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Will the political pirates, please, stop squabbling and give us our treasure island?

By Carter B. Horsley

On March 27,  1997, Thomas J. Lueck reported on the front page of The New York Times that the transfer of control of Governors Island from the Federal Government to New York for $1 was stalled and that unless the city and state acted soon the property might be sold to the highest bidder, "presumably for large-scale, profit-making development."

The report also said that the Regional Plan Association was issuing a study that called for the preservation of the southern half of the former home of the U.S. Coast Guard for parks and that the remainder should not be intensely developed.

The May 12, 1997 edition of The New York Observer reported that the "City Pursues Turning Governors Island Into Ye Olde Tourist Trap," adding that a city governmental source had said that the city had hired Ernst & Young, an accounting and consulting firm, to study some proposals for the island's future, including one that would create a Colonial New York theme park utilizing some of the island's historic properties.

The article by Devin Leonard was the off-lead of the weekly paper and gushed that the island's pending sale was "an event that has been described as the biggest real estate deal in and around Manhattan since the development of Central Park," overlooking such trifles as Roosevelt Island and Battery Park City.

As a military site, the small island off the tip of Lower Manhattan and close to the Brooklyn shore has been off-limits to the public for more than two centuries. Ferries run to it from a very handsome terminal just to the east of Lower Manhattan's Staten Island Ferry Terminal, which is scheduled for rebuilding (see The City Review's article).

It is imperative that the city and state act quickly to accept the Federal transfer despite the fact that Lueck of The Times wrote that Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter said that a $25 million cost of maintaining ferry service would be too high a price tag for New Yorkers to bear alone.

Her comments indicate a terrible lack of planning acumen and a lack of dedication to the public good of the city. Would she suggest that New Jersey pick it up for $2 dollars and boast that New York saved a dollar?  Is she not aware of New Jersey's interest in the harbor?  (See The City Review's article on Ellis Island.)

The Regional Plan Association's perspective is much more civic-minded, but also short-sighted. Lueck reported:

"Officials of the Regional Plan Association said they feared that pressure would mount to create a huge new residential enclave like Roosevelt Island on the East River. That, they said, would severely overburden ferryboats to Governors Island and cut down on access by people who want to use the island for recreation."

Well, a huge residential enclave built like the ugly, unimaginative and horrible development on the former Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) beneath the Queensborough Bridge would be outrageous, as Governors Island is an even more fantastic site because it boasts magnificent vistas not only of the Lower Manhattan skyline, but also of the Statue of Liberty and the East River bridges, Staten Island and even New Jersey.

It is a once-a-century opportunity that cannot be wasted on petty political grand-standing, or incompetent planning, or petty economics.

Governors Island is a rare chance for the city administration to make its statement for the next millenium.

There are some nice old buildings here that should be kept: Fort Jay, Castle William and some Georgian-style buildings, and a lot that are non-descript and disposable. The northern half of the island, with most of the nicer buildings, is an official New York City historic district, but the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which oversees such districts, has plenty of precedents for alterations and even demolitions within such districts.

Much of the island, known by the Mannahatas Indians as "Pagganck" and as Nutten Island during the Dutch settlement of the area because of its plentiful nut trees, can and should be used for recreational purposes as the Regional Plan Association advocates.

There is, however, no reason why something sensational should not be created on the 173-acre island.  The southern tip of the island is almost as far into the harbor as the Statue of Liberty.

One possible solution would be to create a modern monument that would pay homage and not detract from the Statue of Liberty and the Lower Manhattan skyline, but also serve as a fitting memorial, say, to all who have passed though the city as the quintessential place of freedom and creativity in the world.

Such a monument need not drain public funds, although City Planning Commission Chairman Joseph B. Rose was quoted April 1, 1997, in The New York Times as saying that "Just to maintain the historic buildings and infrastructure on Governors Island would cost somewhere between $30 million and $60 million a year, and the city is not in a position to make that kind of expenditure."  Rose said the city expects to have a plan for the island before the end of the 1997.  The Coast Guard was expected to vacate the island that summer, and The New York Times reported April 19, 1997, that New York University was interested in using some of the island for athletic fields, student housing and possibly classrooms.  Mr. Rose was quoted as saying that the university's plans "would have to be made in conjunction with another use."

