Meadow Manager Moves On

A view of Governors Island, which has become a beloved public space for Lower Manhattan residents, from the observatory atop One World Trade Center.
Michael Samuelian, the chief of the Trust for Governors Island, the non-profit organization that administers the 172-acre park situated some 800 yards off the tip of Lower Manhattan, will be stepping down in June. His tenure, which began in 2016, will end shortly after the Island reopens for the season, on May 1.

Michael Samuelian, president of the Trust for Governors Island since 2016, will be leaving in June of this year, shortly after the park opens for the season.

Mr. Samuelian presided over a renaissance on Governors Island, with each year during his term setting new records for attendance, with expanded hours and a longer season. Many of these visitors were drawn by the debut of new amenities, such as the Hills, a ten-acre section of four landscaped acclivities, ranging in height from 26 to 70 feet, which includes a series of long slides.

In the season that begins next week, Governors Island will also launch a new ferry, Governors I. The 132 foot-long, 40 foot-wide vessel was built specifically to serve the Island, and can carry up to 400 passengers per trip, which will increase capacity by 1,000 visitors per hour.

But the success that Mr. Samuelian helped catalyze also sparked controversy. The City plans to develop two sections of Governors Island (totaling 33 acres), with as much as 4.5 million square feet of new buildings, in the hope that this will generate enough revenue to fund operations of the public sections of the park. This model is based, in part, on the example of the Hudson River Park Trust, where development within the footprint of the linear park along the waterfront of Manhattan’s West Side aims to subsidize public amenities. The City’s plan for Governors Island also draws inspiration from the success of developing the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. But striking the optimal balance between private use and public benefit has become a contentious issue for all three projects.

An architect’s rendering of the 4.5 million square feet of development that the City is considering for two separate tracts Governors Island (totaling 33 acres, or about 20 percent of the Island’s total area), which has aroused concern among community leaders.
This tension set off a heated discussion at a meeting of Community Board 1(CB1), last September, when Lower Manhattan community leaders reviewed a preliminary outline of the rezoning that Governors Island will require to enable such development.

Bruce Ehrmann, who co-chairs CB1’s Landmarks & Preservation Committee, opened the dialog by saying, “I was reading this and did not get a very strong feel for what we are resolved to do.”

Roger Byrom, who serves as chair of CB1’s Landmarks & Preservation Committee added, “this is totally inconsistent with what we’ve been working on with Governors Island for all these years. At first review, it seems grossly unreasonable.”

Susan Cole, who co-chairs CB1’s Licensing & Permits Committee, agreed, “it is not consistent.”

Mr. Byrom continued, “when we first looked at this, they envisioned uses for universities and schools. But because Governors Island has become such a successful location, suddenly we’re now being forced to commercialize it, like Battery Park City and Tribeca. It’s ridiculous.”
Mr. Ehrmann added, “the size of what we’re talking about, relative to the rest of the island, is not appropriate.”

Mr. Byrom made a trenchant observation about how City officials are sometimes accused of slipping large-scale development plans by community leaders, by exploiting the incremental nature of the process to slow revelations to a trickle: “this is how they work: chip, chip, chip. And then they’ll say, ‘oh, we thought you approved this.'”

Justine Cuccia, who co-chairs CB1’s Battery Park City Committee, said, “we need to make a clear statement, saying we don’t approve this. We need to make it clear that what we’ve heard so far, we don’t like.”

Ms. Cole interjected, “as it stands so far, CB1 could not support this proposal.”

CB1’s chairman, Anthony Notaro, reflected that, “this is not about zoning, this is about their scope of work to formulate an Environmental Impact Statement,” which is a document legally required before zoning can undergo a proposed modification.

Mr. Ehrmann objected that, “mid-rise commercial and residential uses are included in their scope.”

Mr. Byrom emphasized that, “we believe that the spirit of the Island should be cultural, educational, historical, and green. This suggestion of amending the zoning does not comply with that spirit.”

Mr. Notaro noted that, “they have always said that the southern part of the island has to generate sustainable revenue.”

Ms. Cole replied, “but there are ways to do that without constructing a thousand-unit hotel, and all the traffic that would bring.”

Paul Goldstein, who chairs CB1’s Waterfront, Parks & Cultural Committee, voiced a concern that, “the scope and magnitude of development are excessive.”

Mr. Byrom concluded, “and they are inconsistent with the vision and values of Governors Island to promote history, art, education, culture, and open space.”

Following this discussion, the Board enacted a resolution that stated, in part, “CB1 is very troubled by the scope and magnitude of development being assessed for the Island and believes that it is excessive.”

No successor for Mr. Samuelian has been announced by City Hall.
In a related development, Carl Weisbrod, the former City Planning Commissioner who has chaired the Trust for Governors Island for several years, is also stepping aside.
His successor, City Hall announced, will be former Deputy Mayor, Alicia Glen, who has served as a board member at the Trust for several years. Among the initiatives that Ms. Glen is known to favor is a plan, first proposed in 2006, to link Governors Island to Lower Manhattan with an aerial tramway, similar to the one that serves Roosevelt Island. First proposed by architect Santiago Calatrava, this idea was pushed hard by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but ultimately foundered on questions of financing the structure, which was projected at the time to cost $125 million, and worries about how affordable tickets would be for ordinary New Yorkers.

One year ago, the City’s Economic Development Corporation hired engineering firm AECOM to take a fresh look at the possibility of such a gondola. The renewed interest in an aerial tram comes against the backdrop of increased momentum for plans to begin commercial development on Governors Island. But for such development to be viable, builders will likely want to see some means of mitigating the isolation of island — currently reachable only by ferry service that is expensive to operate and offers finite capacity.

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