A Plan for Governors Island: Make It a High-Tech Campus

Even as the nation decides its future, we must mind our own. We have a mayoral election to consider once this year’s campaign ends.

Whoever is Mayor, from whatever party, should consider the long-term economic health of New York. We have an opportunity to make good use of a piece of economically virgin real estate in our harbor-Governors Island.

The first white man to build on Governors Island was Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, who was royal governor of New York 300 years ago. Lord Cornbury is the gentleman who sometimes appears in textbooks in a contemporary portrait wearing a lady’s gown- although since the tales of his cross-dressing come to us exclusively from his enemies, we should probably give him the benefit of the doubt. After independence, the island was fortified and owned first by the Army, then by the Coast Guard. Recently the Coast Guard, cutting expenses, moved out.

They left the fortifications, some sturdy and nondescript modern buildings and, on the island’s northern half, a jewel box of fine old officers’ housing. The latter looks like nothing so much as a small New England campus, dropped like a divot in New York harbor. The cliffs and towers of Wall Street, looming like Mordor in the near distance, make a weird backdrop. Staten Island enjoys being the city’s very own bit of suburban, even country, life. But Governors Island is both less spoiled and closer to the metropolis’ beating heart.

One of the last acts of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s career was to get the federal government to agree to sell this gem to the city and state for $1. To reap this windfall, City Hall and Albany have to come up with some plan to develop it. The most detailed plan on the table is to turn Governors Island into a hotel and conference center. It would indeed do that job well (the views are superb), though the planners may deceive themselves with the hope that conference-goers could simultaneously enjoy isolation and excitement. Having been to many such affairs, I know that meetings consume all too much time, and what’s left over has to be spent on one thing or the other. If the conferees want action, they should be in midtown; if they want peace and quiet, they will meet in Montana.

It would make more sense to set the island up for long-term visitors who seek both room to work and proximity to Wall Street: the techno-geeks, on whose work so much of New York’s current and future prosperity depends.

In my layman’s brooding on New York’s prospects, I go through alternating bouts of hope and gloom, particularly when I think about high-tech. There is reason enough for either mood, depending on what part of the picture you study. Silicon Alley is not all hype: New York City is at the top-along with Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Route 128 outside Boston-in software development. We tend to develop applications, however, at the expense of basic research. We are all sizzle; the steaks are being butchered elsewhere. This leaves us especially vulnerable to economic downturns, in which immediate needs slacken. There has been no single university here doing the work of M.I.T. or Stanford in anchoring research. We actually have more geeks than Stanford and M.I.T. have, but ours are scattered across several schools that can’t pool facilities.

Since part of Governors Island looks like a campus already, why not make it the place where the brains we already have work at longer range on projects that will fulfill our needs? The suppliers would be the colleges and universities of New York City, and of the entire state (places like Cornell and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute would love to have an outpost in the thick of things), plus the software firms that are here now, in Silicon Alley and on the Brooklyn waterfront. The consumers would be Wall Street, the research hospitals and the big-deal law firms, who are all increasingly dependent on software and computer models. Come now, and let them reason together.

Campuses in college towns are not walled citadels; they blend into their commercial and residential neighborhoods. Similarly, the work of Governors Island could be done cheek-by-jowl with public use of the historic sites, and of parks and recreational facilities that could be put elsewhere on the island. When bright sparks come up with a product that needs industrial space for further development, tax breaks could steer it to the outer boroughs (or that wasteland of inactivity, upstate). Throw in a high-tech public high school, and everyone should be happy. A hotel and conference center would generate tax revenues; but the rents-and the taxes on the businesses the renters develop-would be far greater.

New York was a mart at birth; the founding myth, as Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace pointed out in Gotham , their urban Aeneid , is a transaction: Dutchmen buying out the Indians for $24. But New York has had to grab opportunities to keep up. Grabbing young Alexander Hamilton was one lucky move; digging the Erie Canal was another. But we’ve been losing our touch lately, as traditional New York businesses have flown. Light manufacturing here has long been sickly. The port moved to Newark. Most of the entertainment business went to Hollywood, and news feels the tug of Washington. The information age, still adolescent, makes those industries look small time. We shouldn’t lose our place in it.