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The Future of Governors Island: What's Opening When?

By Julie Shapiro | December 14, 2011 7:51am
Governors Island Map
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Billy Figueroa

GOVERNORS ISLAND — Governors Island is never going to be the same.

Starting early in 2012, workers will break ground on the first phase of a major redevelopment of the 172-acre island, transforming the shuttered Coast Guard base into a lush playground for New York City's residents and visitors.

The city plans to invest more than $300 million in the first phase of the island's overhaul, which will upgrade outdated infrastructure and create dozens of acres of new open space, including ballfields and a grove of hammock-bearing trees.

"It's a very exciting time on Governors Island," said Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island.

Projects scheduled to open by the end of 2013 include: A new 14-acre play lawn, with two Little League-sized baseball diamonds; a refurbished 12-acre Parade Ground, including a flattened area that will host pickup and children's soccer games; a 10-acre Hammock Grove with hundreds of new trees; an overhauled 6-acre Liggett Terrace, a playful gathering space with maze-like hedges, interactive fountains and food carts; and a greener, more welcoming Soissons Landing ferry dock.

This first phase of the island's renovation, designed by West 8, will also include repairs to buildings in the 92-acre historic district.

But despite all the money being invested in the island and the public attractions on the horizon, concrete plans for private development on Governors Island are likely still a couple years away, said Simon Bertrang, the Trust's vice president of planning.

While New York University expressed interest in building a 1-million-square-foot urban studies campus on Governors Island last year, most of the schools that participated in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent competition for a new technology campus, including NYU, eschewed Governors Island in favor of shovel-ready sites on Roosevelt Island and in Brooklyn.

The one technology campus finalist that picked Governors Island, India's Amity University, has reportedly already been eliminated from the competition.

Bloomberg told reporters last week that while Amity was not a good fit for Governors Island, "I would love to find a university to move there."

Bloomberg said it's a matter of finding an institution willing to make a major investment in infrastructure.

Similarly, Bertrang said he thinks more developers and institutions will express a serious interest in Governors Island once the public utility upgrades are done several years from now.

"We have to be able to point with certainty to potable water and reliable electricity," Bertrang said.

In the meantime, the island is still keeping 33 acres reserved for future private development, in the hope of eventually bringing in enough money to cover the park's operations.

The Trust will not issue a request for proposals — the first step in choosing a private developer for the island — until at least 2013, Bertrang added.

Farther down the road, the Trust and West 8 have even grander plans for the island's final public spaces.

The designs, which do not yet have funding or a construction timeline, include: The Hills, a range of manmade mounds soaring up to 82 feet to provide views of New York Harbor; Liberty Terrace, a plaza and green space at the water's edge, sheltered by a shell-shaped structure; the South Prow, a wetland garden, picnic lawn and overlook on the island's far tip; and the Great Promenade, a 2.2-mile landscaped bicycle and walking path around the island's perimeter.

Koch said she plans to continue bringing public art to Governors Island, and to that end the island has commissioned its first permanent installation: an audible piece by Susan Philipsz, opening by the end of 2013.

Philipsz will place speakers all around the island, and one hour before the last ferry of the day leaves, they will ring out in unison with the playing of "Taps," Bertrang said.

The song alludes to the island's military history and will also "remind people that the day is done," Bertrang said.

Governors Island will reopen to the public on May 26, 2012, and will be open Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays through mid-autumn. Because of construction, the island will not be open on Fridays for the next two years.