The latest phase of the park on Governors Island opened to the public this July—20 years after planners voiced vague ideas for its development and 20 years before future visitors assumed the landscape had been there forever.
The 172- acre Governors Island, nestled in the New York Harbor, is only accessible by private boats and ferry. Its most striking characteristic is not what’s on it but what you see from it—the New York and Jersey City skylines, Brooklyn’s working piers, the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Verrazano Bridges. And, of course, the Statue of Liberty and its welcoming companion, Ellis Island.
This July, Governors Island celebrated its latest development, The Hills, a park expansion which flaunts these views. Created to enhance the island’s humdrum landscape and dramatic panoramas of the harbor as well as address rising sea levels, the designers built upon landfill composed of unneeded, demolished high rises and manipulated the landscape to create mounds ranging from 25 to 75 feet in height. Newly-planted with trees and shrubs, these hills afford varied views of the harbor while they protect the island from inundations. Stones from the former sea wall (which was raised in height) were used to create benches and rough steps for the adventurous to climb the hills should they not want to go up meandering, accessible trails.
The opening of this new phase is a visible, but not the only part of the island’s story. People who create new parks today know that in addition to offering interesting designs, parks must capture the public’s imagination and give people a reason to go there. It takes more than an ephemeral image to turn land into a public amenity to which people want to return week after week, season after season. And more importantly, those who plan new public spaces know that the cliché, “if you build it they will come” from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, is a fantasy. Popular parks and spaces are the result of savvy programming, with variety to make people want to come back for more.
Programming is more important for Governors Island as it is not a short walk from the nearest subway stop. Seldom does a property come so uniquely packaged with pluses and minuses in such sharp contrast. To make it a destination, an easy and affordable way to get there plus something to do once you’re there was critical. Although only less than 10 minutes from Lower Manhattan by ferry, that service had to be created from scratch when the park started.
The Governors Island 2010 Park and Public Space Master Plan created by West 8, Dutch designers chosen through a 2006 international design competition, is taking shape and finding its audience. As stated on the Island’s website, the Plan “proposes a dramatic transformation of this once-abandoned island…into both a destination and landmark.” The plan consists of 87 acres—the Historic District (33 acres) and new park and public spaces (40 acres). The remaining acreage is slated for commercial development, as yet unannounced.
The $250 million master plan (funded by New York City’s capital plan) was divided into two phases: Phase One, started in 2012 and opened to the public in 2014, added amenities and public spaces such as a food concession plaza, a hedge maze, a 10-acre lawn and play areas including the Hammock Grove, ball fields and relaxation areas as well as new bike paths that snake through the island. The Historic District received signage, lighting and visitor services. Phase Two, called The Hills, not only includes the manipulated landscape, but playground sliding ponds and some site-specific art.
While this physical work was going on, the Governors Island Trust, the entity now charged with running the island, has been developing and honing active programs geared to a wide variety of New Yorkers. Leslie Koch, the outgoing president and chief executive officer of the Trust has been quoted as saying her goal was “…focusing on activating the island with public uses, making it a place people want to go to…” From art shows to music concerts to high school intern programs, to community outreach—the active programming is intense. In addition to bike-riding and lounging, most events are of the pop-up variety from drone races, kite and unicycle festivals to temporary artist residency programs, studios and shows, music festivals… People and groups submit ideas and the Trust evaluates the possibilities and approves if it appears they might work out. Variety extends to food vendors who provide fare from jerk chicken to ice cream to local specialty food trucks.
Ferries run hourly every day during the four month summer season from Manhattan and on weekends from Brooklyn with a $2 round-trip charge for the eight minute ride. It’s a day trippers destination designed for getting away from the everyday—just leave your car and pets at home and picnic, explore historic buildings, volunteer to take care of the landscape and gardens, bike around the island or just see New York and New Jersey from a different perspective.
The path to this newest destination was meandering. When it became known in 1996 that the U.S. Coast Guard was leaving the island, there was talk of its becoming a park. But the age of government frugality intervened, raising the question, who pays for it? And, by the way, how do you get to it? Despite centuries of development, Governors Island was essentially a tabula rasa with respect to public use. Twenty years ago public space was not to be valued but to be defended. Few envisioned a New York waterfront ringed with parkland and bike paths rather than derelict industrial buildings and garbage substations. Nevertheless, the idea of a park took hold, though its trajectory was not straightforward.
Used for military purposes by the British before the American Revolution, the Island continued its military use by New York State until 1800. It was then turned over to the Federal Government as New York City’s first line of defense against the British in the War of 1812 and subsequently for prisoners of war during the Civil War. It was a US Army’s headquarters complete with housing and used as such until the 1960s. In 1966 the island was transferred to the US Coast Guard for its Atlantic Area Command and Captain of the Port of New York.
As part of the Federal Government’s Base Closure program, the Coast Guard departed Governors Island in 1995 leaving everyone scrambling for ideas of how to use the Island with its great views and potential but severe infrastructure and accessibility issues. In 1997 the City was offered it providing it could come up with a plan that could benefit the public. The mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, stated that the City could not afford to renovate the historic buildings unless it could develop a plan that could generate the money to do so. Studies to find a financially viable use ensued: Casinos. Amusement parks à la Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. Hotels and conference centers. Despite gambling’s being illegal in New York at the time, consultant groups opined that casinos were the most economically viable use.
There was much negotiating by public officials and civic groups requesting that the land be given to New York and the public after the base closing in order to prevent the sale of the island to the highest bidder, with no use controls. In 2001, Fort Jay and Castle Williams were declared National Monuments, thereby preserving a portion of the island as a permanent public park. In 2003, the National Park Service (NPS) took control of the National Monuments, and the remaining 150-acres of the Island were given to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (now the Trust for Governors Island) to create “an educational, recreational and cultural center that will offer a broad range of public uses.” As a requirement of the transfer, the historic district must be respected and a park with waterfront esplanade be built. Certain uses, among them, casinos, permanent residences or industrial facilities are prohibited.
So as with all parks, Governors Island is an ongoing project-in-process that is having its day in the sun but will have to adapt and change to find and keep its audience. Each year more people come to participate in activities or to just enjoy a few hours of strolling, picnicking or biking. The ferry is filled with typical New Yorkers—that is, everyone. From toddlers to octogenarians, from tourists to natives, families to singles. The trust hopes that the Hills will keep them coming back for more.
Last nagging question: why no apostrophe? Answer: bureaucratic carelessness. When the British used the island for its officers it was called (correctly) Governor’s Island. When the Army took it over, the apostrophe eventually disappeared, no one knows exactly when.
All photos by Carol Berens