A massive rezoning scheduled for Governors Island

The Trust for Governors Island is in the final months of the city’s land use approval process to develop 33 acres of the south island. The result would be zoning that would allow 4.5 million square feet of space for a “center for climate solutions” that could rise up to 34 stories — 340 feet. The project would include academic buildings, dormitories, hotels, biotech/research laboratories, office space, cultural, and accessory retail, restaurant and conference center uses.

The success of the rezoning here would also make the island accessible 12 months a year and would created a 24/7 mixed-use district anchored by the educational center. It would also create — in theory — a revenue stream for the public part of the island, and help the island reach financial self sufficiency.

It would absolutely change the essence of the island, and the way we use it.

While that area of the island is clearly poised for development, the size of it seems shocking at first glance. It also seems wildly out of scale with the rest of Governors, which is captured best by the charm of the low-scale historic district on the north side. The Trust, in its application for the rezoning, justifies the scale of it as the only way to support the island’s public spaces. (The entire island is 172 acres; 22 of that is part of the National Park Service; the rest belongs to the city.)

“The proposed density of development is needed to create a critical mass of active uses that would enliven the Island for 24/7 year-round, 24/7 usage,” the proposal reads. “Absent the Proposed Project, the Trust would be likely unable to facilitate the opening of the Island to the public year-round and public access would likely remain limited to the months of May through October.” (The height limit is set at 340 feet, but in theory the bulk could be spread out across more but lower buildings.)

CB1 voted two nights ago to reject the proposal unless a better justification is made for its bulk, and unless more public space is carved out of the 33 acres up for rezoning. Tribecan Andrew Zelter warned that without approving this proposal, it could have the effect of stalling the preservation and the financial stability of the north side of the island. But the flip side is clearly about scale: the Trust has not fully explained why the zoning has to be as large as it is despite the community board’s requests for a more thorough financial justification.

The obvious analogy here to me is Roosevelt Island, where the city allowed for the development of Cornell’s tech campus there. But Roosevelt Island was already developed and underused, where as Governors right now is a scrappy, organic playground — a refuge from the rest of the city and wildly popular. Those current 100+ acres of parkland would not go away. But the island would no longer have that feeling that it belongs exclusively to the public as it does now — the tone is bound to change once a campus is developed. The question is, does it add to our experience there or detract?



  1. We have so little green space in nyc. How dare us take away this green space domain from the public and privitize once again our overdeveloped and constuction overwhelmed city. Parklands and Tree planting not more concrete PLEASE!!!
    Brooklyn resident,
    Lucy Mahler

  2. I agree with CB 1. Show us the numbers to justify such bulk. Maybe we keep the island closed from right after Thanksgiving weekend to March 1st.

  3. way way too much development. it will make governor’s island just another example of new york development greed. it’s just like the ridiculous plans for pier 40 development that were shot down. they always start with something over the top and then bargain back down to something that will still be too big… sigh.

  4. I think this particular use of the island – for climate change research and policy development – certainly justifies the rezoning. I am all for green space, but I’ve been living in NY for 55 years and I have NEVER been to Governor’s Island. You may say that’s my fault, but it is a function of the island being totally underutilized. And in a City as jam packed as ours, there seems to be no reason for that when green development is possible and could serve a greater good.

  5. What about using one of the empty islands surrounding NYC and building housing for home families?

  6. Considering the amount of vacancies in Manhattan right now (retail, commercial, apartments) this project is absolutely unnecessary. Governors Island is a green space jewel that needs to be protected from a project such as this. What can we do to stop this from happening?

  7. Sorry that was “homeless families.”

  8. If no housing is allowed, then how are they getting away with dormitories? Just wondering.

    • I am pretty sure it’s considered accessory to the academic use.

    • Permanent housing is zoning use group 2. Dormitories are zoning use group 3. Only permanent residential development is barred until at least 2060, under the 2003 deed agreement. Hotels, dormitories, faculty housing, short-term artist or cultural residences and caretaker housing (all in other zoning use groups) are permissible.

  9. A center for climate solutions? Why not.
    On Governors Island? Makes sense.
    Why not have NYC positioned as a leader in climate change research? It would be a good thing, but within the current plan it’s just too big. A better justification for the density is absolutely necessary…and after that justification fails, a more realistic, revised plan should be submitted. I have to assume that it’s possible to create a remarkable, world-class center for climate solutions on Governors Island without it being “too much.” The island has a ton of restrictions as to what can and can’t be located there, so when we find something positive that can fit within the “deed”, why not support it? 172 acres minus the 25 or 30 that a revised plan would call for, still leaves plenty of green space for the public to enjoy…especially if there is also useable public space designed within the center’s footprint. Reduce the scope of the plan (especially the height) and create a facility that is both aesthetically pleasing and comprehensively valuable…and be happy with that result.

    • Paul, if the ‘center for climate solutions’ were the only thing planned for that enormous site it might be ok. In fact that’s just a sop for all the rest of the glitzy plan. I vehemently object because this island is unique in that you can really relax and feel you’re miles away from the city. The monster plans I’ve seen would utterly destroy that. There’s also a lot of fine old buildings that could and should be restored for various for-profit and non-profit use.

      They should just plant an indigenous forest and if necessary keep the island open to the public from May to October. Better for the amazing birds that now live there too.

      Public meeting online Wed 6 pm. “Governor’s Island Panel/Public Hearing”. Please submit any questions to: llopez@manhattanbp.nyc.gov