Leslie Koch Discusses the Future of Governors Island

Leslie Koch

Leslie Koch, president of The Trust for Governors Island, is responsible for the planning, redevelopment, and operation of 150 acres of Governors Island. Located 800 yards off the southern tip of Manhattan, the island is the newest addition to New York City’s real estate portfolio.

Koch, a native New Yorker, draws from her experience in both the private and public sectors in managing the island. After receiving a master’s degree in Public and Private Management from Yale University, she initially worked as a marketing executive for Microsoft. She then worked as CEO of the Fund for Public Schools where her leadership helped secure nearly $160 million of public and private funding for City education-related initiatives.

In 2003, the federal government sold the entire 172-acre island, except for the 22-acre national monument on the island’s northern side, to the people of New York State for one dollar. The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) was formed as a City/State partnership to take over the day-to-day operations on the island. GIPEC was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Empire State Development Corporation. In April 2006, Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg formally named Koch as president of GIPEC, citing her strong track record in successful public/private partnerships.

Transfer of power. In April 2010, the City and State announced that Governors Island would be transferred from GIPEC to the City of New York and controlled by the Governors Island Operating Entity. The operating entity was re-named “The Trust for Governors Island” in July 2010. The Trust includes a thirteen-member board, with nine members designated by the Mayor, one by Manhattan Community Board 1, and one each designated by the Governor, the 64th District State Assembly Member, and the 25th District State Senator. Simultaneous with announcing the creation of the Trust, Mayor Bloomberg also appointed Ronay Menschel of Phipps Houses as the Trust’s chair and named Koch as the Trust’s president. On July 14, 2010 the transfer of Governors Island was complete, and the State officially relinquished control.

Courting new tenants. More than 400,000 people have visited Governors Island this season, with many taking advantage of the 2.2-mile promenade and bike loop, enjoying unique views of the City, and attending cultural and sporting events. Despite the recent increase in popularity and visibility, Koch admits there are challenges to “bringing 150 acres of New York back to life.” A deed restriction inserted by the federal government prohibits residential housing, causing some prospective tenants to question how they can make money on the island. Koch answers by explaining that Governors Island had always been envisioned as a multi-phase, mixed-use project that will welcome commercial and nonprofit development. Notably, the island’s deed restriction does not preclude hotel, office, restaurant, educational, or non-profit uses of the island.

Since Governors Island was closed to the public for nearly two centuries, there was a psychological barrier for many visitors and possible tenants when considering coming to Governors Island. Koch cites transportation factors as a consideration for possible tenants, particularly when companies consider putting a hotel or restaurant on an island accessible only by boat. Koch also references that the precarious financial position of the island under the former City/State partnership had been a major source of concern for potential tenants. Only a year-and-a-half ago, the island was initially omitted from the State’s budget. It was uncertain whether the island would be open for the 2009 season until twenty-four hours before the budget passed.

Today, the Trust hopes that the island’s new management will put potential tenants at ease. Koch believes accountability and leadership are two major benefits of the transfer of the island from the State to the City, noting that a clear line of responsibility to City Hall should help address any uncertainty held by potential tenants.

Next steps. Current tenants on the island include the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which provides artists with work and exhibition space, and the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school specializing in maritime education that recently became the island’s first official permanent tenant. While New York University has expressed interest in developing a satellite campus on the island as part of its citywide expansion initiative, Koch says that there are no negotiations pending and that the Trust would issue a formal request for proposals before such a project was approved. Koch, however, believes that an educational institution would be an ideal anchor tenant for Governors Island.

The Trust is committed to the revitalization of the island. It plans to have shovels in the ground during 2012 for the first phase of construction of the Park and Public Space Master Plan, which is a plan for 87 acres of public space on the island. The first phase focuses on rejuvenating spaces in the northern historic district and adding key visitor amenities. Ironically, despite the federal government’s limitations on residential development, the island is zoned for residential use. The planned public space, however, does not require a change in zoning, and the Trust is waiting for a clearer sense of future uses before it considers a rezoning. Koch explains that although the project will take years to be fully realized, Governors Island “is already a living, breathing part of New York City.” — Eugene Travers

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