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'We Can Get More Out Of This Unique Space': Governors Island on the Way to Major Transformation

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The view from Governors Island (photo: @Gov_Island)

Governors Island will be open to the public year-round with daily ferry service starting November 1, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Trust for Governors Island announced on September 28. The 172-acre island in New York Harbor, which was previously only open to the public from May to October, is about to undergo major changes and, officials hope, play a significant role in the city’s future.

Just a half-mile south of Manhattan, Governors Island is already a destination for recreation and beautiful views, but it is now set to become home to a global center for climate change research and additional new attractions.

“We need to use our land smartly, to drive innovation, revenue, and to continue to be New York City, the global center of the world,” said Alicia Glen, chair of the Trust for Governors Island and a former Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development under de Blasio, who appointed her to head the Trust. Glen appeared in July on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission.

Glen discussed the plans for the future of Governors Island and the ongoing process for parties to express their interest in being the lead anchor for the new institution and future identity of the island.

In May the City Council voted to rezone the island’s south side, clearing the way for building the research center and making the island a year-round, mixed-use destination with additional amenities. Critics of the project argue the plan, championed by de Blasio and the Trust, will privatize too much land and destroy too much of its natural beauty, and there is debate over what the overall character of the island should be.

Following the rezoning of the south side, the Trust issued a request in June for expressions of interest from universities and research institutions to “establish an anchor institution for a Climate Solutions Center, dedicated to combating the climate crisis in the heart of New York City’s harbor.” The island, which is particularly vulnerable to flooding and storm surges, would become a “living laboratory” for studying climate change. Interested universities and institutions might also propose additional facilities such as meeting spaces or dormitories. The Trust plans to refine its larger vision for the climate center based on the proposals that are submitted.

De Blasio launched the global competition at a June 28 press conference with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressional Rep. Jerry Nadler. The mayor expressed hope that Governors Island would become “a world-class destination for fighting climate change” in New York City and across the world. “We have a chance to lead,” the mayor said. “New York City has never shied away from a chance to lead, we have a chance to show the globe the path forward. The climate solutions of tomorrow will be developed right here on Governors Island, and that to me is exciting.” 

The mayor’s office and the Trust for Governors Island also hosted a reception on September 9 to create a networking opportunity for potential applicants and local leaders in the climate community. Governor Kathy Hochul was among those in attendance.

Parties interested in responding to the request for expressions of interest were also able to tour the island and attend information sessions. The original deadline for expressions of interest was September 29 but has been extended to October 13 in order to give educational institutions, the most likely applicants, more time in the early academic year to put together their initial plans for submission. 

The north side of Governors Island was rezoned in 2013 for educational, commercial, and cultural use, and the May rezoning will extend these mixed use opportunities to the south side while also preserving its open spaces. In addition to enabling the construction of a research hub on the south end of the island, the new rezoning will potentially help integrate the north and south sides. “We're trying to...have these two parts of the island speak to each other, both architecturally but also thematically,” said Glen.

Governors Island was a military installation from the time of the American Revolution to its decommissioning in 1995. After serving as a Coast Guard base from 1965 to 1995, the facilities were closed and much of the north side of the island was designated a historic district by the city. The Governors Island National Monument was established in 2001 and is administered by the National Park Service. This national monument contains two historic military installations: Fort Jay, built in 1794 and named after John Jay, and Castle Williams, a fort built between 1807 and 1811 and later used as a military prison during the Civil War. 

In 2003, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), a joint city-state venture, was formed to oversee the island, and in 2005, it opened to the public. In 2010 the city took full control of the island, replacing GIPEC with the Trust for Governors Island, a non-profit corporation. The Friends of Governors Island serves as a separate fundraising partner for the Trust.

Since GIPEC and the Trust began overseeing the island’s redevelopment and operations, many parts of it have been developed for public use.

In 2010, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school, relocated from Brooklyn to the island, along with an arts center run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Both facilities opened in renovated historic buildings. That year, work also began on the creation of public open spaces and improvements to the historic areas. In 2014, a 30-acre park on the south side opened to the public. The Hills, a 10-acre extension of the park featuring artificially constructed slopes, opened in 2016. Ferry service available through the Trust and NYC Ferry currently brings more than 800,000 visitors a year, according to the Trust’s website. This number will likely increase once the new year-round service begins. 

The Trust also invites applications from non-profit artistic, cultural, and educational organizations to become Organizations in Residence from May to October. Selected organizations are granted indoor space in more than two dozen historic military homes on the island. While in residence, these groups host free public programming, such as exhibitions, performances, workshops, film screenings, and lectures, and they can also use the houses as workspaces for writers and artists.

Mayor de Blasio and the Trust envision a research center at Governors Island that could educate communities about climate change, create thousands of green jobs in the city, and foster action to address the global climate crisis. “Governors Island is a crown jewel of this city – a place where families, workers and students have come to enjoy a beautiful landscape with spectacular views of the greatest city in the world,” the mayor said, “but we can get more out of this unique space.”

