Amid New York City’s ongoing construction boom, one neighborhood has been demolishing residential towers and using the resultant rubble to build rolling hills and needed green space. Since the donation of the 172-acre (70 ha) Governors Island to the city in 2003, most of the work on the island has focused on expanding its recreational assets: with an impressive amount of parkland now established, a new push is afoot to expand the island’s uses, both recreational and otherwise.
Michael Samuelian, the president of the Trust for Governors Island since September 2016, was brought aboard just as a dramatic amount of park construction had been completed and amid steady annual increases in seasonal visitors. His first realization was that summer was not enough. “What became immediately clear to me is that Governors Island has to be a 365-days-a-year destination.”
The island’s opening was pushed forward a month to May, and the island drew strong numbers—60,000 visitors, including 10,000 for an opening-weekend Holi Hai festival, a colorful Hindu celebration of spring. Its slate of attractions have been enhanced for the season with a new Island Oyster restaurant joining two beer gardens and some two dozen food trucks. Improved restaurant options are a particular aim given the island’s unspoiled views. As Samuelian commented, “In most waterfront cities, that’s where the great restaurants are—and we don’t really have a lot of that in New York.”
It was recently announced that the island would stay open into October 2017, with Mayor Bill DeBlasio saying: “As we work to increase livability, affordability, safety and equity in this great City, I am incredibly proud that beginning this fall – and for the first time – Governors Island will be open to the public from May through October.”
Many of these attractions are located on the island’s north end, which boasts dozens of protected historic structures, with an ambience more turn-of-the-century collegiate than military. These historic buildings host a variety of other functions, the product of year-to-year permitting processes that bring numerous nonprofits to the island to host educational programs, with tenants ranging from two day camps to the Audubon Society to the Sculptors Guild to the New York Historical Society.
Filling these structures, some of which either are in a state of poor repair or lack electricity or potable water, remains a priority. Some infill is coming to the north end of the island with an 80,000-square-foot (7,400 sq m) day spa, the island’s first permanent commercial tenant, breaking ground this season and projected to open in two years.
The island’s shape is often analogized to an ice cream cone, with the north end containing the island’s historic district and the south consisting of more drab infill. Over the last decade of visiting, the best approach would often have been that of a picky eater: eat the scoop and leave the cone—nothing else. Much of the bland concrete housing that filled the island’s south end has been demolished, and replaced in part by the Hills, a seemingly impossible chance to see lower Manhattan directly from forested elevations of 25 to 70 feet (7.6 to 21.3 m). There used to be 11-story buildings on the site, but unless you were in the army or coast guard you would not get to enjoy the view. This is a common experience in New York, as Samuelian commented. “Having worked in commercial real estate, I’m used to midtown tall buildings. Most people don’t get to see that unless you live or work in a skyscraper.” The Hills have democratized the vista.
Governors Island was first logged by Dutch settlers, so it is fitting that a Dutch firm—Rotterdam-based West 8—supervised the development of the Hills, which involved crafting several hills purposefully designed to alternately conceal and then emphasize views of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and other sights of New York harbor. In total, 830 trees and over 40,000 shrubs were planted. The Hills were not merely a flight of fancy but also essential: the south side of the island was too low to isolate trees from brackish groundwater. Planting also incorporated projected risks of climate change and sea-level rise.
The south side of the island now boasts an ample portion of parkland, and two cryptic spaces: the Western and Eastern Development Zones, whose future use remains undetermined but could feature up to 5 million square feet (464,500 sq m) of nonrecreational uses. The Western Zone is playing temporary host to a climbing wall, zipline, and concert site this summer (perhaps to burn off some food truck calories). The question of what is to come remains to be seen.
The island is already in year-round use, in some particular senses: the New York Harbor School, a public high school with 480 students, operates year round. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Arts Center already operates at all times, too. The Trust for Governors Island’s current quest is to establish a fuller range of year-round and seasonal tenants, both in existing historic structures and in new construction. One condition of the U.S. government grant of the island to New York City (ironic for one featuring numerous barracks) is that permanent residential uses are forbidden. Given the island’s somewhat inaccessible location, retail uses also are seen as likely limited.
Samuelian emphasized a mix of tenants desired, likely to span a similar range of uses as the island already hosts, including education and nonprofit uses. Other prospects included hotels and convention or conference facilities. The island could host many varied tenants, but given that it is a ferry ride away from anywhere else, it most likely will feature, as Samuelian said, “uses that are not dependent on other nearby areas.”
Eight hundred yards (732 m) from lower Manhattan is a blindingly fast trip from urban bustle to island calm, however. The trust’s aim is to extend the island’s season through increased uses, which would accordingly justify ridership to operate ferries beyond the current May-to-late September schedule. The island is a singular place—in search of a few more singular uses.