Governor's Island about to get makeover

April 20, 2008 3:23:09 PM PDT
It's a priceless piece of real estate largely unknown to New York's 8 million inhabitants. From its shoreline, visitors can see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. Situated in the middle of New York Harbor, just a half mile from lower Manhattan, Governors Island is about to undergo a massive makeover that would turn much of it into lush parkland.

A consortium of five design companies was chosen in December to transform the teardrop-shaped island, turning the flat southern end into a park with manmade hills and a shoreline promenade.

Improvements also are in store for the northern half, a historic district with graceful 18th and 19th century houses, a defunct 9-hole golf course and a former Army parade ground.

Sold by its original Dutch settlers to the British in 1708, the 172-acre island later became an American military base for 202 years - home to soldiers, Confederate prisoners of war and the U.S. Coast Guard, yet off limits to civilians.

Planners want to build an amphitheater for outdoor concerts and provide free bicycles for roaming the island, where private cars are banned. Ten concerts are scheduled this year on an existing outdoor stage, among them a July 5 performance by the New York Philharmonic.

"We are planning the park to serve New Yorkers and the New York region, and we also welcome visitors and tourists to experience this unique island," said Leslie Koch, president of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation.

"Just the views of the harbor are significant - views that most people in New York have never seen."

Financed by the city and state, the project will cost upwards of $500 million overall. Plans call for a groundbreaking in late 2009, but demolition of old buildings on the southern end may start as early as next month.

Some 56,000 people visited Governors Island last year, seven times more than in 2005 when the National Park Service, which owns 22 acres on the northern tip, opened its two historic Army forts to the public. Both Castle Williams and Fort Jay were built just before the War of 1812.

The island's past is studded with famous names: John Peter Zenger, a German who emigrated to New York in 1710 and was quarantined on the island for medical reasons 25 years before he won a libel case that helped establish press freedom in America; Ulysses S. Grant, whose 1852 Army quarters still stand; the Wright brothers, who flew from its airstrip - New York's first airport - in 1909; and the Smothers brothers, born in a military clinic in the 1930s.

A rock on the island's west shore marks where President Reagan, accompanied by French President Francois Mitterand, triggered a laser-and-fireworks spectacular marking the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Two years later, Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev held a one-day Cold War summit there.

Those looking for historical irony might find it in the fact that West 8, the lead firm in the design group, is based in Holland - the country whose intrepid explorers founded the city that would become New York.

The Dutch bought the island from the Manhatas Indians in 1637 for two ax heads, some nails and beads, and dubbed it Nutten Island for its nut trees. The British ran up their flag in 1708, renamed it Governors Island and built a mansion for the colonial governor.

After the American Revolution the island became an Army base, and was a staging area for Europe-bound troops in the two World Wars. In 1966, the Coast Guard inherited Governors Island and stayed 30 years, until budget cuts forced its base to close in 1996, leaving the island's future in limbo.

Crossing the harbor by helicopter later that year, President Clinton saw the island below and asked U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan what it was. When Moynihan told him it was a piece of local real estate that the federal government had occupied rent-free for over 200 years, Clinton offered a deal: The city and state could have Governors Island back for $1, provided it was used for public purposes.

Nothing immediately came of that, and in 1998, Albany lawmakers proposed sellng the island for $500 million to help ease the state's deficit, an idea that went nowhere.

Other ideas for Governors Island flowed forth: a hotel and casino; low-income housing; high school or college campus; venue for the 2012 Olympics; children's amusement park.

All foundered over various issues, one being how to move massive numbers of people to and from an island so near yet so far. The only access to Governors Island is by ferry, a seven-minute trip from lower Manhattan. Koch says she is not troubled by that issue, pointing out that the ferry has managed so far to do the job and a second one is being renovated for duty.

Koch said 3,000 people who attended an outdoor concert on Governors Island last summer were back in Manhattan in less than an hour.