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What’s the big idea for Governors Island? A climate research hub and new development

November 13, 2020 Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY

This story was originally published on Nov. 12 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

Float it and they will come?

Governors Island is on the cusp of bringing long-planned new development to the 172-acre land mass nestled between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, with aspirations to include a proposed climate change research facility.

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Finding an outfit to build and operate the resiliency hub, however, is a hurdle the island’s operating group has yet to clear, even as it pursues land use changes that will permanently allow new development.

The nonprofit Trust for Governors Island will start reaching out in the coming weeks to pique interest from possible partners to construct a new facility there with a “major target towards university and research partners,” the group told Manhattan’s Community Board 1 at a presentation on the plan last week.

No particular school or research group is in mind for the project, however, said Clare Newman, president and CEO of the Trust.

“The idea was there before any specific potential partner,” she told THE CITY. “It came from, really, the work of City Hall and the Trust.”

A formal request for proposals to find the right match for the project will go out in 2021, Newman said.

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At the same time, the Trust is spearheading a bid to change zoning rules to allow new commercial development — including hotels. The effort got the green light in mid-October to start a months-long public review process, and CB1 will vote on it soon.

The plan, according to Trust projections shared with CB1 on Nov. 9, would bring 5.8 million square feet of newly developed, revenue-generating space over the next 20 years to the former Coast Guard base in New York Harbor.

The money made from the venture, the group says, would shore up the financials for operating the island in the long term, helping to pay for public programs, ferries, staff, maintenance and upkeep.

‘A fragile island’

To some lovers of Governors Island, the plan is a cause of concern.

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, an author of a book on Governors Island history and a frequent tour guide there, fears massive changes would ruin what many New Yorkers love about the space: its open, natural landscape.

“I am all for climate change research. But I don’t think a fragile island is a place that needs to be done,” he said.

A rendering shows how Governors Island could look after rezoning for a new climate hub proposal. Image: WXY architecture + urban design/bloomimages

Newman said the project is “meant to be sustainable and resilient and celebratory of the island’s historic and natural fabric” — and maintaining those elements is “fundamental to everything we’ve been doing.”

She added that in 2019, 90 percent of the programs on the island — like art exhibits, history tours and poetry readings — were free. The Trust is committed to making sure the “vast majority of the things that are happening on the island are public and publicly accessible,” Newman said.

The present

The island has already seen a number of changes following the crucial transfer from federal to city control in 2003.

Governors Island opened to the public in 2005 — and new attractions arrived soon after, including music festivals, parties and food and drink vendors.

In 2014, a major renovation transformed much of the southern part of the island into a park. In 2016, an elevated section known as “The Hills” debuted, offering 180-degree views of the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the island has operated on an abbreviated schedule. This summer, a luxury campsite with rentals starting at $150 a night continued running, as did food trucks and waterside bars.

Through the summer, construction moved forward on a European day spa taking up residence in three buildings on the island’s north shore. The 78,000 square-foot luxury retreat by Italy’s QC Terme Spa & Resorts is expected to open sometime in 2021, Newman said.

A rendering shows how Governors Island could look after rezoning for a new climate hub proposal. Image: WXY architecture + urban design/bloomimages

And a number of tenants already make use of the island year-round, including the New York Harbor School, a public high school with a maritime curriculum; the Billion Oyster Project, which seeks to preserve and restore reefs; and the LMCC Arts Center run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Yet those groups currently occupy only a small fraction of the space available on the island. According to the Nov. 9 presentation to CB1, one million square feet of space is unused on the island’s historic northern side.

The future

In the short term, the Trust hopes the island will see a lot more activity.

The rezoning calls for the major changes on the island’s southern half, adjacent to the parkland and closer to the dock at Yankee Pier where ferries run to and from Brooklyn.

There, on both sides of the existing 46-acre open space, land-use rule changes would allow buildings between 200 and 300 feet tall — about 20 to 30 stories — for a variety of uses, including the climate research center.

