What should become of Governors Island?
For nearly two decades, the question has tantalized the city’s mayors and real estate developers, and largely eluded them. Since the federal government relinquished control of the former Coast Guard base in 2003, the island has been floated as the site of a casino, an amusement park, a convention center, and a supermax prison.
While those development dreams have languished, more and more New Yorkers have taken advantage of the unique urban retreat. Under the stewardship of the Trust for Governors Island, the spruced up park has offered essential cultural programming and more frequent ferries, along with 172 acres of minimally tamed wandering space — all of it located less than half a mile from the tip of Manhattan.
But the feral spirit of Governors Island was never long for this city. As it is with many of the city’s public parks, the plan has always been to shore up private resources to help pay for the island’s operations, and to ultimately secure it as a year-round destination. Already, a luxury campground has opened on the island. An Italian day spa is set to join it this summer.
After some fits and starts, the future of Manhattan’s largest development site is now coming into focus. Last week, the City Council voted to upzone the south end of the island, paving the way for nearly 4 million feet of new development, including office, hotel, and retail space near the current site of the abandoned military barracks.
As part of the proposal, the de Blasio-controlled Trust has vowed to attract green tech start-ups and design firms that will establish the island as a “leading center for climate solutions.” Later this year, the Trust will begin soliciting an academic or research institution to anchor the island’s climate focused aspirations.
“Climate change is the challenge of our time, and the vision we share with the de Blasio administration is to use one of our city’s crown jewels to fight it more forcefully and creatively than ever,” Clare Newman, the Trust’s President and CEO, said in an emailed statement. “At the same time, our proposal will deliver on 20 years of planning to support long-term park funding, year-round public access, better ferry service, expanded visitor and cultural amenities, and historic building investments.”
Some island advocates have raised concerns about the scale of new development on the sprawling green space. The rezoning will bring new buildings up to 20 stories high, with construction estimated to last up to a decade. While de Blasio has touted the as-yet-unselected research institution, there will be plenty of other development on the island, and no guarantee that the next administration ultimately pursues a climate-focused tenant.
(Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang has proposed turning the island into a casino — one of several uses, including housing, expressly prohibited under the federal deed.)
“It’s basically a land grab by [the Trust’s] real estate and Wall Street members,” alleged Roger Manning, a Manhattan resident who co-founded the Metro Area Governors Island Coalition to oppose the rezoning. “The public goes out there for this unique experience, and that’s not going to be around anymore.”
In response to criticism, Council Member Margaret Chin, whose district includes the island, pushed to reduce the cap on overall density, while lowering maximum building heights from 30 to 20 stories. The final proposal will preserve all 46 acres of public space on the southern portion of the island.
Development on the southern half is expected to eventually bring in close to $80 million in annual lease and tax revenues, according to the Trust’s financial projections. Meanwhile, the island’s operating expenses are expected to triple by 2040, largely driven by the cost of expanding the ferry fleet. Even with funding provided by the new development, the Trust does not expect the island to break even until 2050.
In the short-term, one of the most pressing questions facing the Trust is whether to hand control over to a master developer — similar to Related’s all-encompassing role in Hudson Yards — or take a more incremental approach. While the latter option is widely seen as preferable for public transparency, selecting a master developer could prove both faster and more lucrative.
Those benefits may be hard to turn down; unlike other public parks, which may fall into disrepair over the course of years, financial woes have the potential to seal off Governors Island overnight.
“It’s a magical place because there’s no connection, but it’s also an expensive place because there’s no connection,” Michael Samuelian, who previously served as the President and CEO of the Trust, told Gothamist. “You have to get everybody and everything off the park, which no park needs to do in New York City.”
Still, Samuelian said the Trust should be careful about encouraging rapid development without the necessary public input.
“The devil is in the details,” he added. “It’s a question of what, how much, and the appropriate balance between the public mission of the trust, the maintenance of public space, and the amount of development the island can handle while remaining open to the public.”