Governor’s Island, Development Hell

December 24, 2012

It’s called “development hell,” in the film business, those grand projects that linger on for years, decades even. New York has had its own examples in real estate: the West Side Rail Yards, Moynihan Station, and the less famous Governor’s Island, a funny piece of real estate, off the tip of Manhattan, only accessible by boat. Robert Moses wanted it to be an anchor for a new East River bridge (which became the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel). This was one of many proposed projects for the island that never happened.

The ownership of the island has been in flux for fifteen years. In 1995, the late Senator Patrick Daniel Moynihan brokered a deal with President Clinton for transfer of the island to the State for a dollar. This transfer itself was fraught with problems, four years into deciding how to use the land, the General Service’s Administration, said the asking price was illegal and then asked for 500 million. Congress later asked to sell the island at market value, but in 2003 the Bush Administration re-enacted the original deal and finally gave the City and State control of Governors Island. Phew! In April of this year the State agreed to cede the island to the city, which it received on June 23rd.

Then, of course, there is the issue of what to do with Governors Island. NYU looked to transform the island into an extension of its campus in 1997, which would have added much needed space for athletics and housing. Thirteen years later they revisited the idea this time looking to make an interdisciplinary center that would ask questions like, “What does it mean in the 21st century to build a great city?” Which, of course, is bureaucracy-speak for “we have no real idea what to do with this.” MGM looked to turn the island into a gambling paradise. Mayor Giuliani was keen on the idea of opening the island to gambling, saying “It could be maybe Monte Carlo Two,” (these projects tend to bring out the superlative in people). Of course there was the teensy little problem of gambling being illegal in New York State.

When Mayor Bloomberg first came to office he dreamt that the island should be used for education. One of the most original ideas in Bloomberg’s tenure was to have WTC PATH designer Santiago Calavatra’s design for an aerial gondola connecting Manhattan to Governor’s Island . In 2007 was a design competition, won by the Dutch company West 8 and is now set into motion.

There are many possible futures for the island, however, no matter which one gets included, I hope it will include a plan for delivering potable water.