New York Harbor
Team led by West 8

Status: Under environmental review

Governors Island Park & Public Spaces
Photo © A Frieden

In one sense, Governors Island is treasured real estate: Located a half-mile from Manhattan's southern tip, the 172-acre island, a former military base, offers stunning panoramic views of New York City and its waterways. But the tree-dotted island lacks sufficient infrastructure (no potable water, for starters) and can only be reached by boat. Moreover, its land deed prohibits residential development.

Governors Island Park & Public Spaces
Governors Island Park & Public Spaces
Photo © Jerry L. Thompson (Top); Courtesy West 8 Team (Bottom)

In 2006, the city and state launched a competition that asked designers to devise a grand plan for 87 acres of public space on the island. A proposal by the Dutch firm West 8 (with several partners, including Rogers Marvel Architects and Diller Scofidio + Renfro) won.

If all goes as planned, their visionary scheme will not only be realized; it also will trigger a mini construction boom on the island. There are about 33 acres available for development, along with a number of historic buildings suitable for adaptive reuse. 'The island is not just a park,' explains Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, which oversees development and operations for the city-owned portion of the island.

West 8's plan is divided into several phases. The initial stage calls for the creation of a sweeping 11-acre lawn, a tree grove featuring hammocks and winding paths, and a plaza with flowerbeds and caf' carts. It also entails redesigning the ferry landing and sprucing up 33 acres of green space within an existing historic district.

Future phases are more ambitious. A 2.2-mile- long promenade will encircle the island, and an extravagant viewing terrace will face the Statue of Liberty. Most notably, four landscaped hills rising up to 82 feet will be constructed on the island's flat southern half. This creation of topography 'has become the basis for the extraordinary transformation of Governors Island,' says Koch.

Last year, the city took full control of the 150 acres it once shared with the state (the island's remaining 22 acres are owned by the National Park Service). Mayor Bloomberg has committed the $330 million needed to finance the project's first phase and various infrastructure improvements, including installing a pipe to transport water to the island from Brooklyn. If the plan passes through environmental review, demolition of nondescript structures built between the 1960s and '80s is slated to begin at the end of this year, and construction will begin in fall 2012. 'This is actually happening,' Koch says. 'We are going to have shovels in the ground next year.' Phase two awaits funding.

In the meantime, Governors Island, reached by a quick ferry ride, has become a popular haven for city dwellers, who travel there to picnic, bike, attend concerts, and, this year, view an outdoor exhibition of Mark di Suvero sculptures. The island is drawing a record number of visitors. When it first opened to the public in 2003, a few hundred people ventured out to the island during its 58-day season. This year, that number is expected to reach half a million.