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Bush to Return Historic Island to N.Y.

April 02, 2002|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush said Monday that he intends to return Governors Island, a historic 172-acre parcel of prime federal property in New York Harbor, to the city and the state of New York, a move that officials said should help revitalize Manhattan's economy.

Bush's action also would enable officials to relocate to the island a portion of City University of New York, which would open up classroom space to alleviate overcrowding throughout the city's school system.

"This is great news," said New York Gov. George Pataki, who was joined by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for a brief meeting with Bush in the Oval Office. For years, officials in New York have pressed Washington to give the island--federal property for two centuries--back to New York.

Bush's disclosure of his intentions left unanswered many questions about the unusual transfer, including any specific authority that Bush wields as president to "sell" a national monument.

Half a mile south of the tip of lower Manhattan, Governors Island affords a spectacular view of the city and harbor, including the Statue of Liberty.

During its recorded history, which spans 400 years, the island has been used as a fishing camp for the Manhatas Indians, a lumber stand, a pasture, a jail for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and a staging area in two world wars. The island also is believed to have been the site of the first Dutch settlement in the region. It received its name because the British colonial governors lived there.

In 1776, Gen. George Washington established a battery on the island because of its strategic location. And until 1997 it served, in part, as a Coast Guard regional headquarters.

In January 2001, just before leaving office, President Clinton set aside 20 acres of the island as a national monument, including two fortresses on the site.

In his brief remarks about his decision, Bush simply asserted that he has the authority to transfer the property without congressional action.

"I looked at the law, looked at the circumstances, and decided this morning that this is the right thing for the U.S. government and that it's the right thing for the people of New York," the president said Monday.

But a spokesman for Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who hailed Bush's announcement, said her doubts about the legality of selling a national monument have not been allayed.

In a 1997 balanced budget agreement, Congress specifically anticipated up to $500 million in revenue from the sale of the island. But Clinton reached an agreement with then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) for Washington to sell it to New York for $1--if the city and the state could agree on a detailed plan for the island's use.

At the White House on Monday, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said a final sales price has not been determined, saying only that it would be "nominal" and "much less than $300 million," the low end of the estimated market value.

He also said Bush hopes the move will help the city recover economically from the terrorist attacks.

"Sept. 11 has left New York, especially the downtown area, in a very difficult situation economically, and the president wants to make certain that our nation's city, New York, is revitalized, and revitalized fully," Fleischer said.

"So the president is helping New York to recover from the damage of Sept. 11, and he's very pleased to be able to take this action."

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