New York City Wants to Put a Climate Change ‘Laboratory’ on Governors Island

Oct 7, 2019 by

The New York Times

The island, which has an unusual history and considerable real estate potential, could host a complex devoted to climate policy under the plan, which is in its early stages.


Governors Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, has an unusual history and a supply of undeveloped real estate.
CreditCreditMark Wickens for The New York Times

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Governors Island, a 172-acre patch of land near southern Manhattan that is vaguely shaped like an ice cream cone, has been many things over time: An outpost of the Dutch West India Company, a Civil War prison for Confederate soldiers, a Coast Guard command center, and even a meeting place for President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev near the end of the Cold War.

Since 2003, however, when the federal government turned control over to New York City, under the condition that it not be used for residential housing, it has been an island in search of a purpose — and in search of a source of revenue to pay for its upkeep.

Now, the city has a new idea: transforming one of its last big chunks of developable land — as much as 4.2 million square feet on the southern half of the island, which New York wants to rezone for commercial and educational use — into a “living laboratory” for coping with the effects of climate change.

The plan, which is still in its early stages, calls for making Governors Island “a major center for climate adaptation research, commercialization, conversation and policymaking,” according to a request for proposals that the city sent to contractors and that was reviewed by The New York Times. The document says the climate adaptation theme would be the “anchor” for the island’s development.

The proposal is the latest example of local governments taking the lead on climate policy as the Trump administration pulls back. But it also reflects the dilemma that global warming represents for New York and other fast-growing coastal cities: Even as seas rise and storms intensify, so does the demand for building along the water.

On Governors Island, whose location in New York Harbor makes it particularly exposed to flooding and storm surge, that tension is part of the point, according to Michael Samuelian, who until June was head of the trust that runs the island.

“Being an island in the middle of a harbor — there’s no better place to put the heart of climate adaptation and education,” Mr. Samuelian said. He said Governors Island, which is less than a mile from Wall Street, should become a “visible representation of what these issues we’re going to be confronting are.”

The city has asked outside consultants to come up with specifics about what that might look like, as well as a “pitch deck” the city could use to sell the idea to foundations, universities or other possible partners. New York wants that work finished within six weeks, according to the document, so that it can solicit bids from developers by the end of next year.

The goal is to make the island “a living laboratory in how you deal with these issues in an urban context,” said Alicia Glen, who was deputy mayor until earlier this year and is now head of the board of the Trust for Governors Island, which oversees the island.

The project is also meant to pay for the island’s maintenance, Ms. Glen said, which is now funded from city coffers. “The reason why there are development opportunities on the island is to generate money that will allow it to be sustainable,” she said.

Turning the island into a center for climate-adaptation research could also tap into New York’s concentration of workers in design, engineering, architecture and other related areas, while engaging the public on those risks, according to Clare Newman, who succeeded Mr. Samuelian as the trust’s president. “It’s a potential opportunity here to bring those strands together,” she said.

The city’s vision for Governors Island echoes its technology-themed development of Roosevelt Island (which also abuts Manhattan), according to people familiar with the plan. In 2010, New York invited universities to compete for the chance to build a graduate center for applied sciences on Roosevelt Island; the winner was Cornell University, which in 2017 opened a campus there in partnership with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

As for Governors Island, while a prudent approach might have been not to develop there at all, Mr. Samuelian said he saw more value in making the island an example of how development can coexist with rising water. That could hypothetically involve buildings elevated on stilts, or structures that could easily be dismantled and moved.

“The city is a waterfront city, and our DNA is the water,” Mr. Samuelian said. “We can’t ignore it.”

For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

Anne Barnard contributed reporting from New York.

Christopher Flavelle covers climate adaptation, focusing on how people, governments and businesses respond to the effects of global warming. @cflav

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