RFP: Governors Island

New York City is betting on Governors Island as a premier destination for tourism, culture, and business

It’s a warm summers day on Governors Island in 2015. Tourists doze in gently rocking hammocks while a lone musician softly plays to the clinking of coins in his guitar case. Basking in the shade of a nearby tree, a teenager sprawls on the grass pretending to read history while two ballet dancers practice in the long shadow of Liggett Hall. It’s numerous stone balconies full of workers on laptops, the archways and warm lighting fill the heart of Governors Island with quiet contemplation. Liggett Hall is a former military office and barracks, designed in 1929 by McKim, Mead & White in the Georgian Revival style. Encompassing 400,000-square feet of space, this elegant building of stone and brick serves as an iconic gateway between the park on the south side of the island, and the largest adaptive reuse project in the country.

Education, art, music, business. These are just some of the pieces of the puzzle of opportunity that is the RFP (Request For Proposal) on Governors Island. With a $260 million investment in park amenities–potable water, 21st century electrical and telecommunication systems, and improved access–New York City is betting on Governors Island as a premier destination for tourism, culture, and business.


Liggett Terrace, rendering courtesy The Trust for Governors Island

Last month I went on a private guided tour of Governors Island. A short 10-minute ferry ride took me from the southern tip of Manhattan to the waiting Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island. Two minutes off the ferry and I’m whisked off in an armored gulf cart for a vision filled tour of the future. Koch’s enthusiasm and excitement filled my head with beautiful landscapes, restored relics, creative uses of historic buildings, resilient park spaces, art, culture, advanced business, and great opportunities.


South Battery, rendering courtesy The Trust for Governors Island

Koch is leading the way in implementing a plan to deliver modern amenities to the island. With improvements like advanced telecommunication systems, expertly coupled with landscape design, the Trust hopes to have the RFP bring in a round of financially viable projects to further take advantage of all that Governors Island has to offer. And while there are concerns around the issues of development on the waterfront in a post-Sandy New York, it’s clear that addressing the issues of rising seas and historic preservation don’t have to be exclusive. Koch explained how West 8, a Dutch landscape architecture firm, helped design the multiple levels of defense for Governors Island. In our February issue, we discuss some of these design elements, and with it’s raised elevations, salt-tolerant species, and design amenities like lighting, benches, and balustrade, it’s clear to Metropolis that Governors Island is not only a great opportunity, but also a test of what it means to design resiliently.


The design for the new reventment, image courtesy The Trust for Governors Island

On the day of my guided tour, the Trust was demolishing an old eyesore of a barracks that dated back to when the island was a dwindling military base. The removal of this asbestos coated health hazard opened my eyes to grand views of the Statue of Liberty, the Jersey shore, the Brooklyn Bridge, and downtown Manhattan. And even as the massive earthmovers rumbled past, I could feel the island’s potential for calmness and quiet contemplation away from the drivers of New York City.


New view of the Statue of Liberty from the play fields in the south part of the island, rendering courtesy The Trust for Governors Island

Governors Island was used as a military base from the 1800’s through 1996, and approximately 4,000 people lived and worked there. It’s easy to see how the former base can be turned into a 1st class investment opportunity. It has large areas of lawn, resembling a college campus, and clustered buildings that coupled with advanced amenities leave you expecting to find artists, musicians, workshops, and performances. The huge success of the New York Harbor School demonstrates its allure for education and live-in artists are a common occurrence on the island. Bringing these uses together creates a prime location for Richard Florida’s “creative class”, with potential for health, commercial, and retail uses. The nearby historic district and fort guarantee a steady stream of tourists, and the structures up for adaptive-reuse have the kind of character and sturdiness often associated with high-class business environments. It’s easy to imagine scientists working in secure renovated labs, web programmers staring at laptops, and freelancers slaving away in courtyard cafes. And while residential-only uses are not permitted on the island, there will be clear attempts at making it a home-away-from-home and a quiet place for hotels and spas away from the stress of that other nearby island, Manhattan.


Hammock Grove, rendering courtesy The Trust for Governors Island

If you were to travel to the island today, you’d find mounds of gravel and dusty buildings home only to memories and dreams. But with it’s quiet breezy expanses, spectacular views, and soon to be finished amenity improvements, it’s clear to me that this island, 10-minutes from the center of the world, will be a huge success. The deadline for submissions to the RFP is March 14, 2013.

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