Evoking cries of outrage from leading preservationist groups, the Giuliani administration is seriously considering a proposal to transform the historic district of Governors Island into a theme park with a man-made mountain, a replica of a 19th-century palace and a newly dug lake surrounded by gazebos, flowerbeds and what the plan calls “small, charming rides.”
The would-be developer, Denmark-based Tivoli Garden, describes its proposal as an attempt to turn the island into “an oasis in the center of the city, a place for residents and tourists to enjoy life,” in a document submitted to a mayoral task force. The Observer obtained a copy of the document.
A city official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Tivoli’s lavish proposal was being considered because it promised to generate vast amounts of revenue needed to cover the 172-acre island’s estimated annual maintenance cost of $40 million. The task force hopes to come up with a final plan for the island by September.
The Coast Guard abandoned the island in 1997, and the Federal Government is seeking to auction it off to the highest bidder. But City Hall is betting that Congress will hand over the onetime Revolutionary War outpost to the city and state for a nominal fee if the task force comes up with an attractive proposal to open the island up to the public.
Yet preservationist groups are stunned that the city is considering the Danish company’s plan. They argue that Tivoli’s proposal would desecrate the island’s 93-acre historic district, which includes two forts built in the early 1800′s to defend the city against naval attacks. Also included in the historic district are gracious officers’ quarters, such as the Admiral’s House, where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in the mid-1980′s.
“A Tivoli Garden [concept] somewhere in New York may be fine, but it is totally inappropriate for the Governors Island historic district,” said Peg Breen, president of New York Landmarks Conservancy. “It really does violence to the grounds, and it is entirely disrespectful of the buildings and the history.”
Cheri Fein, a spokesman for Tivoli, responded that the company’s plan was nothing more than a draft and that such scathing criticisms were unfair. “I think that [the] plan is very sensitive to American history and the history of the island,” she said, “and what it seeks to do is blend those two things.”
Ms. Fein said Tivoli was willing to scale back its plan and even allow visitors free access to the two forts. But she warned that the company would walk away from the project unless the task force allowed it to construct a theme park resembling its signature facility in Copenhagen, which is known throughout the world for its verdant gardens, rides, fireworks and other tourist fare. “If at some point preservationists or whoever don’t want it to look like Tivoli Gardens,” she said, “then there’s not going to be a Tivoli Garden.”
However, Tivoli and city officials may be in for a long, protracted battle with the likes of Ms. Breen if they pursue anything remotely resembling the preliminary proposal. According to the proposal, tourists would enter the theme park through a grand entrance modeled after the Crystal Palace, a 19th-century landmark that was built on the site of today’s Bryant Park and played host to the nation’s first World’s Fair in 1853. The palace would sit next to Castle Williams, one of the island’s two historic forts.
Visitors could then travel through the grounds on a series of newly dug canals that would flow into a man-made lake in the southern part of the historic district. “Here visitors will have a place to enjoy cultivated gardens, small restaurants, picnic areas and light classic music,” the company says in its proposal.
Perhaps the most controversial element of the Tivoli proposal is a plan to build an “artificial” mountain with waterfalls and caves and amusement park rides behind the 18th-century Admiral’s House, where Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev once deliberated. “It just sounds like they are trying to Disney-fy the entire island,” sighed Eric Allison, president of the Historic Districts Council, an advocacy group for neighborhood preservation.
Other attractions would include a hotel inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and a section that would re-create the seaport era with “narrow buildings, clippers, etc.” That would bring back memories for New Yorkers of a certain age who remember Freedomland, a history-theme park in the Bronx that gave way to Co-op City.
An Alternative Plan
The city also is considering a plan by Corcoran Jennison Companies, a Boston-based developer, which would leave the historic district largely untouched and instead fund the island’s maintenance costs by building and operating a convention center and hotel on the southern end of the island, which is not designated as an historic landmark.
Corcoran Jennison’s plan also includes dormitories, playing fields and research facilities for Columbia University and New York University and a Frank Geary-designed sculpture garden for the Guggenheim Museum.
Randy Levine, the city’s deputy mayor for development and head of the Governors Island task force, declined to comment on either the Tivoli or the Corcoran Jennison plan. But he said neither group had submitted a final proposal for the island. “All of the proposals are works in progress,” Mr. Levine told The Observer . “All interested parties have indicated a willingness to be flexible and no matter how it eventually turns out, it seems the task force was successful in coming up with a use for the island that has a mix of open space, commercial, educational and cultural operations.
Representatives for other task force members such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Representative Carolyn Maloney, Representative Jerrold Nadler and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields were either unavailable for comment or said they had yet to review the Tivoli proposal. The plan was first unveiled at a sparsely attended task force meeting on Aug. 13.
Pataki administration officials who presumably would have to sign off on the city’s Governors Island plan said they also hadn’t seen the proposal.
A city official who did not want to be identified acknowledged the Tivoli plan was highly controversial among members of the task force. “This is the classic situation that goes on in New York between people who seem more [interested in] economic development versus those who want to be as close to pure preservation as possible,” the city official said. “The answer is either we do with a compromise plan or one of the above or a combination. At least the discussion is focusing on real issues rather than pie-in-the-sky kind of things.”
Indeed, there is talk within the task force that Corcoran Jennison and Tivoli might join forces and develop the island together. But Tivoli will almost certainly have to scale back its plan if it wants the Boston company’s cooperation. “We believe that an appropriately designed Tivoli [concept] could be compatible with our plan for a conference center and a hotel,” said Eric Pravitz, Corcoran Jennison’s Governors Island project director. “But the plan that Tivoli has presented raises concerns about compatibility.”
As far as preservationists are concerned, however, even a little bit of Tivoli may be too much for Governors Island. “I think a tiny Tivoli is just as inappropriate as their full-scale plan,” Ms. Breen said. “It just doesn’t belong there. Do you think one less amusement ride or a smaller canal maintains the characters of the historic district? Of course not. A little messing up in there is just as bad as a lot of messing up in there.”