Governors Island's newest attraction, a collection of four man-made hills that rise above the New York Harbor, sneaks up on you. There's no sign of the hills when the ferry from Manhattan pulls into the dock; there's no peak visible when you stroll through the island's historic district. Even when you walk through the Liggett Hall arch into the new 30 acres of parkland designed by West 8, there's no indication that a 70-foot climb awaits you.
And that's how it's meant to be. West 8, the Dutch architecture firm behind the hills and the surrounding parkland, designed the landscape with curving paths and gentle slopes to obscure sightlines and create an element of surprise. The extra elevation also plays a key part in the park's survival—sea level rise is a serious concern when you're on an island, so adding height to the land was a given.
But this summer, when the first visitors climb to the top of Outlook Hill or zip down Slide Hill, they aren't going to be thinking about climate change. The new landscape is a wonder, and the hills will undoubtedly be the most exciting opening of the season.
Open House New York hosted a preview tour of the hills last week, and even in their almost-finished state, they are a total delight. Grassy Hill offers a wide expanse of lawn for lounging and playing; Slide Hill features four curving sliver slides; Discovery Hill rises 40 feet high and features a permanent site-specific artwork by Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread; and Outlook Hill, the star of the show, pushes you 70-feet above the harbor, providing incredible views of the Statue of Liberty, downtown Manhattan, and beyond.
Standing on top of the hills, it's hard not to be awed by the transformation of Governors Island. Just a few years ago, the land where the hills now stand was filled with aging, abandoned buildings (including a Burger King and 13-story apartment tower). They were originally constructed more than a century ago when the island was used as a military base, but they sat unused after the Coast Guard vacated Governors Island in 1996.
The plan to completely make over the island and turn 150 acres into parkland began in 2003, when the Trust for Governors Island spearheaded the redevelopment. The first renderings were revealed to the public in 2007. After the recession and political sparring caused delays, an updated plan was unveiled in 2010, and construction began a couple years later.
The first piece of the park's renovation opened to the public in 2014, directly south of Liggett Hall, which now acts as the portal between new and old. This was the first section designed by West 8, and it features Liggett Terrace, a landscaped swatch adjacent to Liggett Hall; the Play Lawn, an area with swings and climbing structures for children; and Hammock Grove, a wooded area planted with 60 different species of trees and hung with hammocks.
New ballfields opened last year, and sometime this July, the hills will welcome their first visitors.
But this is far from the last change coming to the island. Thirty-three acres of undeveloped land surround the hills. The Trust is working to turn Governors Island into a year-round destination, and these sites will further that mission, though there is currently no timeline for their development.
Photography: Max Touhey