A Dollar and a Dream

The story was legend, bordering on myth: in a helicopter over the New York harbor, Senator Patrick Moynihan and President Bill Clinton shook hands on a deal that would transfer Governors Island—a decommissioned military base that predates the War of 1812—to the city and state of New York for a dollar. Years passed, both men left office, and New Yorkers waited, their hopes waning that an almost magically empty 172-acre island just a half mile from downtown Manhattan could someday become a public place.

Finally in January 2003 the federal General Services Administration made good. Twenty-two acres of the island were handed over to the National Park Service for a historic monument, with the remaining 150 acres going to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), a state and city partnership. Indeed negotiated for a dollar, the transfer to GIPEC stipulates that the land be developed primarily for civic, educational, and cultural uses, including 40 acres of parkland and a possible City University of New York campus. Complicating the program is one caveat: the island must generate enough income to pay for its substantial upkeep.

Spearheading this thrilling if overwhelming challenge is newly appointed GIPEC president James Lima. A veteran of the New York City Economic Development Commission and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, he negotiated acquisition of the island and has led large-scale economic revitalization projects in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Metropolis senior editor Karen E. Steen spoke with him in early September, just as he was preparing to move into his new post.

Let’s start with the basic mandate for the island. What are the key elements stipulated by the transfer?
Deed restrictions ensure that Governors Island be a public place for the foreseeable future, that it be a major new public park, that it have educational uses, and that it host cultural arts—opportunities that bring the broadest spectrum of visitors, residents, and workers from the local area and region (and really everywhere) to the island. Specifically we’ve committed to not developing casinos on the island, which was a proposal that gained some momentum in the past. There’s also a fair degree of consensus that it not be utilized for permanent housing. There will be a lot of opportunity for hotels and extended-stay accommodations, dormitories related to the academic uses on the island, but the thought was that permanent housing is not the most public use for the place.

How do you integrate a new campus, hotels, a conference center, and so on, with the island’s historic character? Do you try to be contextual, or do you draw a line and say, “That’s historic over there, and over here we’re doing something else”?
The island can be thought of in two parts. The northern 90 or so acres are largely part of the original configuration, before the landfill addition. That’s the designated historic district [which includes the military fortifications Fort Jay and Castle Williams, erected prior to the War of 1812]. There are a couple of buildings that are considered intrusions into the historic district, which in the past preservation groups have called to be demolished, but are really exciting opportunities for contemporary buildings that are completely compatible with that unique historic district. South of Division Road are the 80-plus additional acres that the army created from the excavation of the east-side subway in the early 1900s: largely barrack housing, industrial-service buildings, and playing fields. There it’s a very different context, and as you move away from the historic district, the configuration of buildings, their size and scale, presents a different opportunity.

Is there a chance for international design competitions on Governor’s Island? Can we look forward to the possibility of a signature building?
I sure hope so. We’ll have a coordinated master-planning effort, in which GIPEC and the National Parks Service will come up with the site plan and program for the two parts of the island that complement each other. Individual projects that will come out of that master plan present really exciting opportunities for international calls for both landscape architecture and individual building design. It’s an extraordinary landscape-architecture assignment, an amazing opportunity to bring new buildings that relate to this incredibly rich existing landscape, and respond to the context, vistas, and history of the place.

The island is somewhat undefended geographically. Does the weather affect what can be done out there? Are there challenges, like how cold it gets, but also opportunities, like wind or wave power?
I can confirm it’s an extremely windy place, so we should look at the options for capturing some of these alternative energy sources. It’s going to be a factor: How do you create a harbor-front park that is enjoyable to use in the off-season, when it gets kind of cold and windy? That is part of the design challenge, in terms of building placement, site planning, and landscape planning.

We’re committed to making the entire island sustainable, so we’re overlaying that as one of the values on the island: converting the fuel we use for our ferries to cleaner alternatives; using the latest technologies including electric cars; the orientation of buildings; lowering energy needs; recycling water; exploring the possibilities of alternative energy sources and green roofs. We’re really excited about the idea of creating possibly the first entirely green environment on a considerable scale.

I’m an avid sailor, and living on a boat makes you very aware of how much water you use, the waste you create, and the energy you use from batteries and things. So it’s interesting to think of the island as a contained environment that ought to not only take care of itself but also not create excess waste.

How much of a role is there for the public in shaping the island’s development?
A whole range of civic groups have met under the umbrella of the Governors Island Alliance and Community Board 1 and thought about, What does New York City need?

That formed the basis for our deed restrictions.There were some pretty strong voices, a lot of public discussion that happened once the Coast Guard announced that they were leaving, in the mid-1990s. There was concern that the island could even get auctioned to a private developer. So the advocacy that came out of that fear led to some positive and focused ideas about it being a financially self-sustaining but still public place. The challenge now is to find ways to strike the right balance of commercially viable uses that actually generate revenue to pay the bills for what are very significant fixed costs for us: operating something that’s an island, has ferry-only access, has a sea wall of two and a half miles, and has 65 amazing historic properties that need constant maintenance and care. And then, prospectively, operating and maintaining a significant new park and supporting educational uses. We need some economic drivers here, and we need them early to really succeed. The hotel/conference idea we think can be a really good complement to the other uses on the island and a great fit with the specific buildings that are there now—and it would really benefit from the island’s character as a retreat and a sanctuary only five minutes from Wall Street.

Has the World Trade Center site-planning process brought more attention to city redevelopment projects, or does it end up stealing the spotlight?
I see this as being part of Lower Manhattan’s revitalization. We’re going to have some early positive new projects come on line that will, I think, be part of that healing process. We’ll be making recreational facilities on the island available quickly to community residents and coming up with a range of really interesting interim uses, such as art installations, performance art, and concerts. The public tours we started this summer sold out immediately. That was a first effort, even though we have only had the island for a few months, just to let the public get out there and see it. And it’s only reaffirmed what we suspected, which is that there is going to be tremendous excitement at discovering what’s just half a mile away.

Housing is not an option under the deed restrictions, so how do you create a neighborhood without neighbors? What can you do to build in personality that doesn’t feel like a theme park?
First you focus on establishing some key anchors that are going to help on the economic side—educational, entertainment, cultural, and historical destination uses. Then once you have a strong economic base to build from, you can start to pull in a whole range of other locally based uses and to adaptively reuse some of these historic buildings and encourage the island to be a place that’s about ideas, promoting the arts, and building upon the beauty that exists there in terms of both the landscape and the extraordinary architecture. This is going to be all about partnerships with private organizations, private investors, and philanthropists—people who see it as we see it, which is really as a legacy project. If somebody wants to shape a project at a location like no other, this is the place to do it. The Institute for the Study of…something. The Center for…blank.

I think it’s going to have a lot of personality. It has a well-defined personality now as a completely unique intact historic district, which comes as a surprise to everyone who goes there. You see the care that was taken to preserve these historic buildings—plus we’ve got a bowling alley, a golf course, swimming pools, tennis courts, major piers, and an extraordinary esplanade overlooking Ellis and Liberty islands and the Lower Manhattan skyline. It will become a great public place.

I’ve been involved in a lot of these large-scale plans, and this is one that everyone you talk to, no matter who they are, has such a great feeling about. It gives people a sense of hope and optimism about the potential we have to do great things that are very public and create a great quality of life experience in New York.

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