The Albany Pace of Governors Island

Like an industrial neighborhood that evolves into a residential one, the early arrivals to the redeveloped island are to be students and artists. A public high school, the Harbor School, is slated to open in 2010; GIPEC commissioned an artist-designed miniature golf course this past summer; and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council studios should open in the spring.

First, Ms. Koch believes, the island must build a sense of place and a following and constituency. That comes both with tenants and with increasing numbers of visitors during the summer, when a free ferry is run to the island Friday through Sunday. Attendance more than doubled, to an impressive 128,000, from 2007 to last summer on the island, which offered bike rentals and sporadic programming.

At some point, the strategy holds, there will be enough infrastructure investment, enough amenities, enough public interest and enough constituency to attract large private development and investment, perhaps a university and a hotel and conference center, among other possibilities.

But the time is certainly not now.

“I can tell you that hotel players who have come to the island have said … ‘Yes, there’s a market in New York for a conference center, there’s no other space that can do it. Come back to us when you have an anchor tenant, corporate or educational,’” Ms. Koch said.

Any commitment by such an anchor tenant is also something for the long term, certainly unlikely to happen in the next few years. Still, there is one candidate that has talked quite openly about its interest in building on the island: New York University, which is creating a 25-year master plan that calls for 6 million square feet of expansion space.

“It’s certainly an attractive option for us,” said Alicia Hurley, an N.Y.U. vice president, saying that the school “would definitely” put in a bid on the site if GIPEC requested one.

The school is looking to develop about 1 million square feet of campus on the island, Ms. Hurley said, which would be mixed-use, with housing and academic space.

 

THE LARGEST CHALLENGE is a simple one: The amount of public money the island needs is extraordinary. So far, about $140 million has been spent or committed to infrastructure, including work on historic buildings, and almost nothing looks like it’s been done.

“A lot of that has gone into things that you can’t see as progress—preparing docks, preparing the sea walls, paving the roads,” Ms. Koch said. “We spent $1 million looking for sewers—to find them. I’m not exaggerating.”

The park would cost around $400 million, Ms. Koch said, and other infrastructure would likely be about $200 million, though some of that could be paid for by future tenants. 

Those are grand figures to throw around when GIPEC has seen its city and state funding commitments fall in recent years. Two years ago, the city and the state between them committed $40 million for capital improvements for the island; this year, it is $20 million. For next year’s budget, the city has $7 million allocated for capital improvements; the state has not yet put out its budget.

Advocates support the approach, though few are bullish on any movement in the near term. Parts of Hudson River Park have been under construction for almost a decade, and it still is only about half-completed. And that park had other advantages—a vertical strip along the West Side highway that had the support of neighboring residents.

Many involved say a better model would be Battery Park City, which took decades and is just being completed now.

“The lesson of Battery Park City for me was, it takes a long time,” Ms. Koch said. She then asked rhetorically: “You know, will it take 40 years?”

ebrown@observer.com