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Governors Island rezoning is wrong on so many levels

BY ALLIE RYAN | The Trust for Governors Island has applied to upzone the island potentially to make way for a climate-change research center.

The Trust’s proposed climate-change center is a speculative real-estate development. I do not know who benefits from this venture, but I do know that the 1 million New Yorkers who visit Governors Island every summer will lose.

A campus of 20-to-30-story buildings with a lawn in the middle does not encourage visitors. And if an academic or research group becomes an anchor tenant, they will probably not want touristy folks to leisurely explore the inner 40 acres of recreational public space.

A design concept showing what a new building near Governors Island’s eastern ferry dock might look like. (Trust for Governors Island)

New Yorkers deserve not just a better plan for Governors Island, but a better vision and master plan for Governors Island.

There’s so much else happening now, such as Mayor de Blasio’s frequent threat to lock down the city, the debate over remote learning versus in-person learning, monumental changes for admissions to New York City public middle schools and high schools, uncertainty about the Specialized High School Admissions Test and Gifted and Talented programs, as well as other controversial development plans being pushed around the city. It’s no wonder that my neighbors and friends are not aware of the Governors Island redevelopment plan. They do not know that they need to call or e-mail their elected officials to tell them that they care about Governors Island’s fate.

On Dec. 22, Community Board 1 voted no, with conditions, on the Governors Island rezoning plan, and on Mon., Jan. 25, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer will announce her decision on it. The next stage of the city’s formal public land-use review process will be at the Department of City Planning.

A new look for the island’s currently wide-open western promenade, as seen in a design rendering. (Trust for Governors Island)

The proposed climate-change research center would be built on 33 acres at the southern end of the island, with the opportunity to take over the buildings of nearby Liggett Hall and Colonel’s Row. In my opinion, the current playground areas would effectively become a collegiate lawn-like area similar to those found on campus-style colleges and universities and corporate headquarters around the country; so really, the proposed climate-change research center would take up half of the 172 acres of Governors Island.

This plan highlights the hypocrisy of the East Side Coastal Resiliency project and the impending demolition of East River Park. East River Park, with 60 acres, in a floodplain, will be raised 8 to 10 feet to withstand floodwaters for 100 years in the future. Yet the proposed climate-change center’s two sites are in floodplains on Governors Island.

Clare Newman, the Trust for Governors Island C.E.O. and president, acknowledged at a Nov. 2 C.B. 1 meeting that the two building sites were in floodplains, but with innovative architecture, they would be raised to avoid flooding issues. This means that the buildings would be raised 8 to 10 feet, which means that this proposed plan would destroy the bucolic setting of the southern end of the island and disrupt the views from the Great Promenade running the complete periphery of the island.

Governors Island’s bucolic landscape would be radically changed under the city’s 11th-hour rezoning and redevelopment plan. (Courtesy M.A.G.I.C.)

At this time, Earth Matter, GrowNYC and Urban Farm offer public art and programs to the island’s 1 million annual visitors. Establishing Governors Island as a 24/7 community has already been achieved with the Harbor School, Lower Manhattan Arts Community Center, New York University’s 100 Billion Oyster Project, play:groundNYC and Works on Water.

The Trust for Governors Island has presented financials that show that this development project would not enable Governors Island to achieve financial self-sufficiency until 2050 — under pre-COVID conditions. But the Trust’s assertion that Governors Island must become financially self-sufficient is not written in the deed or anywhere else. So that is not actually required and there certainly is not a deadline — it’s just the Trust’s way of pushing its project through.

A 2010 master plan ushered in a 40-acre park, including features such as Picnic Point, two ball fields, The Hills: Grassy Hill, children’s favorite Slide Hill, Discovery Hill and Outlook Hill, where a photo is worth a 1,000 words, Hammock Grove and food-truck vendors on the southern end of the island that are mainly accessed during the summer season.

A concept showing what a new “Living Lab” might look like on the southeastern part of Governors Island. (Trust for Governors Island)

The 2018 zoning changes enabled new development on Governors Island to include mixed-use buildings and office space for “academic, commercial, nonprofit, cultural, convening and hospitality facilities.” So it is questionable why the Trust is now applying to upzone the southern end of the island for commercial use. A federal deed restricts residential development on Governors Island. Student dorms and hotels are permitted.

