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Dealing Rudy Out

Will the city lose its say over Governors Island?

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Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler know as well as anyone that picking a fight with Rudy Giuliani is a strategy of last resort, if that. But it is evidently the one on which these two U.S. representatives have settled. Next week, they will propose that a federal commission decide the fate of Governors Island -- thereby cutting the mayor out of the planning process.

The bill they will introduce into Congress is a stunning political gambit, one that contradicts the primary directive of federal representatives: to bring projects home. And it shows that Maloney and Nadler so doubt the mayor’s ability to come up with an acceptable plan for the island that they’re willing to cede local control of the process just to get it out of his hands.

Hopes were much higher back in 1994, when the president promised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that New York could buy the island for a dollar. Instead of relishing the bargain, however, Mayor Giuliani complained about the annual maintenance charges, which he put at $30 million to $40 million. “The city’s position is, and has been, ‘Give us the island and give us the money to maintain it,’” says Maloney. “Imagine trying to sell that plan to a Congress that doesn’t much like New York in the first place.” To make matters worse, the Office of Management and Budget has already put the revenue from the island’s sale in the federal budget of 2002 -- not for $1 but for $500 million.

Late last year, the mayor’s office suggested that the city might install a gambling casino on the island to pay for its upkeep -- an idea that sent the city’s political Establishment into apoplexy. Many observers, however, considered it a mere scare tactic designed to force Congress to pay the maintenance instead. Either way, it’s led only to stalemate.

The mayor’s office has been holding private discussions with planners and developers and says that the casino plan remains on the table. A senior Giuliani official also confirms that representatives from Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens amusement park have inspected the island. Other ideas are still under consideration, the source says. But a promising plan to have NYU and Columbia use the island for classrooms, dormitories, and sports is going nowhere. Sources say NYU president Jay Oliva has privately complained that the mayor’s office has not bothered returning his phone calls in months.

“We just got tired of sitting around waiting for something to happen,” says a source close to Nadler. Giuliani would get only two appointees on the eleven-member panel (Governor Pataki gets two more). In six months, they would deliver recommendations to the president, and Governors Island’s fate would be decided. “Who knows, maybe they decide on a casino, although I doubt it,” says Nadler. “It’s a process, that’s all, and it’s quick.”

The mayor’s office takes a much dimmer view of the proposal. “This is the old bureaucratic story,” says the Giuliani official. “When politicians don’t want to make a decision, they form a commission. We’ve already done most of the work the commission would do.”

The commission bill faces many hurdles. In Washington, a Nadler-Maloney team is considered something less than a powerhouse. What’s more, they’ll need Moynihan’s support to get their bill on the president’s desk, and though he has discussed the proposal in positive terms, he has so far withheld support. “We’d like to see more from the governor and the mayor, and then maybe we won’t need a commission,” says Tony Bullock, Moynihan’s chief of staff. “But the longer it drags on, the better an idea the commission becomes.”

Still, Moynihan’s restraint gives the mayor an opportunity to assert control of this issue. Will Giuliani accuse everybody of plotting against his great city? Or will he acknowledge that the planning process for Governors Island -- if in fact there is one -- must be changed before it drags on any longer and alienates any more important political players? He has his chance to dream up a new arrangement that will satisfy Moynihan and many others, and leave Nadler and Maloney looking like failed grandstanders. That would be embarrassing for them, but they’d have spurred the mayor to action, which is what they set out to do in the first place.


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