Stopping to smell the island roses while eyeing the bottom line


By Josh Rogers

A father and son cycle around a hill near fields of grass, spy a homemade-looking miniature golf course, leave their bikes behind without a care and shoot a few holes for free.

The real life scene last week wasn’t in a place hours from Wall St. It was minutes.

Governors Island, a seven-minute ride from Lower Manhattan, ends its season this weekend with a literal bang. On Friday, the state-city agency running the island, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, plans to demolish ten buildings with the closest view to the Statue of Liberty in order to clear 8 more acres of park space for next season.

Leslie Koch, GIPEC’s president, said she scheduled the demolition on a day when the island was open to the public and "all the little boys" who relish seeing big machines at work.

Koch said "I was telling this to somebody and he was like ‘what about a little 66-year-old boy? Can I come?’"

And she obviously wasn’t speaking literally. There apparently is also a "little boy" in the 46-year-old woman who is behind the opening of the long-hidden island to over 100,000 New Yorkers. Koch plans to be right there with the girls and boys watching the destruction.

"I’ve been treating it like a normal day but I have to change all of my meetings," she said.

[Mayor Bloomberg joined her, island lovers and at least two former island residents to watch the demolition.]

Last week, Koch led a Downtown Express reporter and photographer on a bike tour through the island’s winds on Friday, a day which has become known as free bike day on the island. I brought my own, but Koch insisted I not lock it up as we left the bikes to explore the island’s historic buildings and art exhibits.

"We’ve never had a theft," she told me with confidence.

She grew up riding on the city’s streets, but now she leaves her Trek on the island, afraid to ride it anywhere in N.Y.C. but the island’s four miles of open, car-free roads. Next season, she hopes to have the entire 2.2 mile perimeter of the island open for bikers and walkers.

A cynic might say thefts are not a problem since there is no easy escape, but Koch thinks the island’s access difficulties creates a slower-paced, small town feeling. Unlike Central and Prospect Parks, no one is walking through the island to get to somewhere else, she said.

"If you’re coming here you are definitely not going anywhere," she said. "You’re here to relax."

And more people came this year than ever before, making about 120,000 visits, many of them repeats. The number is about double the 2007 numbers, which were about double from 2006. The vast majority are city residents (last year it was over 95 percent and 10 percent came from Lower Manhattan), but Koch suspects the percentage of tourists is growing and will continue to do so.

"Tourists want to go where New Yorkers go," she said. GIPEC is still collecting and tabulating visitor surveys for this year.

The rising numbers are fueled by several factors: free ferry service, more events, art projects and expanded days. This year the island was open three days — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — compared to two in 2007, and it is staying open through mid-October when last year it closed after Labor Day.

Koch wanted people to see the island’s fall foliage, but if she could, she’d keep the island open all year long. "Oct. 12 is our last day — it’s very sad," she said.

The visitor success is only the first part of Koch’s long-term goal of "bringing the island back to life."

Looking around the Colonial style historic buildings surrounding Nolan Park, she said, "these are all empty. It looks lovely right now but it’s a ghost town….Nobody wants to be first on an abandoned island. You’ll hear people walking through the island saying this is a perfect place for a college campus — I completely agree — but it requires an actual college to want to do that."

The island will be a little more active this off-season, with artists working daily on work that will be on display next season. Creative Time is also working on a three-month exhibit with many artists.

GIPEC is also evaluating responses to Requests for Proposals for an art and dining venue and for a permanent art studio and exhibition space it hopes to have both in place by next spring.

The island’s historic buildings total 1.4 million square feet and are quite expensive to maintain. GIPEC’s capital budget is $20 million and its operating budget is $17 million. The free ferries cost $2 million a year to run. In the off-season, it serves GIPEC staff, contractors and tenants.

The costs to maintain empty, historic buildings will rise with time and rent is needed to offset it, Koch said.

The maintenance costs and access problems were the main reasons the Coast Guard left the island in 1996 and the federal government returned the island back to New York for $1 after years of broken promises and Congressional fights

GIPEC selected West 8 architects for a grand park plan with rolling hills made from recycled materials last year. The design is being refined, but Koch acknowledged it will be a long time before the state and city will have the $400 million it will take to build it.

"This is a project that will happen when New York is ready for it to happen," she said. "The mayor and governor are going to have to decide — not just in these hard times but going forward — balancing the needs of Governors Island versus all of the communities in New York …. These are hard choices."

The same ideas that have been talked about for the island for over a decade remain on the table — universities, schools, hotels and conference centers.

After New York finally got the island back five years ago, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and then-Gov. George Pataki toured it saying some CUNY campuses would move to the island freeing up high school space on the mainland, but it never happened. Two years ago, the city enlisted famed architect Santiago Calatrava to draw an aerial gondola which would have connected the island to Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, but the idea never got off the ground, figuratively or literally.

The School Construction Authority is building a new high school for New York Harbor School which is expected to open on the island in 2010

"Ultimately we need tenants," Koch said. "We’ve got one. We have 51 more to go."