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Setting Sail
City takeover primes first phase of Governors Island
The first phase of Governors Island is primarily concerned with creating a more inviting environment, including an information kiosk designed by Rogers Marvel.
Courtesy West 8, Rogers Marvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mathews Nielsen, Urban Design+

After winning the competition to redesign Governors Island in 2007, the team of West 8, Rogers Marvel, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mathews Nielsen, and Urban Design+ toiled for more than a year to craft a park and public space masterplan for roughly half of the 172-acre island off the tip of Manhattan. Then last spring, just as designers were putting finishing touches on their scheme, the project came to a halt while the Bloomberg and Paterson administrations wrangled over control of the island.

Those languishing designs—including a mothballed exhibition inside the island's Building 110 and a flashy website completed last May—finally emerged from limbo on April 11, when the mayor and governor made a hasty announcement that control had been ceded to the city. The deal came so quickly that Adriaan Geuze, the West 8 principal in charge of the project, could not make it over from Holland in time for the press conference that Sunday.

“Like all deals, it was at 99 percent for a while and then suddenly it went to 100,” said Leslie Koch, president of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation.

The pavement that currently surrounds the South Battery will  be replaced with lush grass and custom seating while new occupants—businesses, non-profits, or students—will fill the surrounding historic buildings.

The agreement frees up $41.5 million in city capital funds that should cover most of the first phase of the park plan. The focus is on improving open space and infrastructure within the 92-acre northern half of the island, which predates the 80-acre southern section built in the early 20th century from subway landfill. And despite the delays of the past year, it did offer an unexpected opportunity to observe park visitors last summer. "We spent a lot of time watching people on the island last year, and it was nice because it validated a lot of what we'd developed, so much so that we didn't have to change anything," Koch said.

In addition to transformiong swaths of asphalt into grassy knolls and a two-lane road into a waterfront promenade, the city will continue its efforts to reoccupy the northern section’s 52 historic buildings. That work will be handled through a set of RFPs separate from the park plan. Work on the open space is expected to begin sometime in 2012, with the project staged to keep Governors Island open throughout the process.

The designers are devising strategies to make what is now a vehicular road into a more hospitable promenade.

“We’re focusing on creating an inviting entrance and preserving the historic buildings of what was a military base, and thus not the most inviting place,” Geuze said. With a few exceptions, such as a Rogers Marvel–designed information kiosk, the first phase takes a relatively modest approach to rethinking the island’s form.

The bulk of the new design work comes next, in phase two. “The southern island really needs a hands-on approach,” Geuze said. “There, a new identity will be forged. We’re working with nearly a blank slate.” For the southern sector, designers will create an entirely new topography of rolling hills, some several stories high, that will protect the island from flooding while affording unparalleled views of the harbor. Among other flourishes, Diller Scofidio + Renfro are creating a pavilion on the island’s southwestern edge that houses a cafe and amphitheater overlooking the water.

Phase two is envisioned with a procession of rolling hills at its center, providing dramatic vantages of the city and harbor.

Within the sourthern island are two lobes comprising 33 acres that will be given over in the future to some form of development. (NYU has already expressed interest in the larger zone facing Brooklyn.) It is possible this development, which is not part of the current planning effort, could help fund the second phase of the park, expected to cost upwards of $230 million. Other funding mechanisms include city capital funds and other sources, though those have yet to be determined. The ultimate goal is to create a self-sustaining island through rent paid by the development parcels and the 52 historic buildings. Koch did acknowledge that the second phase of the park could change or be scaled back depending on interest and funding.

Some critics have called for parkland on the entire 172 acres. Koch insisted such a plan has never been on the table. “This is not a park, it’s a development project, and it has always been envisioned as a development project with a mix of funding sources,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any confusion about the need for development.” As for that development, it will be some time before RFPs are released, as the focus remains on completing work on the northern section of the island. The scale of any such development would also likely be moderate, as building high-density construction on the landfill is known to be expensive.

A map of the master plan. (Click to zoom)

So far, the plan has satisfied major advocacy groups. “What we don’t want to see is a gated community, but that’s not what I think we’re going to get,” said Rob Pirani, executive director of the Governors Island Alliance, a coalition that has supported public uses for the island. A healthy mix of development would keep the island vibrant throughout the year, he said, adding that the group’s main concern is protecting the open space by making it publicly administered parkland, instead of privately owned public space.

“I think it’s clear the mayor wants this to be a major part of his legacy, so I really think we’re going to see a lot of energy and leadership over the next three years,” Pirani said. “It really is going to be a great thing for the island.”

Correction: A previouse version of this article misstated the acreage of northern and southern portions of the island, the date of the plan's release, and when construction is expected to begin. AN regrets the errors.

Matt Chaban