new state agency, the Governors Island Redevelopment Corporation, with appointees of the governor and the mayor, would oversee the island's development.

Remember the Alamo, Please

Although almost everyone coalesced behind the concepts put forth in the Governor's plan, further political conflicts and a reluctance to commit public funding slowed down the process, and Clinton left office before legislation could be passed making good on his promise. In a last-ditch effort, New York's congressional delegation secured a presidential proclamation on Clinton's next-to-last day in office making Castle Williams and Fort Jay a national monument.

The Bush Administration has sent out mixed signals about its intentions for Governors Island. Downtown Express, a lower Manhattan newspaper that has been following the political developments, quoted a spokesperson for Interior Secretary Gale Norton saying that Clinton's designation "will stand." In May, however, the New York Times and New York Observer reported that the administration was developing a legal strategy to reverse the decision. The Justice department issued a memo saying that federal law requires the island to be sold, monument or no monument.

New York lawmakers reacted with outrage. "Remember the Alamo," said Representative Carolyn Maloney, after sending a letter together with Representative Jerrold Nadler to President Bush. "We know you would never consider selling a historic treasure like the Alamo from your state of Texas." The General Services Administration is said to be moving forward with appraisals of the forts as if it were going to sell them.

What's Next?

Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and Representatives Ben Gilman, Maloney, and Nadler again have introduced legislation to turn the island over to the state at a minimal cost. Almost the entire New York House delegation has cosponsored the legislation.

According to Brian Walsh, spokesman for Representative Gilman, discussions are going on behind the scenes to move the bills forward. He said, "The Congressman is working with his colleagues from New York and in the United States Congress to do all the preparatory work in an attempt to get hearings before the Government Reform Committee and bring the measure up for a vote." Walsh noted that the House staff is arranging for committee members to visit the island, calling it a very good sign. "They go up there and it's beautiful. You're standing in the middle of New York harbor -- they get that picture in their head. When we go before the committee, we can say, 'Now you can understand why we're calling this the third jewel of New York harbor.'"

The question that remains, however, is how willing are Congress and the Bush administration to give the island back to New York for free? With the tax cut limiting maneuvering room in the budget, and possible opposition by Western lawmakers, the prospects for passing the legislation are uncertain.

The state has priority in the bidding for the island, and a deal could presumably be worked out. The state recently submitted to the General Services Administration a detailed breakdown of the private and public costs of its January 2000 plan, as well as the expected income. The figures showed that public subsidies would be required, and therefore the state wouldn't be making money on the deal -- thus supporting the state's contention that the government should give back the island for free. But the state hasn't made a binding commitment to its plan, a guarantee that the island would be used for public purposes, as requested by the agency. Governor Pataki's press office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Governors Island advocates say that more political muscle is needed. "Are the governor and mayor going to put their shoulders to the wheel and really make this thing happen?" said Roger Lang, director of public affairs for the New York Landmarks Conservancy. According to Robert Pirani, environmental director of the Regional Plan Association, Governor Pataki genuinely cares about parks and historic buildings, but he has yet to make it a priority. "We've been urging that the governor take the lead," he said. "We need a handshake deal between George Pataki and George Bush similar to the deal between Moynihan and Clinton."

So the fate of Governors Island remains, as it has been for years, in limbo. Perhaps one reason is that so few people have actually visited the island. It is an abstraction, not something that voters care passionately about. Nancy Owens, who chairs the waterfront committee on lower Manhattan's Community Board 1, has long supported recreational and other public use for Governors Island. She noted that Governors Island doesn't look as fascinating from a distance. But if people started to visit the island, they would be fighting for it as hard as the soldiers and sailors stationed there fought for America.