A Trust Betrayed

by Jeffrey A. Kroessler

The City of New York acquired Governors Island from the federal government in 2003 for $1. That token amount was to assure clear that the island’s future would guarantee a public purpose. Fulfilling that public purpose is the mandate of the Trust for Governors Island. 

Regrettably, the Trust has redefined public purpose to mean private development benefiting private entities. They have proposed erecting two massive towers on the island. One would rise 30 stories, the other 20, alongside several smaller buildings, housing a new climate research center, hotels, and other commercial space. The public recreation ground would be a construction site for the next decade. City Planning is poised to approve their plan.

We want to know: what happened to the grand public park New Yorkers were promised?

The 2003 agreement included specific restrictions on future uses “to ensure the protection and preservation of the natural, cultural and historic qualities of Governors Island, guarantee public access to this magnificent island, promote the quality of public education, and enhance the ability of the public to enjoy Governors Island and the surrounding waterways, thereby increasing the quality of life in the surrounding community, the City, the State and the United States.” Specifically banned were casinos (recently proposed by a mayoral candidate) and residential development.

The current proposal defines public benefit as the financial benefits that would flow to the Trust. The City Club suggests that New Yorkers might place other benefits ahead of the Trust’s bottom line, and the bottom line of its partners. Not to mention the city, which would be off the hook for funding the operation of Governors Island.  

We polled our members – architects, planners, attorneys, academics, preservationists – to rate the best course for the island’s future from zero to five. Zero meant abandoning the island and letting nature take its course. Now that may be an intriguing experiment, but no one seriously embraced the notion. Five meant maximizing development; that is, too much would not be enough. 

The result was about 1.5. Some construction is necessary, and would no doubt benefit the experience of visitors, but no one thought that commercial development of any kind was desirable. We expect that most New Yorkers would agree with us. What the Trust is proposing is about 4.5.

The Trust claims that they need massive new construction in order to generate the $20 million that it costs to manage the place. First, we question whether the city should rightfully rely upon private funding to support our public parks, and second, why private entities should determine what kind of public spaces the public gets to enjoy, and under what conditions. 

A climate research center supposedly justifies 4 million square feet of new space. But that center does not even exist. It is just an idea to fill a small portion of the new campus, alongside the hotel and spas and other commercial uses. If they are serious and not simply dangling this carrot before us, they should create the center and house it in one of the underutilized landmarked buildings. The largest structure, built in the 1920s, could house an entire Army division, more than 10,000 men. Surely there is room enough. But the Trust sees greater benefit in new towers than in crafting a plan to fully restore and utilize the assets in their care. 

If a glitzy new research campus is not what the island’s future should be, what is? The starting point must be that the Trust commit to a robust public realm. This does not preclude new construction, but whatever is built must be specifically for public use. This is a once in a generation opportunity to provide recreation facilities for our schoolchildren. Imagine indoor and outdoor soccer fields, swimming pools, a cricket ground, a track and field complex. Too many public schools lack any such athletic facilities. 

New Yorkers will not benefit from new commercial towers and hotels on Governors Island, but the Trust surely will. This arrangement is but another example of the city shrugging off its responsibility to plan for the greater good and partnering with private interests for crumbs. New Yorkers are not fooled. 

We were promised recreation grounds, not another technology center such as was built on Roosevelt Island. This precious ground must not be handed over to private interests for private profit. It must be dedicated to a public purpose and public uses that any New Yorker would recognize. With this proposal, the Trust betrays our trust.

Kroessler is the president of the City Club of New York