What Could Governors Island Be?

Art: Barbara Bestor Architects

What does Governors Island want to be when it grows up? That question has slouched around the place for a couple of decades now, frustrating officials who would like to see the place gainfully employed. All that empty land unbuilt, those stunning views unmonetized, the constant demands for public funds — the island is basically a moocher, and thank goodness. For now, it’s still a ghostly, magical chip of land that seems to have escaped from Manhattan and floated off into the harbor. Sea-salted breezes glide over freshly mounded hills, which offer views of young trees, old buildings, and, beyond the encircling bay, a ring of greenery, gantries, copper, and glass. But there is some big-time development in the offing, which makes me wonder: Can that fragile mixture of separateness and proximity — that pervasive sense of islandness — withstand a major real-estate venture?

The plan that’s making its way through the approval process calls for a center dedicated to fight climate change, or, more grandly, “an ecosystem for climate solutions,” as Clare Newman, president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island, describes it. The proposed rezoning would, Newman says, summon “a research institution, surrounded by green tech start-ups, design firms, dorms, and faculty housing.” (Since Columbia has just established its own climate school, it would presumably either be part of the university or compete with it.) An island that once hosted military personnel sworn to protect the nation would now buzz with scientists, engineers, designers, and techies working to protect the planet. Or, to put it another way, Newman is hoping for a collection of buildings containing more square footage than One World Trade Center (4.275 million, to be precise), including a couple of big honking towers, up to 25 stories tall. All this on an island that rising seas appear determined to swallow; the climate center can study its own drowning.

The Trust, charged with making the island pay (for its own upkeep, at least), is trundling along the well-paved road of large-scale development on public sites. Step one: identify possible tenants, preferably big institutions, and privately ask what they need. Then, tailor the zoning to match their interest and shepherd the result through public approval. Finally, invite proposals from the people who helped set the rules. Maybe the result of this closed loop will be as wondrous in its architecture as in its aspirations. Maybe we’ll get the fresh approach that Governors Island’s vulnerability deserves, with architecture not just serving as the aesthetic trim on a multibillion-dollar investment but as deep thinking of a kind that should precede the first rule. If we are going to use it as a place where humans can learn to protect themselves from…

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