The New York Observer article contained some rather strange quotes from leading preservationists.  Brendon Sexton, then president of the Municipal Art Society (see The City Review's article on a major book on the august civic organization), warned, properly, that "it would be hard to welcome anything that trivialized Governors Island," but added rather quixotically that it "is a super-historical site without having to be glorified or romanticized." The article also quoted Peg Breen, the president of the New York Landmarks Convervancy, as commenting that she hoped a possible theme park development on the island would be tasteful - and I would settle for semi-tasteful."

No glory?  No romance?  Semi-tasteful?

Shucks, folks, don't you dream, didn't you have heroes, and heroines, and shouldn't something new and special be at the very least tasteful?  Tasteful? Yuck!  

Let's have something glorious, romantic, fitting for the memory of Colonial independents and marine rescuers and fitting for the cadres of current residents of the city and visitors from around the world who thirst and pine for the drama and spectacle of New York!

Semi-tasteful!  C'mon, don't settle for anything less than semi-inspired!

The most obvious scheme would be to create a conference center and hotel in the island's southeastern quadrant that would be a silver, reflective-glass-covered structure that would be angled and bent, or possibly curved, to maximize reflections and vistas of both the Statue of Liberty and the Lower Manhattan skyline. Such a structure might be abstractly designed in the shape of cupped, open hands, a welcoming gesture in the direction of both the Statue of Liberty (and Ellis Island nearby across the bay) and the Lower Manhattan skyline. It might be 50 stories or so high, enough to provide 2,500 to 3,000 hotel rooms, enough to serve as a major convention hotel, and major conference facilities can be at its base. Its east facade, facing Brooklyn and Long Island can house the elevator and mechanical floor openings, which can be glass-enclosed and illuminated to add sparkle and interest to vistas in its direction. It would obstruct some views from Brooklyn, but if designed well enough it can, and must be, gloriously attractive enough to justify it and by providing expanded ferry service to a few points along the Brooklyn shore it can give those hearty, wonderful residents a very major new, world-class recreational facility with amphitheaters for outdoor concerts and both passive and active recreational areas.

The design that comes to mind would be a long, bent structure whose angle facing Lower Manhattan would be about 120 degrees and whose two "legs" would involve cantilevered construction to create openings like fingers. The Florida-based architectural firm of Architectonica, Santiago Calatrava, the great European engineer, and Shin Takematsu, the great Japanese architect, are designers, among others, who understand such drama and challenges and should be included among those invited to an international design competition for the project juried by a joint committee of the American Institute of Architects, the Urban Land Institute (whose membership includes most of the major developers in the United States) and the leading organization of landscape architects.

A component of the project might possibly include special conference facilities for the United Nations, whose flags should ring the lower tier of a new esplanade beneath the middle tier ringed with flags of New York City and New York State and the top tier ringed with American flags. Perhaps the United Nations might run its own ferries from its site up the East River to the island.

The top of the proposed major new structure should have an enormous abstract sculpture form that should be some spectacular electronic/laser lighthouse beacon for the world, and the city. It should also have an open air public observatory and most likely would also have a spectacular restaurant beneath the observatory.

Such a project, of course, would not be cheap. The developer of the major structure will have to pay not only for the new conference/hotel center, but also for the new ferry terminal facilities for Brooklyn on the island and the landscaping of the large park on the southern half of the island. No parking facilities are needed, of course, but the city will have to pay/find a donor for the amphitheater and the esplanade.

Perhaps the Rockefeller family will pay for the esplanade, which then could be named after Nelson A. Rockefeller, an illustrious New York governor.

