Commentary

Governors Island (Mayor's Island, Senator's Island, Congressional Island...)

by Jessica Green

Governors Island has served as a quarantine for plague sufferers (1710), as a prison camp for captured Confederates, as a place for summitry (Reagan and Gorbachev, 1986). Walt Disney and Rocky Graziano were imprisoned there (WWI and WWII, respectively), and the Smothers Brothers were born there (their father was stationed at the base). It is only appropriate then, that the new plan for Governors Island be as multifaceted as its past.

In January, the Mayor and the Governor announced their long-overdue and much-awaited plan for Governors Island. Since the Coast Guard left the island in 1996, Congress set a deadline, October 1, 2001, for the State to come up with an acceptable strategy for civilian use. After dismissing flashy casino and amusement park proposals, City and State have agreed upon an inoffensive mix of public and private, open space and development, preservation and growth. The plan is at once ambitious and vague. Everyone is promised something, with little indication of just how the plan will be realized. A number of different uses are named - a hotel and conference center, an historic district, a retail complex, an ecology center, parkland and open space - but there is little suggestion of who will occupy, build and pay for these various uses.

Nonetheless, after two years of inaction, any progress, however preliminary, is both necessary and welcome. Further progress will be slow, undoubtedly embroiled in the Morass of Politics - the many levels and interests of the decisionmakers involved. The perennial enmity between City and State appears to be temporarily suspended, at least in matters pertaining to the island. Originally, the City and State set up separate committees to develop a plan for the island; now it seems that collaboration has prevailed. Both parties have put on a happy face to convince the Feds that they are ready, willing and able to move forward with the redevelopment of the island. They must also demonstrate that their plan makes a sufficient commitment to preserving the public interest. So far, they're shaky on both counts.

In addition to City/State problems, there have been conflicts within the Pataki Administration. A significant hindrance, it seems, were tensions between Empire State Development Chief Charles Gargano and Battery Park City Authority head James Gill. Fred Dicker of the New York Post, who broke the story about the City and State announcement of the plan, cited differences between these two as a main source of delay.

Political rivalries also intrude at the federal level. On the legislative side, Congressional Republicans seem most interested in getting maximum bucks for their bang. Some estimates have valued the island at $500M (though as Goth Gaz columnist Dick Mooney points out, this figure arose from a Congressional desire to plug holes in the federal budget.) New Yorkers are quick to criticize the view that the island is simply surplus federal property. It should not, as has been suggested, be sold to the highest bidder. Rather, the island should be sold at a fair or below market price, to ensure its preservation and public access. New York is still hoping for the $1 deal promised by President Clinton to Senator Moynihan in a helicopter ride over the island in 1995. Ultimately, price will depend not only on the ability of New York legislators to lobby the rest of Congress, but also on the swing of the 2000 elections. While the Senate will most likely retain a Republican majority, the Democrats need only six seats to regain control of the House.

The federal agency involved in the disposition of the island, the General Services Administration, is another critical player. GSA is charged with maintaining the island until its transfer, and with facilitating the hand-off. It seems, almost unbelievably, that the GSA has remained neutral during this messy process. For the moment, they are less concerned with price or process, and are concentrating on the bottom line - turning over the island by the 2001 deadline. The National Park Service will also enter the scene, as the entity responsible for the upkeep and display of the national historic landmarks on the island such as Fort Jay and Castle Williams.

So how will it all end? The grand announcement of "the plan" and the Empire State Development Corporation's creation of a subsidiary agency to run the island are small steps in a long journey. The Feds still have to be convinced that there is a genuinely do-able strategy. That will take pushing from civics and community groups, as well as further strides by City and State. The matter of the price is still up in the air. Some feel that once Senators Schumer and Moynihan and Congress are convinced that the project is in the public interest, the price will drop, if not disappear, but there are no guarantees. Anticipate a long and messy affair.

The dramatis personae:

FEDS
General Services Administration - Federal agency charged with the upkeep of the Island since the Coast Guard's departure. GSA's primary goal is to facilitate the disposition of the island in the most efficient manner. Upon receiving their charge, GSA conducted an extensive land use study to guide the environmental review process and the future EIS. The agency has generally received high marks all around. The Legislative Delegation - NY Senators and Representatives lobbying Congress on behalf of the State for a good price on the sale of the Island. Politically speaking, it's to their benefit to secure the transfer, and the cheaper, the better. Senator Moynihan first secured the $1 promise from President Clinton; figures named recently range between $300M to $500M. Many feel that Moynihan's seniority in the Senate is an important and necessary asset for New York. Moynihan, 73, will leave office in January 2001, if not earlier. Should he depart before the deal is cinched, the delegation may have more difficulty.

STATE
Empire State Development Corporation - The State's emissary on all Governors Island matters. ESDC has announced that a subsidiary agency will be responsible for the island's administration. The Governors Island Redevelopment Corporation will have a nine member Board of Directors, six of whom will be appointed by the Governor, and three by the Mayor. Though the announcement was made over a month ago, none of the members has been named, and there is no timetable for meeting with a federal delegation or with the GSA. With no visible plans, it seems that the subsidiary agency is yet another way to convince the feds that plans for redevelopment are in fact moving ahead, that City and State continue to be in agreement, and that they are deserving of the much touted $1 deal. Battery Park City Authority - Some reports suggest that internal politics, between BPC Chair James Gill and ESDC Chair Charles Gargano was the source of delay in reaching agreement. Like the Governors Island Redevelopment Corporation, Battery Park City Authority is a subsidiary agency of the ESDC.

CITY
Economic Development Corporation - In the perennial power struggle between City and State, EDC wants a say in the island's redevelopment. And while it is eager to have a seat at the table, as an emissary of the City, it is not as willing to ante up.

Governors Island Group - A coalition of national, state and local civic, preservation, design professional and business organizations whose goal is to foster public awareness and to protect the public interest in the island. Their membership includes the American Institute of Architects/New York, the Environmental Law Center, New York Landmarks Conservancy, Manhattan Community Board 1, Environmental Advocates, and the Parks Council, among others. They have recently drafted a set of goals that should be achieved under the State and City's released concept plan. Among their recommendations: that the island to remain in public ownership, and that it be transferred to a public entity - not the Governors Island Redevelopment Corporation - to ensure community representation.

Civic, Community and Planning organizations - A number of other organizations, notably the Regional Plan Association, are lobbying for more community input into the plan for the island.

Jessica Green is the Managing Editor of the Gotham Gazette.

See also: Governors Island: A (Half) Done Deal

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