Gov's Island: I'm Not Dead Yet

Gov's Island: I'm Not Dead Yet

While it is well known that the recession has hobbled both the city and state’s budgets for the coming fiscal year, one project has already been left for dead by certain press outlets. Which seems strange because one of the designers behind the recreational magnet that will one day become Governor’s Island works in the same building as us, and they seem as busy as hell. So is it really sink or swim time?

That depends. It all started back in January, when the Observer reported that there was no money in the state budget for Governor’s Island. Then, on Friday, Curbed, cribbing from a story in Downtown Express, warned that Governor’s Island might not even open this year. The Observer‘s take was a bleak one:

The island serves as an emblem of the cyclical nature of government planning, when grand amenities and far-reaching developments are drawn up during good times and canceled or scaled back in bad.

The confusion in the press, it seems, stems from the usual fiscal shell games Albany so enjoys. As Leslie Koch, president of the Governor’s Island Preservation and Education Corporation, explained in a phone interview Friday, there’s no money in GIPEC’s operating budget for FY09, though the capital budget remains intact. Thus the hive of activity two floors down.

Furthermore, the GIPEC budget line the Observer points to as missing was in the proposed, and not the final, budget. Put another way, the future is actually more secure than the present remains in doubt. Meanwhile, Koch is keeping her fingers crossed. “There’s still time and we’re still hoping there will be funds,” she said. Should the state re-instate its 50-percent share of GIPEC’s budget come April 1, when the state’s is due, the city is expected to follow suit. (Last year’s budget was $22 million, up from $16 million the previous year.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems happy to oblige, according to the aforementioned Express article, even proposing the state temporarily shunt capital money from Hudson River Park to fund the island’s operating costs this year. Another determined, if far more skeptical advocate, is Ken Fisher, chair of the Governors Island Alliance, who said in a recent interview that there has been little movement on the issue at the state level.

“My assement is this is one of those situations where everyone thinks it will get worked out because it ought to get worked out,” Fisher said. “But it won’t.”

“It’s one of those things that could wind up without a chair when the music stops.”

Undeterred, the alliance has launched a public outreach campaign, Keep the Island Afloat, which implores New Yorkers to write and call Governor David Paterson, telling him to, as Fisher put it, “Put the governor back in Governor’s Island.” Koch may have an even better weapon at her disposal: the uber-design team–West 8/Rogers Marvel/Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Quennell Rothschild/SMWM–behind the project.

One of their number recently told us that they were rushing to complete the project for a big public unveiling before the state budget is due, thereby helping GIPEC’s lobbying efforts with some flashy new renderings. “We’re busting our butts to get it out there,” the designer said.

Koch insists that the official unveiling is still scheduled for May, as it has always been, but she did admit that the design team would be previewing ideas to the alliance and other stakeholder groups in March, the first time new plans will be publicly unveiled.  Asked if this was meant to entice lawmakers, Koch replied, “I don’t really think of it as P.R. It’s really public outreach.”

Still, Fisher thinks any such efforts could be a big help, especially as his efforts continue to be stonewalled. “The more real the project is, the easier it is to sell,” he said.

GIPEC has already had one setback this year–it was forced to sell a prized but derelict ferry it bought last year for $500,000, which fetched only $23,600 on eBay when the auction closed Monday, a 95-percent markdown. Should GIPEC go broke this year, it could truly be sour one. Not only will all that fancy design work be for naught, but GIPEC has also spent this off-season preparing the once off-limits southern portion of the island for public access.

There just has to be more to Governor’s Island than another Water Taxi Beach.