Mayor wants Governors Island, and Silver says he can have it

By Julie Shapiro

The city’s move to take over Governors Island appears to be gaining momentum.

The city and state now share control of the island and also share responsibility for funding it, an arrangement that often results in a tug of war during budget season and perpetual uncertainty over the island’s future.

The city wants to end that uncertainty by committing a larger chunk of money to the island over several years — but only if the city gains complete political control over the island as well. The Mayor’s Office is shopping the idea around to politicians and won support from Community Board 1’s Waterfront Committee last month. The Governors Island Alliance is also cautiously backing the proposal.

“The island could be better off having a single owner and a single management structure,” said Rob Pirani, executive director of the alliance.

Pirani pointed out that the island now has three masters: the city, the state and the Empire State Development Corporation, which is the parent organization of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation.

“It makes it tough to make decisions out there,” Pirani said. “Despite our best efforts, Governors Island…gets put on a heap and sometimes gets held hostage to other negotiations.”

Mayor Mike Bloomberg first floated the idea of a city takeover last year, when the state cut the island from its budget and put the island’s 2009 season at risk. The state eventually came through with the money at the last minute, but the budget uncertainty makes it difficult for GIPEC to plan ahead. The island attracted a record 275,000 visitors last summer.

Governors Island would likely be part of a larger city-state trade, but it is unclear what the other pieces will be. Last spring, Bloomberg suggested that the city get the island and Brooklyn Bridge Park in exchange for the state getting full control of the Javits Center project.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is talking to the Mayor’s Office about the city’s proposal, said Paul Goldstein, director of Silver’s district office.

“[Silver] has indicated that he’s not opposed to a city takeover,” Goldstein said, as long as the Lower Manhattan community continues to have a voice in the decisions.

After hearing from Pirani and Goldstein, C.B. 1’s Waterfront Committee voted unanimously Dec. 21 to support the city’s bid for the island. In addition to wanting a seat at the table, the community board had several other requests, including transparent governance, expanded ferry service and more space for indoor and outdoor recreation on the island’s 172 acres.

Pirani has some of his own conditions for a city takeover, including that the city reopen the Governors Island firehouse and staff it at all times and that the city officially map the island as parkland.

Josh Wallack, a senior policy advisor for the city on economic development, attended the Dec. 21 Waterfront Committee meeting but did not make a presentation. He promised that the city would put both operating and capital funds into the island and agreed with the board’s requests for transparency and accountability.

Pirani said that it was important to get as many of the details in writing as possible.

“As much as I trust this mayor,” Pirani said, “he’s not going to be mayor forever — at least I assume not.”