Douglas Durst had a plan for Governors Island.
The veteran commercial landlord, whose eponymous firm built the Bank of America Tower, wanted to adorn a piece of the flat ice-cream-cone-shaped spit off the tip of Lower Manhattan with a behemoth Ferris wheel, one akin to the London Eye that would give tourists and riders an unfettered and unrivaled panoramic city view. It was, according to multiple people familiar with the plans, to be an investment of upward of $100 million, and private investments are something the island has noticeably been without.
But before the plan could even see the light of day, it was, effectively, shelved for at least the next few years. This was due not to rejection of the concept-not to say everyone loved the idea-but due to the way in which the city in July grasped control of the island from the state.
In a legal and political twist, when the Bloomberg administration took over-a move that was made in an attempt to speed up development-it put in what could prove to be significant new barriers to any sort of quick development on the 172-acre, onetime Coast Guard base. Now, the island must go through the city’s seven-month rezoning process, which in turn must follow the creation of a giant environmental impact statement, which, for large projects, can take multiple years to create. In the meantime, no permanent commercial development can be permitted-no long-term retail; no boutique hotels; and, certainly, no Ferris wheels. (A spokesman for the Durst Organization declined to comment.)
The irony in all of this is that in jettisoning the state, with all its ever-frustrating bureaucracy and constant fiscal quandaries, the city lost the one entity that also had the ability to override the zoning. The city’s process, until complete, is filled with uncertainty—and uncertainty is a developer’s kryptonite. A state override, by contrast, gives developers far more confidence about the end result (this is in large part because there is less public input), allowing them more chances to ready plans and line up financing during public review. And long periods of uncertainty on an island that is still seeking a place in the minds of most New Yorkers, of course, would seem to present another obstacle to its eventual development.
Not to say the island’s backers are upset, though they recognize it as an issue.
The city’s process, until complete, is filled with uncertainty—and uncertainty is a developer’s kryptonite.
Ken Fisher, a land-use attorney who chairs the nonprofit advocacy group Governors Island Alliance, said the zoning process “is a much healthier way to build consensus for the future development of the island.”
“In the short term, it may present obstacles for proposals that didn’t fit within the current zoning,” he said. “In the long run, it may turn out to be beneficial.”
The Bloomberg administration contests the notion that the new zoning will actually throw up new hurdles, noting that whatever uncertainty it may cause pales in comparison to that of the prior structure of shared governance (although the city may have been able to craft a structure allowing for control and zoning override power). The strained state wrote funding out of the budget for the island, designs sat on a shelf, shutdown plans were drawn up and there was little forward thinking.
“Things were happening on the island in terms of programming, but in terms of the future, nothing was happening in terms of our ability to deliver more certainty to the development community,” said Leslie Koch, president of the city-controlled Trust for Governors Island.
“You’re talking to someone who literally had a plan locked away in a room for 11 months, so there’s a major transformation,” she added. “We are moving forward-we are going to City Hall every day, and every meeting starts with, ‘How can we get this done? How can we build this park?’ That is a sea change, and that is 1,000 percent the mayor’s commitment, [Deputy Mayor] Patti Harris’ commitment and the whole administration’s commitment.”
Specifics over the development process aside, that the island is now firmly in the city’s control opens a lot of windows, given that it is clearly among the mayor’s priorities, and that it has been put under the purview of top aide Ms. Harris. (That it is Ms. Harris, and not the deputy mayor for economic development, speaks to the administration’s priorities for the island: She oversees parks and arts.)
At the same time, it opens up a whole lot of questions, principally one that has dogged planners for years: What, exactly, is the city going to use Governors Island for?
SINCE THE FEDERAL government turned over control in 2002, Governors Island has been a giant blank slate for the city, but not one that anybody-yet-has been able to shape a well-defined vision for, given the many inherent challenges. It’s accessible only by a six-minute ferry ride; it needs hundreds of millions in infrastructure work (potable water is an issue, for one); an agreement with the federal government prohibits development of apartments; 92 acres are in a historic district.
And in the past two years, the answers to questions about the island’s future have not advanced much, in large part because of uncertainty over the governance of the island (which has now been resolved). That leaves the giant question of just who will inhabit and develop the island-be it a commercial landlord, say, or a university-and how the city should craft a path toward that end.
In the meantime, Ms. Koch has indeed done well at achieving something of a constituency by attracting tens of thousands of visitors throughout the summers (275,000 last year) to simply walk around and become attached to the island, its artistic offerings and its open space, a constituency that would presumably be up in arms if someone tried to shut down the island due to lack of funding.
Questions about just how the island will develop during Mayor Bloomberg’s final term will depend in large part on funding, and, for now, there is enough to start a small first phase of the park: $40 million to spruce up the northernmost end, around the set of historic college-campus-like buildings.
But that’s a fraction of the total cost of the park-estimated by the city at $200 million—which Ms. Koch said would come before any commercial development. That, in turn, will come as the city and prospective developers better digest what is possible on the island.
And given the stop-and-start (mostly stop) history of mega-development in this city, the gradual pace of development-perhaps while necessary-leads to some anxiety.
“If you look at all the publicity, it’s all about the park, and it’s all about the entertainment out there in the summer, all of which is great,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “But if they don’t get people in those buildings, aside from it being a city historic district, you’re really wasting a precious resource”
Still, Ms. Koch asked for a bit more patience.
“Thousands of people line up every single weekend day and come out here,” she said. “You have to be patient, but whether it’s transforming public space, or whether it’s the rise of the creative class, that’s how urban redevelopment is done.”