Governor’s Island 4.0

The news broke earlier this week that the latest planning process for the redevelopment of Governors’ Island has been scrapped, and the agency charged with the redevelopment of the island would start over.  Again.

The latest plans called for a variety of uses, including hotels, condos, conference centers, and an amusement park.  Mayor Bloomberg’s earlier plan called for moving the CUNY campuses there, and using the existing campuses for public schools.  Mayor Giuliani’s plan called for a casino.  The next failed plan, which will no doubt provide positive publicity (and that is the point isn’t it?), will be the fourth.  Under the circumstances, you may be interested in what I suggested, while working at the Department of City Planning, when the first plan was being cooked up – moving the United Nations and all related embassies to the island.  That proposal may be read after clicking “read more."

Meanwhile, the plans for finding an alternative location for the United Nations while its deteriorating building gets a gut rehab is on its second or third permutation.  From a city planning point of view I believe my suggestion was the right one.  But this was a decade ago, and I have come to have fuller knowledge of the characteristics of the class of human being that sits atop the food chain of state and local government, namely the politicians.  Such people mainly look at a situation like this as an opportunity to get paid, both for themselves and for the narrow interests that back them, by obtaining and using a veto over any and all proposals that might improve life for the majority of us inconsequential peasants.  This is the sort of thing that once could happen in New York State, but not anymore.  If only Governors’ Island was in another state.


This is a proposal to relocate United Nations, and all related embassies and consulates, to Governors Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan in New York harbor.  The construction of the new complex and embassies would be financed through the sale of the existing United Nations complex and embassies, at high Manhattan real estate prices.  The federal government would donate the island, construct a lift bridge to Brooklyn for diplomatic and service access, and operate a ferry from Manhattan for public and staff access.

Under this proposal, the U.N. would benefit from new facilities in a setting that enhanced its prestige, by occupying a separate and distinct international space rather than a small corner of a dense American city, while still retaining ready access to New York and all it provides.  No longer could U.N. staff and foreign dignitaries be bullied by local officials.  A separate island would also enhance security.  Visitors could be screened at the Manhattan ferry landing, and vehicular access could be limited to international staff and authorized service providers.  Heads of state could travel by boat directly to the island from JFK airport, avoiding New York City streets, and public access could be restricted when heads of state are there.  A relocation would also solve the problem of rehabilitating the U.N. building, which is in poor condition and requires a comprehensive rehabilitation, with its occupants inside.

In addition, a separate island could be an important physical symbol of an increasingly inter-connected world, for those of us who favor such a world.  The conversion of the old fort to a museum and interpretive center would convey the message that in a small world security is best achieved through law, not weapons.  No matter how well armed, no fort on Governors Island could protect New York from international threats such as global warming, disease, terrorism, or missiles.

The City of New York would benefit from having valuable existing U.N. and embassy property returned to the tax rolls, and from reduced traffic disruption by diplomatic parking and head of state motorcades, while at the same time retaining the economic advantages of hosting the U.N.  A new United Nations would provide a use for the island that did not require an ongoing City subsidy; the City has had difficulty identifying such a use.  The United States could use the gift of the island, the construction of a lift bridge to Brooklyn for service access, and related infrastructure improvements, to settle its debt with the U.N., avoiding the politically impossible extremes of a cash settlement or debt forgiveness.  In a sense, relocating the U.N. to Governors Island would allow the city and U.N. to retain the advantages they receive from their relationship -- economic activity for the City, access to the City for the U.N. -- while minimizing the disadvantages -- lost prestige for the U.N., lost tax revenues and disruption for the City.  It would be a win, win, win.

A U.N. on Governors Island could be more than just a diplomatic talking shop: it could become a major tourist attraction and international symbol.  I envision three- to five-story attached embassy buildings lining narrow pedestrianized streets, with restricted vehicular access in the rear.  The ground floors of these buildings would be used for gift shops, restaurants, and small entertainment venues featuring the cuisine, crafts, products and culture of each country.  U.N. Island would thus function as a perpetual Worlds Fair and trade show, and as such it would demonstrate the positive benefits of globalization and openness to foreign travel, students, trade, investment and ideas.  A sales tax on goods and services sold on the island could provide ongoing revenues to finance the U.N.  Near the head of the island, where the new U.N. and related office buildings would be built, a hotel and conference center could be developed, providing additional revenues for the U.N.  If room is available, other international organizations may also choose to join the U.N. on the island, paying rent to do so.

Since visitors would be unlikely to spend all their time on the island, the broader city would also experience a rise in tourist-related economic activity.  A U.N. relocation would remove economic activity from Midtown, where it is likely to be replaced by activities providing greater employment and tax revenues, and shift it to Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, where the lack of economic vitality is an ongoing public concern.  The U.N. as tourist site would bring more hotels, restaurants, and 24 pedestrian activity to Downtown.  A location on the other side of the lift bridge would bring a wide variety of service providers -- wholesalers, repair shops, building maintenance to Brooklyn.

.....well, there you have it, a rough outline.  I actually had a more detailed proposal in my head, but it never go that far.

What do I want to happen at Governors' Island?  Over the years, I've come to avoid expecting anything good to come from the public sector, and mostly want to avoid being hurt.  The last thing I want is a money-eating preserve that will cause higher taxes or diminished services for the rest of us while being accessible primarily to those affluent enough to afford the ferry ride over.  In other words, I don't want my income redistributed upward (again!) 

The only good news about the latest failed plan is the reason it failed -- the planners passed on a plan that required massive public subsidies (perhaps waiting until an agreement to cut funding for the city's schools, parks and libaries could be agreed to pay for it).  Let's hope they never manage to agree.