Westward Ho!

Westward Ho!


On December 19, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Governor Eliot Spitzer announced that the team of West 8 / Rogers Marvel Architects / Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Quennell Rothschild / SMWM will design the 90 acres of open space on Governors Island. The design will begin the island’s transformation from a disused harbor site to a recreational magnet between the booming Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts. Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said that once complete, the public spaces will lure visitors from “across the water to experiences [they] could not have anywhere else in the world.” 

West 8, a Dutch firm that has completed similar restoration jobs in Toronto, Utrecht, and Madrid, beat four finalists to create a grand waterfront promenade and trio of public parks on the stretch of the island closest to Manhattan. Field Operations, Hargreaves Associates, REX’s New York office, and WRT led other bids; the REX bid, which proposed a grid of developable lots, drew buzz for its unsentimental take on the broad economic challenges facing the island’s transformation. 

The West 8 scheme focuses on converting the midrise barracks currently on the site into a hilly landscape of rubble and on creating what principal Adriaan Geuze called a “warm enclosure” of 90 acres with a botanic garden behind a 2.2-mile promenade. Geuze drew some notoriety by arriving at a public design presentation this past summer astride a wooden bicycle, but the team’s original idea of providing 2,000 similar bikes for free use by visitors has slipped off the agenda. 

So, for now, have questions about how the improved landscape will encourage private investment for a fuller restoration of the island. The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) issued a Request For Proposals for large-scale development plans in February 2006, but after considering the submissions, deemed them financially unfeasible and decided to go forth with the public spaces first (AN 04_03.08.2006, “A Lift for Governors Island”). The New York Harbor School, a public high school currently in Bushwick, was the sole proposal GIPEC approved; it will relocate to the island in fall 2008 or 2009. 

At the announcement, officials talked all about beauty and recreation: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, praised the selection for promising green space to an area where “recreation is in short supply.” Both Doctoroff and Lieutenant Governor David Paterson said the public space could match legendary urban parks in Luxembourg, Sweden, and Singapore. 

“As beautiful and expansive as [those parks] are,” said Doctoroff, “Governors Island has the potential to outshine them. If you don’t believe me, walk up to the top of one of those buildings that will be demolished and turned into hills and see the 360-degree views.” 

For the next two years, such views will remain accessible only via scheduled summertime visits while the team prepares a design and GIPEC oversees an environmental impact study. Any eventual full-scale development would follow a Request For Proposals to academic, research, and philanthropic organizations. 

Officials hope the park planning will fix Governors Island in New Yorkers’ consciousness and provide a focus for what Doctoroff calls an emerging “Harbor District” linking Hudson River Park, the planned South Street esplanade and pier playgrounds, the East River Park, and Brooklyn Bridge Park. (Gregg Pasquarelli, whose firm SHoP Architects is masterplanning both the public East River work and the South Street Seaport, served as a juror for GIPEC.) Doctoroff promised that GIPEC, whose chairmanship he will soon cede to Lower Manhattan Development Corporation chief Avi Schick, would reach out to “community residents and other stakeholders” for input on modifications to the design. 

And broader realities, from the city’s crowded political agenda to the complexity of upgrading the island’s infrastructure and transit links, may challenge the whimsy that design jurors praised. But Geuze seems serious about the patience and political savvy his job will require, which means that the wooden bikes may be back. “We need an iconic element to stay in people’s minds in the first years,” he told AN. “It could be a festival that people remember, but maybe bikes could be the draw. It’s simple and pragmatic.”