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NYC’s New Summer Playground Will Have Winter Tenants: A Conversation With Robert Pirani

November 05, 2010

Governors_island Robert Pirani is executive director of the Governors Island Alliance, a coalition of organizations and individuals working to realize the recreational and cultural potential of the 172-acre island and former military base in New York Harbor. The island, ownership of which was transferred to New York State and the National Park Service in 2003, received a record 443,000 visitors over the summer, a more than 60 percent increase over 2009. Innovative and largely free public programs, plenty of historic charm, and spectacular harbor views are transforming the island from a well-kept secret to one of New York’s most exciting civic spaces.

The following Q&A with Pirani was conducted by Laura Cronin, director of the Toshiba America Foundation.

Laura Cronin: For those who have not yet had the pleasure of taking the ferry out to Governors Island, can you give a brief description of what people will find there?

Robert Pirani: Governors Island is just a seven-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn, but it truly is a world apart. The National Landmark Historic District on the island features massive stone forts that defended New York after the Revolution and nineteenth-century Federal and Victorian-style buildings that housed generations of military families. The two-mile waterfront esplanade is a mecca for car-free walking and biking, and offers fantastic views of the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and rest of the harbor. Acres of shady lawns make it a great spot for a lazy summer picnic.

The Trust for Governors Island -- a city-led development corporation -- and the Governors Island National Monument have invited a wide range of partners to help create programming for the island. As a result, the island is becoming a venue for innovative art and creative public events. It's also an ideal platform for programs that showcase the harbor and its evolving role in shaping New York's economy and ecology.

LC: Nonprofits and private grantmakers seem to have had a rather large role in shaping the still-evolving plan for the island. Can you summarize that history for our readers and explain where the Governors Island Alliance fits in?

RP: The Regional Plan Association created the Governors Island Alliance when the Coast Guard announced it was quitting the island in 1995. Since then, we've worked with our coalition partners to help ensure that the island is returned to New York and is reinvented as a great civic space. We raised the island's profile at a time when few people were aware of its value and helped define the public interest through community workshops, hearings, and advocacy.

Our initial catalytic role is evolving. The terrific work of the Trust for Governors Island and the National Park Service in planning and programming the island's park space has already made the island a part of the city's recreational fabric. And the alliance contributes to the process by creating opportunities for visitors to become a constituency in their own right through on-the-ground stewardship as well as supporting continued public and private investment. For example, our volunteers and interns -- including students from the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School -- greet visitors to the island and survey them about their experiences on the island. We host corporate outings and day camps, and we introduce these groups to partners like the Added Value community farm and the EarthMatter compost operation.

Our work is complemented by the wealth of nonprofit talent attracted to the island's unique setting. Arts groups like Figment and the Children's Museum of the Arts, environmental organizations like NY-NJ Harbor Baykeeper and the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance are just some of the groups bringing exceptional programs to the island -- and building the visibility and brand identity critical to the island's future.

Special credit is due to the J.M. Kaplan Fund, which made several early investments in the Alliance, the Harbor School, and many other nonprofit partners located on the island. Creative grantmaking, the fund's ability to convene other stakeholders, and its willingness to stick with the project over time have leveraged an enormous public and private commitment to transform the island into an a treasured amenity for future generations of New Yorkers.

LC: Although weekend visits ended on October 10, there's still regular ferry service to the island and many of those passengers will be students and artists. Can you describe what the island's winter tenants will be up to and how those projects are supported?

RP: A terrific sign of progress on the Island are the first of what we expect to be dozens of year-round tenancies. Last March, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council established a suite of year-round artist studios at their Art Center in Building 110, a former munitions warehouse. And this September, the Harbor School, a high school with a maritime curriculum, opened its doors to four hundred students in what had been the island's McKim, Mead & White-designed Island hospital. The New York Harbor School Foundation is now working on their next project: the completion of a Marine Science and Technology Center that will showcase the school's aquaculture and boat-building activities for the public. These projects exemplify what the island should be about: Programs and uses that welcome the public, connect people to the harbor, and repurpose priceless historic buildings. We're hopeful that over the next few years other donors and visionaries will step forward with similar creative proposals.

LC: What's the status of the public park? Is the plan for the park set? And when do you expect it to open to the public?

RP: In reaching an agreement with the state to take full control of the island last summer, Mayor Bloomberg signaled his intention to make the transformation of the island one of his most important legacies. The Trust for Governors Island is now working with the Dutch firm West 8 to develop plans for the island's almost ninety acres of future parkland and public spaces. A draft concept plan has been released, schematic designs should be complete by February, and an environmental review process will get under way this winter. At the same time, the National Monument folks are moving forward in implementing a General Management Plan, and we're all really excited about the 2011 opening of Castle Williams, right in time for its 200th birthday. For the first time, the public will be able to access the roof of the fort and its spectacular harbor views. The alliance worked with Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to secure the funding needed for the renovation.

Just like Central Park or Battery Park City, we expect the island to take shape over a generation. But we're hopeful that the mayor and other political leaders will be able to secure the capital funding needed to move ahead on the first phase of park improvements as well as the infrastructure needed to support additional tenancies in the historic district over the next three years.

LC: How can funders concerned about New York City, or parks, or schools get involved?

RP: One of our real delights is being able to introduce people to this unique and beautiful place. We're always happy to take people on a tour and introduce them to the island and the many hands at work in its rebirth. In addition to the organizations I've mentioned, a quick look at the alliance’s or trust’s event calendars will provide a shapshot of the other nonprofit partners active on the island this past summer.

-- Laura Cronin

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