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Exploring Governors Island’s evolving landscape

Like most of the rapidly changing waterfront of New York City, this liminal landscape may soon be radically transformed

For many years, Governors Island has been Manhattan’s ghost town, containing one of the largest collections of abandoned buildings and empty homes in New York City. On the island’s northern half, in a protected 93-acre National Historic District, dozens of controlled ruins are scattered among reactivated, unrestored landmarks. On the island’s southern half, which encompasses 79 acres of unprotected land, a collection of deserted townhouses and businesses have become an overgrown wilderness.

Over the past few years, 43 acres of new parkland have been completed on Governors Island, including The Hills, a cluster of four highly engineered mounds at the south end of the island. This new parkland has brought thousands of visitors to the island, while also inadvertently highlighting the sharp contrast between its abandoned past as a residential community for the Coast Guard, and its future as a popular year-round destination. At the top of Slide Hill, visitors look directly out onto a campus of former Coast Guard facilities and shuttered warehouses, while from the 70-foot-high apex of Outlook Hill, the dramatic vistas of the harbor also encompass a vision of burned-out houses, rotting garages, and a decaying dry cleaner.

Like most of the rapidly changing waterfront of New York City, this liminal landscape may soon be radically transformed. This past August, the Mayor’s Office announced that it was beginning the rezoning process for 33 acres of land on the island’s south side, in an effort to create “up to 4.5 million square feet of commercial, academic, cultural and institutional development.” While residential development is not allowed on the island, the rezoning would allow for the construction of hotel and dormitory towers soaring up to 300 feet, according to Crain’s, completely overshadowing its recently completed hills.

The first public hearing about the rezoning process will take place in September, and a completed plan is not expected to be voted on until Fall 2019. For now, the last few days of summer present a good opportunity to wander through the evolving landscape on the south side of Governors Island, and to consider what its future might be.

Developing a year-round campus of workplaces, hotels or schools on an island, made largely of fill and located in the middle of a busy harbor, will no doubt present enormous challenges. The rezoning process will surely need to consider important questions about transportation and infrastructure. But it may be more important to consider some of the larger issues not mentioned in the Mayor’s announcement.

One of the biggest questions about the future of Governors Island is the existential threat posed by rising sea levels and climate change. New York’s state government expects that sea levels could rise by up to 6.25 feet by the end of this century, and massive storms and floods are anticipated to become much more frequent. This is an interesting backdrop for an announcement about a major push to redevelop the waterfront of an island that will be at the frontline of any future storm surges, and yet the Mayor’s announcement includes no mention of climate change or sea level rise.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy provided a glimpse of what the future might be like for Governors Island. During the storm, its coastal defenses were overwhelmed by a 13.8 foot storm surge, which pushed more than four feet of saltwater over its seawall, according to the National Park Service. Historic structures were engulfed by the ocean and damaged by winds, the electricity was knocked out for more than a week, and gas, phone, and internet utilities were not restored for a month or more. Eight shipping containers washed up onto the island’s shoreline, three feet of water flooded into Castle Williams, and a 200-year-old sculpture atop Fort Jay was broken apart and seriously damaged.

In the years since Hurricane Sandy, the Trust For Governors Island has repaired and upgraded the island’s entire 2.2-mile seawall, as part of an infrastructure investment of approximately $300 million “to prepare the island for development.” Other upgrades include completing a new water main to bring potable water to the island, installing new fiber optic cables, and upgrading electric equipment. Besides the enhanced sea wall, though, there are no other, larger systems in place to protect Governors Island from future storm surges, hurricanes and tornadoes. It remains highly vulnerable, as do nearby neighborhoods like Lower Manhattan, Red Hook, and Sunset Park.

Another interesting omission in the mayor’s announcement was any mention of the dire need for extensive historic preservation and restoration work on the north side of Governors Island. In the 13 years that the island has been opened to visitors, just a small handful of buildings in its historic district have been fully restored and opened to the public. Instead, many of the buildings that have been made regularly accessible, including a number of homes around Nolan Park, are in a semi-ruinous state, with cracked walls, peeling paint, faulty electricity, no bathrooms, and no running water.

Several of the island’s most important historic structures remain closed to the public, with their interiors allowed to further deteriorate, in some cases sprouting trees and plants. These structures include the Governor’s House, a NYC Landmark that was constructed in either 1813 or before 1708—depending on which historic plaque you read—and where the crumbling interior is cordoned off by caution tape. More than 50 of these historic properties are now being offered up for “adaptive reuse” by the The Trust for Governors Island, which, since 2016, has been under the leadership of Michael Samuelian, a former real estate executive.

It seems strange to announce a plan to pursue a rezoning that will bring millions of dollars of new investment to the southern part of Governors Island, without mentioning the millions of dollars of investment that is needed to stabilize the existing structures in the north. The two sides of the island are largely controlled by the same entity, a not-for-profit organization created by the City of New York. Yet the mayor’s announcement simply states that “All revenue streams from future development will support park operations, maintenance and expanded access to the Island’s open spaces.”

