24/7 Governors Island
June 19, 2017
By Joe Anuta
The city has spent more than a decade trying to figure out what to do with Governors Island. Michael Samuelian is the man with a plan.
A once-stately army officers' club that first opened on Governors Island in 1939 has suffered decades of neglect. Paint is peeling off the high ceilings. Dust cakes the chandeliers. Weeds poke through brick patios overlooking the harbor. But Michael Samuelian, the building’s new steward, sees the island’s modern ruins as the key to unlocking an economic engine that has been nearly 15 years in the making. As the head of the Trust for Governors Island, Samuelian is rolling out a plan to reclaim roughly 1 million square feet of landmarked property from the ravages of time.
“You can’t really watch horror movies and have this job,” Samuelian said in the club’s forsaken kitchen. “You’re constantly walking through abandoned buildings with a flashlight.”
Governors Island is unlike any other place in New York City. Its historic buildings and idyllic fields are accessible only by ferry, and its 172 acres are largely devoid of cars. Sitting in the middle of New York Harbor, the island offers unparalleled views of the Financial District, Downtown Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty and Jersey City. Work wrapped up last year on a 40-acre park where children now frolic on playgrounds, artificial hills and the city’s longest slide. Two geese-chasing border collies roam in search of feathered targets.
Samuelian was chosen to head the Trust for Governors Island in September, charged with spearheading the next phase of its remaking. Expectations are high.
The de Blasio administration, which appoints a majority of the trust’s board, wants to create a 24-7 community that features public parks, nonprofit tenants, restaurants, increased ferry service and 5 million square feet of new commercial office and education space—all of which must pay for itself.
In Samuelian, City Hall has landed one of the few people with a suitable résumé to pull it off. As a city planner, the Brooklyn-born grandson of Armenian immigrants helped engineer the revitalization of Lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. He later was the lead planner on the Related Cos.’ Hudson Yards project, a miniature city being cut from whole cloth on Manhattan’s West Side. Not only did he help devise the elaborate zoning changes that defined the shape and makeup of that megaproject, he also persuaded the first tenants to commit to what was then deemed a high-risk endeavor. He’s likely to need all those skills and more on Governors Island, where the task is so large that it surely will take him well beyond the term limits of the current mayor to complete it.
“It's interesting to start a job you want to have for the next decade,” he said.
NUTS AND BRASS
One of Governors Island’s first known functions was as a nut repository for the native Lenape tribe. Starting in 1624, the Dutch kicked off several centuries’ worth of colonial and military use. Admirals and colonels built forts, homes, hospitals, prisons and mess halls. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more than doubled the size of the island’s landmass in 1912 with fill from the construction of the Lexington Avenue subway. A bowling alley and the country’s only alcohol-serving Burger King later catered to a population of about 3,000 civilians and service members until 1996, when the Coast Guard, the last military occupant, pulled up stakes and left behind a ghost town.
Seven years later, the federal government designated a 22-acre national monument on the island’s northwest edge, including a 19th-century stone fort called Castle Williams, but signed the rest of its territory over to the city and state in exchange for $1 and a requirement that the island be used only for the public good. That’s when the proposals started rolling in. “Governors Island is one of the most important development sites in the entire city,” said Roland Lewis, head of the nonprofit Waterfront Alliance. “It’s a blank canvas, and the location is unbelievable.”
There’s been no shortage of ideas on what to build: a water-borne transportation hub, a cultural center, a museum, a soccer stadium, even a SpongeBob SquarePants–themed resort hotel. The Bloomberg administration issued several requests for proposals to redevelop the island, with limited success. After the state bowed out of its ownership role in 2010, city officials opted to spend $350 million on water and electricity infrastructure and fund the 40-acre park as a first step to reacquainting the public with the island.
It worked. More than 500,000 people visited last season, and many New Yorkers already consider the green space their own. While Samuelian was posing for a Crain’s photo, a testy mother walked over and demanded to know the identity of the grown man hogging the slide and forcing fidgety children to wait at the top.
“This is the best slide in the park,” she said, a not-so-subtle suggestion that Samuelian shove off.
But green space is only half the plan. Aside from a few uses—including a maritime-focused high school, arts and cultural programs, offices of the trust and park service along with a forthcoming day spa that plans to lease three historic buildings and build two outdoor pools on the island’s northwest edge—the 1 million square feet of landmarked buildings are vacant and in need of rehab.
Beyond a recent $34 million grant from the city, the trust has limited funds and no significant income to pay for repairs.
