Governors Island Caps a Banner Season; Faces Momentous Decisions in 2020
Governors Island has recently concluded a record-breaking season, and faces a year of both expanded amenities and milestone decisions in 2020, according to a recent discussion at Community Board 1 (CB1).
At the September 17 meeting of the Board’s Waterfront, Parks, & Cultural Committee, Clare Newman, the president and chief executive officer of the Trust of Governors Island, began by noting that, “as everyone knows, we are now open six months of the year, which means you can experience spring summer and fall on Governors Island.”
“We are in a very strong place today” she continued, “Governors Island has become part of New York City’s fabric. Our visitor numbers have skyrocketed, from around 8,000 [in 2006] to about 800,000 last year. And we expect to exceed 800,000 this year, which puts us on track for our best season ever.” She observed that 80 percent of the Island’s visitors are New York City residents, and half of this cohort is from Manhattan. “Also this year, we increased the frequency of ferry service, thanks to our new ferry, Governors I, which runs every 20 minutes, and takes the planning out of the trip. You can just show up and know you’re not going to have to wait too long,” she noted.
“This was our second season of late nights,” Ms. Newman added, “Friday and Saturdays until 10:00 pm, which allowed visitors to enjoy our spectacular sunsets, along with the film series we produced in partnership with Lincoln Center.” The evening hours attracted as many as 16,000 visitors each weekend, she noted. “We have also really expanded food and beverage openings, along with more than 80 cultural programs, 70 of which are totally free.”
She additionally emphasized the ongoing expansion of public space on Governors Island, saying, “we now have play lawns that accommodate soccer, football, and softball, with dedicated fields for baseball and softball. And we’re excited to have partnered with Downtown Little League and Downtown Soccer League to provide space.”
In September, the Trust also partnered with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) to open the LMCC Arts Center at Governors Island, a 40,000-square foot studio space and education facility, housed within a restored 1870s ammunition warehouse — a relic from the days when the Island was a military outpost. The project, which cost $12 million and was more than a decade in development, houses open-plan artist studios, two floors of galleries, performance and rehearsal spaces and the Island’s first indoor cafe. The building, located a 90-second walk from the Governors Island ferry dock, is also open to visitors during the park’s public season, which was extended to October 31 this year.
Capping a banner season, Governors Island was named one of six Great Public Spaces on the American Planning Association’s annual list, Great Places in America. This yearly compendium recognizes streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces that demonstrate exceptional character, quality and planning as attributes that enrich communities, facilitate economic growth, and inspire others around the country.
Looking ahead to 2020, Ms. Newman announced that Governors Island will be launching a free tram, “which is an important investment to help mobility impaired visitors get around.” She added that the tram, which is being made possible with funds allocated by City Council member Margaret Chin, “will be environmentally sensitive,” like many of the initiatives on Governors Island, such as food vendors who have committed to a zero-waste composting program.
Waterfront Committee member Wendy Chapman inquired about the desire of the Harbor School, a highly regarded public high school located on Governors Island, to expand into a nearby structure, known as Building 555. This 32,000-square-foot, brick-and-slate edifice dates from 1938, and is part of the Governors Island Historic District. The Trust has designated it for “adaptive reuse.”
“We have asked over and over again about expanding the Harbor School,” Ms. Chapman noted. “You’re not going to give that adjacent building away to anybody else?”
Ms. Newman replied, “we’re hoping that next time we are here, we will have a very clear and good news update about that building.”
Ms. Chapman also noted that the Harbor School has requested space since 2018 in which to build a swimming pool, deemed as essential for its maritime curriculum.
Ms. Newman answered, “we are planning to have the Harbor School’s capital team out this fall to walk around the island. And there’s a potential synergy there in terms of making it publicly available.”
More controversially, the Trust for Governors Island will be making decisions about development in 2020 that local residents will be living with — for better or worse — for decades to come. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to build out two sections of the Island (totaling 33 acres), with as much as 4.5 million square feet of new development, in the hope that this will generate enough revenue to fund operations of the public sections of the park. This model is based, in part, on the example of the Hudson River Park Trust, where development within the footprint of the linear park along the waterfront of Manhattan’s West Side aims to subsidize public amenities. The City’s plan for Governors Island also draws inspiration from the success of developing the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. But striking the optimal balance between private use and public benefit has become a contentious issue for all three projects.
This subject was raised by Waterfront Committee member, Alice Blank, who noted, “I don’t know that we’ve heard anything about that rezoning. This is millions of square feet that might be rezoned for mixed use. It is an immense project, probably on the scale of some of the biggest projects we’ll see. And this is within the jurisdiction of this Community Board.”
Ms. Newman replied that, “we are now in the process of understanding where we left off in the environmental review and zoning. We’re having internal conversations, and want to come back with something thoughtful that we can talk about.”
Ms. Blank pressed, “will the community be part of these initial — or maybe not so initial — conversations? It would be great if we could get in on the ground.”
“One hundred percent,” Ms. Newman answered. “We will absolutely be working with the community, over the course of the next months. We do not want to come and say, ‘here it is, and we’re certifying next week.’ That will not happen. We will be coming back to CB1 to discuss this.”
Ms. Newman (and the Trust’s chair, Alicia Glen, who recently stepped down as Mr. de Blasio’s deputy mayor) are widely believed to favor projects such as a proposed gondola that would connect Lower Manhattan to Governors Island, and a plan to build a soccer stadium on the Island. More recently, the City has begun soliciting proposals for a “major center for climate adaptation research, commercialization, conversation, and policymaking,” to be built in this planned development zone.
In September, 2018, CB1 enacted a resolution voicing grave reservations about the scale of development planned for Governors Island, which noted that the Board was, “very troubled by the scope and magnitude of development being assessed for the Southern island and believes that it is excessive. CB1 does not endorse many aspects of [the plan] and we look forward to working with the Trust for Governors Island to modify the final scope.”
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