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The Plan to Completely Transform Governors Island Faces One Last Hurdle

Given to New York City to be used for the public, a group of private interests is steering the island in a new direction.

10:17 AM EDT on October 23, 2022

Governors Island’s southern development zone, with Lower Manhattan behind it. (Hell Gate)

Any day now, a State Supreme Court judge will help decide the fate of Governors Island, a sleepy patch of 172 undeveloped acres sitting just south of Manhattan in New York Harbor.

One side—the Adams administration and the Trust for Governors Island, the entity that controls the land—wants to turn the island into a mixed-use, 24/7 neighborhood. Their proposals include a 20-story hotel and shopping district, parking for up to 200 vehicles (private cars are currently prohibited on the island), and a "Center for Climate Solutions" built by a university. They say this transformation is necessary to subsidize continued public access. The plan could be worth millions to Big Real Estate, opening up some of the last undeveloped land in New York City to profitable development. Perhaps not coincidentally, real estate developers sit on the board of the Trust. 

The other side—environmentalists, artists, and park enthusiasts—believe the land should be preserved as a bucolic, mid-harbor escape from the bustle of the city, and are suing to stop the Trust and its allies.

Their lawsuit argues that the grand new vision for Governors Island violates the agreement the state made with the federal government when it took over the island in 2003, which specified that the island must keep the majority of its space for public use, and that no residential housing can be built on the island. A judge will soon rule whether the suit can proceed.

"Governors Island has always been such a conundrum for the people who end up in charge of it, who frankly can never quite figure out what they want to do with it and how best to do it," Kevin Fitzpatrick, the author of a book on the history of Governors Island, told Hell Gate.

"Now what's happening is that the Trust is pushing through a rezoning, including towers, parking, and infrastructure, that very possibly goes against the deed it agreed to with the federal government," Fitzpatrick said.

Rendering of a possible office building by WXY architecture + urban design

Throughout the 20th century, the federal government controlled Governors Island. The Coast Guard used it as a base, building a tiny, self-contained city with a movie theater, YMCA, and even a Super 8 motel for visiting families. The public couldn't visit, so the island—and its massive ventilation tower for the Battery Tunnel—remained just another dot in the archipelago of New York Harbor that you could see but never touch. 

In 2010, the City finally gained control of much of Governors Island from the state, and in keeping with the public-private ethos of the Bloomberg administration, the island was then turned over to the Trust for Governors Island, a nonprofit “instrumentality” of the City. 

Under the care of the Trust, the number of visitors has increased significantly, to over 600,000 in 2021. The public Harbor School gives students a rare nautical educational experience on the island, relating each subject they teach in some way to the water that surrounds them. Regular ferry service and Citi Bike docks have encouraged exploration of the grounds. Restaurants (and yes, glamping) offer a place to relax with a stunning view of Lower Manhattan. Artists have found temporary housing and studio space in the island's once-abandoned buildings.

Perhaps the crown jewel of Governors Island is the Hills, a park that opened in 2016 that allows visitors to walk up a spiraling path to get a view of the entirety of New York Harbor. It's a spectacular experience, rising above the remains of the island's old seawall to take in the expanse of New York's bridges, the Brooklyn waterfront, and in the distance, the sweep of the impossibly long Verrazzano. 

Rendering of a possible full island build by WXY architecture + urban design

The City pays around $15 million dollars each year to help operate and maintain access to the island—repairing century-old buildings, keeping up the park, and subsidizing the Governors Island ferry. That $15 million represents 71 percent of the Trust's annual budget. (To compare this to another money-losing amenity, the City has spent $829 million to subsidize NYC Ferry service since 2015.) The rest of the Trust's money comes from rentals and concessions on the island.

Even with the City's subsidy, the Trust is expected to run a deficit of $1 to $2 million over the next few years. To generate enough revenue to become self-sufficient, the Trust argues that it needs to be able to develop the land. A major step, rezoning the island, was accomplished last year. Originally, the Trust and the de Blasio administration wanted to allow for 30-story buildings on the island, but scaled the plan down to 20 stories after then-Councilmember Margaret Chin received pushback from environmentalists.

A centerpiece of the rezoning was a promised "Center for Climate Solutions." Similar to Bloomberg's Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, the goal is to pair the Trust up with a university to build a campus devoted to the study of climate change. The center would include dorms as well as new classrooms, and the university would be chosen through a contest.

