amNY News 1/27/2021
BY KIRSTEN THEODOS
Heads up, New Yorkers, the city appears set to privatize a huge chunk of our beloved Governors Island even though a restricted deed limits the island’s use to be for “public benefit.”
In 2018, the de Blasio administration announced a massive rezoning for this incredibly unique green urban refuge in New York City. Kicking off the process for rezoning, the CEO of the Trust that operates Governors Island (a former executive from Related Companies, a la Hudson Yard) stepped down and former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Alicia Glen, was installed. Glen quickly got the Trust’s mission changed to be about “bold visions” and “full potential” and partnered with “Friends of Governors Island,” a nonprofit dominated by big real estate firms such as Tishman Speyer, Related and Blackstone.
In September, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the city resumed the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and began fast tracking rezonings for Governors Island, Flushing, SoHo/NoHo and Gowanus, Brooklyn. The city’s proposal for upzoning Governors Island’s southern half will allow buildings as high as 300 feet (none of the buildings currently exceed five stories) while dangling a climate center as bait. Per the deed agreement, permanent residential development is barred — but hotels and dorms are permitted. The rezoning proposal — which is about three times as large as what was originally proposed in 2013 — also paves the way for department stores and other commercial and office uses.
The purported goal is to create financial self-sufficiency, but that’s something that likely won’t be achieved until 2050, according to the Trust’s own projections. Yet today, the island is already mostly self-sufficient in terms of basic maintenance.
So why bring in such massive development? More alarming is the suspicious timing of key ULURP hearings taking place on days when the community is distracted from voicing opposition. On the eve of Election Day, Manhattan Community Board 1 held its first public hearing regarding Governors Island. On Dec. 14th, the day of the Electoral College vote, CB1’s Land Use Committee held a hearing to vote on rezoning Governors Island. Just last week, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer quietly announced she is going to host a panel discussion about rezoning Governors Island on Jan. 20 — Inauguration Day. The ULURP public review process during COVID-19 has been utilizing a deficient virtual platform causing equity, access and transparency issues.
Just last week, a NYS Supreme Court judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the city that blocks the Gowanus rezoning from moving forward because the de Blasio administration failed to follow the due process and notification provisions in the City Charter. The TRO is part of a larger lawsuit challenging the city’s attempt to proceed with “virtual-only” public hearings, brought by the community coalition Voice of Gowanus. The city tried to overturn that ruling (our tax dollars at work) and got shot down again.
Governors Island is a beautiful, historic place that should remain a shared public park for future generations. Better alternatives exist that can generate revenue with the existing stock of buildings while doing less harm to the National Historic District and to the function of the island as a calm respite from the city. The island should stay public, with low-rise buildings surrounded by trees. Our public parkland should not be turned over to private developers and turned into another Hudson Yards.
Kirsten Theodos is part of Human-Scale NYC, an informal coalition and alliance of community organizations and civic groups concerned with city planning, overdevelopment, tenants’ rights, preservation, parks, and public space management.
*** All op-eds posted on amNewYork Metro reflect the opinion of the author, and not necessarily those of this publication or its affiliates.