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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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... 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
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
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
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