President’s Letter: May 2023

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

May 31, 2023

This is a story about an island, a ferry, and a subway system.

Governors Island has figured large in MAS’s work over the last several weeks, but our relationship with this 176-acre space goes back a long way.  Twenty-five years ago, MAS advocated for the transition of the Island from Federal control to local ownership, as the Coast Guard uses wound down.  I also have a long history with Governors Island because Regional Plan Association invited me to participate in a visioning charette for the Island in the mid-1990s when I was living in California.

The parallels between Governors Island and the Presidio in San Francisco fascinated me then, as they still do.  Both places were in continuous military use from 1776 until they were transferred to the public.  The Presidio transition took place in 1994.  The transfer of Governors Island to local control took place in 2003.  Both the Island and the Presidio face challenges of relative isolation and the need to drive demand that supports the land as a destination, but that doesn’t overwhelm the charm of its distance from the density of the city proper.

The MAS staff on top of a dune of shells collected from 400+ city restaurants, which will soon be turned into new habitats for New York harbor's oyster population thanks to the Billion Oyster Project.

Fast-forward to the rezoning of Governors Island several years ago and the controversies that provoked.  This month we received a presentation on the selected developer for the initial phase of the new Climate Center that the Governors Island Trust has conceived.  The proposal for the Exchange is the first significant new development on the Island.  The Exchange will largely be sited in the eastern development zone.  It is being spearheaded by SUNY Stony Brook. The partnership that SUNY has assembled is wide-ranging, from local environmental justice organizations to fellow educational institutions.  SUNY is a public university; this critical fact helps to allay some of the concerns that the development on Governors Island will be too private, turning its back on the park and other parts of the Island.  Their plan provides the possibility of knitting the Island’s north end historic buildings with new construction at the south end.

Last Thursday, the MAS Planning Team got a tour of the Island with Sarah Krautheim, the Trust’s Senior Vice President for Public Affairs.  Our trip to the Island took place on a cool but stunningly beautiful day.  First, we had a chance to see the historic area of the Island, and then we saw the park.  We stopped to take in the view of the harbor from the top of the park hill.  I have never been anywhere else where you could see the expanse of the enormous natural harbor that graces New York City.  It is a glorious sight.  And then off we went to the site of the proposed new buildings of the Exchange near Yankee Pier on the eastern side of the Island.

A little later, we joined our other colleagues for a tour of the Billion Oyster Project.  They have just hit 10% of their long-term goal of reinstating the ecologically vital oyster beds of New York Harbor. One million oysters are no mean feat! This summer we should all EAT OYSTERS FOR THE GOOD OF NEW YORK HARBOR! (But not the oysters from the New York harbor—that’s both illegal and ill-advised!)

As I mentioned, this is a story of an island, a ferry, and a subway.  One week earlier, I had been at the Harbor School for a symposium organized by the Institute of Public Architecture on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE).  I participated in a thoughtful program dedicated to finding a better future for the BQE than the polluting, community-dividing corridor we know today.  That day was rainy with a hint of that early summer humidity that none of us are looking forward to.

That day it took me 100 minutes to get from my home to my destination.  The day I set off for a rendezvous with my staff, my app was telling me it was going to take 73 minutes to get to the ferry at the Battery Maritime Building.  When I got to the subway station, I looked again, and it was still 73 minutes.  “Oh no”, I thought, I was going to miss the ferry.   I, like most of us, have become dependent on our transit apps.  I definitely count on mine.  And then my wily New Yorker kicked in… I could beat my app’s time, I was sure.   I will not bore you with the details, but just let you know, I DID!  I relied on my pre-app instincts and made it in plenty of time to get on the ferry with my colleagues.

I hope you had a chance to explore a special New York City place this Memorial Day weekend! There are so many wonderful things to do, and great places to explore.  Thanks for all your support for MAS work.  We are so thankful to have you with us!

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

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