Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fort Slocum's Final Remnant is Gone, But What Will Happen to Davids Island?

Although I wrote about Long Island Sound issues a lot in the late 1980s, when I was working as a reporter in New Rochelle, in some ways I think the best stuff I did was my coverage of a development proposed for Davids Island. A developer, with the very strong support of the New Rochelle city council, wanted to build 2,000 condos on the island, which is about 80 acres in size, and which until the early 1960s was the home of an army base called Fort Slocum.

My newspaper had always covered it uncritically, treating it as just another development of merely local interest. But when they assigned me to start covering the environment, I looked at it differently, as a project that would at the very least change the landscape in that part of the Sound and might well have bigger impacts in the Sound itself. My coverage coincided with a rise in opposition to the project in New Rochelle's south end and in neighboring villages. It's impossible to say what was more influential, and the truth is both fed on each other: skeptical newspaper coverage fed citizens to oppose the project, and informed, active citizens encouraged me to keep examining the issue. Eventually, in 1991, I think, that particular proposal died.

New Rochelle still owns Davids Island. Westchester County has offered to buy it for $6.5 million, to turn it into a park. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been dismantling and demolishing the remnants of Fort Slocum, including the 100-foot-tall water that was the island's most visible landmark.

The water tower finally came down yesterday, and the last structure to remain. The Journal News covered it and, time passing the way it does and memories being short, managed to not mention the development controversy which, looking back, was after all a short blip in time. But I agree with my friend Barbara Davis, the New Rochelle City Historian, who was among those in the late 1980s who did not want to see condos built on the island:

"There needs to be a great deal of public support," she said. "In the short term, what I hope is the great minds of Westchester will start thinking carefully about the future of the island for the best purposes of the public good. For it to be a viable ecosystem, it will take a tremendous amount of work."



Anonymous Robert Funicello said...

Your reporting on the proposed development (many, including me, thought overdevelopment) of Davids Island known as Xanadu was in the best tradition of newspaper journalism. Your detailed, accurate, and well written coverage stimulated informed public debate throughout Westchester and the metropolitan region and was, without doubt a crucial ingredient in the public review process that ultimately lead to the decision by the City of New Rochelle not to proceed with the project. It is hard to imagine how the public process could have worked as well without your fine reporting.

I trust the hopes you and Barbara and I and many other people continue to have for the sound future use of the Island will be realized.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Rick said...

When Xanadu received advance notice that NYS Dept. of State was going to deny their Coastal Consistency Permit application, they withdrew it. That basically killed the project.

A few years after Xanadu died, the Trump Organization briefly examined the prospect of putting residences on Davids Island. The initial plan was so large that it was nicknamed "Son of Xanadu." However, the plan evolved to consist of a bunch of single mansions on the island. That never came to pass, either.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

If the Davids Island was purchased by a municipality and paid off, why not convert it into a public park? Cities and municipalities aren't supposed to be in the real estate development business, and the "public good" would be well served by a natural park.

I noted the comment at the bottom of Tom's post that "it would take a lot of work." But one can work with a conservation group, get volunteers, and make the island into a fine recreational area with trails and such. You might be surprised how much free help comes out of the woods, if you have a good concept and plan. -sam

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Rick said...

Sam, a "lot of work," also includes remediation. Because parks involve children playing in dirt, cleanup standards will be fairly stringent. Remember, when it was Ft. Slocum, military bases were a lot less environmentally conscious than they are today. That work will carry a hefty price tag and must be done by professionals, not volunteers.

Much of New Rochelle's waterfront is already dedicated to parks (e.g., Five Islands, Glen Island, Hudson Park). I suppose we really shouldn't blame the city for trying to increase its tax base with some market-based luxury housing.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

I hear you Rick. First the DOD (Army or whoever) should clean up their messes including all underground and soil remediation.

Second, the idea of having luxury dwellings built on what was public property as "the public good" totally defies common sense. Is there any public good in selling the land to some yahoo developer?

Of course with the Supreme Court's "Kelo" decision for urban revitalization in New London, nothing surprises me anymore.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Corrupticrat said...

From a less anthropocentric view (although impractical today) the island could just be left alone, and allow nature to reclaim what it pleases.

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Michael A Cavanaugh said...

I'm a former resident of Ft Slocum & now writing a history of the island. As our mutual friend Barbara Davis has pointed out (to paraphrase), the island has not returned to some State of Nature, but is rather urban land degenerated to jungle -- not the same thing! One nasty little bit of nature that has taken over from my time (late 1950's): small concentrations of poison ivy have now taken over the SE corner of the island. I don't see anything to keep it from spreading.

4:55 PM  

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