Stony Brook University to Spearhead Governors Island Climate Center

The SUNY school on Long Island will lead a partnership of academic institutions, nonprofits and community groups to come up with climate solutions.

April 24, 2023 Samantha Maldonado, The City
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Governors Island may be isolated within New York City, but it’s poised to become a globally connected hub called the New York Climate Exchange, with a New York public university in charge.

Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, will spearhead a new 400,000-square-foot climate change research and education hub, the Trust for Governors Island announced Monday, anticipating 2028 as the opening date.

The Trust’s selection of the Long Island research institution culminates a two-year search for a steward. The project will transform a southern chunk of the island and is expected to usher in more frequent ferry service along with new open space for the public.

Stony Brook, working in partnership with other academic institutions, nonprofits, companies and community groups, aspires to use the hub as an idea incubator in New York City, then employ those concepts more widely.

“New Yorkers can come and authentically engage in issues of climate in a way that arms them with solutions that they can take back to their communities,” said Clare Newman, president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island.

“It’s about creating really new ideas and technology that helps New York adapt to the climate crisis quickly, and then ultimately seeing that spread around the world because as we know this is a global problem,” Newman said.

The New York Climate Exchange will host academics working on climate projects — such urban resiliency and energy resources — along with students of all ages for educational programs and workforce training. It will have an incubator program for up to 30 businesses each year, as well as an accelerator program to launch initiatives that support communities especially affected by climate change.

The Trust selected Stony Brook’s proposal out of a dozen contenders. The SUNY school ultimately beat out two other teams of finalists: one led by CUNY and The New School, and another led by Northeastern University.

Newman said Stony Brook seemed the most able to bring together science and innovation with policy, advocacy and engagement work in order to see fast deployment of solutions.

Partners for Engagement

Stony Brook University is teaming up with an array of partners that includes grassroots New York City community groups as well as other research institutions and private firms.

Academic partners Georgia Institute of Technology, Pace University, Pratt Institute and University of Washington are on board, as are Boston Consulting Group and IBM.

The Manhattan nonprofit group Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES) is also on board to shape engagement efforts and programs.

Damaris Reyes, executive director of GOLES, hopes her organization’s involvement in the Exchange will benefit both the New Yorkers in her flood-prone neighborhood — which Hurricane Sandy hit hard — and the larger efforts to advance climate-related solutions. Reyes took her staff to Governors Island for a retreat in late 2020, and it was a day she remembers as “glorious.”

“When you’re there, you don’t really feel like you’re in the city, and those are experiences that I hope to translate to young people in my community and seniors,” she said. “I really have a vision that the Exchange will be a place where people can come learn.”

A rendering shows the aerial view of The New York Climate Exchange, showing the iconic forms designed to evoke the dramatic landscapes and hills of Governors Island.
A rendering shows an aerial view of the planned New York Climate Exchange, showing the swooping forms designed to evoke the dramatic landscapes and hills of Governors Island. | Rendering Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Other partners include CUNY, SUNY Maritime, New York University, the nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice and the union SEIU Local 32BJ.

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis said that collaboration with partners beyond the academic realm is essential to developing workable responses to climate threats.

“To actually get to solutions, we need to figure out how to work across sectors,” McInnis said. “We need to … bring together community groups, higher education, policymakers and corporations to really design together, come up with solutions that will work and more quickly get those into the market, get them into the communities where they can make a difference.”

With a footprint in a place New Yorkers flock to for relaxation and recreation, the Exchange will also host free exhibitions and activities for Governors Island visitors, said McInnis.

Some of those programs will take place with partners even before the center’s expected 2028 opening.

McInnis envisioned exhibits that, for example, help people “think through the choices of whether they use plastic or glass or how long of showers they take, or what kinds of lights they are employing,” or get them thinking about “the absolute vital importance of protecting our waters and our oceans.”

With the development will come an additional 4.5 acres of new public open space as well as more frequent ferry service — with boats to run from Manhattan every 15 minutes instead of every half hour, starting in 2024.

Sustainable Center

Located in the southeastern part of the island, the 400,000-square-foot campus will consist of labs, classrooms, an auditorium, housing for faculty and students, and hotel rooms, in both newly constructed buildings and renovated historic ones. All energy will be generated onsite, with systems to make use of rainwater and divert most waste away from landfills.

Newman pointed out that those elements align with the ethos of Governors Island, which is already home to sustainability efforts like the Billion Oyster Project and a compost learning center.

The center will also feature elevated buildings with floodable ground floors. As a low-lying land mass in New York Harbor, Governors Island remains vulnerable to effects of climate change, including storms and sea level rise. It saw nearly 14-foot-high storm surges during Hurricane Sandy, but is left out of a federal coastal protection plan.

The climate center — one of the first projects as part of a 2021 rezoning to allow for commercial development on part of the island, including hotels, offices and retail — will cost about $700 million, with $150 million committed from the city and Trust, $50 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, plus $100 million from the Simons Foundation, a philanthropic group created by hedge fund manager and mathematician Jim Simons. The institutions involved in the Exchange must cover the rest of the development’s price tag.

‘Steps Towards Equity’

The Exchange will work closely with Governors Island-based New York Harbor School — a public high school with a curriculum focused on the maritime industry — and other New York City public schools to offer college-level courses and career development to students, as well as field trips and summer camps.

“The key thing is integrating industry, the workforce development partners and academia so that the training programs can be nimble and responsive,” Newman said.

Other workforce programs will take place in partnership with green jobs organizations working on offshore wind, solar energy and building retrofits, among other climate interventions.

“I do appreciate the idea that the city is looking to make Governors Island a place for environmental justice and workforce opportunities,” said Tonya Gayle, executive director of Green City Force, a nonprofit that teaches young public housing residents about sustainability through hands-on projects and plans to partner with the climate center. “The city is making intentional steps towards equity in all the things that we’re doing, including the sustainability of the city and being a model for replication for others.”

The administration of Mayor Eric Adams has supported the climate center’s development as part of his economic recovery efforts and anticipates it will create 7,000 permanent jobs.

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