The Dutch Are Back! They Want To Buy Governors Island

Joep de Koning is a Dutchman with a big idea. It came to him two years ago. An investment banker and 30-year resident of New York, Mr. de Koning also collects rare maps. One day, while looking at a 1660 map of the Dutch village of New Amsterdam, he noticed that the fingernail-shaped settlement at the tip of Manhattan corresponded roughly in size and shape to the southernmost portion of Governors Island, just 500 yards away.

Mr. de Koning had heard the United States Coast Guard was leaving the 172-acre island, and that the federal government might sell the land to the city for $1. He saw an opportunity: What if you could re-create the colony of New Amsterdam right there in New York Harbor?

The idea had a certain historical synchronicity-the Dutch retaking the island that was the site of their first settlement in New York, back in 1624. But Mr. de Koning’s concept transcended mere nationalism: He wanted to establish the island as a “symbol of tolerance” memorializing the mix of races, nationalities and religions that thrived in New Amsterdam before the English took it from the Dutch in 1664. Mr. de Koning, who has basically given up his business to pursue the idea, figures he can attract a few million tourists a year to a sort of Colonial Williamsburg on the Harbor.

To make it happen, Mr. de Koning estimates he needs $400 million, of which he has a commitment of $100 million. The rest will have to come from the city, state and Dutch governments, he said.

But first Mr. de Koning needs someone to listen to his idea. That has turned out to be more difficult than he expected.

“I have no idea what the strategy is,” he said, “I’m just looking for a discussion. The problem is, the discussion has not started.”

Mr. de Koning let out an exasperated little sigh. A dapper man in a gray suit, he was sitting at a conference table in the East 57th Street offices of his investment firm, the Batavia Group, on the afternoon of Nov. 20. Three suited, serious men- representatives of a Dutch developer who has invested in Mr. de Koning’s idea-sat with him. They had flown in from Amsterdam the day before, on a weeklong expedition to meet with high-level city, state and federal officials.

But when they got here, the Dutch investor’s representatives discovered there were no officials to meet. Mr. de Koning had sent out a bevy of faxes and letters to the myriad public officials involved with Governors Island in advance of their arrival. “How many responded?” Mr. de Koning asked rhetorically. He held up his hand and touched his forefinger to his thumb-zero.

Not that their visit was a total wash. The next morning, Nov. 21, Mr. de Koning, the three visiting executives, architect Dominique Storm van Leeuwen and a Dutch reporter set out on a small Coast Guard ferry to see the island for themselves. They were bundled against the cold, and as the boat made the short trip across the harbor, a sharp wind caught Mr. de Koning’s longish graying hair. “Now you know how they felt when they came here in 1625,” Mr. de Koning quipped.

Once they reached the island, the whole group piled into a gray van driven by Mark Dremel, an official with the federal General Services Administration, which maintains the island at a cost of $8 million this year. (“We do this for anybody who makes a valiant effort,” Mr. Dremel said.) As the van made its way around the island’s perimeter, the Dutch visitors oohed and aahed over the views of Lower Manhattan, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. At the spot where he envisions his New Amsterdam, Mr. de Koning pointed out some dilapidated blue warehouses, with the World Trade Center towers in the distance.

“Look over here-you have the juxtaposition of historic New Amsterdam and modern Manhattan,” he said.

For now, the juxtaposition exists only in Mr. de Koning’s head. The city and the state already have a $350 million plan for the land. Rolled out last January, it calls for preservation of some of the island’s historic buildings, along with the construction of a conference center, a hotel, playing fields and at least one museum. Mr. de Koning grudgingly acknowledges this, but he is hoping a ground swell of popular support for his plan will force the politicians to come along.

Mr. de Koning’s Dutch investors say they can come up with $100 million for the project. But first they say they need the U.S. government to give them the land. Then the city, state and Dutch governments need to chip in $100 million a piece.

“The politicians need to embrace this for the financial people to get involved,” Mr. de Koning said. “But as long as we’re not getting to talk to the politicians, it’s not going to happen.”

