Call for Feedback: Governors Island Park Master Plan

Governors Island Master Plan rendering by West 8 / Rogers Marvel Architects / Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Mathews Nielsen / Urban Design +
Governors Island Master Plan rendering by West 8 / Rogers Marvel Architects / Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Mathews Nielsen / Urban Design +

Earlier this week, the Mayor’s office announced that a deal had been struck between City and State that gives the City full control over the development and governance of Governors Island. Released in conjunction with the news was the Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan, designed by a team led by West 8 in collaboration with Rogers Marvel Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, Urban Design +, ARUP, Faithful and Gould, and ETM Associates, which will guide the development of 87 of the island’s 172 acres.

Discussion about the plan is going strong in The Architect’s Newspaper, the Times, Fast Company, and on Curbed and Gothamist, just to name a few — you can even submit your own plan, written or drawn, to the Times‘ City Room blog. But the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) wants to make sure they hear your thoughts too. According to the plan’s website, and a call for public feedback that landed in our inbox this morning, one of the core guiding principles for the design team has been, and will continue to be, “Ideas From New Yorkers.”

Do you love the plan? Hate it? Make your voice heard! Who knows how the submissions are ultimately used, but why not take the opportunity when it is offered? Tell GIPEC what you think about the master plan. You can also stay updated on the plan through email updates, the Governors Island blog or an exhibition about the design that will be on view on the Island this summer.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Keith Rodan April 18, 2010

In his report on the Governors Island park plan, (2/13/10) NY Times Architecture Reviewer, Nicolai Ouroussoff mentions “raised concrete walkways” that will encircle the island at its water’s edge.

A few years ago, a proposed idea of a protected cove beach at the southern end made a lot of sense, both aesthetically and environmentally. Adrian Geuze firm’s plan apparently ignores any consideration of a natural soft edge treatment on the island – continuing the practice of distancing the public from their waterfront.

In another of Mr. Ouroussoff’s articles, “The Greening of the Waterfront” (NYT 4/2/10), the writer praises the Van Valkenburgh Brooklyn Bridge Park as “an enormous achievement”, yet the park’s railed walkways, extensive lawns, sports areas and telephone pole lighting seem at odds with the surroundings, neither paying particular respect to the river itself, nor the maritime history and heritage that was so much a part of this location. If this rather pedestrian, first completed 5 acres are an indication of what’s to come with the remaining 60, that will be a disappointment and loss for present and future generations.

The park’s non-contextual play areas, lawns, asphalt walkways and railings would aesthetically, be better moved back from the waterfront, not sitting right on it. A natural edge, with a mix of sandy beaches and restored wetlands, along with historic-looking buildings and piers, possibly with historic vessels, would be more in keeping.

faslanyc April 19, 2010

Keith: That is a good point about the water’s edge on Governors Island! I was under the impression all along that there were areas where the bay was allowed to come in and interact with the dunes and the hard edges on the south side. Of course, the island is mostly fill and the harbor is constantly dredged, so I wonder if it is even possible now to maintain a soft edge there? Perhaps they found that it is not possible doing studies over the last year?? I agree, missed opportunity.

I think you’re way off base about Brooklyn Bridge Park, though. First, off, “natural, sandy edges” never really existed there. The East River is a tidal straight, not a beach. Second, much of the park is about restoring wetlands and creating myriad various interactions with the water’s edge including salt marshes, tidal pools, protected coves, and floating piers. Third, even the simple moves like the big open lawn is all about the context, orienting people toward views of the skyline, the harbor, and the bridges. The telephone poles are a risky aesthetic choice, but they are much more evocative and striking than metal hi-mast poles or pedestrian-scale ornamental lights. Their scale and rough tactile quality absolutely pays homage to the industrial history of the site, as do the reuse of various monolithic stones throughout the park salvaged from reconstruction projects of various East River Bridges. And Ourousolf’s article was lame; it tells you almost nothing. I think you’ve simply not done your homework on that park. It sounds like you want a South Street Seaport-esque faux-museum there. The historic buildings (some of which are being repurposed) are just huge warehouses. “Historic vessels and historic-looking buildings” is more indicative of a “photoshopping” of the river’s edge, much like with restored beaches or what not. That would be a huge mistake.

