Thursday, September 14

you can't get there from here

On Wednesday it was reported that the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC) had scrapped every plan submitted in response to its widely publicized master plan RFP for being too expensive. (Crain's via Polis)

Home of the one of the first Dutch Settlements in the harbor, in 1698 the island was set aside by the British for Governor Lord Cornbury and the name stuck. Controlled by the military for most of its history, Governors Island served as an important strategic base for many years. More recently, the island was home to a military jail.

The southern half of the island is reclaimed land made in the 1910s with material excavated during construction of the Lexington Avenue Subway. Despite the presence of Manhattan soil, the 172 acre island only became New York property when Bill Clinton, in one of his final acts as President, designated 22 acres of the island a National Monument, setting in motion a series of events that led to the sale of most of the island to New York State and New York City for $1 in 2003.

The GIPEC, with board members appointed by City and State, requested proposals for the development of the island, receiving in response 25 plans that ranged from the visionary to the inane. (Nickelodeon helped to put together one of the proposals. Seriously.)

Whether they miscalculated when they wrote the RFP or simply didn't get any realistic proposals, the GIPEC is back to the drawing board.

A key challenge that must be overcome to stimulate development on the island will be finding a way for a critical mass of people to reach the island easily. While there's some potential in using ferries, I don't think that the system that serves the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island would work for Governors Island, which lacks a singular attraction.

At the same time, new bridges like the one to support Calatrava's gondolas are prohibitively expensive. To keep costs down, a transportation system to Governors Island must:
  1. Use as much existing infrastructure as possible
  2. Be incorporated into a network that improves NYC's transportation as a whole
  3. Be creative
Fortunately, I've got an idea which meets these criteria. So, without further ado, my homemade Governors Island Transportation Plan:

Gov Island BRTBackground Google/MTA mash-up map from, which also tells you where to find bars. Great site -- I want it for my cell phone.

As some readers may have anticipated, this is a plan for bus rapid transit, or BRT. (See previous posts The T and take the bus for more thoughts on BRT.)

The key to this plan is adapting the ventilation tower of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to provide pedestrian surface access. The ventilation tower -- the large white building which appears to stick out of the north-eastern tip of the island -- would have to be outfitted with some kind of escalator or elevator system to move people from an underground station to the surface. While this certainly wouldn't be cheap, I have trouble seeing how this could be more expensive than building a whole new bridge.

The rest of the plan is remarkably simple. It involves designating restricted lanes on the West Side Highway, Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, and Prospect Expressway for buses to create a new mass transit line. Stations could be created at locations where the route enters or exits a tunnel (Bowling Green, Columbia St) or where the line crosses a subway route (4th Ave in Brooklyn).

Besides linking Lower Manhattan to Governors Island, this would also provide a transit link to Red Hook, allowing residents of that neighborhood with a quick way to reach subway lines in Lower Manhattan or open space in Prospect Park.

Once a transit link is established, it opens the door for any number of creative development ideas for the parts of the island not protected by National Monument designation. One idea I find particularly compelling is the New Globe's vision for a Shakespearean Theater.

It turns out that Castle Williams, one of the two forts on the island, has an open courtyard with dimensions almost identical to London's Globe theater. Buoyed by an impressive list of supporters, the New Globe Theater has developed a plan featuring a new theater designed by Norman Foster inside Castle Williams. It is this sort of creative idea that could make Governors Island into an iconic place for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

I'm sure people will be able to find lots of technical problems with my transit line, and that makes sense because I'm not a civil engineer. I don't know the details of what it would take to convert the ventilation tower to some kind of elevator hybrid, but I'm mostly trying to get people thinking so I don't have to. Given the new public spaces being developed by cities like Chicago and London, the cost of inaction regarding Governors Island is too high for New York to bear. With some new thinking and a willingness to take a chance, Governors Island could become an amazing place.


Anonymous said...

I think this is an absolutely brilliant idea. Frankly, given the scale of alternative development proposals, I would think that excavating a new shaft separate from the ventilation shaft would be reasonably economical if the existing shaft can't be adapted. IVK

Anonymous said...

Terrific idea -- linking underused spaces right in the center of the metropolis.

I have a hard time, though, seeing the Port giving up even one lane of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to mass transit. A shame, really.

Anonymous said...

First, 8:20 anonymous, its an MTA tunnel not a Port Authority Tunnel. I assume you are talking about the tunnel being a MTA project. So, the MTA has to give up the revenue from the lane you take out (that will never happen) and they have to fund this air shaft elevator thing (creative though it may be). This is the same MTA that has to fund the 2nd Ave. subway, LIRR east side access, the #7 extension and various BRT projects.

The key word here is reasonable, that to which reason should be applied.

Anonymous said...

The ferries wouldn't work? Have you been to Governors Island? The ferry ride is no more than five minutes away. Wait for the island to be built out. Once people have a reason to go and discover how easy it is to get, they will use it.