At the end of May, the New York City Council approved the rezoning of Governors Island to permit additional development, up to 3.77 million square feet of building on 34 acres of land. With the majority of that land currently devoted to parks and public recreation, Governors Island is one of the last undeveloped places in New York, but not for long.
The matter of rezoning has been hotly contested by public groups ever since Mayor Bill de Blasio floated the idea a year ago. Roger Manning, cofounder of the Metro Area Governors Island Coalition (known as MAGIC), which has fought the rezoning plan, was dispirited by the council’s decision. In his eyes, “the Mayor, the Trust for Governors Island, and the City Council have sold out an irreplaceable one-of-a-kind public space…in exchange for another high-rise, high-density, privately occupied urban district with value-added landscaping.”
Manning also called into question the notion that Governors Island rezoning is tied to a grander vision for fighting climate change, as de Blasio now suggests. He isn’t wrong to be skeptical: The recent rezonings of Gowanus in Brooklyn and Soho/Noho in Manhattan were likewise pitched by the mayor as progressive measures—in those cases, to stake out affordable housing in exclusive white enclaves. Instead, the policy has spurred more luxury housing, with only a limited amount of below-market units. The city’s next mayor (in all probability, Democrat Eric Adams) will almost certainly capitalize on the rezonings to kickstart a stalled real estate machine.
But Governors Island is not Soho, nor is it Gowanus. Located in the East River between Brooklyn and the southern tip of Manhattan, it is untethered from both. New York City’s European settlers first seized it for use as an army redoubt, a function it would retain until the end of the millennium, at which point the federal government designated much of the surrounds as parkland. New York City took control of the island in 2003, and later, in 2010, it created the nonprofit Trust for Governors Island to manage its operations. Regular ferry service from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn exposed New Yorkers to the island’s charms, and it quickly became a site for environmental and artistic innovation. Yet even before the city assumed possession of the island, a succession of mayors flirted with grand real estate dreams that could have turned it into an extension of Wall Street. They struggled to justify the huge public subsidies that would be required to build the requisite urban infrastructure, however. City Hall and investors were ultimately more interested in the hot (and also subsidized) deals available in Manhattan, like the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after 9/11 and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s trophy development at Hudson Yards.
Then came Bill de Blasio. In two terms in office, he was bruised by rezoning battles in places like East New York and East Harlem, where his proposed upzonings faced stiff opposition; he pushed them through, but at the expense of his progressive credibility. Yet City Hall could see that Governors Island had no housing or residents to protest and lots of land that could be opened up to profitable development. De Blasio’s deputy mayor Alicia Glen called it “a nice piece of real estate,” and her successor Vicky Been anointed it as part of the mayor’s “economic recovery plan.”
First introduced in 2018 and refloated during the height of the pandemic, the Governors Island rezoning plan passed just as the city began lifting restrictions on public gatherings in restaurants and businesses but not public hearings. (Attendance for the decisive May 2021 hearing was limited.) The City Council passed it over opposition from Community Board 1 in Manhattan (the island is under that community board’s jurisdiction) and civic groups like MAGIC that instead argued for expanding activities related to environmental improvement. With characteristic high-handedness, the City Planning Commission gave a token nod to the opposition by approving a slight reduction in the maximum floor area allowed, just enough to draw a bit of praise from retiring City Council member Margaret Chin but strong criticism from her replacement, City Council member–elect Christopher Marte, who altogether opposed the rezoning.
Even with this reduction, the rezoning nonetheless opens the door to almost four million square feet of new construction, not quite on par with earlier real estate dreams but still plenty. This buildable area would be concentrated on the southern end of the island in what is supposed to become a Climate Solutions Center. In late June, de Blasio and The Trust for Governors Island issued a request for expressions of interest, inviting universities and research institutions to establish an anchor institution at the center. De Blasio framed the competition in the language of land-use optimization: “Governors Island is a crown jewel of this city—a place where families, workers and students have come to enjoy a beautiful landscape with spectacular views of the greatest city in the world. But we can get more out of this unique space.”
Manning, of MAGIC, points out how less than one-third of the 3.77 million square feet will be allotted to the construction of a climate research hub, which isn’t legally required in any event. Moreover, de Blasio will have left office by the time the request for expressions of interest is followed up by a request for proposals; his successor could broadly redefine “climate solutions” to mean “green buildings.” The approved zoning use is already designated as commercial, and that could cover a wide range of for-profit activities only tangentially related to climate solutions, or entirely unrelated. Future developers could always go back to the city and request a variance or zoning change to suit their needs, falling back on the time-tested argument that the existing zoning is valid but too limiting to spur private investment.
Governors Island may be heading in the direction of Roosevelt Island, another unique New York site reclaimed for the benefit of developers, but we shouldn’t lose track of the city’s record of neglect toward its smaller islands, including Hart and Rikers Islands. There is also its centuries-long legacy of industrial contamination, toxic landfilling, and pollution of natural in-water habitats. The city should not be proud that it took federal intervention to stop ocean dumping and build 12 wastewater treatment plants. Nor can it forget that its combined sewer system still discharges directly into the waterways. Governors Island could help reset our relationship with both land and water, but its rezoning will make that much more difficult.
Despite all that, Governors Island could still be a site of an expanded composting effort, engaging community and environmental justice groups, and developing educational and pilot programs that bring greater awareness and resources to the task of combating climate change and healing the earth. This could integrate research and action in a way that seriously confronts the challenges of sea-level rise and repairs the fraught relationships between land, water, and human activity. Only the status quo stands in the way. It would be a tragic irony if sea-level rise and storm surges were to be the final arbiter that annuls all development on Governors Island for good.
Tom Angotti is professor emeritus of urban policy and planning, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and coeditor of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City (UR Books, 2017).