Keith April 19, 2010

faslanyc: It’s good that there’s a dialogue on waterfront uses. I can see how you would think I’d want a South St. Seaport style look to the Brooklyn Bridge Park. No, certainly not an attempt to reconstruct the old waterfront, or even select elements of it, though perhaps you’ll agree that the Seaport works as an attraction (and not just for tourists) because it does have old things there and manages to preserve some semblance of the old harbor atmosphere. As for homage to an illustrious bygone era, I’m not sure merely placing a few salvaged stones and wooden light poles go the distance to evoke an emotional connection with the past. My feeling about many architects waterfront projects – in this case, Van Valkenburgh’s project, is that there’s an uneasiness about what to do with the waterfront. They are more comfortable with land use applications. Too often materials and techniques they bring to a site seem foreign – stainless steel railings, sculptured beds of ornamental plantings, extravagant and expensive building styles that are cutting-edge today but go hopelessly out of date tomorrow…more importantly, they (such as lawns) feel like a distraction rather than a complement to the surroundings. Whether there were beaches there or not, I’d prefer sand over grass to lie on…or even rough timbers over sculpted steel mesh recliners. I feel as if I’m witnessing a total obliteration of what was once there, and it’s a cruelty, a 1984-ish disservice to our collective memory..a Stalinesque airbrushing-out of that which was once a part of our lives.

As for my homework, I had always been fond of visiting various parts of the waterfront, often just to hang out in the informal settings they offered – imagine open dock and pier areas without railings. Imagine weedy natural plants all over, and seagulls and being able to look at ships and boats. Imagine not having park attendants watching over you, ready to ride over in their golf carts to tell you what you can’t do. Imagine going to the water at night and not feeling exposed by glaring park lights. Maybe I’m a romantic, but I don’t feel comfortable in the new manicured, overly protective parks that are rapidly becoming the public spaces. With 60 acres to go, there’s hope that the architect can open up to some naturalness that isn’t so artificial and well, parklike. We don’t really know what Olmsted would have done here, but Central and Prospect parks are favorites because he and Vaux had a sense of how to create spirtually refreshing refuges where visitors didn’t feel dominated by the design. ( a really special ‘forgotten’ refuge for is Green-wood Cemetary)

The other ‘homework’ point is, I did pay my dues, so to speak, in North Brooklyn for 22 years advocating for waterfront access and helping to support the preservation of such sites as the former BEDT rail terminal to be kept as a return-to-nature community-used and (with cooperation from many neighborhood artists and alternative lifestyle advocates) managed waterfront space. Instead, as is all too common an experience, the government, in this case the state, took it over, bulldozed it to a parking lot, encircled it with a 12 foot fence with guards and daily visiting hours – thoroughly eviscerating the former wildness, charm and character with yes, your favorite wide open lawns, cement paths, benches and trash receptacles. the new crowd, young upwardly mobile, and well off enough to afford high rents in Williamsburg, don’t seem to mind a bit. After all, what do they know? Brave new world…end of rant.

PS The Governors Island beach idea was first introduced by Mary T. O’Connor in 1999. Mention of it can be found on the NY Times N.Y/Region webpage,”Your Fantasy on Governors Ilsand” It’s number 8 in the slideshow, and quite an ingenious yet simple and environmentally and ecologically viable solution for an Island use.

faslanyc April 19, 2010

Keith, I don’t mean to call into question your advocacy, and agree with you in general. I do think you haven’t done the homework on Brooklyn Bridge Park specifically (though there are certainly things that could be picked on there). I hardly think creating the 25 foot high monumental stair on the hillside with panorama views of the harbor, lower manhattan, and bridges from the Roosevelt Island Bridge cladding stone is “merely placing a few salvaged stones” here and there. Indeed, that element is arguably the most significant element in the park.

To your point about benches and architecture on waterfront parks, it sounds more like a gripe (one which I share with you) about the new projects in North Brooklyn or Hudson River State Park; in fact you directly reference that horrible “stainless steel sculpture/bench/thing” on the new pier in Williamsburg. You and I are simpatico there, absolutely. But you are wrong about Brooklyn Bridge Park. The benches there reference the old nyc park aesthetic (wood slats, galvanized frames- very marine) while actually reusing old yellow pine timber found on site in a ship-building warehouse. The same aesthetic and materials were used for the buildings at the entries- very simple, very familiar, imbued with meaning but not didactic. Also, none of the rails are made from stainless, but rather are made from salvaged i-beams from one of the old warehouses there that was deconstructed. It was then hot-dip galvanized. You can tell it’s not a normal rail and it doesn’t jump out at you as an overly-designed precious detail (like the kind which abound on the high line) but there is a story there.

You have a point about gentrification and the role of the “wild” in cultural landscapes. That is something I’m exploring also, but it is also difficult to align with cultural expectations. And a beach there- uhh, I think that is way off base, and I suspect science may be part of the reason it did not make it in the Gov Island master plan (but I may be wrong- feel free to correct me). I do know the shipping channels are dredged there and the currents are fast which is not conducive to a real beach- it would be utterly artificial. A beach would also be a total obliteration of whatever historical threads you are wanting to tease out.

Interesting you mention Olmsted/Vaux. Ethan Carr, one of the foremost scholars on Olmsted, has been doing a lot of work on Brooklyn Bridge Park. You might read what he has to say about it.