Instead they will be funded by the tenants who take space in the historic buildings. A program being rolled out with the city’s Industrial Development Agency will help them pay the bills by dramatically cutting taxes through waivers of things such as the mortgage recording tax and duties on construction materials. In addition, historic tax credits will return 15 cents on every dollar of capital repairs to the landmarked buildings. A proposal percolating in City Hall would exempt certain end users from paying property taxes, which would otherwise be required.
“When you have a park this large, with so many infrastructure challenges and historic buildings, that’s a big lift financially,” said Lynn Kelly, head of New Yorkers for Parks, a nonprofit. “The trust has to be creative in how it activates these assets.”
By the end of the year, Samuelian hopes to sign the first deals under the new framework. The goal is to attract nonprofits—preferably with some sort of connection to the island’s maritime history—plus some food options to create a functioning business community. Then comes an even bigger leap: Getting people to spend the night there. When the feds transferred the island to the city and state in 2003, the restriction on permanent residents left a little wiggle room.
“Dormitories are not considered a residential use,” Samuelian said.
As he cruised by a former hospital in a golf cart—the preferred mode of transport for the island’s employees—he said it would make a great inn. A nearby structure, Liggett Hall—a grand brick edifice as long as the Chrysler Building is tall—could similarly house students or overnight guests. The trust also is looking to entice companies that might want to operate a conference center or a wedding hall.
Officials are focusing on six historic buildings with the largest floor space and the smallest amount of rehab needed.
But the trust first needs to complete a number of studies so it can bolster its pitch to prospective tenants and determine how difficult its job will be.
The trust is surveying the amount of work each building on the island needs to be habitable. Not only will Samuelian need to persuade the private market to cough up whatever capital dollars will be required, but future tenants also will have to be comfortable making all repairs under the exacting oversight of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
The ferries also present challenges. The trust already spends around $4 million annually operating the Coursen, which can bring 1,100 people along with dozens of cars and trucks from Lower Manhattan every hour, and operates twice as often during peak travel times.
The city’s expanded East River ferry service stops at Governors Island on the weekends, and the trust supplements service through a partnership with New York Waterways, but more is needed. A study by the city’s Economic Development Corp. and consulting firm Arup aims to determine the additional trips required to sustain business activity.
The trust’s initial foray into expansion didn’t go well. In 2009 officials spent around $1 million on a used ship that the Daily News deemed “as seaworthy as your average yellow cab.” The trust later sold the ship for scrap on eBay for $23,600.
A new vessel that can hold 400 people is now on its way. But even with that, the trust could have trouble persuading the first tenants to take a seven-minute ferry ride away from the amenities and transit connections of a central business district.
Finally, while the military coordinated trash collection and mail services when it occupied the island, it had tax dollars to pay for it. Samuelian needs to provide those same services without hitting tenants with huge common charges.
Starting from scratch does present interesting opportunities such as making the island energy- independent through solar panels and geothermal heating. But should the overnight population ever grow large enough, Samuelian could also be called upon to coordinate a new police precinct, medical center and fire station. And the trust eventually will have to determine the best way to barge supplies to the island and waste off it, because all the typical delivery services go no farther than the Battery Maritime Terminal in the Financial District.
“The post office, and Seamless, stop at the ferry terminal,” Samuelian said.
Leasing a critical mass of historic buildings and upgrading the island’s operations are expected to take two to three years. But that’s just the prelude to the ultimate vision. Samuelian has received the mandate that Governors Island should eventually cover its own operating costs, much like Brooklyn Bridge and Hudson River parks. Many advocates say that mandate can hamstring organizations such as the trust if it has to choose between making money and operating a space in the way that best benefits the public. Samuelian, who earned an architecture degree from Cooper Union, where he is a professor, said there is enough room to do both.
“We have a public asset,” he said. “Should we just let it lie fallow?”
Successfully leasing the historic buildings would act as a proof of concept for the far riskier prospect of financing ground-up commercial development. In total, 33 acres split between the island’s southern and northern edges is expected to accommodate about 5 million square feet of space. A future rezoning would determine the shape of the buildings. Samuelian said he hopes they will command rents lower than the Financial District—which at around $60 per square foot are already a bargain by Manhattan standards. Because even the lowest floors will have amazing views, the trust doesn’t necessarily have to build high to get there. But it will have to do a lot of outreach to sell the right type of tenants on Governors Island. Samuelian, who was instrumental in securing Coach as an anchor tenant in Hudson Yards, is a dogged salesman.
On the day of the Crain’s visit, Facebook happened to be hosting a corporate event on the island.
“Is Zuckerberg coming?” Samuelian asked a colleague as techies in blue shirts began arriving in droves. “We should go say hi.” ■
Correction: The Trust for Governors Island supplements ferry service through a partnership with New York Waterways. That fact was misstated in an earlier version of this article.