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American Society of Landscape Architects


April 2008 Issue

New York Harbors a Park
Governors Island, a former Coast Guard facility, promises to be an extraordinary park.

By Alex Ulam

New York Harbors a Park C/O West 8

The borders of the great parks in New York City are mostly defined by the city’s rectilinear street grid. Hemmed in and crisscrossed by roads, Central Park and Prospect Park are introverted naturalistic retreats where pedestrians have to look out for automobiles.

In the past several years, the city has rediscovered its waterfront through popular new parks such as Riverside Park South and Hudson River Park that celebrate their river views and also have facilities for waterborne recreation such as kayaking and sailing. However, in comparison with the large Olmstedian parks built during the 19th century, these newcomers are relatively small—they have been built for the most part on narrow scraps of land that have been reclaimed from industrial uses such as train yards and shipping. Bounded on their upland areas by asphalt roadways, the new waterfront parks also fail to provide a complete escape from the honking horns and the whir of automobile traffic.

Now the crown jewel is on the verge of being added to the new emerald necklace of parks that is being built around New York City’s waterfront. Last December, the team comprising the Dutch firm West 8, Rogers Marvel Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Quennell Rothschild & Partners, and SMWM won the international competition to design the future open spaces for Governors Island, a 172-acre island situated in the middle of the city’s harbor.

Accessible only by boat, the island is only about 800 yards away from the tip of lower Manhattan, but it is a world away from the cacophony that people typically associate with the city. A circumambulation of the approximately two-mile-long ring road that winds around the ice cream cone-shaped island offers a kaleidoscope of unparalleled views of some of the city’s most iconic images, including the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty. In fact, this is the only location in the city from which you can see the face of the Statue of Liberty.

Most New Yorkers have actually never seen the statue’s face from dry land because, for most of this country’s history, Governors Island was a military installation and off limits to unauthorized persons. In recent times, the island was home to what was the largest U.S. Coast Guard base, where 4,500 people lived and worked. The Coast Guard closed its facilities in the mid-1990s, and in 2003, the city of New York and New York state bought the island for a dollar from the federal government. A nonprofit entity, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC), was founded by state and city officials and charged with planning and redeveloping a 150-acre section of the island. Initially, a variety of development schemes was considered for this part of the island including a college campus, a conference center, a hotel complex, and an amusement park. In 2005 an RFP expression of interest for a development proposal was issued with few restrictions, aside from creating 40 acres of parkland and an esplanade and protecting the island’s historic structures.

However, when no viable response emerged from that process and a subsequent summer 2006 RFP, GIPEC decided to do something unusual in this era of tight government budgets—it shifted its focus toward redeveloping most of the island as a public park without first establishing a development program for a commercial or institutional development. In December 2006, GIPEC hosted a high-profile international design competition for the new parks and open spaces. This time there was no shortage of responses. Twenty-nine teams from 10 countries competed. Five finalists were chosen to submit designs, which were debated and analyzed in public presentations. In addition to the winning concept design developed by the West 8-led team, designs from four other teams were considered: Field Operations with Wilkinson Eyre Architects; Hargreaves Associates with Michael Maltzan Architecture; Ramus Ella Architects with Michel Desvigne Paysagistes; and WRT, Weiss Manfredi, and Urban Strategies.

Peter Rothschild, FASLA, principal of Quennell & Rothschild, says the decision to let the park define the island, rather than have a development zone dictate the parameters of the park, was revolutionary. “I think the whole idea for the design competition for the park was quite imaginative—that this somewhat idiosyncratic unusual park will somehow stimulate the development of the rest of the island in response,” he says. “People such as economists and city planners have historically thought of parks as amenities or add-ons—the ornaments that surround the ‘real city,’ when in fact a city without a park is not a real city.”

Now that the design team headed by Dutch landscape architects West 8 has won the competition with a design titled “World Park Governors Island,” it is beginning work on a final plan for the park. GIPEC officials are hoping for a 2009 groundbreaking on the park, for which the design and construction costs are expected to total $400 million. The park is expected to be complete by 2012.

Today, the island is ghostly quiet with the exception of several buildings that serve as stations for maintenance workers and GIPEC staff. Most of the approximately 225 structures from the former base are completely empty, and the place is open to the public only on summer weekends. The 92-acre northern section of the island has both a National Historic Landmark District and a New York City Historic District. A 22-acre portion of that part of the island is a national monument managed by the National Park Service that contains a campus of pre-Civil War arsenal buildings, Victorian and Romanesque Revival housing, and early 20th-century neoclassical architecture. Many of the 19th-century fortifications remain intact, such as Castle Jay and Castle Williams, a large circular stone fort with rows of holes for cannons. A completely different landscape exists on the southern 80-acre section of the island, mostly comprising landfill added to the island from 1901 to 1912, using excavation material from the construction of New York City’s Lexington Avenue line. Here, the buildings, which are mostly slated for demolition to make way for the new park, consist of an abandoned mall, a vintage Days Inn from the 1950s, and rows of undistinguished empty housing-project-style buildings.

