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Governors Island's future in doubt

Jan 1, 2003

Imagine having a rich uncle offering you ownership of a 204-acre is-land in the East River, valued at about $500 million, with the only catch being that you would have to preserve the historic landmarks on that island. Sounds easy enough, but what if you didn't have the funds to maintain and preserve all those 19th century buildings? If you were smart you would seek out partners who could gain some advantage themselves while paying the bills. This is exactly what New York City is attempting to do with Governor's Island, a real estate gem in the middle of New York harbor with stunning views of the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and Manhattan skyline.

This gift horse is the result of President Clinton's 1996 offer to turn the island over to New York after the departure of the Coast Guard, which had made the island Third District headquarters since 1966. The offer was predicated on the condition that the city would find some public use for the site, and would maintain and preserve the buildings with landmark status. Because of the huge costs involved, the city and the state didn't jump immediately on the proposal, but that has recently changed when a request for ideas was put out to the private sector and 20 respondents replied with plans as diverse as the building of a luxury resort, a gambling casino, an amusement park, and a college campus.

Originally called Nutten Island by the Dutch settlers because of all the hickory, chestnut, and oak trees growing there, the island situated on the East River separating Brooklyn from the lower end of Manhattan was cultivated with tobacco by the Dutch in 1638. It was the Dutch, too, who named the channel that separates Brooklyn from the island, because the chief product that was carried across by farmers was buttermilk. Thus, Buttermilk Channel, a name still on the charts.

In 1691 Nutten Island was designated as "His Majesty's Fort and Garrison." The present name dates from this time when Lord Bellomont took over the local government and specifically set aside the island as "being part of the Denizen of his Majesty's Governors." So the name evolved into "Governor's Island."

It was not until 1755, when the British were fighting the French and a regiment was organized at Governors Island, that the first fortifications were built. The first purely American troops encamped on the island in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. The island remained an active army base until 1966 when the Coast Guard stepped in.

More than half of the island has been designated as historic by the National Historic Register and the New York City Preservation Commission. So, whatever ventures take over the island, part of the responsibilities will be to preserve this historic district. The federal government will auction the island if the city has not finalized plans by 2002.