A M.A.G.I.C. lawsuit hopes to halt the Governors Island rezoning
By Matt Hickman • November 16, 2021 • Development, East, News, Urbanism
Roger Manning, co-founder of the Metro Area Governors Island Coalition (M.A.G.I.C.), has filed an article 78 lawsuit against New York City seeking to nullify the rezoning of the southern end of Governors Island.
Approved by the New York City Council in late May of this year following a round of modifications, the rezoning will allow up to roughly 3.78 million square feet of new development within a designated 34-acre zone (established in West 8’s 2010 master plan) of the historic former military installation-turned-urban oasis located just off the southern tip of Manhattan. The lawsuit, filed pro se by Lower Manhattan resident and self-described ”Governors Island regular” Manning on September 25, alleges that the rezoning is in direct violation of the Governors Island 2003 Deed as it “alters the purpose of NYC’s uniquely welcoming spacious green urban refuge by paving the way for high-rise, high density private development.”
“The Deed was established to ‘ensure the protection and preservation of the natural, cultural, and historic qualities of Governors Island,’ so that the Island would serve as ‘an educational and civic resource of special historic character and as a recreational and open space resource’ — not provide a blank canvas for developers,” reads a press release announcing the lawsuit, which was filed against New York City Council, outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York City Planning Commission, and the nonprofit Trust for Governors Island.
As envisioned, the redevelopment zone will be anchored by a planned climate solutions center that has been steadily moving along since the rezoning was formally greenlit in what Tom Angotti, professor emeritus of urban policy and planning, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, has described as de Blasio’s “good-bye gift to real estate.”
Late last month, the city announced that it has received 12 expressions of interest from over 30 global academic and nonprofit research institutions vying to establish the research hub on the 172-acre island, which is currently home to, among other features, National Park Service-administered historic sites in its northern section, public art and cultural venues, the New York Harbor School, and a wildly popular 42-acre park.
“As we recover from the ongoing pandemic, New York City will continue to do what we do best—bring forward bold and creative solutions to pressing problems,” said Trust for Governors Island chair and former deputy mayor Alicia Glen in September 2020 of the then newly unveiled climate solutions center plan. “As a city of islands with 520 miles of coastline, the devastating impacts of climate change remain one of the most urgent issues facing our communities. This exciting plan for Governors Island will bring a tremendous resource that not only represents an important step forward for the City’s recovery, but also acknowledges and builds upon our history as the global center for innovation and progress.”
Just today, the Commercial Observer published an op-ed Jessica Lapin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, stating that “too little attention has been paid to this potentially game-changing project” that promises an estimated 7,000-plus direct new jobs and roughly $1 billion in economic impact.
M.A.G.I.C. is certainly paying attention. While the group, which was founded in November 2020 by Manning and Allie Ryan, isn’t necessarily rallying against the climate solutions center itself, it does assert that the project doesn’t need to be located on Governors Island and alleges that it serves as a shield of sorts for additional development on the southern end of the island that, as claimed by M.A.G.I.C., faces “strong community opposition.”
“The rezoning approved on May 27, 2021 was not necessary to facilitate the City’s highly promoted climate solutions center concept. But the not legally required climate center concept was necessary to sell the unpopular high rise, high density largely commercial rezoning to the public. The rezoning went far beyond what was needed to expand permitted uses on the South Island and is not justified by the City’s two key rationales: financial self-sufficiency for GI and year-round general public access (as evidenced by the announcement in October that the island is now year-round to the public). Resulting development permitted by the upzoning won’t pay for the island’s needs — at least not until 2050 — according to the Trust for Governors Island’s own speculative projections which Community Board 1 labeled as insufficient. And now, while no new development has occurred since the zoning approval, $150 million in funds and year-round general public access have suddenly materialized casting doubt on the City’s transparency.”
A comprehensive “fact sheet for developers” compiled by M.A.G.I.C. goes on to detail numerous arguments against the rezoning including, but not limited to, claims that:
- The development area is within a flood zone that was inundated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012;
- NYC Sierra Club, NYC Friends of Clearwater, and other groups oppose the City/Trust’s current redevelopment plan;
- The planned development will “threaten over 50 mature trees in the eastern zone” and the “newly allowed heights and density are radically out of character with the historic and bucolic nature of the island;”
- The Governors Island’s current ferry-only accessibility is not practical for such a sizable swath of new development.
Since filing the lawsuit, M.A.G.I.C. has launched a $25,000 Trees Not Towers Governors Island Legal Fund and is seeking donations with the More Gardens! Fund serving as nonprofit fiscal sponsor. The group has also released what it believes to be a less intrusive alternative plan for the development zones on Governors Island.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Trust for Governors Island said: “The City has long envisioned the South Island Rezoning as a critical investment in the future of Governors Island as a resource for all New Yorkers, and the planned Climate Solutions Center is at the heart of that vision. We are fully confident that the rezoning was undertaken and approved in accordance with the law.”
Meanwhile, just up the East River, the litigation-plagued rebuilding of East River Park to double as a flood barrier has been slapped with another lawsuit, this one alleging that the number of women- and minority-owned businesses involved in the contentious resiliency project falls significantly short of established mandates. “I don’t know if there’s any way to stop the rash of lawsuits that’s become so common in current New York public life,” said de Blasio in specific reference to the string of East River Park lawsuits. “But I do know this is a good project, and I am confident it will move forward and will win the day in court, ultimately.”