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The Last Best Place

Millions of New Yorkers and visitors love Governors Island as an oasis. And what’s not to love? Historic forts, a campus-like setting of former military homes, art and cultural programs, fabulous open space, and landscaping offering unmatched views of the City and harbor.

So, despite its great success as a refuge from City bustle, Mayor de Blasio wants to rezone the south side of the Island to allow 20 to 30 story buildings and 4.3 million square feet of new building bulk. The illustrations from the Trust for Governors Island aren’t real architectural designs–thank goodness. But it is disturbing that they apparently think out-of-scale buildings that lack any connection to the special physical and visual characteristics that define the Island, are fine. They are not. Community Board 1 opposes the rezoning. Alex Herrera, our Technical Director, submitted our objections at a meeting held by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer last Wednesday.

Illustrations courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island

The Conservancy has been involved with Governors Island since the Coast Guard left in 1996. We consulted on guidelines for maintaining the historic buildings, lobbied to get the Federal government to sell it to us for $1, helped form the “Friends of Governors Island” and serve on the Trust’s advisory committee. We have been pleased to work with the Trust and appreciate their care for the historic buildings on a limited budget.

The northern part of the Island includes the historic forts in a National Monument administered by the National Park Service. The rest is a City designated historic district. The southern part of the Island was cleared of non-historic structures and some type of development was always envisioned there.

Years ago, people proposed everything from a giant television tower, to a casino, to a Greenwich Village-like neighborhood of four-story homes for the southern part. A current Mayoral candidate is suggesting a casino again. Permanent housing is prohibited until 2060 by the Federal deed. Developers never rushed in because of the limited infrastructure and the difficulty of transporting personnel and material to the Island. That still exists.

The current proposal is yet another example of the City trying to allow out-of-scale development in order to fund public amenities. The Trust is promoting the idea of creating an environmental sustainability hub, along with commercial, retail, and hotel space. We know the Mayor has reduced the Trust’s funding, and they need resources. But this is public land. Financial return can’t be the only driving force.

We don’t object to new buildings there. The Climate Solutions Center is a fine idea. But the Island’s beautiful historic buildings are still largely empty. Finding appropriate uses for them should be an equal priority. And any and all new development should respect the unique history and character of the Island.

The rezoning is going through the City’s public review process. It will be at City Planning next month, followed by the Council. Normally, the Council Member whose district a proposal is in has the crucial vote. But this is a very special resource for the entire City. We will alert you when these upcoming hearings are scheduled and ask you to reach out. Let’s make sure that City Planning and all the Council Members know that Governors Island cannot be ruined by overdevelopment. It must be protected.

Peg Breen, President
The New York Landmarks Conservancy

For more info about Governors Island, you can watch a video we made in 2011.

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