One mid-July morning, I woke up to waves crashing, birds chirping, seagulls cawing, and a gentle breeze blowing. As the sun rose, it warmed my tent with angelic light.
Every now and then, the low rumble of a boat’s engine entered the idyllic soundscape.
This setting could pass for a number of far-flung, seaside escapes, but this is Collective Retreats, a new luxury camping experience—aka “glamping”—on Governors Island, just 800 yards from the cacophony of lower Manhattan.
In New York City, it’s nearly impossible to escape the claustrophobic feeling that comes with being one of 8.5 million people jockeying for space. Even the wide, open areas like Central Park or Prospect Park are still bustling: great for people watching, but not for stealing peaceful moments alone.
Collective Retreats, which operates luxury outdoor accommodations in Colorado, Montana, upstate New York, and Texas, is hoping that its remote escape—just an eight-minute ferry ride from Manhattan—will entice locals and tourists alike to spend a night in one of its well-appointed tents and indulge in campinglike activities. And the Trust for Governors Island, the non-profit that manages the island, is hoping that it will usher a new way to experience one of the most isolated, yet physically close, public spaces in the city.
For the past 15 years, Governors Island has undergone a slow transformation from a former military and Coast Guard base to a thriving public park. It’s added new parkland, planted trees and native plants and grasses, built storm resiliency infrastructure, and increased ferry service. It screens outdoor movies, invites artists to create site-specific installations, hosts music and beer festivals, and tends an urban farm. Later this summer it will host polo games and races.
Now it’s welcoming new businesses onto the island as a type of public-private partnership to help fund restoration, architectural preservation, and day-to-day maintenance. If all goes as planned, these new developments will make the space more appealing to more people, offer new ways to use and enjoy the island, and ensure its long-term health.
“We think hard about the right balance of uses to enhance the park and support it in perpetuity,” says Michael Samuelian, an architect and president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island.
With the opening of Collective Retreats this month, the Trust is offering a glimpse of how it’s experimenting with and rethinking the future of public space in the city.
Walking into Collective Governors Island feels like you’ve entered a summer camp for grownups. I visited with my colleague Margaret Lin, Curbed’s ace social media manager. Both of us were first-time glampers.
Our tent looked picture-perfect. Pitched on a raised wood platform, the white canvas Journey tent (there are 27 Journey tents on the site and pricing starts from $150 a night) looked just like a tipi. Inside, it was furnished with two twin beds (you can also request a queen), crisp white sheets, plush towels, rattan chairs, lamps with linen shades, dried flowers, candles, and a Persian rug. If it wasn’t for the Yeti cooler and two lanterns in the corner, you could mistake this for a hotel room.
The bathroom was a 60-second walk away, but if you shell out for the larger Summit tent (there are 10 on the site and pricing starts at $530 on weeknights, $700 on weekends), you’ll have the option of a king bed or two twins along with an ensuite bathroom and shower.
After checking in we lounged on some sling chairs on Collective’s expansive Great Lawn, which looks east toward Ellis Island. Once Governors Island closes—at 6 p.m. weekdays, 10 p.m. Fridays, and 11 p.m. Saturdays—Collective guests (the only people on the island overnight) must stay within the six-acre campground and the promenade directly in front of it.
Retired couples were taking in the scenic vista, young families were tossing around a Nerf football, and a group of women were celebrating a special occasion. A few people played in the games area, which had oversize Jenga, corn hole, croquet, and hula hoops. When dinner began, most guests gathered in the centrally located lodge area. It has dining tables underneath a cavernous canvas tent and on an uncovered deck; a bar (though the liquor license has not yet been approved); and a “living room” with a sofa, games, and books on the island’s history.
Food is limited to a pre-fixe menu for $120, an a la carte menu ($10-$30), or “Barbecue in a Box,” a $30 grill-it-yourself meal. After dinner time is over, Collective lights a campfire and offers s’mores kits.
Replicating wilderness in a highly engineered, purposefully designed park felt as manufactured as a marshmallow, but the idea has already caught on. Collective is fully booked every weekend until the end of August (Governors Island closes for the season October 31) and has attracted guests from all over the world willing to pay to glamp within city limits.
“We want it to be a backyard for New Yorkers,” explains Vanessa Vitale, managing director of Collective Governors Island.
According to Collective, most guests so far come from New York, Long Island, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. I met a woman from Brooklyn celebrating her 50th birthday with a friend. Another New Yorker invited her mother to come down from Boston for her birthday. A few New York City politicos were also at Collective celebrating a special occasion.
A woman on a weeklong vacation from London booked a couple of nights on the island as a more relaxing counterpoint to her Times Square hotel. “It’s nice not to have too many choices on what you can,” she told me. “You can just sit and turn everything off. That’s it. You don’t have to worry about going to this restaurant or that restaurant.”
Since its soft opening on June 1—the official opening date was July 11—1,500 people have stayed at Collective.
