Head of Governors Island pushed out as former deputy mayor looks to transform site
April 29, 2019
By Joe Anuta and Sally Goldenberg
The city’s long-held plans to revitalize Governors Island were finally getting underway last summer, and Michael Samuelian, who was appointed in 2016 to oversee the island’s transformation, was excited about the future.
“This next chapter presents an unparalleled opportunity to activate the island with new educational and research facilities in a destination unlike anywhere else,” he said in August, when City Hall announced the first steps toward redeveloping swaths of the 172-acre island.
So it seemed odd last week when Samuelian, an architect who specializes in big, complex projects, announced he was stepping down just as one of the city’s biggest and most complex projects was about to get interesting.
It turns out he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Samuelian was pushed out by former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who left City Hall in March after five years on the job and now plans to take control of the island’s redevelopment, according to several people familiar with the leadership shakeup.
As she was leaving a job that had been dominated by the mayor’s housing policy, Glen expressed regret at not having accomplished more on Governors Island, the fate of which has bedeviled city and state officials for more than a decade.
“The beauty and the beast of this job is that there are so many amazing things to get done, and you don’t get to cross everything off the list. I’m so excited about the future of Governors Island and excited we got the green light to take our idea of putting a gondola there to the next level,” Glen said in an exit interview with Crain’s. “I worry if I’m not here, maybe that won’t happen.”
The concern was short-lived.
Near the end of her time as deputy mayor, Glen decided to take over the project as part of her next act at the suggestion of Carl Weisbrod, the current board chairman.
“I was the one who said to Alicia that I am overwhelmingly busy, and I just can’t continue to be the chair,” he said in an interview on Thursday.
Glen arranged to take Weisbrod’s place as head of the board, which has power over staffing decisions, and opted to find a new president. The task of delivering the news to Samuelian, who said in 2017 he wanted to stay in his job for a decade, fell to Weisbrod.
When asked if he suggested Samuelian step down, Weisbrod would only say he informed Samuelian of the change in board leadership and urged him to speak directly to Glen.
But several people familiar with the matter said the implication was clear: Samuelian would either resign or be asked to leave.
Last Tuesday, Samuelian announced he would depart in June.
"I am incredibly proud of all that we have accomplished, from extending public access and attracting new environmental and cultural partners to the construction of our first new ferry and the creation of a responsible redevelopment strategy," Samuelian said in a statement to Crain’s, which reported the news. "Governors Island today is in a far stronger position than when we started nearly three years ago and is poised for a great future."
He declined to speak further to POLITICO.
Glen referred to Weisbrod’s comments on the question of personnel changes, and said as board chairwoman she wants to activate the historic district “with a great mix of educational, cultural and food users so that more folks come and enjoy the island" and ensure the Trust gets the rezoning right.
Samuelian, who who helped redevelop downtown in the wake of 9/11 for the Department of City Planning and later helmed the design of Hudson Yards for the Related Cos., was often described as a perfect fit for the complexities of activating Governors Island.
“Michael is a well-respected, innovative civic leader,” said Lynn Kelly, executive director of nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks, in a prepared statement. “He understood how to balance and navigate the complicated web of city parks, urbanism, programming, history and community that is Governors Island — I can only hope that he lands somewhere where his talents and love of NYC are put to good use again.”
Others who have worked with Samuelian but declined to speak on the record said they were troubled at the idea he was being edged out just as long-anticipated changes for the island are materializing.
After Samuelian activated some of the historic buildings on the island’s northern edge, The Trust for Governors Island announced a rezoning effort last August that would pave the way for 4.5 million square feet of mixed-use development on 33 acres of the island, which is also home to a park and national monument.
And, as Glen noted, plans have been floated for a gondola to transport visitors to and from Manhattan.
She can now focus on these plans, which were slow to materialize at City Hall during her time there.