Governors Island

In January 2001, then-President Bill Clinton designated Governors Island, a former United States Army and Coast Guard military base off the southern tip of Manhattan, a historic district in an effort to enhance the island’s public use. In March 2002, then-President George W. Bush, New York State then-Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Governors Island would be sold to the City of New York and New York State for a nominal fee.

On January 31, 2003, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) transferred the 22-acre National Monument property to the Department of the Interior, to be managed by the National Parks Service (NPS), and the remainder of the Island to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), a New York not-for-profit corporation created in 2002 by the New York State for the purpose of owning and managing the 172-acre island, for $1.

As part of the transfer to GIPEC, the federal, state and local governments agreed to deed restrictions requiring – among other things – public accessibility, programming and uses that benefited the public, parkland, educational uses, and historic preservation. At least 40 acres must be for parkland, at least 20 acres for educational uses, and 30 acres for “public benefit uses.” The remaining land, about one-third of the island, can be used for other uses, including commercial.

In January 2004, GIPEC selected a consulting team for Governors Island pre-development and planning. Following the work of the consulting team, a request for expression of interest was issued by GIPEC in 2005. This bid was directed at developers, investors, and a range of potential tenants.

GIPEC received 96 submissions and utilizing these submissions GIPEC issued three Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for various design and use aspects. GIPEC ultimately threw out all proposals, stating that “none of the whole island proposals met enough of the high standards set out in the RFP selection criteria, including a coherent vision supported by market data, financial return and funding sources, combined with the depth of team experience that would be expected as part of a deal to justify a designation.”

Thus, GIPEC decided to focus on the parkland components instead of selecting a long-term partner for redevelopment. On November 12, 2006 the group issued a Request for Statements of Qualification (RFQ) for professional design services for “new and historic parklands and [the] waterfront promenade”.

In January 2006, the City and State pledged to contribute a combined $60 million toward Governors Island’s preservation and redevelopment, although an alliance of civic groups said that this would not be enough. Free ferry rides from Lower Manhattan to Governors Island began in the summer of 2006, attracting 26,000 visitors, up from 8,000 in 2005. In 2006 it was also announced that Bushwick’s public New York Harbor School would relocate to the Island in 2010.

Governors Island development continued in 2007, as the City and State again split operating costs. In June 2007 a new operator was chosen to run the free ferry transportation to the Island, and in July 2007, GIPEC purchased a new ferry.

Free transportation to the island, bicycle rentals, cultural events, and recreational activities attracted over 100,000 visitors to Governors Island in 2008, as compared to 56,000 visitors in 2007. The island’s success as a visitor destination led to the planning of more projects, such as an entertainment complex, art studio, and exhibition space.

Developments on the island continue to evolve. In April 2009, the NPS announced that a portion of federal stimulus money would be allocated to stabilize Castle Williams, a monument on the island. Liberty Village, a Coast Guard housing complex built in 1988, was torn down and the site converted to a picnic area for the summer of 2009.

The demolition of Liberty Village also opened the island’s 2.2-mile perimeter to pedestrians and bicyclists for the first time. $120 million in public financing has been invested in the project thus far and demolition and conversion to parkland is expected to be entirely complete in 2012 – although more funding will likely be needed.

In June of 2009, the GIPEC collaborated with Brooklyn non-profit Added Value to open a 3-acre organic farm that is expected to generate tens of thousands in revenue. The revenue will support stipends for the teens who work and learn at the farm. A waterfront site called Water Taxi Beach opened in July of 2009 and offers dining and evening concerts.

While interest in Governors Island continues to grow and activities and attractions multiply, uncertainty surrounds some aspects of the project, including funding and operational control. With both the City and the State facing budget shortfalls, some are concerned that spaces like Governors Island will be the first to lose funding. Despite these concerns, the City and State each agreed to contribute $7 million for the summer of 2009. Mayor Bloomberg has indicated that the City would be interested in seizing full control of operations from the State.

Within Governors Island’s historic district, there are 52 buildings totaling 1.4 million square feet of space which require renovations to be habitable. Any reuse of these buildings or new development must be submitted for approval through an RFP process.

Three tenants have successfully submitted bids to occupy space on the island: the New York Harbor School (which will open in Fall of 2010), the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the New York Water Taxi Beach (purveyor of dining and entertainment). Any residential development on the island must be attached to an institution (like a university) and may not be a stand-alone development.

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