Questions surround climate-center plan for New York's Governors Island

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for a climate center on Governors Island has prompted reactions from promising to skeptical.

The proposal for the historic island off Manhattan's southern tip is preliminary, with many unanswered questions.

A rendering of the proposed climate center at New York's Governors Island.

The Trust for Governors Island, which oversees the 150-acre parcel, said the center would leverage the island’s “unique environment” and waterfront location as a public living laboratory. A rezoning would permit 4.2 million square feet of development across the island’s southeast portion.

“What we've heard loud and clear, and it relates so much to what's being talked about today is the intersection between the issue of the threat of climate change and public health and economic vitality,” the trust’s president and chief executive, Clare Newman, told reporters.

The 172-acre island sits about 800 yards south of Lower Manhattan and is accessible by ferry. It began as a colonial militia in 1755 and as major headquarters for the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, was one of the longest continually operated military installations in the country until its closure in 1996.

In 2003, the federal government sold 150 of the acres back to the city, with city and state sharing governance and funding. The island reopened to the public two years later.

The federal and city governments have designated some of the parcels historic districts.

“Governors Island has a distinguished past in New York City, and an even brighter future,” de Blasio said.

Precedent exists for building out on a New York City island. Cornell Tech emerged on Roosevelt Island in the East River under a plan that Mayor Michael Bloomberg initiated. A subway line and an aerial tram connect to that island.

The Governors Island transformation over the past decade included a $400 million, 43-acre park and infrastructure upgrades. Year-round tenants include the New York Harbor School, the Billion Oyster Project and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s newly expanded arts center, as well as dozens of seasonal arts and cultural partners.

“This is a very important piece of New York,” Alicia Glen, who chairs the Trust for Governors Island board, said at Wednesday’s meeting. Glen is a former deputy mayor for housing and development.

According to the trust, the new center would provide a central convening spot for researchers, advocates, innovators and international students while providing opportunities for public engagement and hands-on education, plus advocacy initiatives around climate and environmental matters.

“It’s where you want to be located, on the water,” said Alan Rubin, a principal at Blank Rome LLP in New York and co-head of its severe weather emergency recovery team. “If you look at the other climate centers, including Scripps and Woods Hole, they’re in and around water.”

Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are in San Diego and Falmouth, Massachusetts, respectively.

Climate change is taking on a greater role in municipal bond ratings. Over the last four years, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings have acquired climate data analysis firms in an effort to dig deeper into the environmental segment of environmental, social and governance ratings.

Moody’s affiliate Four Twenty Seven has estimated that by 2040, rising sea levels will affect more than 110 U.S. cities with populations exceeding 50,000, plus coastal counties and states.

Trust for Governors Island officials say the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for cross-sector planning that centers equity around pressing issues. They project the center will create 8,000 direct new jobs and add $1 billion to the city’s economy.

The proposal could include an academic or research anchor institution to study climate-change effects; a “living laboratory” and/or cultural uses that invite conversations on the environment through public art and programming; and dormitories to support an academic anchor.

“It is obviously on government property so you don’t have a tax issue with a public-private partnership,” Rubin said.

The rezoning proposal, expected to enter the city’s formal public land-use review process later this month, would extend uses allowed in the north island to designated south island development sites to support a year-round, 24/7 mixed-use district, anchored by an educational or research center.

All buildings across the development sites would adhere to flood-resistant construction methods, the trust said in a statement. No zoning changes are being proposed for the North Island/Governors Island Historic District.

Still, funding for such a project is up in the air, especially given the city’s budget hole from the effects of the coronavirus. De Blasio budget officials have projected a $9 billion revenue gap through the next fiscal year.

Funding and transportation are crucial, according to Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Variables, she said, include levels of ferry service and the need to staff police, fire and emergency medical technicians on the island for dormitories.

“There are transportation issues. Clearly, the last mile is the ferry,” she said. “How many people are going by subway or commuter rail to get there? The extra leg for any commute is always difficult.

“Will there be 24-hour service and if so, who pays for it? Or will it be like Cinderella where you risk getting stuck somewhere?

“We have no idea how to fund the transportation we already have,” Gelinas added. “Would there be a subsidy involved? Would the [New York City Economic Development Corp.] or the Trust for Governors Island pay for it? It is possible for an NYU, for instance, to sell that it’s cool to sleep on Governors Island, but it’s a tough sell for a subsidy, especially in this economy.

“Clearly, de Blasio wants something but it’s late in the day to make this your physical legacy.”

Rubin said the city could collaborate among its agencies and with nonprofits including the Rockefeller Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Smart Cities.

He said climate change has become a new phenomenon in the Northeast, even as the memory of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 lingers. “This region now has hurricanes, tornadoes, tropical storms and tropical depressions.”

Over the years, debate has continued over what to build on or around the island, or to just leave it alone as some preservationists have suggested.

In June, engineer and former city transportation commissioner “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz proposed the "Queens Ribbon,” a series of three narrow bicycle-and-pedestrian bridges that would connect Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey through Governors Island.

One of the three bridges would involve connections to Governors Island and the Brooklyn Bridge Park pier area and connect in Lower Manhattan with the south portion of the FDR Drive.

Schwartz’s namesake engineering firm is working on the proposal with T.Y. Lin International and the Design & Construction Innovation Hub of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, whose chairman is Michael Horodniceanu, the former capital construction chief for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“To me it would make more sense to put it on Staten Island,” Gelinas said, citing infrastructure components in place. “It makes sense to build on what you have.” She cited the island’s longstanding ferry service to Manhattan, MTA-operated bus and railway systems, and bridges connecting Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Rubin, while acknowledging the viability of Staten Island, still considers Governors Island the better option. It’s important, he said, to sidestep the kind of visceral neighborhood opposition that forced Fortune 500 behemoth Amazon to withdraw its plans for a co-national headquarters in Long Island City, Queens.

“Governors Island is sort of neutral, like Switzerland,” he said.

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Climate change City of New York, NY New York Bill de Blasio