Welcome to Silicon Island: Digital Dreamer Proposes Governors Island Conversion

William Tucker, failed journalist, aspiring Internet guru and entrepreneurial gadfly, sat on a bench in Battery Park looking across New York Harbor toward Governors Island. He gestured toward it and referred to a map in his lap as he pointed out building after building he would like to fill with tenants like himself: underfinanced dreamers.

Mr. Tucker has plans for the island, big plans. He wants to turn the 200-year-old Army base into “Information Island,” with a high-tech research center and entrepreneurial refuge. He envisions a technological mecca for 2,500 students, 300 faculty members and administrators-many of whom would live on the island full-time. It would house a business incubator hosting 80 high-tech startups, decent housing for 700 students, lavish housing for 70 faculty members, a multimedia theater, an electronic library, shops, restaurants and open fields that would rival Central Park’s Great Lawn.

The problem is, Mr. Tucker is sort of a nobody.

Nonetheless, Mr. Tucker, 57, is elbowing his way into the political scrum over the fate of Governors Island. Despite the fact that he has no money, no political connections and no real estate development experience (unless you count his nearly two-decade-long crusade against rent control in New York City), the city and its anointed Governors Island developer are considering letting him realize at least a portion of his dream. They’re taking him half-seriously, which means that his crazy notion stands a chance.

The map in Mr. Tucker’s lap had been printed by Corcoran Jennison, a Boston-based developer. On Sept. 1, the Mayor’s task force on Governors Island endorsed a plan by Corcoran Jennison to build a conference center-hotel-corporate retreat in place of the base abandoned in 1997 by the Coast Guard.

Mr. Tucker’s architects have not yet completed drawing up his own plans, so for now he is stuck consulting Corcoran Jennison’s map of a plan that doesn’t impress him much. “Quite frankly, if you look at their plan in five years, you’ll say, ‘What a pathetic half-thought-out proposal that was,'” he said. “They didn’t see the possibilities.” Fortunately for him, there is blank space on that map, which may be the best shot he has of seeing his beloved Governors Island Technology Research Center take root.

Now the developer is considering Mr. Tucker’s ideas, if not his entire scheme. Eric Pravitz, Corcoran Jennison’s project director, said seven buildings in the Arsenal District on the northern side of the island, totaling 120,000 square feet, could house a business incubator if Mr. Tucker and the committee he has formed are able to put together a financial package to pay for a lease.

“They’re not developers,” Mr. Pravitz said, “and sometimes they get a little bit kooky about some of the ideas they have, but that’s O.K. They have their thing and perhaps we can work together. We just need to learn more about the specifics of what they need and want to do and we’ll see.” Mr. Pravitz was set to meet on Nov. 17 with Mr. Tucker and his committee to discuss the idea formally.

In the final Corcoran Jennison plan endorsed by the city, seven buildings in the northern historic district were vaguely designated as “interval ownership.” Mr. Pravitz admitted that planners at Corcoran Jennison couldn’t figure out what to put in those buildings, so when they submitted their plan, they basically left the space empty.

Then Mr. Tucker came calling. He suggested affordable office space-for his high-tech think tank. His overtures got Corcoran Jennison to change its plan. Mr. Pravitz said, “Now that Bill Tucker and the group he’s working with are saying, ‘Well, we could definitely use 120,000, maybe even more,’ I have changed that plan from ‘interval ownership’ to ‘affordable office space.'” Of course, that space could go to anyone. Mr. Pravitz said he would be willing to consider any other group that was looking for cheap space, although no one has approached him yet.

Deputy Mayor Randy Levine, who is heading the Mayor’s task force on Governors Island, said Mr. Tucker’s plans are not currently in the city’s development proposal. But he wouldn’t rule out adding elements of them to the Corcoran Jennison plan, assuming Mr. Tucker can find financing. “We met with certain people who are interested in a high-tech area on the island,” Mr. Levine said. “So far, none have shown to be real, but it’s something for long-term consideration.”

In the meantime, the state, under the auspices of the Battery Park City Authority, is expected to release its own proposal at the end of the month.

Tony Bullock, chief of staff for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the driving force behind the plan to cede Federal control of Governors Island to the city and the state, was more skeptical. He doesn’t think it much of a worthy cause to help fledgling Internet companies get closer to their multimillion-dollar initial public offerings. “There really is a very successful real estate boom, if you will, in the high-tech world,” Mr. Bullock said. “I guess they’re calling it … what do they call it? Silicon Alley? This industry doesn’t seem to be in need of incubation. It’s pretty well established. We’re not trying to provide low-rent office space to, quote, struggling, future millionaires. It’s not really what I think the highest and best of Governors Island could be. It’s sort of like, one is required at the doorstep to a new millennium to pay tribute to the Internet and computer technology, but we don’t have to.”

