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Just Add Water

Turning Governors Island into a destination point with a conference center, shops, and restaurants could revitalize the harbor. But are the planners thinking big enough?

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Like the retreat of a glacier, the meltdown of the shipping industry along the 578 miles of New York City's waterfront has revealed one of the great estuaries in North America. New Yorkers don't really see the water all around them for the buildings, but over the past generation, the container revolution and the ongoing cleanup of the Hudson have left Marlon Brando's waterfront transformed, underutilized, and open to an uncertain fate. The new family-friendly 42nd Street amounts to small change next to the urban frontier of the next generation -- the development and enhancement of the glorious harbor and regional ecosystem in which the city floats so obliviously. If this weren't Manhattan, it'd be a Club Med site.

Off season, you have to wangle a seven-minute ferry ride out to mothballed Governors Island to grasp the majesty of the upper harbor north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. From here, the city belongs to the water, and the two-mile promenade along a granite seawall feels like the deck of an ocean liner, offering the stunning views that once greeted the tired, the poor, and the trust-funded after their transatlantic voyages. The tip of Manhattan rises from the water like an apparition -- shimmering in the sun, vaporous in a fog, oddly and hauntingly immaterial. Three existing stone fortifications affirm the island's strategic position as a control point that makes it the pivot of any new vision for the whole harbor.

If ever a project called for design greatness, it is Governors Island on the occasion of New York's bid to take it over from the federal government. In a now famous helicopter pass over its 172 acres, President Clinton told Senator Moynihan that New York could have it for $1, with the sole stipulation that it be put to public use. Beyond this ennobling mission, the site yearns for a contemporary architectural myth comparable to those of the other monuments in and around the harbor -- the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, even the Staten Island ferry. Each new piece matters; no plastic chairs at the table, please.

The nineteenth-century architect Daniel Burnham, who laid out Chicago after the fire, admonished young architects to make no small plans: "They have no magic to stir men's blood." But in an era of market-oriented governments, planners often think of public property as potential real estate rather than as symbol and ceremony. Plans, somehow, don't sweep, as in the glory days of the City Beautiful movement. Besides, the discredited top-down Napoleonic hubris of Robert Moses that would yield a more coordinated concept has given way to more democratic consensus planning, rooted in Jane Jacobs's advocacy of finely textured neighborhoods. Small is better, even if it's piecemeal. Proceed in increments, preferably in the private sector.

"Without a big picture, the plan for Governors Island cannot resonate within the larger whole. No one knows what the harbor will become, so this design is flying blind and bland in a vacuum."

Since that helicopter ride, the parade of ill-conceived plans for this exalted piece of earth has included a gambling casino, twinkling Tivoli gardens, and a low-cost student-housing ghetto. A proposed new-town neighborhood of some 4,000 housing units, wistfully modeled after Greenwich Village, would have eclipsed public use of the island. So there was a collective sigh of relief when Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani recently buried their tomahawks and made common cause, jointly presenting a plan conceived, in the governor's words, as "a great civic space" intended to make the harbor itself, not just the Statue of Liberty, a destination point. So far, so good.

In the proposal, a conference center, housed in the huge 400,000-square-foot barracks designed by McKim, Mead & White, promises to be the cash register of the entire site. Hotels, restaurants, and shops will be located on the north end of the ice-cream-cone-shaped island (single scoop) in an enclave of some 62 historic buildings. The redoubtable Castle Williams, pocked with cannon slots, and the star-shaped Fort Jay will, presumably, be run by the National Park Service. The plans also call for a 30-to-40-acre expanse of open park to be used jointly by New York universities and the public. A Williamsburg-inspired village will include a marine-ecology center for the study of the river.

The IQ of the plan resides not only in the adaptive reuse of historic buildings and the creation of park space but also in the promise of a family-oriented townscape, as though a corner of Central Park including the Carousel, Wollman Rink, Tavern on the Green, and the Plaza Hotel were compressed into a zone that is half park and half Main Street. A critical mass of yet-to-be-determined attractions promises to keep the island active. Pataki's bare-bones plan, which really offers a schematic armature for development rather than a complete design, was created by Moynihan's favorite firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, working with New York development consultants Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler.

Until recently, the short-circuit of city and state leadership delayed serious proposals and jeopardized the deal, and at this late date (the transfer must be approved by 2002), any plan that persuades Congress and gets the public onto this fabulous piece of land merits support. No New Yorker wants to see this opportunity slip away. Still, you look at the five baseball diamonds in the predictably landscaped park, and the ambling family village à la colonial Williamsburg, and think, Why not greatness?

Given the harbor -- an aquatic acropolis of monuments, museums, and parks awaiting only the vaporettos -- the plan is underwhelming and anticlimactic, long on political correctness but short on an artistic and civic vision equal to the charge. Bean-counting is a frequent affliction of downsized governments, and the pandemic evaporation of civic resolve into the market economy translates here into feel-good town planning that banks on the comforts of history and the blandishments of bucolic paths: The potentially saccharine family townscape avoids any architectural invention that would capture the spirit of New York now and might seem more in place in a Florida retirement community. Something more ambitious, after all, might cost bigger bucks than the measly $30 million that the state and city will ante up within a larger "leveraged" budget.


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