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Governors Island Climate Research Hub Hopefuls Include Ex-Bloomberg Deputy Mayor

October 29, 2021 Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
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This article was originally published on by THE CITY

Governors Island is awash in ideas for a new climate research hub on the New York Harbor haven — including from influential former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff and several major universities.

Doctoroff, who served as development czar under Mike Bloomberg, is among 37 individuals and groups who delivered 12 separate proposals to the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust, which issued a call this summer for ideas to anchor a climate center on the 172-acre strip of land, announced the list on Wednesday.

The proposed science center is among several sweeping changes in the works for Governors Island, as THE CITY reported last November. The City Council approved major land use changes for the isle in May.

Doctoroff is making a bid for the climate project through Sustainable Development Commons, a nonprofit he founded just this month, state records show. The group will be led by Josh Sirefman, another Bloomberg administration alum who helped craft Cornell University’s winning bid for its technology-focused Roosevelt Island campus.

Both men are co-founders of Sidewalk Labs, the urban technology company backed by Google’s parent company, Alphabet which served as a technical advisor on the proposal, a spokesperson for Doctoroff said. But the pair say they are pursuing the Governors Island venture independently from Sidewalk.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Dan Doctoroff joined Mayor Bill de Blasio at the opening of The Shed at Hudson Yards, April 1, 2019.

Doctoroff, who was responsible for Hudson Yards and other megaprojects, has long been directly involved in the planning and stewardship of Governors Island.

He oversaw its early redevelopment begun in the late 2000s, after the U.S. Coast Guard handed the land and its historic buildings to the city.

Doctoroff served as vice chair of the now-defunct Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, the precursor to the current day Trust, which was formed in 2010.

The Trust is currently chaired by former deputy mayor Alicia Glen, who served in the development czar role under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Casting a World-Wide Net

The Trust declined to provide more details about the 12 proposals it received for the climate hub. But THE CITY spoke to backers of three of those dozen, including a team from Stony Brook University.

The Long Island institution is collaborating with Oxford, Yale, Stanford and Columbia universities as well as the energy research center at Brookhaven National Laboratory to create the “New York Climate Exchange,” its proposal says. The project will be a “living laboratory” on the island with labs, classrooms, exhibits, greenhouses and housing, the document reads.

Stony Brook promises it can bring in up to $100 million in philanthropic support to fund the project, adding to $150 million the Trust and city have already committed toward the climate hub.

A coalition dubbed Renewable Nations L3C submitted a proposal that brings together design and development experts with 15 universities to create a new academic institution on the island.

Academic institutions from Boise, Idaho, to Okinawa, Japan, have signed on, and Goldman Sachs is a financial backer, according to Lesley Braxton, a principal at Trahan Architects and one of the main strategists behind the plan.

Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY
People enjoy outdoor space on Governors Island, Sept. 20, 2020.

She said utilizing the island’s existing 19th and 20th century-era structures is a priority for the group, which plans to work with Cross Street Partners, a development company that specializes in adaptive reuse.

“The most sustainable building is the one you don’t have to build,” she noted.

The not-yet-built climate hub is expected to use about a fifth, or 33 acres, of Governors Island’s land mass.

Amy Chester, the managing director of Rebuild By Design, a city-based nonprofit that focuses on sustainable and resilient architecture but is not involved with any of climate center proposals, was impressed with the list of respondents.

She cited the “deep expertise” of Deltares, a top water-engineering firm from the Netherlands that has done resiliency work in New York and globally.

Attracting Intelligence

As with Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, Chester said “creating excitement around an academic center is good for New York City.”

“It attracts businesses here. It attracts jobs. It creates new educational opportunities and homegrown expertise, which the government and New Yorkers can tap into,” she said.

Still, she has her doubts about how the project will fare on a low-lying island in New York Harbor, especially as many parts of the city struggle with preparing for more extreme weather.

“What the city is going to need to do is invest a lot of money in the infrastructure to make this happen, and to do it in a way that’s going to think about future climate events,”  Chester said.

“The city is going to be tugged in many different directions to address the immediate needs like what we saw during Hurricane Ida. But a real plan is one that takes a step back and really thinks comprehensively.”

Braxton said the Governors Island project “is not to detract” from any of efforts to make New York resilient, but to “help with the how.”

“We have to fix the infrastructure of our cities. But can we do that smarter? And we’re here to figure out how we can do that,” she said.

The timeline and feasibility of the climate center is still up in the air. The concept will need the backing of New York’s next mayor. Both the Democratic and Republican mayoral candidates have said little about the climate center idea on the campaign trail.

Representatives of Eric Adams and Curtis Sliwa did not respond to inquiries from THE CITY Wednesday.

It’s unclear when a winning proposal will be chosen. A spokesperson from the Trust for Governors Island said only that the group will evaluate the climate center propositions in the coming weeks with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability as well as the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

“These applicants all bring unique qualifications and specialties to the table, and we look forward to finding the perfect fit for this bold step to tackle the climate crisis,” de Blasio said In a statement announcing the proposals Wednesday.

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