Fred Siegel, a professor of economic history at Cooper Union and the author of The Future Once Happened Here , joined Mr. Tucker’s board because he believes that Internet startups are at a significant disadvantage to their counterparts in cities with lower rents, taxes and costs of living. “If you want to start up a company in New York, there are a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Mr. Siegel said. “The idea is to give companies a chance, give them low-rent office space in a high-rent technological environment. New York is trailing in this regard, and I saw this as a chance to catch up.”

“In New York, we’ve got Wall Street, we’ve got advertising, but we don’t have a technological base,” Mr. Tucker said. “And Wall Street is slipping out under the door to Jersey. I’m doing this because it’s a good idea, and it’s important for New York’s future.”

Mr. Tucker, who grew up in Mountain Lakes, N.J., lives with his wife and three sons in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He gets around town on his 10-speed bicycle.

His last major crusade on behalf of New York’s future was rent control. He published two books and countless articles on the subject. His main argument was that rent control causes homelessness, and his favorite tactic was to call attention to the ridiculously low prices paid by certain celebrities (including the late Abbie Hoffman, who paid $90 a month).

Then, about two years ago, he started thinking about his dot-com island. At the time, Mr. Tucker was writing a column called The Resident for the New York Press . Despite the well-documented rise of Silicon Alley, Mr. Tucker believed that New York could never be a major high-tech player, at least compared to Silicon Valley in California or Route 128 outside Boston, unless there were some major changes in the city. “As I was looking at these new businesses, I hit a wall. You realize that everything in those places was coming out of a university,” Mr. Tucker said. According to a 1995 Bank Boston study, 10 percent of the Massachusetts economy and 125,000 jobs in the state could be attributed to companies founded by graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “You suddenly look at New York and you realize, Oh my God, New York doesn’t have a world-class technical school,” he said.

Mr. Tucker started turning the problem over in his mind, trying to figure out how to create a high-tech research center to compete with M.I.T. and Stanford. “At some point in my head, it just clicked: It should be Governors Island!” Mr. Tucker said. “That’s where we should do it.”

“My first impulse, as a journalist, was to start a campaign in the newspaper. You know, I’m just going to make a crusade out of this,” he said. In January 1998, he wrote a column proposing a research and educational facility for Governors Island. The response was underwhelming. “I got three letters, mostly from college kids saying, ‘That’s a good idea,'” Mr. Tucker said. Two months later, he published his second installment. His editors weren’t thrilled. “They fired me,” he said.

Mr. Tucker then pitched a piece on the subject to American Spectator , where he had previously spent 14 years as a New York correspondent. He had in mind a story about business incubators, which are basically warehouses where entrepreneurs looking for their first investors can rent cheap one-room offices to hatch their plans. Business incubators were big in Silicon Valley. “I wrote the story and they turned it down, and I said, I’m in the wrong business, so I quit,” Mr. Tucker said.

He decided to become an Internet entrepreneur himself. He established a site called Theelevator.com, which enables potential investors to browse through entrepreneurs’ business plans. He also launched an effort to create a high-tech facility on Governors Island himself. He attended New York New Media Association meetings and approached people at area universities who had expressed an interest in fostering more technology research in New York City.

In July, Mr. Tucker incorporated the committee of people he’d brought together-including New York Software Industry Association president Bruce Bernstein; Pratt Institute professor of architecture Dan Bucsescu; Cushman & Wakefield director Harry Greeley; New York Academy of Sciences president Rodney Nichols; Cooper Union professor Fred Siegel and Con Edison’s manager of research and development, Arthur Kressner. Gary Butter, an attorney at Baker & Botts, agreed to do the committee’s legal work pro bono and let the committee hold its meetings in the firm’s conference room on the 44th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center.

Though the committee is discussing how it could take over the seven buildings in the Arsenal district as part of the Corcoran Jennison plan, Mr. Tucker is still promoting his version. He produced a proposal of his own on Sept. 15. His Governors Island would house the institute’s own students in the large residential buildings on the southern portion of the island rather than hand the dorms over to New York University and Columbia University, as Corcoran Jennison’s plan does. And rather than allowing the Guggenheim Museum to open a sculpture gallery on the waterfront, Mr. Tucker said he’d prefer to see a shopping center, with restaurants, resembling Faneuil Hall in Boston.

As he described his plan, he was on the waterfront, at the southern tip of Manhattan, pointing out buildings on the Governors Island shore. “Basically, it’s a college campus,” he said, looking down at the map. He pointed on the map to the gargantuan Building 400. “These are the classrooms,” he said. He moved his finger to a line of landmark Georgian houses where Coast Guard officers once lived, when the island was a Coast Guard base. The houses would be ideal for faculty members. “We want to get world-class people,” Mr. Tucker said. “And one of the ways to get world-class people is to give them world-class housing.”

Then he pointed to another building on the map, the site just across the water where Corcoran Jennison would like to put the Guggenheim sculpture garden. “One of our plans is a really great restaurant out there. A destination restaurant.” Then he looked up and pointed out the building itself. “It’s kind of such an obvious thing.”