A September Deadlock on Governors Island Between City, State

It’s been five years since President Clinton, flying aboard a helicopter over Governors Island, made an impromptu offer to his seat mate, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Come up with a plan for redeveloping the land, the President said, and the federal government will sell the island to New York for $1 rather than put the property on the open market.

Now, with just a handful of weeks remaining in his Senate career, Mr. Moynihan is preparing a last-ditch effort to make good on the President’s offer. But, at a critical moment, New York’s political leaders seem unable–or unwilling–to unite, putting the island’s future in doubt. As much as his Congressional colleagues respect Mr. Moynihan, there’s one thing he can’t do to speed the process along: introduce legislation in the House of Representatives. With Congress due to adjourn on Oct. 6, the city’s House members have yet to offer their own version of a bill that would turn over the island to New York. They say their hands are tied until Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signs off on the bill’s language, something he has refused to do while he and Governor George Pataki are engaged in a last-minute power struggle. As of Sept. 12, city officials were still negotiating with Mr. Pataki’s office over how much say City Hall will have over the island’s eventual redevelopment.

Back in Washington, Mr. Moynihan, along with Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan, are hoping that a little late-night legerdemain will get the legislation slipped into a giant end-of-session appropriations bill. No one ever reads these huge bills before they’re passed, anyway. But Republican Congressional staffers, who will wield much of the backroom power in the coming flurry of legislative activity, don’t sound eager to help.

“We’re at kind of an impasse,” said one Republican Senate committee staffer.

“Mr. Nadler has tried this in the past, and he has not been successful,” said Scott Brenner, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The committee oversees the Coast Guard, which operated a base on the island until 1996. President Clinton’s own budget estimates that Governors Island would fetch $300 million if it’s resold on the open market, as currently scheduled, in 2002. If Governors Island is given to New York, that $300 million will have to come from somewhere else–from other government programs, or from the federal budget surplus. And the Congressional G.O.P leaders, who take hits from their conservative wing when they earmark pork projects to their own districts, aren’t likely to be doing any favors for New York City Democrats anytime soon. Mr. Brenner said a handover was “unlikely.”

That’s not to say a last-minute deal can’t be arranged. Advocates for the sale point to signs that the stars are aligned: In an election year, everyone in Washington will be looking to get a bill done and get out of town; certain familial obligations might make Mr. Clinton feel that October is the right time to give the State of New York a nice present; the ever-inflating budget surplus has given Congress the feeling there’s some pocket change to spend; Mr. Moynihan is leaving, and the Senate may be inclined to hand him the legislative equivalent of a gold watch; and this year, the city and state actually have a redevelopment plan, which they trotted out to great acclaim in January. For his part, Mr. Clinton has reaffirmed his promise to sell the land for “a nominal sum” if Congress gives him the chance.

Still, there is a sense that time to make the deal happen is running short.

“All I can say is that we need to get this done before Moynihan leaves office,” Ms. Maloney said.

But, she added, “the first thing that we’ve got to do is get everyone on board.… We are waiting for a sign-off from the Mayor’s office.”

Ms. Maloney said she’s still hopeful. She thinks Republican Congressional leaders could be swayed by a letter from the state’s entire Congressional delegation, its Republican Governor and the city’s Republican Mayor. But others aren’t so confident. One Congressional aide involved put the chances at “50-50.” Another said that, with all the bickering going on this late in the game, whatever chance once existed may be gone. “To me, it’s somewhere between ineptitude and dysfunction,” the staffer said.

Mr. Giuliani’s press office declined to comment on the reasons for the hold-up. But according to several Congressional sources, including Tony Bullock, Mr. Moynihan’s chief of staff, the city and state are still locked in negotiations over a “memorandum of understanding,” which will outline how much control the city–and its zoning laws–will retain over the island once it’s deeded to the state’s Empire State Development Corporation. Mr. Pataki’s negotiators are said to be resisting the city’s insistence on a large role in redevelopment, on the grounds that, 16 months from now, there will be a new Mayor in City Hall, perhaps one with a different agenda for the island.

“We’re working with all the parties to move it forward,” said Suzanne Morris, a Pataki spokeswoman, without acknowledging that negotiations with the city were taking place. “Obviously there are only 11 [Congressional working] days left, so we expect a bill will be introduced shortly.”

One individual familiar with the negotiations had a saltier take: “The Governor and the Mayor have dragged their asses on this.”

Control Freaks

The particulars of the negotiations are complex. But the bigger picture is fairly simple: Ever since Mr. Clinton offered to give the land to New York, Messrs. Pataki and Giuliani have been bickering over which New York–the city or the state–will control it. Mr. Pataki put the kibosh on Mr. Giuliani’s proposal to build a casino there. When Mr. Giuliani convened a task force to come up with a plan for the island, Mr. Pataki started a task force of his own. His representatives did not participate in Mr. Giuliani’s task force. Finally, the two sides made peace long enough to come up with a redevelopment blueprint, which calls for preservation of some of the island’s historic buildings, along with a conference center, a hotel, playing fields and at least one museum.

After the plan’s release in January, however, the parties seem to have gone their separate ways. In May, Mr. Moynihan introduced a bill in the Senate calling for the land to be turned over to New York State. Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney cosponsored their own version of the bill, which would have turned the land over for the city and the state to jointly administer. Afterwards, the two Representatives were surprised to discover that Mr. Pataki had asked still another Congressman, Republican Representative Benjamin A. Gilman, who hails from the Hudson Valley, to introduce his own version of the bill, conveying the land to–you guessed it–the state alone.

This alarmed Mr. Nadler and Ms. Maloney, who worried that there was nothing to keep the state from scrapping the redevelopment plan altogether once the island was safely in hand. As state land, it would be exempt from city zoning regulations. An independent state authority, like the Battery Park City Authority, is to administer the island, but the Governor’s appointees would outnumber the Mayor’s six to three. So the two Democrats–who have had their differences with Mr. Giuliani–struck an alliance with City Hall.

Mr. Moynihan, meanwhile, was pressuring the House members to quickly introduce a bill identical to his own, Pataki-approved version.

Mr. Pataki eventually gave in, working out a deal with the House members to add a few words to a new bill requiring the authority to hew to the redevelopment plan. The Governor further agreed to set up a task force to give the local community more input.

But Mr. Moynihan had already introduced his simpler version. That caused a public dust-up a few weeks ago. Mr. Bullock, Mr. Moynihan’s chief of staff, accused Mr. Nadler of gumming up the works. Mr. Nadler’s top aide, Brett Heimov, said Mr. Moynihan had rushed ahead heedless of the city’s concerns. Both sides say the rift has been patched up, and that Mr. Moynihan has agreed to the changed wording. But Mr. Bullock said he couldn’t understand why the House members don’t introduce their bill now and worry about the city imprimatur later.

“This is year five now of the basic city-state negotiations over what is going to happen to Governors Island,” he said. “Since Gilman and Nadler and Maloney agree on the bill and Moynihan and [Sen. Charles] Schumer like the bill–we like it in part because it’s so much like ours–then file it already! It’s way beyond the 11th hour … and once the bill is filed, then at least we can try to hatch some Hail Mary strategy to get it done.”

Of course, the fact that Mr. Moynihan is having to resort to heaving the long bomb is an indication of how low expectations have sunk. Though it’s fair to say that any successor to the senior Senator would likely pursue the island as doggedly, he (or she) would have to take the matter up with a new President–and hope for another serendipitous helicopter ride.