Gov Island progressing, needs anchor tenant


BY Aline Reynolds

Governors Island has come a long way since opening to the public in 2004.

But there’s still considerable work to be done before it becomes the premier tourist destination it hopes to be.

The Trust for Governors Island, responsible for maintaining the grounds since it was transferred to the city last April, has spruced up the island’s public space and has already made $24 million in renovations to it historic buildings. Some of them are already being used to house art exhibits, cultural programs and a school.

The island’s partial makeover contributed to the record 443,000 visitors that took ferries to the island last summer – a 60 percent increase from 2009. Due to popular demand, the island will open on Memorial Day next year, prior to the official start of summer in June.

But the massive overhaul of the island, which will cost an estimated $200 million, isn’t slated to begin until Fall 2012. Currently, it is still in the design phase.

To date, $30 million has already been allocated to refurbish some of the island’s parks and public space, a major catalyst for the island’s transformation, according to Leslie Koch, president of the T.F.G.I. She outlined the various phases of the overhaul project at a City Council hearing chaired by Councilmember Margaret Chin two weeks ago.   

Renovations to the island’s 87 acres of park and public space include an upgrade of Soissons Landing, the arrival point of ferry riders commuting from Lower Manhattan; new benches and lighting in the public domain; and additional outdoor recreational areas for biking and team sports. The T.F.G.I. also plans to create 40 acres of parkland and a clear-cut promenade for bikers and walkers that wish to circle the island.

Koch will be presenting the T.F.G.I.’s first-phase design plans to Community Board 1’s planning and community infrastructure and waterfront committees in February. Next summer’s programming and events itinerary, she said, will be ready by March.

“We plan to do ongoing public outreach, so people can see the evolution of these designs,” said Koch.

Securing tenants is an equally integral part of the T.F.G.I.’s master plan: apart from 33 southern acres that have been designated for new development, 52 buildings in the island’s Historic District will be available for tenant occupancy, according to Koch.   

Some C.B. 1 members, however, fear that new development on the island could take away from additional recreational green space that is lacking in Lower Manhattan.

The existing natural landscape should be preserved and the T.F.G.I. should avoid creating artificial turf, which is costly and encourages commercial development, according to Jeff Galloway, chair of C.B. 1’s Planning and Community Infrastructure committee, who testified at the hearing.

“We want to still have Governors Island be a community asset, a place that people could go and enjoy,” said Galloway.

Certain kinds of development, he added, may or may not be consistent with the Board’s recommended mission to preserve green space. “We just have to see what the [development] plans would be,” Galloway said, before making a general assessment.

The island’s existing athletic fields that are used by Downtown Little League, Manhattan Youth and other Downtown sports leagues, he noted, are in poor shape.

“What we’d like to see is those fields be made more permanent and up to standards,” said Galloway, to accommodate the recent influx of Downtown sports teams.    

But construction and occupancy in the southern part of the island seem to be far off. The T.F.G.I. has received few requests thus far for future tenancy, attributing the lack of interest to the struggling economy. The companies or organizations that would occupy the space, Koch explained, would be responsible for construction costs, and many of them aren’t prepared to make such capital investments.

Koch is confident, however, that leasing activity will pick up once the renovations continue. “We think, starting with the park and public space, we’re demonstrating the public sector’s commitment to the island, and also with the high standards of design to that space,” she said. “We’ll be setting standards for design for future new construction on the island as well.”

The island, Koch explained, has already made modest strides in attracting tenants. The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School moved into the island’s historic buildings last September, achieving a better attendance rate than at its previous site in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Last summer, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council rented out artist studio space for nearly 50 artists, the Water Taxi Beach hosted a summer concert series and served food and beverages to visitors along the waterfront.

These tenants, like any future occupants of indoor space on the island, underwent a competitive Request for Proposals process administered by the T.F.G.I. The R.F.P.s for future business will be released on a need-by-need basis, depending on feasible tenancies and market interest, according to T.FG.I. spokesperson Elizabeth Rapuano.

The December 17 hearing coincided with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement of an initiative to create an engineering and applied sciences research center. The mayor is considering opening the facility on Governors Island, among other possible sites.

“The City is committed to finding the right partner and providing the support needed to establish such a facility because research in the fields of engineering, science and technology is creating the next generation of global business innovations that will propel our economy forward,” Bloomberg said in a statement.

Koch didn’t comment on the mayor’s endeavor, but said the T.F.G.I. is on the lookout for an “anchor” academic institution or research facility on the island.

Governor’s Island once served as a military base until 1997. It derived its name from its occupancy by British royal governors, who used it as a retreat prior to the 1800s.