Commentary

GOVERNORS ISLAND: A (HALF) DONE DEAL

by Richard E. Mooney

Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani have reached an agreement on the future of Governors Island. Finally. Their plan is full of sound ideas - and lots of open space. Though only an outline of options, it is a worthy start to the restoration of this splendid sanctuary.

Why? First, both Governor and Mayor have quit their harmful standoff over what to do with this rare real estate. Second, their plan is as welcome for what it omits - casinos and carnivals - as for what it includes. Finally, it faces up to the reality that public spaces need public funding. State, City and Washington must all put up millions, at least at the start.

New York State gave the island to the Federal government in 1800 for use as fortification against potential invaders, with the proviso that it return to the state when the military had no more need for it. That proviso was voided in the 1950s by legislation that made the island Federal property. It was an Army base until 1936, and then a Coast Guard base until 1996.

In 1997 Congress set a deadline - fiscal year 2002, which starts on October 1, 2001 - for the City and State to devise a suitable plan for the island's return to civilian use. For two years the parties dawdled. Only in 1999 did they begin serious explorations - but separately. Had they continued on their separate searches, Congress might have been tempted to go its own way. The NYC/NYS agreement probably assures the end of federal control.

The Plan and its Omissions

Mayor Giuliani's first instinct for Governors Island was to propose a casino - something to pull in big money. City Hall arranged a special tour of the island two years ago for a delegation of Reno businessmen. The casino idea never stood a chance, but a replica of Denmark's Tivoli Gardens did - bright lights, amusement rides, entertainment and restaurants, all in an elegant floral setting under the management of the famous park in Copenhagen. Another far-fetched scheme would have created a not-very-far-"off-shore" banking haven.

The mayor's narrow vision for the island - that it must not cost the city anything - was eventually overridden in the agreement with Albany. None of the cash-cow ideas made the cut. Instead the list is a comfortable mix of public and private.

The plan proposes 50 acres of parkland - more than half of the non-historic southern half of the island - as championed by the Regional Plan Association. The National Park Service, one hopes, would take over Fort Jay and Castle Williams, the two historic forts in the landmarked northern half of the island. An esplanade for walkers, gawkers and joggers would ring the perimeter, more than two miles - a victory for public access, stemming from a proposal submitted by the Boston firm of Corcoran-Jennison. NYU would get limited access to 10 acres of athletic fields which would be open to the public when the school's teams weren't using them.

The plan also visualizes a museum, maybe two, and "moderately priced family lodging, a health and wellness center, waterside dining, small retail shops and limited commercial office space" and a "family entertainment center" - perhaps a recreation of old New York along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg. It's a big menu, but it's a big island - 172 acres - and not all of these options will find sponsors.

The principal private use would be a spacious conference center - not another Javits Center for commercial shows, but a place for meeting and talking - along with hotel facilities, all in the monster Building 400. The Army commissioned the firm of McKim, Mead and White to design a building big enough to house a full regiment. (Mayor LaGuardia groused that they did it to block his idea of an airport.) Building 400 is so big that it could also have space for Columbia University to run short-term executive training courses complete with beds. Absent from the plan is long-term housing for the colleges or anyone else, basically because Governor Pataki sided with the proponents of open space.

Once Congress parts with the island, the Empire State Development Corporation will be in charge of getting the development off the ground. A Governors Island agency will be created as an Empire State subsidiary to manage the development, operate the open spaces and recruit private developers for specific pieces of the whole under long-term leases.

It is better that this enormous undertaking be in the potent hands of competent state authorities, rather than the clumsier city bureaucracy. It would be better still if this particular public agency were more public with its thinking. To date there have been no disclosures beyond the January 8th announcement, and inquiries go unanswered.

Costs: Facts and Fiction

Prior to that announcement, the only figures associated with this huge project were President Clinton's offer to sell the island back to the state for $1, and a specious estimate that the government could get $500 million by selling it to the highest bidder. The $500 million figure was pulled out of a hat by Congressional budget calculators, at a time when the Federal budget was in deficit and in need of big numbers to close the expected gap. A new estimate reduces it to $300 million.

But rather than focusing on $1 or $300 million or $500 million, all concerned should focus - as the announced plan does - on the need for City, State and Federal funding. (Note: Washington put up $200 million for the conversion of The Presidio in San Francisco from military to civilian use.)

The plan for Governors Island foresees a day when income-producing uses will yield enough to cover the costs of maintenance and the free public spaces, but it is past time to stop dreaming of the island as a major source of income. Washington, Albany and City Hall must all pitch in. Transition expenses will be formidable - to begin with, razing more than 100 mothballed military quarters and service buildings. Washington built them; Washington should clear them away and restore the landscape.

The Coast Guard left the island in exceptionally good shape when it pulled out four years ago. The General Services Administration has been a careful custodian since then - replacing roofs, painting houses, patching pipes, mowing grass, shoring up the seawall. But unoccupied buildings on a windswept island do not improve with disuse. The crumbling structures on Ellis Island across the harbor have sent up an urgent cry for restoration. The need on Governors Island is no less.

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Richard E. Mooney is a freelance writer, retired from the Editorial Board of The New York Times where he wrote frequently on city matters.

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