Urban Space

How Leslie Koch Transformed Governors Island

After 10 years leading the island’s development, Koch prepares her final contribution to the waterfront destination.

In New York Bay, a few thousand feet from the southern-most tip of Manhattan sits a 172-acre ice cream cone–shaped island of rolling hills, rock scrambles, and sinuous paths. No one lives there. There are no bike messengers, taxi cabs, skyscrapers, or subway stops.

The City of New York, a place known for never sleeping, has in Governors Island a perfect foil. When viewing it from the tip of Battery Park, it’s a verdant but otherwise uninteresting span on the horizon. Such a survey passes over the office of Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island, a non-profit organization created by the city to manage the operations, maintenance, and planning of a majority of the island. Her office is situated just between the octagonal Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel Vent Building and red-and-white gantries, which tower over the main ferry dock.

A New York native, Koch had never even heard of the island until she was offered the gig in 2006. At that time, the island didn’t have potable water. Hardly anyone knew what or where it was, let alone why they should care to go there. But over the past 10 years, she has turned it from a ghost town into a cultural mecca, a sort of backyard to the entire city. This summer, the island celebrates the opening of The Hills, the final phase of its redesigned master plan by Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8. The project is finishing nearly a year ahead of schedule—thanks to an unseasonably warm winter and good management. And it’s a world apart from any other public space in the city, in large part due to the leadership of Koch.

Leslie Koch on a granite scramble at the island.

Originally known as Pagganuck (“Nut Island”) to the Lenape Indians, the island was the first landing place of the Dutch settlers when they founded New Netherland. In more recent history, just over 200 years ago, the land belonged to the U.S. Army before becoming a Coast Guard base. In 2003, the federal government sold 150 acres of it to the state for $1. The 22 acres not transferred in the sale, which make up the Governors Island National Monument, are landmarked and managed by the National Parks Service.

In early 2006, the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, the predecessor to the Trust, put out a call for development proposals for the northern parts of the island. The 10 finalists ranged from a frivolous scheme involving a Nickelodeon-themed resort complex with a SpongeBob SquarePants hotel to a more practical—winning—proposal for the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School.

Because the island isn't under the jurisdiction of the city's Parks Department, adults can play on the playgrounds and everyone can enjoy Hammock Grove. (Photo: Timothy Schenck)

Koch’s main focus was to then culturally and recreationally enliven the island and sculpt its southern half into a park. Her team declared that the park must provide “two-and-a-half hours of delight.”

The Trust invited the world’s leading landscape architects to compete for the park’s design, and following visits to 13 parks and public spaces designed by West 8, Koch decided on that firm. The Rotterdam-based practice, founded by Adriaan Geuze and Paul van Beek, developed a topographically rich, curvy master plan to be built in two phases.

Koch then tapped renowned graphic designer Michael Bierut and his team at Pentagram to design the island’s signage and environmental graphics. The font he created, “Guppy Sans,” has a softness to it, but pretty isn’t the word he’d use to describe it. “It’s certainly not an enchantment-under-the-sea, mermaid kind of font,” Bierut says, “which I think everyone would’ve been revolted by.”

Though physically detached from any borough, Governors Island unites all of New York, at least in the minds of Koch and her team. Its location—right in the middle of the harbor—is as powerful as what The Hills may grow to mean to New Yorkers. “For the past 10 years, America—especially New York—has been experiencing a sort of ‘urban renaissance,’” Geuze says. Governors Island plays a major role in the city’s new relationship with the water. The ferry ride, however quick, turns the park into a destination, inviting visitors to an off-the-clock respite.

“The New York harbor is so astonishing, so special,” Geuze says. “The island as a park hardly needs to be designed.” A visit to the island, though, reveals his very intentional design. Starting with land he likens to a pancake, Geuze and his team planned a landscape of undulation and height to unite the sky with the harbor. Manhattan’s skyline—the main star of the park—poses effortlessly as the backdrop. The Hills, which range from 30 to 70 feet in height, were created using clean-fill, recycled material from demolished obsolete buildings on the island’s southern side. Some slopes are laid with granite scrambles made of the island’s old seawall; another hill has slides running down it.

While the design uses topography to embrace the views and entertain, it also secures the future of the park. Lifting the trees and bushes above the projected flood levels protects their root zones from being killed by salt water—a very “Dutch way” of tackling the design, as Geuze notes. Development was just over four years in when Hurricane Sandy devastated the Eastern Seaboard, putting the design to a very unfortunate but very real test. The fill for 30 acres of the first phase was in place, but nothing had been planted or groomed. Koch describes it as a moonscape. The construction crew had parked its machinery at the highest point, which was then located in the island’s 10-acre Hammock Grove. There was no flooding or pooled water after the storm. Construction resumed 48 hours after Sandy had passed; phone service was restored to the island in 363 days. “Sandy showed us this was really the right approach [to design],” Koch says.

While West 8’s park design has now been eight years in the making, Koch has wasted no time culturally activating the island. From day one, she has been experimenting. Her guiding question: What would happen if we just said yes?

A view of the Statue of Liberty from The Hills.

As it turns out, a lot. Before the island opened for seasonal public access in 2004, New York wasn’t truly the city that had it all. It didn’t have space for, say, unicycle or kite festivals, Civil War reenactments, or a pavilion design competition and exhibition. Now—12 years later, when the island’s annual visitor count has risen from 8,000 that inaugural year to more than 450,000 in 2015—it does. Each festival, pop-up art gallery, and installation on the island started as an idea proposed to the Trust, which doesn’t provide funding or curate programming. It simply provides free space.

Year after year, Koch continues to collect ideas and take them to the field. While the island is open for season from Memorial Day weekend to the last weekend in September, there is a suggestions board that clutters up with Post-Its and sketches. And during any other time of the year, those with ideas can submit their pitches online. Koch and her team read every one of them, liberally assess the possibilities, and try to find space to give each a try. She calls this the “Spaghetti Strategy,” imaging each idea as a noodle being flung on a wall. If it’s good, it’ll stick.

The Hills from above. (Photo: Iwan Baan)

“People throw this term ‘design thinking’ around quite a bit, and I look at it with real suspicion myself,” Bierut says, jaded by words like “empathy” and “iteration.” “But on the other hand, Leslie is a great example of how you can use ‘design thinking’ effectively. When [she] iterates, she just says, ‘Okay, well what if we have a beer garden here?’ And the next thing you know people are drinking beer. There is an idea, and then it is executed. And if it works, let’s do more things like that, and if it doesn’t work, let’s learn from that. That is Leslie.”

The goal, Koch says, has always been to have Governors Island open 24/7, year round. Slowly, the Trust is working toward that, though currently the date’s unknown. And while The Hills won’t be capping off development of the island—a destination day spa will be built in the northern half, with more projects to come for the southern side—the project welcomes New York to another summer and Koch to another season of experimentation.

Stuck to Koch’s office computer is a single Post-It note. Scrawled in excited lines of red marker and signed by a kid named Michael, it reads, “You should make a mini Lego sculpture of Governors Island.” It was one of hundreds of ideas tacked onto the island’s suggestion wall four years ago. “That one,” Koch says, “we’re working on right now.”

Ligget Terrace and The Hills. (Photo: Timothy Schenck)
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