Ellis Island plan offered

New Jersey officials propose $300 million redevelopment effort

February 13, 2000|By David M. Halbfinger | David M. Halbfinger,New York Times News Service

TRENTON, N.J. -- New Jersey officials have sketched a $300 million vision for the redevelopment of Ellis Island, most of which has been concealed behind overgrown weeds and chain-link fences from the millions who visit every year.

They hope the plan would turn the long-neglected island in New York Harbor into a setting for meetings ranging from local corporate conferences to global peace talks, with new museums devoted to America's immigrant heritage and the study of public health.

As a more urgent -- and realistic -- first step, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said that $8.6 million had been secured from state, federal and private sources to stabilize dozens of decrepit buildings around the island, especially on its tumbledown southern half, the so-called sad side, where immigrants too sick to be allowed entry were housed in hospital wards until they recovered or died. The total needed for this step is $10.9 million, she said.

"As New Jerseyans, we take great pride in our history," the governor said. "But we must also take care of our history so that future generations can share our pride and visit these landmarks of our national journey. We owe it to our future to preserve our past."

The recent announcements marked a dramatic and, by governmental standards, rapid turnabout in the status of Ellis Island, which after decades of neglect by the federal government was labeled one of the country's most endangered historic places in 1997 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the spring of 1998, the Supreme Court ended a long border dispute between New York and New Jersey by awarding Trenton sovereignty over all but 5 of the island's 27.5 acres.

Although the island remained under federal control -- the National Park Service owns and operates it -- Whitman immediately asserted herself in determining its future.

A 15-member commission she appointed in May 1998 quickly ruled out a commercial project, cheering those who had feared the island would be turned into the site of a hotel or a theme park.

Preservationists greeted the news with enthusiasm. "I think New Jersey has been a wonderful thing to happen to Ellis Island," said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. "They've put their money where their mouth is. They understand the importance of the heritage of Ellis Island and have respected it with these recommendations."

Breen noted that inmates from New Jersey prisons began pulling up weeds and carting away garbage from the overgrown parts of the island last April, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracting and hauling fees. "With all due respect to New York," she added, "New York never did any of this."

In its final report to the governor, the commission recommended three main uses for the island.

* A Center for Immigrant Contributions and Ethnic Learning would research and mount exhibitions celebrating the immigrant experience, encompassing not only those Americans who passed through Ellis Island, but also those who arrived in slave ships from Africa and the Caribbean, and more recent immigrants from around the world.

* The second use, a Public Health Learning Center, would build upon the island's history as the birthplace of the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, is leading an effort to build a public health museum in Washington, and Rep. Robert Franks, a New Jersey Republican, has introduced legislation that would create a satellite of that museum on Ellis Island.

* Third, an International Conference Center would be the first in the United States on a publicly owned, nationally recognized site, according to the report, and the combination of its proximity to New York City and its "insulated and tranquil, internationally revered site could place it in the elite company of Versailles and Geneva as a suitable setting for peace talks or global economic meetings."

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