UN headquarters could move to Governors Island, as Hochul asks Bloomberg to lead UNDC

(January 20, 2022) — Governor Kathy Hochul is planning to tap former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lead the United Nations Development Corporation (UNDC), the state-controlled entity created in 1968 to assist the United Nations (UN) community with its real estate development and property management needs.  Bloomberg is expected to accept the chairmanship of the public benefit corporation, and will be tasked with convincing the UN community to move some of the operations located at its iconic headquarters on the Eastside of Manhattan to Governors Island, where security concerns can be better satisfied.

Among the operations that Hochul wants to relocate is the UN General Assembly, which presents the most intensive security risks.  It’s thought that other operations like the UN Secretariat, visitors center, training center, museum, and the administrative bureaucracy would remain at the current headquarters site.

In recent decades, the Midtown Manhattan location has posed security risks that limit the facility’s use and impose burdens on the surrounding neighborhood, long the cause of traffic headaches stemming from security protocols required when foreign heads of state are present.  It’s thought that a location on Governors Island would be able to accommodate larger diplomatic conventions under more secure circumstances, and that a leafy-campus like setting could accommodate space for a larger UN footprint in New York overtime.

There are four open landscapes in the historic northern part of Governors Island that landscape architects believe can be utilized as ceremonial diplomatic spaces.  The northernmost is the glacis of Fort Jay, a treeless grassy area that slopes down from all sides of the fort, located just off the southern tip of Lower Manhattan. 

“In a manner of speaking, Governor Hochul wants to renegotiate the UN’s lease, and she is willing to build a new palatial waterfront headquarters that aspires to make an even more iconic impact on New York’s skyline and it’s role in global diplomacy than the current property,” a source familiar with the plan tells The Chronicle.  “Let’s be honest, the current headquarters is drab and doesn’t accommodate the person-to-person diplomacy that could be more robustly enabled in a well-secured campus setting.”

She insists that everyday New Yorkers will continue to have easy access to the island when foreign heads of State are not present, and when they are, access will still be available through a security checkpoint.

The southern portion of Governors Island includes a park that covers more than 43 acres. The south end of the park contains four hills that are 26 to 70 feet high, and are made partially of reclaimed debris from the demolition of the island’s former residential towers. The Hills cost $70 million to build, and were funded in part by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who donated $15 million.  Hochul is willing to dedicate all of the earth excavated from the future construction of the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River to expand and further landscape Governors Island.  Nearly 40 acres of shallow water surrounding the Island could be easily filled to accommodate additional green space. 

It’s an exciting prospect to architects, urban planners, and those who are passionate about historic preservation, all of whom can imagine spectacular possibilities for Governors Island, originally a colonial fort that’s served in many subsequent roles, from a military barracks to a coast guard station.  A small portion of the Island — including the historic Fort Jay and Castle Williams — is operated by the National Park Service, while the Trust for Governors Island operates the remaining 150 acres (including 52 historic buildings) as a public park.

Architects can imagine an abandoned military hospital being renovated to accommodate a diplomatic mission to the United Nations. 

The Trust is a 501(c)(3) non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion cre­at­ed by the City of New York, respon­si­ble for its plan­ning, oper­a­tions, and ongo­ing devel­op­ment.  Since its trans­fer from fed­er­al to local con­trol in 2003, Gov­er­nors Island has under­gone one of the most remark­able trans­for­ma­tions in New York City’s his­to­ry, including the construction of over 43 acres of new, award-win­ning park space, cre­at­ed pub­lic pro­grams, and com­mis­sioned art­works that wel­come near­ly one-million vis­i­tors annu­al­ly.  The Trust continues to reha­bil­i­tat­e his­toric build­ings in part­ner­ship with edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al ten­ants, but nearly all of the island’s 52 historic structures have yet to be restored or repurposed.

Preservations imagine that Liggett Hall, a former Military Barracks, could accommodate a diplomatic mission other United Nations. 

The UNDC develops and operates office space and other facilities that help meet the current and future needs of the United Nations, diplomatic missions to the UN, and UN-related programs. The Corporation also provides advice and services with respect to real estate planning as requested by the State or City of New York, the United States, or the UN.

Under its enabling statute, the Corporation is currently permitted to develop and operate real estate only within a prescribed development district in the vicinity of UN headquarters in Manhattan. The boundaries of the Development District and other powers of the Corporation are subject to change to the extent provided by additional legislation.

Governor Kathy Hochul has told close staffers that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg is, “the only New Yorker with the stature, tact, respect, and diplomatic skill to pull this off.”

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