Still, he pledged, “We can maintain the island’s identity while turning it into a world-class destination for fighting the climate crisis in New York City and across the world. That journey starts today, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.”

The city has committed $150 million in capital funding to the project. The creation of the anchor institution would involve further development, including the construction of hotels, commercial space, and a full campus. “As Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene demonstrated, our city in particular is deeply vulnerable to the dangers of rapidly rising tides,” Nadler said. “Governors Island will be the perfect home for this project.”

Such an institution could transform the south end of Governors Island the way Cornell Tech has transformed the south end of Roosevelt Island. In 2010, Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won an international competition launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the development of an applied science campus on that island. In addition to university buildings, the campus includes park space, a cafe, a hotel, and a pedestrian corridor.  

“Over the past two or three years the awareness of climate change as a real issue--and not just as a theoretical threat--has made it increasingly clear both to academic institutions, research institutions, and business that the time is now,” Glen said on the podcast. She noted that a century ago, universities started schools of public health after the pandemic of 1918, and likewise, universities and academic institutions will now begin creating “schools of climate change or environmental studies.”

“We want to be at the forefront of that,” she said of New York City.

According to Glen, the city is the right home for such an institution, especially given it has always been a “thought leader on global problems.” The United Nations was headquartered in the city in the late 1940s because people believed it was the best place to address “issues of post-war reconstruction” and envision a post-war world. Glen believes we are at a similar crossroads with respect to climate change and its impact.

She hopes that the new mixed-use development on the south side “will generate enough revenue to wean the island off its operating budget,” eighty percent of which is currently supported by the city’s general fund. It is crucial, she said, that Governors Island “not become under-invested in over time.”

“That, to me, would be the biggest tragedy ever because it took so many centuries for New Yorkers to even realize what a resource that was,” she said.

Not everyone supports the proposed development of the island’s south side. The Metro Area Governors Island Coalition (MAGIC), founded in November 2020, opposed the rezoning and the Trust’s plans for development on the grounds that it is too expensive, will privatize too much land, and will destroy the island’s unique open spaces. In an April op-ed, MAGIC co-founders Roger Manning and Allie Ryan wrote, “it is extremely disappointing to see...a plan that allows 250-plus-foot-high structures to loom over parklands, a historic district, a school, and urban farmland.”

The “MAGIC Alternative South Island Visualization Plan” is an alternate plan claiming to “genuinely benefit the public, be infinitely less costly, and not essentially privatize the Island’s much-needed open green space with out-of-scale high-rise high-density development.” The plan, which is not the one moving forward but could include some inspiration for what winds up on Governors Island, calls for numerous public-use outdoor facilities, including a swimming pool, fitness center, and a picnic area. It also includes climate-focused facilities, such as an urban farm area, a street tree nursery, and a bike innovation center.

Manhattan Community Board 1 passed a resolution in December 2020 urging the City Council to reject the rezoning proposal unless it were modified so as to ensure public access and the protection of the island’s natural, cultural, and historic qualities. The New York Landmarks Conservancy, in a release titled “Don’t Let The City Destroy Governors Island,” called upon New Yorkers to email City Council members and urge them to vote against the rezoning. “The City wants to allow buildings 20-25 stories tall, turning portions of the south side of the island into another overscale real estate development,” it reads. “We should be better than this.”

Members of the City Council shared some of these concerns and modified the rezoning proposal before approving it in May. The modifications included reducing the overall density on the southern part of the island by 500,000 square feet, limiting the square footage of commercial and hotel spaces, reducing the maximum heights of buildings to a range of 125 to 225 feet, and creating more bicycle parking requirements for the tenants of new buildings, according to a press release issued by the Trust. 

In a statement following the Council’s modified approval, City Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents District 1, including Governors Island, said, “It has been my top priority that Governors Island retains its open and organic atmosphere and that newly created spaces complement the historic buildings that define the island’s history.”

She noted that the modified proposal made provisions for compost processing and expanded ferry service to the island, and she was especially pleased that the modifications called for “large reductions in density” and, in some cases, scaling down building height by 100 feet.

Friends of Governors Island was pleased with the City Council’s vote. The organization’s executive director, Merritt Birnbaum, who voiced support for the rezoning in an April op-ed, thanked the City Council’s Land Use Committee for its “detailed review” of the proposal. In a tweet on May 28, she wrote, “After 25+ years of planning, there is a bright future ahead for this special place.” 

The Governors Island project takes inspiration from other efforts to develop public open space for mixed uses, such as Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Glen hopes the development of the island’s south side will serve as a model for future projects. What makes “great cities,” she said, is “a built environment that has opportunity for small businesses, for people of all incomes, for great architecture, and for really trying to be an innovator around diversity.”

by Benjamin Fishbein Gotham Gazette

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