Tooling around the outer edge of Governors Island on a glorious spring day, it hardly seems like it would be difficult to motivate people to go out there. What you see looking out is the movie version of New York City, the coming-to-America view of the Statue of Liberty, the glittery skyscrapers along the Battery. What you see looking in is Nolan Park, a charming row of yellow clapboard houses, flowering trees that shiver pink petals over the lawns; Fort Jay, its bermed sides covered in grass—and, on the South Island, an 80-acre wasteland of Coast Guard structures, slowly falling to pieces.
In other words, Governors Island, sitting at the mouth of the East River, a half-mile below Manhattan, is a jewel—but it’s also a remarkably difficult development conundrum, whose recent history is littered with failed plans. First of all, how is anybody going to get there? The aerial gondola designed by Santiago Calatrava was a beautiful idea, but one that seemed to be a fantasy. (In fact, it’s currently undergoing feasibility studies, and may yet happen.)
The bigger question, of course, is why anyone would want to go. The federal government sold Governors Island to the city and state for $1 (the city and state administer 150 acres; the National Park Service is responsible for 22 more) with a number of stipulations, the most restrictive being no residential development. Back in the day, the city was looking for one big idea for the island. (The Giuliani administration floated the idea of a casino and five-star hotel but was thankfully thwarted.)
A request for expressions of interest in 2005 brought out a grab bag of parties, from the Related Companies and the Durst Organization to the New Globe Theater (still vying for a place at Castle William) to a Tivoli Gardens–esque children’s park complete with giant London Eye–inspired Ferris wheel. Nickelodeon proposed the obvious theme park; Durst was in on an idea for a sustainable cuny campus. Both Industria Superstudio and IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center were interested, as was Friends Seminary. The city hired Toronto-based planners Urban Strategies Inc. to analyze the responses, coagulating them into four themes: Iconic Island, stocked with functional and sculptural works of art and architecture; Innovation Island, an incubator for new research, education, and business ideas; Destination Island, the theme-park option; and Minimum Build Island.
Last year, the city solicited more-specific ideas from the private sector for master plans, but the request didn’t bear fruit. Developers (not exactly a shock) did not want to pony up for new docks, new roads, or new parks. They were waiting for the city and state to make Governors Island a destination island.
As City Hall’s maker of big plans, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff gets fingered for the failed request for proposals, but he says he was always skeptical. “We could have gotten a person that wanted to create a legacy and do something truly spectacular. In this era of fabulous wealth, it was worth a try,” he says. And Doctoroff still thinks that a global health institute—or an environmental one—could work.
So the city went back to the drawing board—or, actually, five of them. Five design teams were asked to conceive a new landscape, from 25 to 40 acres, for the southern end of the island, and a new 2.2-mile promenade encircling it, and to rethink the open space in the northern historic section.