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What Is Governors Island For? Redevelopment Plan Ignites Controversy

Critics vow to fight on after Community Board One votes in favor of a massive rezoning of the popular recreational site in the middle of New York Harbor.

Roman Broszkowski Dec 24, 2020

Community members clashed with the Governors Island Trust for four hours on Tuesday over a proposed development plan for the island.

At its monthly meeting, Community Board One heard from people on both sides of the project before voting 26-3 in favor of a conditional rezoning resolution.

The Governors Island Trust proposal seeks to make the island financially self-sufficient as well as open year-round. Currently, Governors Island is open for only six months out of the year, and three-fourths of the island’s $20.45 million budget comes from city funds, while the remainder is earned through event revenue, vendor fees, rent, and grants.

The Trust’s plan would open roughly 43 percent of Governors Island’s southern portion to retail and hospitality development as well as refurbishing parts of the northern tip’s historic district for commercial, cultural, and educational use. Supporters of the plan have promised a brand new climate change research center will crown the island’s redevelopment as an anchor tenant.

“We believe that making this new space available on the south island will stimulate interest in the north island, encouraging tenants to propose combinations of historic rehabilitation and new construction,” Executive Director for The Friends of Governors Island Merritt Birnbaum said on Tuesday. “It will also assure the potential users of those historic buildings that the island will have the infrastructure, audience, and year-round access to support their activities.”

However, some community members and environmental activists have pushed back against development on the island.

“The community is happy with the open nature of Governors Island, the ephemeral nature of the programming, ” Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, an author and tour guide of Governors Island, said. “To say that we need to rezone it and build four and a half million square feet of space is kind of surprising to a lot of people.”

The island, as seen from the One World Trade Center. Photo: Flickr.

At its core, the disagreement between the Trust and community members is about what Governors Island is supposed to be. The tiny island — which sits in New York Harbor — is uninhabited and serves as a recreational escape from the city for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers each summer. The Trust has said that to secure the island’s financial future and expand its services to more people year-round, it must develop the island to bring in revenue.

“Creating and maintaining a pathway to financial self-sufficiency was always an important condition for the State and City when contemplating assuming responsibility for the island from the Federal Government specifically to prevent the island’s future operating, maintenance and redevelopment costs from creating a permanent burden on already stretched local tax resources,” James Yolles, a press representative for the Trust, wrote in an email to The Indypendent. “Future mixed-use development was … envisioned by the community of advocates that championed the transfer of the island from Federal to local control to support expanded use of the island, year-round public access and to fund preservation of the many historic assets.”

Opponents counter that financial self-sufficiency is an unnecessary burden to put on a public space and that it should remain publicly funded.

“Never has there been a moment or a time when there has been an expectation for Governors Island to be ‘self-sustainable’ financially,” State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou said at Tuesday’s meeting. “When we are discussing Governors Island, it is our government that is already funding a lot of these things and is expected to fund these things … to continue for [Governors Island] to be its goal which is a public space for everyone.”

Additionally, community members remain skeptical that such a development will benefit the public rather than just real estate developers.

The Governors Island Trust and community members disagree about whether the park should be publicly funded or rely on revenues generated by private sector development.

“This rezoning proposal is not about funding Governors Island. It’s not about a climate research hub. It’s essentially a real estate deal,” Roger Manning of Metro Area Governors Island Coalition wrote in an email to The Indypendent. “This is essentially the selling out of a public asset in order to bring in money for the city budget and individuals that would receive fees for their part in the process. Is this board [CB1] really willing to take on a Robert Moses type legacy for enabling those who want to build over an irreplaceable unique resource that belongs to all New Yorkers? All this over an operating budget equal to the price of two Brooklyn brownstones? Nothing requires developers to build anything resembling that of the current green-washed climate hub marketing; this is a blanket rezoning that subjects all existing parklands and open space to future takeover.”

The project comes at a time when the de Blasio administration is waging multiple rezoning battles simultaneously. For some, the proposed climate center — the jewel of the development — is simply a grand gesture meant to put some shine on a standard real estate deal and solidify Mayor de Blasio’s legacy as a “climate mayor.”

“I think [the administration] is trying to get [these rezoning plans] all through before the next [mayor’s term] as part of the legacy of the de Blasio administration,” Aaron Eisenberg, a climate activist with the NYC-DSA said. “[As for the climate center] I think that building a giant museum in a flood plain while fracking continues … [is about] building a museum to support the idea that you are going to be making change instead of actually making change … We should be working to end the era of grand gestures. “

The Governors Island Trust disagrees. They argue that as a unique entity, Governors Island faces more challenges than a regular park and must operate outside of a park funding paradigm.

“Maintaining a revenue stream is critical to operating a great public park and expanding access to that park,” Yolles wrote. “Governors Island, though, is more than simply a park. It’s a complex project with fundamentally different challenges from building and operating a park alone: for example, the need to restore and renovate more than a million square feet across 50 individual historic buildings, to maintain its utility and transportation infrastructure, and to provide additional services like transportation and telecommunications capacity.”

Yolles also says that accusations of “green-washing” are not accurate reflections of the development plan’s character. Instead, he argues that climate justice is hard-wired into the proposal.

“This [description] is unfortunate and simply inaccurate,” Yolles wrote. “We are committed to this vision, which celebrates the island’s unique character, expands on what existing partners are already doing, and leverages its unique environment. We have invested significant time in researching this concept, developing our plans, and are planning to release a solicitation targeting an academic institution or non-profit research institution focused on climate research and action in 2021.”

Still, some community members question the rationale behind investing so much money into building commercial space on a secluded island while storefronts and office spaces remain empty across the five boroughs.

“The amount of vacant office space is sky-high in the city right now, the amount of vacant hotel space is the highest in who knows how long. The fact that they want to build office buildings and hotels in a place that none are is unconscionable,” Fitzpatrick says. “I agree that there needs to be development in those two development zones … there is a very successful urban farm [on Governors Island] that fed a lot of people during the pandemic. That should be expanded.”

Yolles points out that the development plan does call for expanding existing tenants such as the NY Harbor School and that additional tenants will not just be commercial operations. In addition to the climate research center, the Governors Island Trust has been trying to attract academic institutions. Yolles said that they were already seeing interest but did not specify from which institution or in what capacity.

With Tuesday’s yes vote, the proposal advances to the Manhattan Borough President, the next step in a rezoning process in which City Council will have the final say. A rezoning hearing is scheduled for January.

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