Enter the lawsuit, which opponents of the plan filed in September 2021. Petitioners argued that by allowing a developer to build structures that would so drastically change the island, the City would violate the original deed, which guaranteed "the protection and preservation of the natural, cultural, and historic qualities of Governors Island."

"It's not just a new development zone, but the park becomes a quad, and all of a sudden, you're trespassing," said Roger Manning, a cofounder of the Metro Area Governors Island Coalition, the group behind the lawsuit. "This island is a refuge for people. This is where you go to get away and get some space and some sanity. It would change it forever."

The lawsuit also argues that the development would convert park land for private use—something that would have to be approved by the state legislature.

When the City took over the island from the federal government in 2003, the deed made several stipulations—including that there would be no full-time residents on the island, meaning no apartments and no permanent housing. But it does allow for part-time residents, like students, professors, and hotel guests. 

The Trust for Governors Island told Hell Gate that the lawsuit misstates the facts, and that because the 33-acre development area at the south end of the island is already fenced off to the public, it wouldn't be a loss of public space. "The Island's 120 acres of open space will be preserved and expanded, and public access will increase," a spokesperson said.  

If the proposed development moves forward, the Brooklyn view from the top of the Hills will be blocked by the new hotel—and the Hills themselves will be bathed in shadow for part of the day, according to a presentation given to Community Board 1 in Manhattan, which has jurisdiction over the island.

Presentation for Community Board 1 by the Trust for Governors Island based on possible construction.

The Trust is planning to decide on which partner to move forward with for the university project in early 2023, with construction beginning sometime after that. The four finalists for the climate center are a joint proposal by CUNY and the New School, as well as separate proposals by MIT, Northeastern University, and Stony Brook University. Each school would then collaborate with a developer to build out their campus. 

Ultimately, the chosen university will not own the new buildings—they'll partner with real estate developers who will build and own the structures in which the university, hotel, conference center, and retail spaces will be housed. For Cornell's Tech Campus on Roosevelt Island, that developer was Forest City Ratner, which developed Atlantic Yards

The Trust and its fundraising arm, the Friends of Governors Island, may not have to look far for development partners: Their boards of directors include employees of Related Companies, AECOM, RAL Companies, and others. A spokesperson for the Trust told Hell Gate, "The Trust and its Board—like all such entities—are subject to and rigorously follow local conflicts of interest laws and have procedures in place to address any real or perceived conflicts with its Board of Directors."

The City's subsidy would also balloon to over $30 million annually in the first two decades of the project, with the island only getting to financial self-sufficiency—maybe—by 2050. 

Fitzpatrick, the author of the history of Governors Island, pointed out that there's currently a million square feet of unused office space on the island. During World War II, these buildings were used by the U.S. Army to begin the preparations for the invasion of Europe. "All those buildings are empty. How beautiful would it be to use existing buildings where we used to plan for war, to instead plan for how to combat climate change, instead of building something completely new?” he asked.

A spokesperson for the Trust told Hell Gate that even with the new development, the Trust "strongly encourages respondents to rehabilitate key buildings within the Historic District."

What specifically will the Center for Climate Solutions actually do? Nobody seems to know. Currently, the Trust describes it as "a new state of the art insti­tu­tion ded­i­cat­ed to research­ing and demon­strat­ing urban cli­mate solu­tions," and claims it would cre­ate 7,000 permanent jobs on Gov­er­nors Island and have a $1 billion positive impact on the city. The Trust says that private cars will still be banned on the island, "except for service vehicles" that will be needed for the new development. 

There is also an irony to putting a "Center for Climate Solutions" in the middle of New York Harbor. During Superstorm Sandy, Governors Island saw a massive 13.8-foot storm surge, which was four and a half feet above the island's storm wall. Eight shipping containers washed across the harbor from nearby Red Hook Terminal, tumbling into structures on the island

According to a recent plan put forward by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and expected to move forward over the next few years, New York's storm surge plan would leave Governors Island completely unprotected, while nearby residential neighborhoods would have giant sea walls—further redirecting storm surge into the middle of New York Harbor where the island sits.

But the Trust has waved away concerns about flooding. It has said previously that it could hypothetically put the new buildings on stilts or make them movable.

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