A local weather heart on Governors Island is precisely what New York wants
Rumors of New York’s death are exaggerated. More than 160 business leaders recently wrote to Mayor Bill de Blasio about “widespread concerns about public safety, cleanliness and other quality of life issues”. The city is alive again in many ways.
Before the pandemic, however, the town hall had little leadership and good ideas. New York needs them both now.
In some ways, it was good news that the nonprofit Trust for Governors Island released a proposal on Monday to rededicate disused parts of the island that had long been reserved for economic rehabilitation.
It is, above all, a plan of aspiration. The goal that has been in circulation for some time is the establishment of a new climate research center. Similar ideas have been put forward on Governors Island for decades. There was once talk of a global health center. In 2002, the City University of New York is said to have thought about a campus. The governor and mayor discussed the renaming of the place CUNY Island.
This time, not even a particular tenant is in mind, just the desire to attract one. Still, the change starts somewhere. With the current proposal for reallocation, a review process for land use in the city will be initiated from next month.
I’ve seen renderings by WXY, the great New York architecture firm. They are rosy indications for hypothetical constructions. However, they give an impression of the size and potential of the concept, which in this case could involve up to four or five million square meters of new development.
According to Clare Newman, the trust’s president and chief executive officer, the potential climate center would offer public programs, offices for green tech companies, and architecture and engineering firms, and be anchored by a university or research institute that would build and pay for it Part of the campus.
In recent years, Governors Island has become one of the city’s silent wonders. For a few summers my younger son has been visiting a kind of day camp “Lord of the Flies”, which is basically a junkyard with hammers, nails and hands-off teachers. Eight minutes by ferry from Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, the island feels like a world of its own, a small 19th-century New England village with Adirondack chairs and food trucks in the middle of New York Harbor.
The Lenape called it Pagganck or Nut Island. The Continental Army used it to defend itself against a British naval attack. the Union Army to imprison captured Confederate officers. Until 1996 it was a Coast Guard base with barracks, a Burger King and a bowling alley. When the city and state jointly bought it from federal agencies (for $ 1), it was a ghost town, derelict and with no drinking water. The city took sole ownership in 2010 with the aim of creating open spaces, cultural and educational programs and mixed-use development.
Leslie Koch, the first president of the trust, oversaw the transformation. Last year nearly a million people from every zip code visited the city. A marine-themed high school has its home on the island. West 8, the Dutch landscape architecture firm, put together a master plan that defined where development could go and transformed open spaces into spectacular park landscapes with rolling hills and meadows.
The city has invested around $ 400 million so far. As with Brooklyn Bridge Park and other Bloomberg-era public-private ventures, it was always agreed that Governors Island should eventually pay for itself. Ms. Newman said it still depends on the city to support about three-quarters of an annual operating budget of $ 20 million. Who knows how long this will take when tax revenues crater?
Of course, many universities are also facing a financial crisis because of the pandemic. At this moment, not many may want to expand.
But history can come in handy here. The Rockefeller Center laid the foundation stone at the start of the Depression. Lincoln Center when thousands of New Yorkers fled to the suburbs. The obvious precedent for Governors Island’s proposal, the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, was hatched during the recent recession.
Finally, after September 11th, when doomsday hunters foretold the end of tall buildings and the abandonment of New York by big corporations, city guides planned an economic turnaround that sparked an unprecedented boom in skyscraper construction.
Now the west is on fire. A Washington Post story this week describes two glaciers in Antarctica whose impending collapse could raise global sea levels by 10 feet. Covid-19 and America’s weak response to it dominate the headlines – but what has the pandemic proven if not that man-made and other apocalyptic threats require preparedness, coordination, public education and new thinking?
The construction of a climate research center on the water carries a clear climate risk. Confidence counters that the island is indeed an ideal petri dish and laboratory for climate adaptation. It’s an argument. Part of the ingenuity of West 8’s design was strategizing protective measures that worked during Hurricane Sandy.
Alicia Glen, a former vice mayor who now chairs the Governors Island Trust, cites the hopeful case of Robert Moses. Three quarters of a century ago he helped convince the United Nations to set up its headquarters in the city. This coup ensured that New York was the focus of conversation about humanity and survival in the post-war era. It also brought economic development to the city.
For many New Yorkers these days, every new development is a call to the barricades. Those who love Governors Island the way it is now may wonder if a good project is really necessary at all. A better question might be: will everything that is built there – if at all – meet the design standards of the changes made so far?
As for the remaining obstacles, the “elephant in the room”, as Ms. Newman, the Confidante President acknowledged, is transportation. Access to Governors Island will continue to be via irregular ferries. Proposals to extend the # 1 train line, install a cable car and even build Lower Manhattan have surfaced over the years.
Increased ferry service to beefed up pillars seems the simplest solution. It would take another capital outlay from the city.
Judging by West 8’s master plan and WXY’s renderings, the good news is that existing parklands can be incorporated into mostly flat buildings to preserve open space, reuse historic buildings, and turn the island into a kind of green epcot with a campus transform could serve both as a research center and as a showcase for the latest resilient technologies and materials.
Architecturally, it depends on the details – and on the as yet undetermined tenants.
In the meantime, we hope that the rededication will pass the city pattern. Planning the future of New York is what we need now. There are many steps involved. This is a small but useful one. We need more.