NEWS: Progress on Governors Island

From the Regional Plan Association’s newsletter:

At Last, Something New for Governors Island
Almost four years after accepting title to the Island, and ten years since the Coast Guard quit its base, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) reached an agreement this week to give the 172-acre Island its first new active tenant. It was a terrific first choice, a venture that clearly befits the Island’s unique character and location off Lower Manhattan. Even better, the agreement is just one of several recent steps forward by GIPEC on a new, more deliberate approach to the Island’s redevelopment.
The Island’s first tenant is The New York Harbor School. A project of the Urban Assembly, it is one of the small, specialty high schools widely promoted as a means of re-engaging young people in their education. The City has opened 149 in the past several years.

The Harbor School is, of course, all about the Harbor. Its 400 students grapple with mathematics, English, social studies, and science through the prism of ships and the sea. Some of this learning takes place in the classroom. But much of it, and one might imagine the most exciting part for students, takes place on the water. The students build boats and cooperate in sailing the Lettie G Howard, a rebuilt schooner out of South Street Seaport. Teachers make water quality measurements and fish sampling the basis for math and science lessons. Many students report interest in pursuing maritime studies and careers after graduation.

The unfortunate irony is that the Harbor School is currently located in central Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood — a location about as far as one can be from the water in New York City, and a constant drain on the limited time and resources available to students and teachers.

Bringing the Harbor School to Governors Island won’t physically happen until 2008 at the earliest. But the decision to move is already helping the school meet its mission. Students will help design the restoration of the historic buildings that will house the school. And the prospect of an Island home will help the school attract and retain its most vibrant teachers.

Landing the school is also a very positive step forward for the Island, and for the public corporation charged with its redevelopment. The New York Harbor School so clearly fits the mix of educational mission, harbor focus, public spirit, and visitor diversity essential to the civic purpose for which the Mayor and Governor accepted title to the Island. While small in size, the school and its students will be outstanding spokespeople and symbols of the Island’s new life.

This new tenant wasn’t the only news from the Island recently. In announcing the agreement, GIPEC Chair Dan Doctoroff declared that the corporation was not ready to reach an agreement with any of the other respondents to their request for proposals at this time. While that process served to identify some interesting ideas and capable partners, GIPEC recognized that there are no silver bullets, no instant all-Island solutions. Instead, Mr. Doctoroff announced that GIPEC will move forward on creating the physical framework and amenity that will help define and promote development opportunities on the Island.

This new process will be headlined by a design competition to for the Island’s 80 plus acres of parkland – with much of it now clearly proposed for the southwest waterfront of the Island (see for more considerations for the Island’s parkland). Five teams will be selected in January, and a public display of their proposals is expected by April. The winning team or teams will presumably be awarded the contract to design and plan the parkland starting next summer. A public forum co-sponsored by the Governors Island Alliance, the American Institute of Architects, American Society of Landscape Architects, and the American Planning Association will help kick things off on January 17th.

After years of uncertainty, there is some real progress to celebrate for the Island at last.

– Robert Pirani, Director of Environmental Programs, RPA, and Executive Director, Governors Island Alliance.

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