At the end of May, the New York City Council approved change of the zoning of the Governor’s Island to permit additional development, up to 3.77 million square feet of the building on 34 acres of land. Since most of this land is currently set aside for parks and public recreation, Governors Island is one of the last undeveloped areas in New York, but not for long.
The zoning change has been hotly contested by community groups since Mayor Bill de Blasio came up with the idea a year ago. Roger Manning, co-founder Subway Governors Island Coalition (known as MAGIC), which fought the zone reassignment plan, was disappointed with the council’s decision. In his opinion, “the mayor, the Governor’s Island Foundation and the City Council have sold an irreplaceable one-of-a-kind public space … in exchange for another high-rise, highly populated private urban area with value-added landscaping.”
Manning also questioned the idea that the zoning change for Governor’s Island is linked to a broader vision of tackling climate change, as de Blasio is now suggesting. He’s not wrong to be skeptical: the recent zone changes in Govanus in Brooklyn and Soho / Noho in Manhattan have also been called progressive measures by the mayor – in those cases to stake out affordable housing in exclusive white enclaves. Instead, the policy has spurred an increase in the number of high-end housing with a limited number of sub-market units. The city’s next mayor (likely Democrat Eric Adams) will almost certainly benefit from the zone changes to start a stalled real estate car.
But Governor’s Island is neither Soho nor Govanus. Located in the East River between Brooklyn and the southern tip of Manhattan, it is not tied to both. New York’s European settlers first captured it for use as an army redoubt, a function it would have retained until the end of the millennium, after which the federal government designated much of the neighborhood as a parkland. New York took control of the island in 2003 and later, in 2010, created a non-profit organization. Trust of Governors Island manage your operations. Regular ferries from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn brought the island’s charm to New Yorkers, and it quickly became a place for environmental and artistic innovation. However, even before the city took over the island, a string of mayors were flirting with grandiose dreams of real estate that could turn it into an extension of Wall Street. However, they have struggled to justify the huge government subsidies that would be required to create the necessary urban infrastructure. City Hall and investors were ultimately more interested in hot (as well as subsidized) deals available in Manhattan, such as the post-9/11 recovery of Lower Manhattan and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s trophy development at Hudson Yards.
Then Bill de Blasio came. During his two terms in office, he suffered from reassignment of hostilities in places such as East New York and East Harlem, where his proposed changes met with stiff opposition; he pushed them through, but at the expense of his progressive authority. However, City Hall saw that Governor’s Island had no housing, no residents to protest, and no plots of land to open up for profitable development. De Blasio’s deputy mayor, Alicia Glen, called it “a beautiful property,” and her successor, Vicki Ben, anointed it as part of the mayor’s “economic recovery plan.”
First unveiled in 2018 and taken aground in the midst of the pandemic, the plan to change the zoning of Governor’s Island was adopted immediately after the city began lifting restrictions on public gatherings in restaurants and businesses, but not public hearings. (Attendance at the decisive hearings in May 2021 was limited.) The City Council made this decision, overcoming objections from Community Council 1 in Manhattan (the island is under the jurisdiction of this Community Council) and civic groups such as MAGIC, which instead advocated expansion related to the improvement of the environment. … With characteristic willfulness, the Urban Planning Commission gave a landmark nod to the opposition, approving a small cut in the maximum floor area that was enough to elicit praise from outgoing city councilor Margaret Chin, but harsh criticism from her replacement. , City Councilor-elect Christopher Marthe, who has generally opposed the zoning change.
Even with this cut, the zoning change opens the door to nearly four million square feet of new construction, which doesn’t quite live up to previous real estate dreams, but still enough. This built-up area will focus on the southern tip of the island in a location that is to become the Climate Solutions Center. In late June, de Blasio and The Trust for Governors Island released expression of interest requestby inviting universities and research institutions to establish an anchor institution at the center. De Blasio formulated the competition in the language of land use optimization: “Governor’s Island is the crown jewel of this city — a place where families, workers and students come to enjoy the beautiful landscape with breathtaking views of the world’s greatest city. … But we can get more from this unique space. “
MAGIC’s Manning points out that less than one-third of the 3.77 million square feet will be allocated to build a climate research center, which is not required by law anyway. Moreover, de Blasio will be leaving office by the time the request for expressions of interest is followed by a request for proposals; his successor could redefine “climate solutions” as “green buildings”. Approved zoning uses are already designated commercial and may cover a wide range of commercial activities only indirectly related to climate solutions or not entirely related. Future developers can always return to the city and request variance or zoning changes to suit their needs, relying on the time-tested argument that existing zoning is acceptable but too restrictive to stimulate private investment.
Governor’s Island may be heading towards Roosevelt Island, another unique New York location that has been rebuilt for the benefit of the developers, but we must not overlook the fact that the city neglects its smaller islands, including the Hart and Rikers Islands. There is also a centuries-old legacy of industrial pollution, dumping of toxic substances and pollution of natural habitats in water. The city shouldn’t be proud that it took federal intervention to stop the dumping of waste into the ocean and build 12 sewage treatment plants. He also cannot forget that his combined sewage system is still being discharged directly into the waterways. Governor’s Island could help rebuild our relationship with both land and water, but changing its zone will make that much more difficult.
Despite all this, Governors Island can still be home to expanded composting efforts, engaging communities and environmental justice groups, and developing educational and pilot programs that raise awareness and resources for the challenge of fighting climate change and healing the Earth. This could bring together research and action in a way that seriously confronts the challenges of rising sea levels and repairs the uneasy relationship between land, water and human activities. Only the status quo stands in the way. It would be a tragic irony if sea level rise and storm surges were the final arbiter to permanently nullify all developments on Governor’s Island.
Tom Angotti – Emeritus Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate School, Co-Editor Zoned! Race, Displacement, and Urban Planning in New York (UR Books, 2017).