The city will have to provide the new Brooklyn ferry terminals to the island, but there is no reason why these and the existing ferries from Manhattan should be subsidized as deeply as the Staten Island ferry. A $3 or $4 roundtrip fare might be appropriate from Manhattan, while a cheaper fare, or none at all, for Brooklynites is justifiable. With access only by ferry, controls are easy to enforce, and publicize, for pedestrian traffic on the island.

The opportunities lost at Roosevelt Island were incredible. The city does not have a great planning record over the past few decades and the current administration is particularly remiss, but is presented here with a fantastic opportunity to change its reputation and do something truly significant, memorable and awe-inspiring.

The design competition for the project must include the landscaping, ferry terminals and marinas as well as the conference center/hotel on the lower half of the island. The esplanades designed by Cooper-Eckstut Associates for Battery Park City should serve as the model for those at Governors Island, but design competitions should be held separately, juried by a committee of the Municipal Arts Society, for art works to be placed along the tiered esplanades and on the landscaped grounds, which should result in the world's finest outdoor sculpture center.

All of which sounds fine, but there is one major concern and that is the actual design of the conference center/hotel, which will become a very major landmark that will significantly affect not only harbor vistas, but the city's entire skyline, and compete with the Statue of Liberty. The latter is the major concern. The Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower are the two most important landmarks in the world whose resonance epitomizes freedom on the one hand and romance on the other and together worldliness and urbanity.

Fortunately, Governors Island is quite removed from the Statue of Liberty and so contextual concerns are not so much a factor as symbolic ones. For such a project to be privately financed, it needs economics of scale. This, however, is not an appropriate site for the world's tallest building. Major design details cannot be left here to the developer. The design must be decided upon prior to the invitation for bidding by developers. Since the design of such a complex project involves great expense, however, the design competition should be invitational and include substantial stipends, say $250,000, to defray costs. Such monies would have to be advanced by the city to be recovered from the developers, who also must pay to enter their competition. We are talking about a world-class project in the midst of Millennial fever: glory, reputation, fame, etc.

Of course, if the city wanted to raise monies to improve its schools, it could allow the conversion of the conference center/hotel into a casino, but then that might offend New Jersey that has been laughing at New York for decades. Instead, we should simply permit oceanliners to have gambling in the harbor.

The Governors Island project must be poetic, not crass. It must also be reverential and awe-inspiring. It must be dynamic and exciting. It must be for New York and the world. It must not be Post-Modern, but something that New Yorkers and the world will be proud of and amazed by.

In mid-July, 1997, a Congressional hearing on the island that was vacated by the Coast Guard in May was held and no great visions were put forth. Indeed, press reports indicated a lack of developer interest and suggestions that the Federal estimate of the island's worth might be greatly exaggerated. Hopefully, some civic and political leaders will not stand idly by and let this great site go and this great opportunity die.

A very fine "Metro Matters" column about the city's lack of plans for Governors Island in the Dec. 1, 1997 edition of The New York Times by Elizabeth Kolbert hit the nail on the head:

"If Robert Moses weren't dead, he'd be mortified....there are no plans to make plans - proof, if any were needed, that the era of great dreaming in New York has passed....As Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of Manhattan, observed: 'Only in New York City could somebody be offered...[173] acres with river views and historic sites and have no one act on it.'''

The failure of the mayor to develop plans for the island may well be his lasting legacy rather than the current economic upcycle!

A Dec. 5, 1997 article in The New York Times by Thomas J. Lueck quoted a senior adviser to Mayor Guiliani as saying that the city was now exploring the idea of using part of Governors Island for "a major casino and five-star hotel" with the concept of turning it not into Atlantic City, but Monaco. See The City Review story on casino ships.

Two weeks later, Lueck reported that New York University may pursue its interests in using parts of the island for athletic facilities and dormitories with Columbia University "and perhaps even the New York City Board of Education."  Such uses by the private universities is not the highest and best uses the island affords, even though they are important.  Perhaps a nice football/soccer field/stadium would be appropriate, but little more.

