On 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).
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?”