“I give him a good deal of credit for enthusiasm,” said Peg Breen of the Landmarks Conservancy, who has been nominated to serve on a state authority which will oversee the development, “but I think at the moment it’s either going to be the Governor’s and the city’s plan, or nothing.”

Even that plan has been thrown into doubt, however, by the inability of New York’s Congressional delegation to push through Congress a bill which would sell the land to the state for a nominal sum. If there’s no legislation, the federal G.S.A. is under a directive to sell the land for “fair market value,” which the Office of Management and Budget has set for actuarial purposes at $300 million.

Mr. de Koning, meanwhile, has been approaching everyone he can think of to sell them on his idea. He hands out a binder to reporters that includes dozens of letters he’s written to Governor George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Bill Clinton and others. Flipping through them sequentially, their tone shifts gradually from polite to plaintive. “Is there any reason why the concept of Historic New Amsterdam must continue to be ignored?” he wrote Mr. Giuliani on Sept. 18.

He’s tried to set up meetings with city and state officials. He attended a public meeting with the city’s task force on the island held at City Hall some time back, but decided not to waste his time. “One proposal I remember so well-it was for a reserve for nut trees because the original name of the island was Nut Island,” he recalled. “So I said, ‘I’m not going to stand here and present something serious.’” Afterwards, he tried to buttonhole then–Deputy Mayor Randy Levine. “I pursued him into the parking lot, but he said he didn’t want to talk to me.”

There are some favorable signs: He’s gotten the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Cynthia Schneider, to write letters on his behalf. Through intermediaries, he’s taken his case to the highest levels. “Hillary Clinton knows about this and she thinks it’s great. Bill Clinton knows about this and he thinks it’s great,” he said, shaking his head. “But there is a difference between what they’re saying in private and what they’re saying in public.”

Best of all, the idea’s apparently a hit in Holland. There, Mr. de Koning says he’s taken meetings at the highest levels of government. He says Prime Minister Wim Kok was supposed to advance the idea in a September meeting with President Clinton, though he’s not sure the topic actually came up.

When asked to tell the story of how he became interested in Governors Island, Mr. de Koning insists on beginning in 1609. That was the year the Dutch ship Halve Maen , captained by Henry Hudson, first sailed up the Hudson River, with Hudson claiming the territory for the Dutch East India Company. In 1624, the first settlers-30 Protestant Walloon families-landed on Governors Island (then called Noten Eylant). A year later, 45 more colonists, along with horses, cows and sheep, arrived aboard three ships christened by some literal-minded merchant the Horse , the Cow and the Sheep .

The principle virtues of Governors Island at that time were that it was tiny, unoccupied and easily defended. Manhattan was initially an exurb, good pasture land. Fort Amsterdam, built in 1625, allowed the population of Noten Eyelant to move safely over.

Governors Island’s first permanent resident, Mr. de Koning says, was a Dominican fur trader of African ancestry. From the beginning, the colonists enjoyed the religious freedoms granted to Dutch citizens under the 1579 Union of Utrecht. By 1643, one contemporary observer said, there were no fewer than 18 languages spoken in New Amsterdam.

“There is Liberty Island, Ellis Island, Governors Island-they make a triangle,” said Foppe Seekles, one of Mr. de Koning’s Dutch visitors. “Liberty Island is freedom, Ellis Island is hospitality and Governors Island is tolerance.”

The Historic New Amsterdam Foundation already has a seal. It depicts two beavers flanking a shield with a ship on top. Mr. de Koning based it on a 17th-century proposal for the Dutch West India Company’s seal that was eventually rejected. “Perhaps a beaver was a little too much like a rodent,” he speculated.

Mr. de Koning first became interested in the Dutch colony in America through his fascination with historical maps. Twenty years ago, his mother-in-law, who is American, had bought a map of New Netherlands from an antique dealer. “I took it from dealer to dealer, and I discovered that no one knew anything about this,” he said.

A native of a small town near Rotterdam, Mr. de Koning moved to New York when he was 21 to take a job in advertising. He eventually went to Columbia Business School and worked at Bankers Trust and Kidder, Peabody & Company before striking out on his own. His Batavia Group managed money for rich investors (chief among them Lord Jacob Rothschild), but since Mr. de Koning came up with his idea two years ago, he has mostly set his business aside.

