Governor's Island offered to New York's City University as gift from the President

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The Independent US

An ambitious plan has been unveiled by Michael Bloom-berg, the Mayor of New York, to transform a blob of land off the southern tip of Manhattan into a university campus.

The project for Governor's Island, once a British military base, was conceived this week after the White House signalledit was prepared to give the federally owned land to New York on condition that officials could find a good use for it. The island, measuring 172 acres, shares New York harbour with Liberty Island and Ellis Island.

Transferring Governor's Island to the city was proposed by Bill Clinton when he was President five years ago but squabbles erupted over how it should be used. Mr Bloom-berg's predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, wanted a casino on the site while others dreamed of a Disney-style theme park.

Governor's Island, named because the British used it to house the governor of New York, was last occupied by the US Coast Guard, which upped sticks in 1997. It was the site of a 1988 disarmament summit between the former president Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Excitement over the plan to construct a new campus on the island for the City University of New York, the city's publicly supported university, is growing. Most intriguingly, it would free up a large amount of space in existing university buildings for new classrooms for the city's overcrowded schools. President George Bush announced the deal to surrender the island during a meeting in Washington on Monday with Mr Bloomberg and George Pataki, the Governor of New York. "It's something I want to do, because I think it's going to make the life of a city that has been tragically affected by killers and murderers better," the President said.

New Yorkers will welcome anything that offers relief to the schools. As the city's population continues to boom, most are bursting at the seams, with some pupils attending classes without proper desks and even taking lessons in corridors.

But officials said the plan was in its infancy and almost no detail had been attached to it. Most obviously, no one seems clear about how the new campus for the university would be paid for, or where funds would be found to convert its existing facilities into new schools.

The offer by President Clinton to sell the island to New York for one dollar also foundered because of opposition from Congress, which wanted to sell it at a fair market price, about $500m.

Outlining his proposal, Mr Bloomberg said it gave the city the chance to open new classrooms without finding money to build new schools from scratch. "That's a big, big thing.If we want to reduce class size you have to resolve the problem of where you are going to put the students."

The history of the island is littered with British references. In 1776, at the start of the revolutionary war, British soldiers fought to drive Continental Army troops from the island. The action bought crucial time for George Washington to evacuate his army from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

In the war of 1812, two forts were built on it to defend the city against British attack.