On a clear chilly January day during a tour of the island, Leslie Koch, president of GIPEC, stops at a bend in the road, gestures toward Lower Manhattan, and notes that it was the dramatic vistas from the island that inspired one of the major requirements in the RFP for the design competition—a promenade that runs the circumference of the island. “One day we were in this spot,” Koch says, “and we [realized] we have potentially the most extraordinary walkways and bikeways in northern America.”

In addition to looking for a design that capitalized on the island’s dramatic views, the jury also wanted one that featured a landscape that would provide a distinctive experience compared to other parks in the New York City metropolitan region. “The park has to be compelling enough for people to visit,” explains Koch. Another requirement was for a park design that emphasized sustainability. Koch says the West 8 team’s design won over the jury through its imaginative approach to fulfilling the competition’s requirements. “They combined a wonderful sense of play with an understanding of the island’s place in the harbor.”

Rothschild, who did the master plan for Hudson River Park on the west side of Manhattan, says that World Park Governors Island will be radically different from the other waterfront parks being built around the city’s harbor. “Unlike Hudson River Park or the [still to be built] Brooklyn Bridge Park, which have dual identities of being both neighborhood parks and parks for everybody, nobody is going to go to Governors Island to read their paper in the morning or have a sandwich there during their lunch break,” he says. “People need to make a distinct decision to go there, and then they are probably going to spend the better part of a day there.”

The most striking aspect of the World Park Governors Island design is a series of 70-foot-tall hills planned for the southern part of the island that will allow 360-degree views of the city’s harbor. The hills are also intended to relate to the verticality of other elements that surround the island such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. “Verticality in the harbor is so important,” says Jerry van Eyck, a principal of West 8, during a phone interview. “Finding a way to address this was mandatory.”

The hills will be partially constructed from the rubble of the housing-project-style buildings slated for demolition. By recycling the debris from the buildings, instead of having to ship it off the island to a landfill, GIPEC will be building sustainably while achieving major cost savings in the construction of the park. Additional material for the hills will come from the southern tip of the island, which will be excavated to create a marshland. This man-made wetland is intended to filter runoff and stormwater from the rest of the island while referencing the marshes that were once common in New York’s harbor. “We wanted to build the new island with the old island,” says van Eyck.

Another sustainable element of the project was the stipulation by GIPEC that the island be car free except for service vehicles. The design calls for 3,000 wooden bicycles to be made available to visitors so they can access the different parts of the park. The wooden bicycles have also become a defining symbol of the West 8 design. Last year, Adriaan Geuze, a principal of West 8, showed up at a public meeting in New York on a prototype of the wooden bicycle to present the design for the park. Van Eyck says the wood is intended to serve as a symbol for the overall philosophy behind the design. “We wanted wooden bicycles—that is part of the branding of the island as a naturalistic sustainable park,” he says. “If we had chosen [a metal] bicycle or a plastic one, it would not work.”

Many other aspects of the design are inspired by elements from the natural world. For example, the network of paths planned for the southern end of the island is shaped like the pattern on a butterfly’s wings. The design is also intended to call attention to what van Eyck refers to as the “evolution of man-made nature.” The layout of the park will be organized in a series of consecutive landscape zones, including a “primordial” marsh, the vertical landscape of the hills, a great lawn, a botanic garden, and a potential 40-acre development site on the eastern side of the island defined by lush green avenues and its own parkland.

Natural forms are reinterpreted in ways that open up possibilities for new uses. For example, according to van Eyck, the vertical landscape of man-made hills could be hollowed out to accommodate programming such as a hotel or an exhibition space that could house a display about the ecology of New York City’s harbor. The design also shows options for programming the tops of the hills such as incorporating a rock-climbing area. Instead of serving as purely naturalistic hills, these hills, which will be constructed using highway embankment technology, are meant to look ambiguous, says van Eyck. “We are looking for a shape for these hills that actually asks the question: Are they man-made or were they there forever?”

At the other end of the spectrum from the ambiguous hills is a zone of formal terraced gardens with park pavilions. This band of landscape is intended to serve as a transition zone to the 19th-century landscape of the national monument area, which is separated from the rest of the island by enormous McKim, Mead, and White-designed barracks that once housed an entire army regiment. In the formal gardens, the design calls for flower beds with a wide variety of plantings such as dahlias, tulips, and spring geraniums, to ensure that there are different colors at different times of the year. “We want a park that looks markedly different in winter than it does in summer, spring, and autumn,” says van Eyck, so that people “are automatically triggered to come back.”

Van Eyck says he views Governors Island as an opportunity to create a site-specific design for a park that will be unlike any other in the city. “This is a completely different context from an urban park, which is much more woven into the city’s fabric with clear connections between streets and parkland,” he says, “This is actually a destination park—when you take a boat trip out to the island, that is where the experience will actually begin.”

Alex Ulam is a freelancejournalist who writes frequently on architecture and design for publications such as The Architect’s Newspaper andArchitectural Record.

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