For Governors Island, the wrong way forward -Daily News 2/28/21

By Jeffrey A. Kroessler (President of the City Club of New York.)
New York Daily News |
Feb 28, 2021 at 5:00 AM

Governors Island (Shutterstock)

When mayoral candidate Andrew Yang suggested that Governors Island would be a terrific place for a casino, the idea generated immediate scorn. What could be less appropriate for that public gem in the harbor? Yet today, a plan for massive development is swiftly advancing through the political process with barely a speed bump in its way.

We want to know: What happened to the grand public playground New Yorkers were promised?

The City of New York acquired Governors Island from the federal government in 2003 for $1. That token amount was to assure clearly that the island’s future would guarantee a public purpose. Fulfilling that public purpose is the mandate of the Trust for Governors Island.

Regrettably, the Trust has redefined public purpose to mean private development benefiting private entities. They have proposed erecting two massive towers on the island — one would rise 30 stories, the other 20 — with additional office space. Much of the shoreline in the lower portion of the island would be lined with large office buildings. The public recreation ground would be a construction site for the next decade.

City Planning is now considering whether to approve that plan.

The 2003 agreement included specific restrictions on future uses “to ensure the protection and preservation of the natural, cultural and historic qualities of Governors Island, guarantee public access to this magnificent island, promote the quality of public education, and enhance the ability of the public to enjoy Governors Island and the surrounding waterways, thereby increasing the quality of life in the surrounding community, the city, the state and the United States.” Specifically banned were casinos and residential development.

The current proposal defines public benefit as the financial benefits that would flow to the Trust. We suggest that New Yorkers might place other outcomes ahead of the bottom line of the Trust and its partners. Not incidentally, the city would be off the hook for funding the operation of Governors Island.

Our members — architects, planners, attorneys, academics, and preservationists — rated the best course for the island’s future from zero to five. Zero meant abandoning the island and letting nature take its course; an intriguing experiment, but no one seriously embraced the notion. Five meant maximizing development; that is, too much would not be enough.

The result was about 1.5. Some construction is necessary, and would no doubt enhance the experience of visitors, but no one thought that commercial development of any kind was appropriate. We expect that most New Yorkers would agree. What the trust is proposing is about 4.5.

The Trust claims that they need this to generate the $20 million that it costs to manage the place. First, we question whether the city should rightfully rely upon private funding to support our public parks, and second, why private entities should determine what kind of public spaces the public gets to enjoy, and under what conditions.

A climate research center supposedly justifies 4 million square feet of new space. But that center does not even exist. It is just an idea to fill a small portion of the new campus, alongside the hotel and spas and other commercial uses. If they are serious and not simply dangling this carrot before us, they should create the center and house it in one of the underutilized landmarked buildings. The largest structure, built in the 1920s, could house an entire Army division, more than 10,000 men. Surely there is room enough in that mostly empty building. But the Trust sees greater financial benefit in new towers than in fully restoring and utilizing the assets in their care.

What is the alternative to a glitzy new research campus? A robust public realm does not preclude new construction, but it must be specifically for public use. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide recreation facilities for our schoolchildren. Imagine indoor and outdoor soccer fields, swimming pools, a cricket ground, a track-and-field complex. Too many public schools lack any such athletic facilities.

New Yorkers will not benefit from office towers and hotels on Governors Island, but the Trust surely will. This arrangement is but another example of the city shrugging off its responsibility to plan for the greater good and partnering with private interests for crumbs. New Yorkers are not fooled.

We were promised recreation grounds, not another technology center like that built on Roosevelt Island. This precious ground must not be handed over to private interests for private profit. It must be dedicated to a public purpose and public uses that any New Yorker would recognize. With this proposal, the Trust betrays our trust.

Kroessler is the president of the City Club of New York.

Published by The New York Daily News