New Trouble in Paradise: Giuliani-Pataki Storm Hits Governors Island

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan brokered the real estate deal of the century while he was soaring in a helicopter over Governors Island in October 1995. Concerned about what would happen when the U.S. Coast Guard abandoned the 172-acre jewel in New York Harbor, the Senator prodded his fellow passenger, President Bill Clinton, to sell the base to the city and state for $1. The President agreed-so long as the purchasers could come up with an appropriate plan for the island.

Nearly four years later, several ambitious but widely disparate proposals are on the table, including one from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to build a sculpture museum on the site and one from Tivoli Gardens to construct a historic theme park, sources have told The Observer . Columbia University and New York University also have plans for the site.

But the once-in-a-lifetime deal has yet to be consummated. One reason: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki can’t seem to work together on a plan.

Of course, the Mayor and the Governor are at odds over almost everything these days. With both struggling for control of the state Republican Party, their behind-the-scenes rivalry has erupted into open war.

Mr. Pataki’s reluctance, however, may go deeper than politics. Charles Gargano, the Governor’s chief economic adviser and chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, said he is hesitant about signing on to a project that has the distinct odor of a money pit-starting with an estimated $40 million a year in maintenance costs and including the grim possibility that if it gets built, nobody will come. “We have to really do a thorough investigation before we just say, ‘Yes, we’ll take over [the island],'” Mr. Gargano said.

Add to the mix rumblings by Republicans in Washington that threaten to derail the entire $1 deal, and you begin to understand why the Governor and his underlings are steering clear of a mayoral task force on the island.

A member of the Mayor’s task force, however, thinks the Governor is mistaken. With several proposals on the table, the committee is hoping it can craft a viable plan for Governors Island, with a variety of attractions that give it a shot at drawing ferries full of visitors.

“You’ve got Tivoli, you’ve got N.Y.U. and Columbia … and you’ve got the Guggenheim,” said a member. “Now you’ve got the core of something, and you may be able to work around it.”

Early on, Mr. Giuliani took the lead on Governors Island, pushing a plan to turn the former Revolutionary War outpost into a gambling resort-a scheme that infuriated just about everybody, including preservationists and members of the city’s congressional delegation. Then Mr. Giuliani had a change of heart. In January, he assigned Deputy Mayor Randy Levine to head up a task force of city, state and Federal officials to study non-casino proposals for the former Coast Guard base.

The Mayor’s decision was hailed as an important step in closing Mr. Moynihan’s deal. There’s only one problem: According to members of the Mayor’s task force, Governor Pataki isn’t participating in the process. “I think it’s unfortunate that the Governor hasn’t appeared to take much of an interest in this task force,” lamented Tony Bullock, Mr. Moynihan’s chief of staff and a task force member himself. “However, I don’t think that means that he doesn’t have an interest in Governors Island. I don’t understand if it’s a scheduling thing or a communications disorder.”

Mr. Gargano said the whole thing is a misunderstanding. He said he had assigned a top aide, Kevin Corbett, to the Mayor’s task force. However, Mr. Gargano wasn’t sure if Mr. Korbett had actually shown his face yet at any of the meetings.

More important, Mr. Gargano said Mr. Pataki had formed his own task force nearly a year ago on Governors Island and that the state-run Battery Park City Authority had recently hired a consultant to do an in-depth study of development prospects for the former Coast Guard base.

“When Randy Levine called me about [the Mayor's task force], I said, ‘Randy, we’d be happy to work with you,'” Mr. Gargano told The Observer . “‘We should share information that would be helpful to the both of us.'”

The Mayor’s press office did not return calls about Governors Island. But someone who sits on Mr. Giuliani’s task force doubted the Battery Park City Authority’s information would be of great use. “What they’ve done is … hire a consultant to do a lot of what [the Giuliani administration has] already done,” the source complained. “I don’t know what they get out of it. The fact of the matter is, they should join our task force.”

The Governor’s apparent disinterest in a task force whose participants also include Senator Charles Schumer and Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney comes at a critical juncture in the Governors Island saga. Indeed, the Mayor’s task force actually seems to be making some headway.

The Guggenheim is expected to present, at an April 9 meeting, a plan for a new museum on the island designed by architect Frank Gehry that would house its sculpture collection, according to a task force member. He said the museum is prepared to pay for the new facility out of its own pocket. The Guggenheim’s partner in the Governors Island proposal is developer Corcoran Jennison of Dorchester, Mass. (The museum did not return calls seeking comment.)

The new Guggenheim Museum may very well be greeted with applause. But Tivoli Gardens’ still loosely defined plans are another story. According to several task force members, the Danish company is interested in building a theme park in Governors Island’s historic district.

They acknowledge that Tivoli Gardens may be courting a backlash if it is really thinking of taking control of the island’s 18th-century forts, pre-Civil War arsenal facilities and Victorian housing and incorporating them into a tourist attraction whose theme is America’s storied past.

“This may well be as popular as [the Walt Disney Company's] attempts to move into Manassas,” Mr. Bullock said. “But we on the task force are trying not to prejudge anything.”

Peg Breen, president of New York Landmarks Conservancy, can also envision problems with such a proposal. “As I understand Tivoli’s proposal, you would have to pay to get into the historic district,” she said. “I think a lot of people would have serious problems with that. One thing that everyone agrees on is that there should be public access on the island.… I don’t think anyone envisions cordoning off the entire historic district.”

Torben Franch, senior vice president for Tivoli Gardens, confirmed his company was looking closely at the historic district and it would indeed charge admission. But he said Tivoli Gardens has yet to develop a specific plan. “Of course,” Mr. Franch added, “we wouldn’t want to do anything to turn anybody off.”

The task force also is considering a joint proposal from New York University and Columbia University. Both schools are interested in using the island’s existing housing for students and faculty. N.Y.U. would also like to make use of the island’s athletic fields and is interested in possibly developing a convention center with a partner.

Waiting for George

The Mayor’s task force may very well come up with a tantalizing plan for Governors Island. But it may take more than that to interest Mr. Pataki, whose support would almost certainly be necessary on such a huge undertaking.

Mr. Gargano said the Pataki administration has yet to decide if it even wants Governors Island. He was especially worried about the cost of ferry service to the island and the preservation of its historic district. “It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also a financial responsibility,” he said.

Yet a source on the Mayor’s task force seemed certain that funds could be squeezed from the Federal Government to cover some of these costs. “We’re not just going to let the Federal Government walk away from this island,” the source vowed.

Trouble is, unless the city and state are working together on a plan, it may be hard to pressure the Federal Government for the funds. And time is running out. For one thing, there is the fragile condition of many of the island’s historic buildings. After the Coast Guard finally departed in 1996, the fate of these irreplaceable structures was placed in the hands of a skeletal maintenance crew. Senator Moynihan has said he has actually had to beg for the Federal funds to insure that they don’t succumb to New York Harbor’s ferocious winters.

Then there are the Congressional budget hawks who keep trying to sell Governors Island to the highest bidder. More recently, Mr. Moynihan and Mr. Schumer had to beat back a bipartisan coalition of Midwestern senators bent on pushing up the sale of the island to buy more Federal crop insurance for farmers.

There is also the question of whether Mr. Moynihan’s deal must be closed before President Clinton leaves office in January 2001. City and state officials are skeptical the rock-bottom sale price is still on the table. The Senator thinks so. But in the end, it may come down to whether Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Pataki can come up with the right plan.

Said Mr. Bullock: “I think the degree to which we can successfully hold the President to his offer depends on the degree on which we-the greater New York-can put forward a fantastic proposal.”