During the COVID-19 lockdown New Yorkers desperately needed outdoor green space. In fact, the City Council implemented an Open Streets program to create more outdoor space so New Yorkers could comply with the social-distancing requirement of being 6 feet apart.

Meanwhile, in 2019, Mayor de Blasio and Councilmember Carlina Rivera approved the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which basically proposed to demolish East River Park because it is in a floodplain and raise it 8 to 10 feet. De Blasio’s administration and Rivera are still willingly closing a heavily used, active 60-acre park for at least five years at a projected $1.45 billion cost to taxpayers. And now the de Blasio-appointed Trust for Governors Island is proposing to close Governors Island’s southern end, another popular, heavily used, active recreational public space, and turn it into a construction site for at least 10 years, meaning the projected reopening would be 2030. This is outright inhumane.

The popular Hammock Grove would certainly have a different feeling if hemmed in by new buildings for a proposed climate-change center, as seen in the design rendering above. (Trust for Governors Island)

According to New York magazine, “The city is now projected to face a $13.2 billion budget gap over the next four years. And so far, its government has made little tangible effort to address the shortfall.”

The Trust has not released any financials about what tax incentives it will offer to attract an anchor tenant or other tenants. Collaborating with the deputy mayor of housing and economic development, the Trust projects that, with rental income from the redevelopment project, 2050 would be the breakeven year for the island to become financially self-sufficient. Yet there is no mention of alternative scenarios to building this climate-change center.

In December, the Real Estate Board of New York, or REBNY, proposed to turn empty Midtown offices into apartments because only 1 in 10 workers had returned to their offices as of October. So it appears that Manhattan has a surplus of office space, which is far easier to access by mass transit than Governors Island.

Finally, and perhaps most disheartening, the students and parents of Urban Assembly Harbor School — which would be cast in permanent shadows by the proposed 30-story buildings on the island’s west side — have been vocal at C.B. 1 meetings, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s lively public hearing and in public comments, repeatedly asking for a gymnatorium and a pool. Some of the parents are even begging to expand the Harbor School into the island’s neighboring vacant hospital building. This is a prime example of a school and students in need. Why wasn’t Harbor School given access to the unused gymnasium in Liggett Hall and the empty Colonels Row Theater?

The writer’s marriage to Chris Ryan in 2010 was celebrated with an after-wedding Critical Mass bike ride around Governors Island. (Video by Barbara Ross)

This rezoning proposal is not about funding Governors Island. It is not about a climate-research hub. It is essentially a real-estate deal with no formal requirement for an academic anchor tenant. This is a blanket rezoning that subjects all existing parklands and open space to future takeover. It also fails to accommodate the needs of the Urban Assembly Harbor School. The resulting development from this proposal would not enable Governors Island to achieve financial self-sustainability for many years to come, and in fact would cost taxpayers millions during that period.

Common sense should prevail. The city cannot afford to go forward with building a climate-change complex. For the sake of New Yorkers’ health and mental stability, we need Governors Island to retain its welcoming, open, expansive, parkland quality. The Trust for Governors Island should withdraw this plan.

Ryan is a co-founder, along with Roger Manning, of Metro Area Governors Island Coalition (M.A.G.I.C.). They are both longtime Governors Island devotees and Lower Manhattan residents. They have created a petition opposing the current Governors Island plan and calling for it to be sent back to the drawing board.


  1. Lorraine Lorraine January 28, 2021

    This is the worse idea ever ! Totally ruining a peaceful and restful area for everyone to enjoy.
    Maybe the Mayor should clean up NYC first and use abandoned areas for all these new projects.

  2. Mata Hari Mata Hari January 27, 2021

    Thanks Allie, for further proof, that de Blasio is in the developers’ deep pockets. Bloomberg never met a building he didn’t approve, but at least he had the decency to expand our car-free and bike-friendly spaces. DB is like…”Kids? Seniors? Green Space? Artists? Nahhhh.” Some of our last open spaces are being eyed greedily by developers and in they come rushing, all wearing pro-environment masks. Shame. Re-think the Gov’s Island and the ERP plans and put people and trees first.

  3. PJ PJ January 25, 2021

    Thank you Allie for a passionate and well-reasoned advocacy for Governors Island and East River Park. Please listen, NYC.

  4. Choresh Wald Choresh Wald January 25, 2021

    Thanks for raising the awareness on this. This is another terrible plan by the corrupt de Blasio administration, same as the destruction of the East River Park.

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