Governors Island Aims to Rival Central Park With West 8-Designed Fake Hills

Aerial rendering Governors Island Park site plan
(West 8 / Rogers Marvel Architects / Diller Scofidio + Renfro / Mathews Nielsen / Urban Design +)

During its summer seasons, the 172-acre New York Harbor isle known as Governors Island welcomes weekending New Yorkers by the ferry-load. The city’s denizens arrive clutching bicycle helmets and picnic blankets, ready to bask in the car-free utopia of an island that is, to many, both old and new. Greeted with a curious amalgam of military forts, brick barracks, and Victorian-style houses, today’s visitors can easily overlook the island’s most drastic 20th-century addendum: 103 acres of flat, reclaimed land that more than doubled the landmass in 1912. The artificial appendage was largely closed off in the nine years since the island was bequeathed to New York State by the U.S. Coastal Guard and opened to the public. But today, it is the center of Governors Island’s most radical rebirth to date, a topographical overhaul that echoes the virtuous civic projects of the past with the technological prowess of the present.

At the heart of the island, an ambitious new 30-acre urban park designed by landscape architect Adriaan Geuze of West 8 is taking shape, the first chapter of a larger $260-million redevelopment scheme initiated by the Trust for Governors Island — the recently formed steward of the islet's municipal-minded future — and endorsed by the city. To get a sense of Geuze’s aspirations, one has to look no further than the renderings for Governors Island Park. Lushly forested knolls are collaged together with cropped views of the Statue of Liberty. Miles of continuous white cement benches curve around sinuous rows of trees. Relaxed park goers laze in shaded hammocks, and cyclists cruise down a smoothly paved waterfront promenade.

These glossy renderings radiate a distinctly contemporary sheen. One might have expected to descry the chic and deliberate styling of the High Line or the East River Esplanade on the island. Yet unlike contemporaneous Bloomberg-era civic projects, Governors Island Park pays homage to its most storied predecessors, the great urban parks that shaped New York City in the 19th century. West 8’s proposal distinguished itself as the only competing scheme that would reform the site’s unnaturally uniform topography, a procedure that harkens back to the aggressive reshaping of Central Park orchestrated by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Atop the flat acreage of excavated earth, Geuze and his team envision rolling green hills.

“Transformation through topography was the starting point of the design,” Geuze told ARTINFO over e-mail. Mindful of the island’s future battle with rising sea levels, Geuze knew he had to elevate the park grounds in order to preserve the health of its vegetation. His approach was to recycle the island’s demolished buildings back into the landscape, transforming mounds of discarded crushed rubble into grassy, tree-topped peaks (and saving several tedious trips to the landfill in the process). “We sculpted this to create a great park experience,” said Geuze, “which culminates at larger ‘hills’ that will provide amazing 360-degree views.”

Though the grass and the trees (and the hammocks of the impending “Hammock Grove”) have yet to make their way into the picture, today those 360-degree views are nearly in place. For those given the chance to visit, the park under construction is a rather remarkable sight: Massive yellow earthmovers navigate a variegated landscape of gravel, carrying heaps of crushed rock to precise locations as designated by a GPS device. The scene could be likened to a lunar landscape, were it not for the wraparound panoramic vistas of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Standing atop a perfectly sculpted gravel precipice, one can begin to see the views that not long ago had been contained only in fanciful renderings. With modern-day technology, Geuze’s scheme revives the still-impressive practices of the past.

Yet the park’s peculiar location on an island 800 yards off the Lower Manhattan shore sets it far apart from its hallowed predecessors. “The park design is all about the context,” said Geuze. The goal of that design, as he explained, is to “showcase the views across the water and accentuate that this really is an island.” Thus, while Olmsted and Vaux worked tirelessly to arrange every rock, tree, and fastidious vehicular tunnel in Central Park into a “natural” milieu in the middle of gridded Manhattan, Geuze has the advantage of a seven-minute ferry ride across New York Harbor to offer visitors respite from the city’s frenzied urban life.

With its rolling topography and unparalleled harbor views, Governors Island Park emphasizes the island’s inherently escapist aura, the perpetual-summer-vacation bliss it hopes to offer anyone in need of succor from city life. And if the Trust continues with its quirky, pluralistic programming — including convivial pig roasts, ample bicycle rentals, immersive art installations, and food truck powwows — it may become New York’s next great public common, a modern paradigm of the urban park as Frederick Law Olmsted conceived it over 150 years ago.