Soundings

Eugene Kontorovich
Opening the Bidding
Autumn 1997

Some 360 years ago, a Dutch governor bought a 174-acre parcel from the Canarsie Indians for two ax heads, some nails, and a string of beads. Now the land, called Governors Island, is a vacant military base—the Coast Guard pulled up anchor in July—and Washington wants to unload it on New York City for the symbolic sum of one dollar.

Senator Daniel P. Moynihan won the concession from President Clinton in October 1995, and New York has until 2002 to make up its mind. If it says no, Congress will then auction off the land.

The prospect of getting a wide-open tract of land minutes from Manhattan has lots of people drooling. The island is beautiful, a quiet sanctuary of oak trees and open fields with wraparound views of the harbor, the financial district, and Brooklyn's promenade. It is dotted with the colonial and mid-nineteenth-century houses that used to quarter military officers.

Planners are blanketing the island with their ideas, from a homeless shelter to a casino. An influential study by the Regional Plan Association proposes preserving the island as a public trust. The RPA, like many groups, vigorously opposes any new development on the island—in other words, any use for the land it would approve would take money straight out of taxpayers' pockets. The RPA's own plan includes public marinas, bed-and-breakfasts in the brownstones, and homes for artists.

Most of these ideas don't have a prayer of even starting to recoup the island's overhead costs; ferry service (there is no bridge) and maintenance for the land cost roughly $30 million a year. Though Moynihan and community group leaders talk disparagingly of selling Governors Island to the highest bidder for private development, the alternative to making it a "playground for the rich" (in the words of this faction) may be keeping it as a money trap for middle-class taxpayers.

The crucial point that policy makers should remember is that the northern half of the island, where most of the old buildings and picturesque paths are, is already a National Historic Landmark district. This bucolic landscape can't be developed. Since the northern half is already a public preserve, why shouldn't the city ask the feds to auction the rest off to developers and require them, as part of the deal, to refurbish and maintain the park? We'd probably end up with a mix of golf courses and private marinas attractive to nearby Wall Streeters, high-rise housing like Battery Park City, as well as the parks that would make it perfect for day-trippers. Such uses could call into existence private, for-profit ferry service as well.

In other words, this time we really could have it all.

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