That said, very valid point about gentrification. But it sounds like you are just arguing for a different “wild” aesthetic, in which case there must be a very innovative and controversial maintenance and safety strategy for the space (two factors inevitably driving the eventual “design” of public space). Perhaps you have some ideas for those?

Keith April 21, 2010

Yeah well, it’s one thing to have ‘references’ which too often come across as self-conscious and self-congratulating in design terms. It’s another matter to develop something ‘real’ to replace what was there. I can’t fault the architects – they try hard, and in some cases there are components that genuinely work. It’s kind of about sensitivity to the surroundings, don’t you think? It takes a master to leave something that takes over with a commanding presence. Otherwise, you have the Disneyland/McDonalds effect – fun to visit for a bit, until the novelty pales and you feel you’ve been fooled or demeaned by something sort of bogus.

I guess what I’m trying to say with regard to BB park and others is that some effort should have been made to rehabilitate and find adaptive reuse for old buildings and piers on-site years before. That didn’t happen, so we’re left with picking up the ‘post war’ pieces. Again some things really do seem to be going in a positive direction – fumbling perhaps, but we’re all sort of picking up, dusting off, and starting all over again. At least there isn’t a Robert Moses around to impose his fascistic uniformity like he did with the FDR park. Say what you like in defense of the ball fields, but there are about two types of trees, two types of shrubbery, the same style park houses – or so it seems – block after block. My contention is that eventually we’ll get it right – that it will evolve into something that respects the surroundings. OK – you’re satisfied with what’s there, and maybe I’m not. Maybe you’re easier to please, also. Tastes differ. I once went to the Met opera and was shocked to see a guy in blue jean cutoffs and a lurid Hawaiian shirt (in the orchestra for Die Walkure!). That’s a little bit the way I feel when confronted with some show-off park renovation.

Let’s talk about the Governors Island beach: If you did look at the web page I mentioned, you’d see that it was a natural type crescent cove completely encircling the beach area. This protects the area (and swimmers) within from tide, current and wake, and also eliminates erosion – I would think. As I believe you point out in your earlier post, much of Gov. Is. is fill below the original historic area, so the south end, where the beach is proposed, would hardly be a historic area to obliterate. In this case I think such a beach there would really be a plus.

And as for the “wild” aesthetic – look, you really had to have spent some time in that North Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood to see how beautifully nature was reclaiming that E. River site, and how much community stewardship was happening to make it a sort of informal ‘backyard’ for artists and residents. Agreed, some people abused it – they’d drive their stupid cars onto the jetty just so they didn’t have to walk out there to fish – and some cars ended up being abandoned, too. Funny, but after awhile the abandoned cars and junk left in the fields would rust, and the artists would come and make found-art sculpture out of it! Over about 10 years the natural plants were coming back – beautiful alder trees with shimmering leaves, the remnants of the cobbled streets with grasses and native plants and animals. You would see rabbits and crows and other birds. Someone managed to get an old fire hydrant to issue a trickle of water, which became a small stream, which fed a depressed area in the ground, which became a pond where cattails grew and frogs lived. It was kind of miraculous, and the people who were there before the Yuppies really respected and nurtured it in a homemade fashion that was touching and something you can’t get when the officialdom takes over. Less really was more. That wildness and eccentricity was worth more than all the ornamental, keep-off-the-grass landscaping, and it was a safe enough place too, if you used common sense. (I actually liked the some of the design concepts for Fresh Kills park when presented at Municipal Art. Soc. a few years back – they allowed for this kind of reclamation without too much intrusive designers’ clutter). A safety strategy? Again, we seem to have evolved into a dumbed-down culture where you have to have stultifying barricades everywhere. The old piers were great because you could just walk off them if you were crazy enough to…get it? Nothing is stopping one from jumping in front of a subway or a truck, after all. Common sense and benign neglect can work wonders. Is it the post-9/11 era that strikes fear into our collective hearts, or is it our ‘litigious society’ that keeps us cautious? Another theory is that dull spaces are the ones most prone to vandalism.

A lot of official parks and civic design, past and present will always be sort of uninspired and square – however, speaking of which, I’ve fallen in love with Janette Sadik-Kahn’s Times Sq. street closures. That’s a great step in the right direction…giving it back to the people.

So I trust that many of these park could evolve into pleasant places in time. It’s a hope, anyway. (You could say it took Paris a few centuries, after all)

And now I have to get back to my proposal for a beach at the end of 34th St., along the Hudson River Park (Segment 6) Stay tuned for that, and meanwhile, Google the site and see if it wouldn’t make a great spot for a beach where people could touch the water for a change, instead of all the bulkheads and promenades the Park now offers. I know BB park has some spots like that too…most likely will have more. Just keep the kids’ playgrounds and ‘fun places’ away from the waterfront, and I’ll quit griping 🙂