“This is definitely a sacrifice,” he said. “At this point, my wife is getting a little antsy. She says, ‘Get it done or get out of it.””

Mr. de Koning initially relied on his own money and some financial support from a friend and fellow map collector, Dutch venture capitalist Bert Twaalfhoven. His lucky break came when an article about him published in a Dutch newspaper caught the attention of Harlem historian and author Ted van Turnhout. He passed word of Mr. de Koning on to Tijs Blom, a developer for whom he sometimes does consulting work. Mr. Blom specializes in renovating historical properties; he is currently reproducing a famous Belgian castle in a small town near the Zuider Zee as an attraction for tourists and conventioneers.

Mr. Blom met with Mr. de Koning and agreed to invest in the Historic New Amsterdam idea. He sent Mr. van Turnhout and two company executives, Martin Rottier and Mr. Seekles, to check out the situation on the ground.

As the van stopped at the 1,023-foot-long barracks building, designed by McKim, Mead and White and once home to a regiment of 1,000 men, Mr. Rottier seemed impressed. “It’s wonderful, it’s so perfect, it’s beautiful,” he said to Mr. de Koning. “We don’t have to build a hotel; it’s here.”

Mr. Rottier was wearing a blue winter hat that came from his days as a Dutch national police officer. A counterterrorism expert who’s trained SWAT teams across the United States, he advises Mr. Blom on security issues. Walking through the battlements of Castle Jay, which once defended New York harbor from invasion, Mr. Rottier grew animated: “If you see these walls and so forth, you can already imagine how people lived here 400 years ago. It’s the same with Tijs Blom.”

The Dutch group’s plan for the land is ambitious, indeed. Mr. de Koning’s New Amsterdam will reproduce something of the original Manhattan settlement, circa 1660. There will be a prison, churches, a blacksmith, a bakery and a wharf, complete with a sailing ship. Mr. Blom already has a vintage 17th-century windmill ready to ship over. The plan is to ship American wood over to the Netherlands, where craftsmen will build the houses according to contemporary techniques. Mr. Seekles said the plan was to train unemployed workers in both countries in long-forgotten crafts like blacksmithing, and then bring them back to Governors Island, where they will live as in-house staff.

“We have so much experience in making these ancient buildings functional that, in that respect, we can help the Americans,” Mr. Seekles said.

In addition to brick barracks on the north end of the island (which would be preserved as a historical site, along with Castle Jay and Castle Williams), several dozen yellow clapboard houses line a handsome grassy quad-the site of President Ronald Reagan’s summit with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Rottier envisions these as homes for the staff. Mr. de Koning hopes to recruit professors to live there, too.

Mr. de Koning hopes to have the whole thing up and ready to go by 2009, the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage. Granted, between now and then there are a few intermediate steps. Mr. de Koning’s group first plans to recruit a former President of the United States (they haven’t settled on any one yet) as a spokesman for the project. “As soon as the project is on firm footing,” the group’s prospectus says, “H.M. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands will be approached to see whether it is possible to obtain the patronage of the Dutch Crown Prince, Willem-Alexander.”

All details to be worked out. But as the group rode around the island this week, they were filled with a sense that anything was possible.

“The promenade is very important around the whole island,” said Mr. van Turnhout.

“Could you do a footbridge between here and Red Hook?” Mr. de Koning asked Mr. Dremel, the G.S.A. official.

Messrs. Rottier and Seekles tried to stanch the giddiness. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, they want to have a bridge as well. Phhht -forget it,’” Mr. Rottier said.

But Mr. Turnhout pushed ahead, undaunted. “This is how we do it-a monorail tunnel to Governors Island, Liberty Island and Ellis Island.”

“You have no idea what it takes here even to get a monorail out to the airport,” Mr. de Koning said.

“But the Dutch have taken over,” Mr. van Turnhout replied. Everyone laughed, and Mr. van Leeuwen offered a jovial correction: “The Dutch have taken over again .”