“We are showcasing that there is a need and demand for hospitality experiences on what I would consider such a gem of our gorgeous city,” Vitale says. “We have very quickly shown that we as New Yorkers are craving the outdoors, we are craving something different, something off the beaten path.”
Collective Retreats, which has a three year license to operate on the island, is among the first hospitality companies to open on Governor’s Island. Island Oyster and Taco Beach, both bars and restaurants, opened in 2017 and this year, respectively. In 2021, QC Terme, a European wellness spa and hotel, will open an outpost in one of the island’s historic buildings.
Right now, the New York Harbor School and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council are the only year-round tenants on the island. But the Trust wants to expand public access to the island beyond its current current April–October season and is exploring development that will support that growth. The current budget is $16 million a year, a sum that will increase if the island is open for more of the year and more of the day.
The Trust envisions Governors Island as a 24-7 destination in the future, which is challenging once you account for the cost of security, transportation, and park maintenance. Additionally, permanent residential use—a built-in 24-hour population to support businesses—is not permitted.
When the federal government sold Governors Island to New York City in 2003, it stipulated that it must be reserved for public benefit. So while luxury condominiums and affordable housing will not be built on the island, a number of other uses could appear. Governors Island is considered a special use district and is required to have public access and educational use; additional permitted uses include hospitality, retail, health, commercial offices, and arts and culture. Short-term residential use—like university dormitories or resident artist programs—are allowed.
Before Samuelian became president and CEO of the Trust in 2016, he was a real estate developer. At Related Companies, he led the planning and design of Hudson Yards, the $20-billion megaproject on Manhattan’s west side. Before that, he helped lead the redevelopment lower Manhattan after 9/11 as the director of Lower Manhattan special projects in the New York City Department of City Planning. I asked him what a healthy city—and healthy Governors Island—looks like in his perspective.
“For me, one of the most important words is plurality: no one use dominates everything,” Samuelian says. “That’s what the best neighborhoods in New York, and in the country, are like. Many people forget that pre-9/11 lower Manhattan wasn’t an attractive place to be after 9 p.m. Now it’s a living breathing neighborhood for different types of people. The lesson I take away from that is how to ensure Governors Island remains a great and accessible space for everyone: no singular use should dominate. Hospitality, academics, culture—it’s a blend of uses that creates a great space.”
The northern part of Governors Island is a landmarked historic district. Through adaptive reuse projects, the Trust hopes to renovate and restore these structures—homes, former military offices, former barracks, and more—most of which were built in the 1800s. The Trust envisions them becoming offices for non-profits, space for cultural institutions (some un-renovated homes are already sites for art installations and arts organizations), and hospitality companies.
The southern part of the island is zoned for new buildings that can have 100,000-square-foot floor plates—about the size of 5 Manhattan West—which is larger than most New York City blocks can accommodate. Samuelian sees that as an attractive feature for academic institutions, research and development organizations, tech companies, and media brands who like occupying whole floors for collaboration and productivity reasons. In a 2016 State of the City address, Mayor De Blasio referred to Governors Island as a potential “innovation cluster.”
“Imagine us as ‘Palo Alto East,’” Samuelian says. He points out that since the Trust controls the entire island—with far less bureaucracy than the rest of New York—it lends itself to experimentation. “Because we are this unique, we could be this platform for innovation on smart cities, but also the environment and how we can operate with more environmental consciousness,” he says.
Right now, the Trust is developing RFPs to find tenants who share their values and help them redevelop the island. (Collective Retreats responded to an October 2017 RFP for temporary recreational and entertainment uses.) But to entice new tenants to apply, the Trust wants to show that the Island is a desirable place to be and businesses can thrive—and they need visitor density to achieve that.
“It’s very much proof of concept,” Samuelian says of Collective Retreats. “We need a year under our belts to prove to the hospitality industry that we can we can operate a 24/7 environment. This is the beginning of proving to the market that Governors Island is not just for retreat and recreation, but for doing business.”
Governors Island received 8,000 visitors during its 2005 season. This was before it opened 30 acres of new park land in 2014 and before its storm-proof hills debuted in 2016. Last season, over 800,000 visited the island. More are expected to come. Governor’s Island is a rare place where you can feel miles away from the city, yet in it at the same time. It feels like an undiscovered, open secret. While most of New York feels over developed, with every square inch pulling double or triple duty, the slow pace and emptiness of Governors Island feels indulgent.
Waiting for my ferry back to lower Manhattan from a night of glamping, I met a man from Oklahoma City who planned a special trip to New York to propose to his girlfriend, and did it at Collective at sunset. (She said yes.) He mused about how special the moment was and mentioned how it almost didn’t happen: He wanted to propose at the Statue of Liberty, but after he realized tickets were booked for months, his brother suggested Collective because he could have an even better view of the statue and the harbor. I told him about how Governors Island is on the cusp of redevelopment and he offered an extra comment.
“What made the night really special was how isolated it felt,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the same if there were tons of people all around us.”