Hopefully, the rezoning process will open up these questions, and many more, about where Governors Island is headed in the future. The first public hearing about the rezoning will be held on September 26, 2018 at 6:00 PM at the Battery Maritime Building located at 10 South Street in Lower Manhattan.

After disembarking from the NYC Ferry at Yankee Pier, visitors to Governors Island are situated at Division Road, which cuts across the center of the island. This road highlights the sharp contrast between the island’s protected historic districts to the north, and its unprotected south side.

Along the south side of Division Road, visitors are immediately confronted by a collection of 16 ruined townhouse buildings, many with with broken windows and collapsing roofs. These homes all sit within a 26 acre area along the island’s eastern shoreline that is being proposed for rezoning.

Eighteen townhouse apartments on the south side were lit on fire in 2012, according to Reuters, during a training organized by the Fire Department of the City of New York. Several have remained in their burnt-out state ever since.

The front yards of these residences have slowly become and overgrow wilderness, with trees, ivy and shrubs growing unchecked over the ruins. All of these homes sit within the area that has been earmarked for rezoning and redevelopment, and can be demolished.

Over the past several years, the land in between these townhouses has become home to vegetable gardens, composting operations, a flock of 60 chickens, and a collection point for the thousands of oyster shells collected by the Billion Oyster Project.

Alongside the oyster middens, the land around these empty homes also houses Earth Matter’s compost learning center, and Grow NYC’s teaching garden, which opened in 2014.

The campus of 16 townhouses is actually quite small in comparison to the many other residential complexes that have already been demolished on the south side of the island. These include several large apartment towers, like this seven-story structure, seen here in 2011.

The largest of these apartment complexes was the 11-story Building 877, seen here in 2009. The building was imploded in 2013, and its rubble was used to help build the foundation of The Hills.

The new parkland and its expansive vistas of Lower Manhattan were made possible by the destruction of approximately 20 buildings that once stood on the south side of Governors Island.

Even the pathway up to Overlook Hill is a reminder of how the island has been reshaped in recent years. The large granite blocks here are remnants of the old sea wall, a large section of which was demolished and replaced by a new concrete barrier and rocky revetment.

Overlook Hill, the tallest of the four hills constructed as part of the new park, is 70 feet high, and has been called “The World’s Smartest Hill” due to its complicated landscape engineering and electronic sensors.

At the top of Overlook Hill, visitors are rewarded with an unbroken 360 degree panorama of the entire New York Harbor. “The Hills has been designed with the assumption that the tide will rise two feet by 2100,” according to The Guardian, although New York state expects sea levels will rise somewhere between 18 inches to 6.25 feet by the end of the century.

The hilltop vistas also include a good overview of the 26-acre area on the eastern shoreline that the city plans to rezone. These low garages and warehouses could be replaced with 300-foot hotel towers, according to Crain’s, which would completely block off the newly created views.

The views from the top of Slide Hill, which is 40 feet high, look south over a fenced-off, abandoned commercial complex, which is also part of the 26-acre rezoning area. This rotting structure was once home to a dry-cleaning business, a hair-care center, and the island’s commissary.

When the Coast Guard announced that it was going to close its base on Governor’s Island in 1995, the island was described by the New York Times as “an unspoiled town with 4,000 residents, a hotel, beauty salon, bowling alley, movie theater, nine-hole golf course, Burger King restaurant and, best of all, glorious vistas of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.”

Many of the Coast Guard’s facilities have since been demolished, including the golf course, tennis courts, and a large swimming pool. Only a few reminders of the old residential life here remain, including this old fire engine, parked in front of a shuttered warehouse complex. A fire house on the west side of the island was demolished years ago.

The last remaining facilities on the south side of the island include warehouses, garages, and machine shops, most of which have fallen into decrepit condition. These buildings are not considered historic, and can all be demolished as part of the rezoning process.

Looking northwest from the top of Slide Hill, the full scope of Discovery Hill comes into shape. In contrast the flat landfill landscape which they replaced, the hills are definitely an interesting addition to the landscape, and have been planted with 54 different species, including 42,963 shrubs.

On the western shoreline of the island, a 7 acre area has been proposed for rezoning. All of the old buildings here have already been removed. This 7-story apartment tower, seen in 2011, was also burned out as part of an FDNY training mission, before being demolished.

The apartment towers have now been replaced by a glamping site run Collective Retreats. These tents are equipped with a Queen size bed and rent for $150 to $300 a night, while larger tents nearby rent for up to $800 per night.

The Collective Retreats campus feels like a gated, private compound, but visitors are actually allowed in to access its bar and lawn, where a croquet court been assembled. All of this sits within the proposed 7 acre rezoning site.

Looking out over the New York Harbor from above the old sea wall, it is not hard to understand the allure of Governors Island. It is also difficult to forget the looming threat of sea level rise.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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