Lueck's Dec. 19, 1997 article also that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Representative Carolyn B. Maloney had sent a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt seeking funds to preserve 63 historic buildings on the island.

In June, 1998, the Guiliani Administration said that gambling revenues generated by casinos would generate enough money to maintain the island's historic structures, but a report in The New York Times indicated that a study by Bear, Stearns & Co., Inc., showed that such revenues could be very much higher than the city's projections.

An article by Richard E. Mooney in The New York Times January 31, 1999, reported that Deputy Mayor Randy L. Levine will chair a task force of private citizens and public officials in February to ponder what to do with the island, which is only 500 yards away from Manhattan.

The article noted that the National Trust for Historic Preservation had placed the island onits list of most endangered places in 1998 and had described it as "a golden oppotunity - or a preservation disaster - waiting to happen."

The article also repoted that the Battery Park City Authority, a state agency, "has advertised for a consultant to evaluate possible development strategies" for Governors Island.

Two developers have submitted proposals: Corcoran-Jennison, a Boston firm that builds multi-family, mixed-income housing; and LCOR. Tivoli Gardens, the amusement center in Copenhagen, has suggested an entertainment center.

Mooney reported that "Mayor Giuliani's early proposal for an island casino is dead." "Gambling interests did tour the island one Sunday moning last yea, but a casino would require amending the state constitution, which is unlikely to happen soon enough, if ever. The plan also faced hostility in Congress," he continued. Why Albany and the Congress should favor New Jersey over New York City for anything is puzzling, of course, but then this is the Lewinsky era where rationality has been banned.

If Mayor Giuliani permits nothing great to be created at Governors Island then his administration's legacy will be negligible.

On September 1, 1999, The New York Times reported that a mayor task force had agreed on a redevelopment plan for the island that would include a conference center, apartments, university housing, stores, two new branches of the Guggenheim Museum and a large public park. The article by Thomas J. Lueck noted, however, that the plan "still faces potentially protracted negotiations between the state, which has formed its own task force, and Congress, which has set a deadline of 2002 for the Government to cede control of the island to either a public entity or a private developer." In August, 1999, a group represented the famed Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen indicated it was definitely interested in the island but some preservationists expressed opposition.

On January 2, 2000, Gov. George E. Pataki and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani were reported to have agreed on a plan for the redevelopment of the island that would include a hotel and conference center, apartments, parks, stores, and a museum branch. The plan, first reported by The New York Post and as reported by The New York Times the next day calls for the island to be turned over by the Federal government to a new state agency "overseen by appointees" of the mayor and the governor that would "be responsible for inviting private companies to submit commercial, educational, recreational or entertainment proposals." The plan still requires the approval of Congress. The Times story said that the plan calls for the state and the city to spend $30 million to make the island suitable for new development by demolishing buildings that cannot be "fully renovated" and creating a 50-acre public park on the 173-acre island, as well as connect new sewer and water lines to existing buildings and build a two-mile esplanade around the island. The Times article said that state and city planners "have approached the Smithsonian Institution to gauge their interest in opening a branch on the island" and the Guggenheim Museum has already expressed interest. City and state planners, it continued, have also "agreed to create an educational center that is to feature, among other things, an aquarium showcasing marine life found in the Hudson River." Other uses contemplated are a sports complex and the city and the state plan to use any money raised from the commercial enterprises that might be created to pay for park and historic building maintenance. Ferry service to the island is to be provided under a concession arrangement.

On April 1, 2002, President Bush announced that the Federal Government will not auction off the island and will turn it over to New York City. Mayor Bloomberg said that the city will use it for the City University of New York and for teacher-training. While it is good news that the city will not "lose" the island, it does not appear that this is the most exciting use of the island, but perhaps improved economic conditions in the future will permit this not be yet another major wasted opportunity.


For pictures and history of Governors Island go to

The Rotterdam Academy of Architecture asked its students what to do with Governors Island in 1997 and their plans and links can be found at


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