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The Governors Island Plan: Last Chance to Get It Right?

by Tom Angotti, Sep 20, 2004
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I was tipped off to a major public meeting to chart the future of Governors Island that was being held in the middle of the summer.

Not surprisingly, given the timing, no more than a couple of hundred people wound up hearing preliminary ideas from the team of consultants working on the plan for the island. Still, the discussion was lively and there were lots of great ideas. And a number of speakers echoed the gnawing questions from my inner Brooklyn self about whether the planning process would serve the diverse populations of this city of eight million people.

Can The City Plan an Island?

This could be the city's last chance to get planning right for a major chunk of city land accessible to the entire metropolitan region. When the five boroughs were consolidated in 1898 only a small portion of Manhattan was densely developed. It was an historic opportunity to plan the future metropolis. It didn't happen. Instead the city let developers do pretty much what they wanted. Zoning outside of lower Manhattan was fairly liberal. Developers even took the lead in planning the subway lines, the main determinant of new growth. The result is a concrete and asphalt city with one of the lowest ratios of open space per person in the country. The last island that the city planned, Roosevelt Island, turned out to be another dense cluster that mimicked the overdeveloped East Side of Manhattan, albeit with greater sensitivity to good design. The city also missed the opportunity to plan for Staten Island, which got eaten up by unplanned sprawl after the South Richmond Plan was rejected in the 1970s.

The United States Coast Guard moved out of the 172-acre Governors Island in 1997 and last year it was turned over to the City and State of New York. It soon became clear that it was going to be hard to get the public investment required to turn it into another apartment complex like Roosevelt Island, nor the political support needed to give it to hotel and casino operators. So the federal, state and local governments agreed to deed restrictions that required it be redeveloped for recreation, education and limited commercial activities. At least forty acres must be for parks, at least 20 acres for educational uses, and 30 acres for "public benefit uses." That leaves over one-third of the land above water for other, possibly commercial, uses.

The body in charge of planning is the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), a subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation. GIPEC's board is appointed by the Mayor and Governor.

A Model Island?

Governors Island may actually fill in some of the city's missing green space. We can all breathe a little easier knowing that one of the basic principles for planning the island is that it will be virtually car-free. Actually the island can be a giant demonstration project, an environmental oasis in a city with an epidemic of asthma and respiratory diseases and a horrible record of non-compliance with federal clean air regulations. It could have the city's best network of bicycle and pedestrian paths, with stunning views from waterfront promenades. At the planning meeting there seemed to be widespread approval of a car-free island, but some people also wanted to see it become a regional hub for maritime activity, which could conflict with the vision of the island as a bucolic paradise.

A seed planted by the planning consultants was the idea that the island could become a model of environmental and economic sustainability. Concretely, this could mean that it would produce its own energy and food for consumption in restaurants and dining rooms. And waste could be reduced, recycled and composted instead of being exported as it is in the rest of the city. This could be a "zero waste" island.

The consultants didn't go this far, but clearly Governors Island could become a model in many ways for the city's neighborhoods, generating valuable lessons in environmental management and sustainability. Without a permanent residential population, however, it would never match the conditions of most neighborhoods.

Enclave for the Elite?

But at the July meeting, many of the invited guests were troubled by the possibility that Governors Island would become an exclusive enclave. Indeed, this was probably the main question on everyone's mind. "We want to make sure this is not just an elite island," affirmed one speaker. Aside from worrying that those present at the meeting didn't reflect the full diversity of the city's neighborhoods, people were concerned that the "limited" commercial development being talked about -- the consultants mentioned an executive conference center, restaurants, a boutique hotel, a spa -- could chase away island visitors without deep pockets.

Some people worried how accessible the open space would be. Will the island have recreational facilities for everyone or only those who belong to organized teams? Will people with big families have places to romp, picnic and barbecue, or will it be a pristine place only for the genteel class or Manhattan's singles scene? One person cautioned that public access to the island's waterfront wasn't enough. "You can have public access in a private enclave, like Battery Park City," where the waterfront is technically open to the public but is designed in such a way that it's not inviting to the broader public.

Which gets us to Brooklyn. According to Craig Hammerman, the district manager of Community Board 6 in Brooklyn (the man who had tipped me off to the meeting), "Brooklyn seems to have been an afterthought." Through an accident of history, Governors Island wound up under the jurisdiction of Manhattan and belongs to Manhattan's Community Board One. Yet it's actually closer to Brooklyn than Manhattan. His community board asked the mayor to take a look at the community board boundaries, but to no avail. "The planning process appears to have been already determined," says Hammerman. Indeed, boutique hotels, pristine promenades and nature preserves may remake Governors Island in the image of Battery Park and leave no room for the people of Red Hook and Sunset Park. The next planning meeting will be scheduled for this fall. It should be in Brooklyn, there should be more outreach to neighborhoods, and it shouldn't be held when few New Yorkers are around.

Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.

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