As Artists Fight to Keep Governors Island a Quiet Oasis, Development Nears

By Asta Kongsted – January 20, 2023

Roger Manning pauses mid-sentence every time a helicopter flies over Governors Island. It’s a habit he picked up when he was working as a musician in the New York City subway system. Whenever a train entered the station, he’d stop singing, as if shielding himself from the noise. When he plays to himself on the island, as he often does, he is rarely interrupted. It is one of the things that makes the island so “healing,“ as he put it.

So, he can live with the private helicopter services that land nearby at the base of Manhattan, interfering with the peace every once in a while. It’s the rezoning, Manning fears, that will eliminate it altogether.

While Governors Island, a 172-acre island in New York Harbor, located about 800 yards just south of Manhattan Island, may seem peaceful, the fight over its future is a densely populated battle ground. In 2021, The New York City Council approved a plan of zoning amendments that allows for the incubation of a Center for Climate Solutions on the island. According to The Trust for Governors Island, a non-profit created by the City of New York to oversee development, the objective of the center is to “support the research, development and demonstration of equitable climate solutions.“

Erecting a climate research facility may sound like a worthy use of Governors Island’s relatively vast space. But Manning, who co-founded the advocacy group Metro Area Governors Island Coalition (M.A.G.I.C.), calls the rezoning the “Trojan horse” of former mayor Bill de Blasio.

While the rezoning does indeed allow for a climate research center to be built, the approved amendments also pave the way for the erection of buildings as high as 25 stories, shopping and 200 parking spots on the largely trafficless island, Manning said.

For now, that level of activity remains hard to imagine. Once an offshore military base, the noise of Manhattan disappears upon arrival. Rows and rows of red brick buildings line the boulevards. White paint chafes around the window frames where deep red poison ivy tries to perforate the glass and enter empty houses. The sight is at once dignified and pitiful.

On a typical winter day, the island – famously shaped like an ice cream cone – serves as a bubble of silence which only occasionally bursts with the sound of helicopters.

A plot of unoccupied land, located next to a plot of highly occupied land, will inevitably attract stakeholders, and plenty of dreams. Governors Island has been an object of desire ever since the federal government sold it back to the City of New York in 2003 for $1. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani and former President (and at the time real estate mogul) Donald Trump both dreamt of placing a casino on the island. Others saw restaurants, hotels, and shops taking hold of the space. With the sale, however, came a deed stating that the island would be public property, prohibiting permanent housing and, alas, casinos.

Manning believes that the rezoning will walk back some of these restrictions, and that it neglects the preservation of the island’s 40 acres of designated parkland, another requirement of the deed.

His concerns are shared by more than 20 plaintiffs who joined him in suing the city over the rezoning last August. Among them are the writer Eileen Myles, historian Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, and Kent L. Barwick who, alongside Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, successfully challenged the City’s efforts to retract the landmark status of the Grand Central Station in the 1970’s.

On December 8, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge dismissed Manning’s lawsuit, citing among her arguments an inability to “say that the City Council’s actions were arbitrary and capricious simply because the zoning does not mirror the Deed.”

The group will appeal the decision, Manning said. But for now, the city can move forward with one of the three proposals for island development, which were presented to the public by Mayor Eric Adams in October.

While Manning and the rest of the M.A.G.I.C.-plaintiffs may be the most vocal in their critique of the city’s plans for Governors Island, they are not the only ones expressing concern.

In a 2020 resolution, the Manhattan Community Board 1 wrote that “[i]n this very unpredictable time, the community does not have confidence that this proposal will develop as expected. Many have expressed fear over an undesirable result, such as more privatization” on the Island.

Although they have declined to officially comment on the three specific proposals, members of the Board echoed those concerns at a recent community board meeting. While the proposals all center a research facility, it is unclear to which degree they will each accommodate commercial use of Governor’s Island, one member pointed out. At the end of December 2022, the Board released a resolution urging the Trust for Governors Island to prioritize sustainability and the requirements of the deed..

Meanwhile, a fenced-in glamping (glamorous camping) resort has already taken residence on the island, representing the first hotel facility to benefit from a proposal put forward by the Trust in 2018 allowing for “interim entertainment and recreational uses“ on the island.

Valérie Hallier, an artist who frequently exhibits on the island, wouldn’t mind spending a night at the glamping resort. But, with prices starting at $450 for a night in a luxury tent, it is out of her price range, she said on a frosty November morning. She was sitting in her home in Westbeth Gallery in downtown Manhattan, an apartment complex that offers affordable housing to artists.

Governors Island first appeared on her radar in 2008 when she applied for an artist residency there. These are offered by different art organizations who rent the deserted buildings for artists to use as studios and exhibit space. Back then, Governors Island was just another place to work, Hallier said. Six residencies later, it has become something else. Slowly, her art has started referencing the space. Like the screaming booth she put up on the island for frustrated New Yorkers to enter during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Or the painting entirely colored with bright yellow paint made from buttercups she hand picked on the island.

Commercialization of the island could mean that rent prices will rise for the historical buildings on the northern part of the island. Hallier fears that this will eventually drive the smaller art organizations away from the island. With them, the residency-opportunities could disappear as well.

Savona Bailey-McClain is the executive director of one such organization, the West Harlem Arts Fund. Making sure that artists, specifically artists of color, have places to work is part of the reason why she pushed for the West Harlem Arts Fund to gain access to the island back in 2010. Though she would prefer not to comment on how the development will affect her organization, she said that the effects of urbanization is not just “a Governors Island problem. It’s an American problem.”

On the issue of whether development risks displacing activists, artists and other people who find peaceful recreation on the island, the Trust, which also represents the Mayor’s office on matters regarding Governors Island, told CNS that “[g]rowing Governors Island as a dynamic resource for open space and recreation, and arts and culture is a key part of the Trust’s mission. We’ve made demonstrated investments in expanding public access to the Island year-round, while growing our cultural program by presenting a increasing number of accessible arts programs, commissioning public artwork, and providing space for artists and cultural organizations, and remain committed to these efforts.”

On a recent afternoon, Roger Manning walked past a day spa that’s popped up on Governors Island, guitar strapped to his back. Here, robe-clad patrons can usually be seen drinking Aperol Spritzes on the porch. Manning doesn’t particularly mind the spa. At least, he said, it makes use of one of the historical buildings. At the same time, it adds to the amount of “rich-people-world stuff” appearing on the island.

“That’s what gentrification is. You get rid of us, and you come in with the expensive shops,” he said. On the horizon, another chartered helicopter was fast approaching.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from the Trust.

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