Any potential academic hub, however, is just a piece of the changes included in the proposed rezoning, which needs approval from the City Planning Commission, City Council and mayor to move forward. Some highlights of the plan:

  • Permanent residential development is barred, under the 2003 deed agreement. But hotels, dormitories, faculty housing, short-term artist or cultural residences and caretaker housing would be OK. The Trust told CB1 it expects “a mix of academic, hospitality, office, cultural, retail, and Trust maintenance uses.”
  • Casinos, as well as heavy industrial, power generation and waste transfer facilities, are banned. Those prohibitions stem from the 2003 deed. In the mid-1990s, then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani had pitched a casino for the island.
  • No existing park space will be lost. According to the proposal, the amount of open space on the island should increase by nearly nine acres through the creation of new parks, walkways and promenades around the development sites “as funding allows” from the Trust, Newman said.
  • The Trust aims to eventually open the island to year-round visits, expanding beyond its current summer-centered season.
  • The new buildings would be constructed on parcels that sit squarely inside the 100-year floodplain — an area where there is a 1 percent chance each year for a significant flood.

Miranda Massie, who heads the island’s Climate Museum, said the climate center would be, to her knowledge, the first of its kind: both a research facility and an educational hub focused on climate and global warming.

“People have so much appetite for this kind of programming, and for avenues of engagement with the climate emergency. Because we all know what’s happening … It’s like a spring afternoon in the middle of November,” she said, referring to the record-high temperatures in the city in recent days.

“When we started talking to people about the Climate Museum, four or five years ago, the question people would ask would be ‘Why a climate museum?’”

Now, she says, “I can’t remember the last time I heard that question.”

Massie plans to respond to a request for proposal put out by the Trust in October to use space in Building 301 to expand her group’s climate programs.

Is the island infrastructure ready for the new era? Newman says work needs to be done to shore up the island’s water, sewage and waste systems. Increasing passenger ferries is “on the radar,” she added.

The Trust estimates it currently requires $15 million a year in financing from the city to maintain the island, with just $5 million in revenue coming from events, vendors, rent and grants, according to financial information shared with CB1 on Nov. 9.

But the Trust projects it could bring in $126 million a year by 2050 via revenue from leases and taxes on the new developments.

Beyond the financial benefit, Deputy Mayor Vicki Been told THE CITY that the plan for Governors Island is “a key part” of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s economic recovery plan for the city.

“It will create good green jobs, and jumpstart innovative strategies to avoid and mitigate the effects climate change will have on the health of our residents,” she said in a statement. “We can lead the world in research, design, and education about climate change – and we’re excited to move forward.”

When asked what happens if the Trust cannot find an academic partner for the hub, Newman said, “we are focused on making this plan successful.”

“I’m sure that there may be hiccups along the way, but we’re committed to making this a reality,” she added.

The past

The upcoming changes on Governor’s Island are just the most recent in a long, varied history.

Originally an oblong spit of land, it served as the location of Fort Jay from 1794, and Castle Williams, built in 1811. One hundred years later, debris from construction of the Lexington Avenue subway was used to more than double the size of the island.

For most of the 20th Century, the military — first the Army, then the Coast Guard — used the island as a base. To accommodate military personnel and their families, Governors Island included a movie theater, bowling alley, golf course and a Burger King.

This rendering shows the Trust for Governors Island’s vision for a potential climate change research hub that could be as high as 30 stories. Image: WXY architecture + urban design/bloomimages

Many former residents still hold annual reunions there. For some, the idea of change on the island is hard to swallow. A group of “GI Brats,” as they call themselves, petitioned the National Parks Service in 2018 to memorialize their history there.

“We are very possessive about our island,” the petition’s author and former island resident Susan Chaney told THE CITY.

Fitzpatrick, the guidebook author, is also a veteran of the Marines. He says the goal to build a facility to fight climate change is “laudable,” but says the Trust should focus on making “a workable plan to use the buildings and the property as it is.”

“They absolutely don’t need to build any high rises on Governors Island,” he said.

Massie of the Climate Museum said she understands concerns about development but, to her, the plan doesn’t look “like it’s going to be out of balance.”

“This vision, when realized, will change our public culture around climate, not just in New York City, but in the U.S., and therefore … with renewed U.S. leadership, in the world,” she said. “I can’t overstate how significant it could be if it gets the support that it needs.”

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