The Albany Pace of Governors Island

brown 12 The Albany Pace of Governors IslandOn Monday morning, Leslie Koch, the slim, sandy-haired official tasked with developing Governors Island, took a ferry, then a train, and arrived at a midtown board meeting of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, the agency of which she is president.

On the agenda was the approval of a lease with the second tenant on the sprawling, 172-acre island that’s been empty since the federal government handed it over to the city and state in 2003.

The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council agreed to take 14,000 square feet in one building for artist studio space. Save one other small contract for a temporary food operator, no economic development bids are on the horizon.

“We do not have plans within the next, I’d say, 12 months to issue any new development RFPs,” she told the board, composed of a few business leaders, government officials and Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor, via speakerphone.

Officials once eyed the island, a former Coast Guard and military base a half-mile off the southern tip of Manhattan, for a quick transformation into a thriving public destination. But it’s now clear that whatever does develop will follow the strategy of a tortoise far more than that of a hare, with officials moving at a years-long pace to build an ambitious park and ultimately attract large tenants.

This approach—a dampening of near-term expectations for development—has been led by Ms. Koch, the former president of a fund-raising arm of the city’s school system, who was recruited to the job in early 2006 by Mr. Doctoroff. The project had a notable, often-ridiculed lack of direction for many years prior.

She describes the approach as “balancing realism and urgency,” and the emphasis seems to be on realism. The public sector will plan to build a park and gradually increase public programming and amenities while trying to give the island a distinct identity and sense of place as an increasing number of visitors stream in during the summers for quick visits. Ms. Koch speaks in the abstract about her agency’s work, particularly about dates and long-term plans, perhaps a reflection that the money to invest in the island has come slowly from the city and the state, and has been decreasing.

“This will take many years and happen in many phases,” she said in an interview. “We are continuing to make progress … that’s really important. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to figure this out tomorrow.”

 

THE STRATEGY FACES an uphill climb, to be sure, and it’s easy to envision the plan staying on the back burner for years to come. Island infrastructure and the ambitious planned park are slated to cost around $600 million, and much of it would need to be in place before substantial private investment would come; government budget gaps are daunting, especially for non-essential programs; political expediency generally leads officials to set aside projects that take years to produce any tangible benefits; the funding and governance of GIPEC is jointly held by the city and state, which often can lead to wrangling and slow progress; and a constituency for the island is almost nonexistent.

Ms. Koch’s strategy of patience stands in contrast with the line taken prior to her arrival, as city and state officials sought a quick mega-project, seemingly under the impression that private development would rush in as soon as the flood gates were opened. After all, the island was a giant blank slate just an arm’s length away from Lower Manhattan—how couldn’t the answer be an easy one? 

The Giuliani administration considered a casino; the Bloomberg and Pataki administrations wanted to make the island CUNY’s flagship campus; they later solicited private-sector developers to solve their quandary. As officials trekked down each of these separate development paths, the findings were essentially the same: The governments’ hopes were too unrealistic and ambitious to be carried out in any feasible way. Infrastructure costs run into the hundreds of millions, and the restrictions on the land as part of a deal with the federal government, including a ban on housing, were prohibitive.

So when Ms. Koch arrived, she scrapped the latest request for bids from the private sector and embarked on the current approach. The focus now is on the public-sector investment in a park that itself is a destination, and on infrastructure, as the island gradually gains a public following and economic-development components.

“The city’s first approach was really to try to look for the grand slam home run,” said the director of the advocacy group Governors Island Alliance, Rob Pirani, who supports the longer-term strategy. “Any large-scale urban development project, you’ve got to be thinking 20 years.”

The island is shaped like a single-scoop ice cream cone, with a set of 52 landmarked former barracks and other buildings on the north end, arranged in a small New England college-like setting—the scoop—and larger set of newer buildings on the southern end—the cone. Ferries provide the only access in and out, which is the island’s most formidable obstacle to attracting visitors and investment. Almost all of the landmarked buildings sit empty awaiting tenants, and the buildings on the southern end sit empty awaiting the wrecking ball—and the funds to pay for that (though a recent demolition contract was approved for a complex of 10 buildings that will create an additional 8 acres of open space).