Timothy Schenck

An interview with Leslie Koch, who has overseen the island’s transformation from a military base into a local attraction.

Starting July 19, a few new hills will welcome New Yorkers to an old island they’re still only getting to know.

The Hills, a section of Governors Island’s 40-acre park, will give kids and adults places to climb, catch a 360-degree view of the city, and take a slide down to surrounding lawns and paths along the former Army and Coast Guard base.

150 acres of the 172-acre island were transferred to New York State for $1 in 2003 (the other 22 acres are managed by the National Park Service) with then-senator Patrick Moynihan saying at the time, ''it's like getting another borough.'' Since then, the now city-run island has gradually transformed into a welcoming public place that more and more New Yorkers are adding to their mental map of the city.

Much of the credit goes to Leslie Koch, who has served as president of the Trust for Governors Island since May 2006 and will step down August 1.* Under Koch, the Trust developed a relationship with West 8, the Dutch-based urban design and landscape architecture firm (they also have a New York office) known for its award winning public spaces around Europe and North America. The firm’s co-founder, Adriaan Geuze, has given the Trust a playful, serene design that reuses a 1900s sea wall and debris from demolished Coast Guard buildings and gives users a public space that can’t be matched in New York.

A view of from the top of one of the Hills on a site visit last June. (Mark Byrnes/CityLab)

As part of the Trust’s plan to turn the island into a year-round destination, commercial activity is on its way, too. A spa is scheduled to open next year and the city hopes to receive proposals for two designated areas for development and the reuse of its historic military buildings.

While Koch will be leaving the Trust soon, her impact on the island will be noticed for quite some time. CityLab caught up with her recently to ask about the decade she spent working towards creating a fun and welcoming Governors Island:

What was Governors Island like when you first took the job?

I grew up here and I had never heard of Governors Island until I was offered a job to run it. A grand total of 8,000 people visited the year before [2005].  It was very quiet. Bicycles weren’t allowed. Only the historic district was open to the public. It was filled with buildings and old sports fields.

It wasn’t even on the subway map before, right?

When we say “not on the map,” it wasn’t on Google Street View, the subway map, or in anyone’s mental map of New York. It had been a military base so the average person wasn’t allowed there. The only history was for the military.

What was the process behind deciding how the island needed to change?

I started in May of 2006 and there had been a development request for proposals that had already been issued. So we were evaluating and that included the possibility of a master developer taking over the development of the island. I went out to talked to people and it was important to be completely open to what people had to say because there are plenty of passionate people who were children of the military on Governors Island who will definitely tell you it’s not a blank slate. But for everyone else in New York, it was.

That October, we adopted a strategy that would end up guiding everything we’ve done since then. We were picking a team, not a rendering. It was really focused on activating the island with public uses, making it a place people want to go to on a Saturday. We’re not a conventional park. We’re also not a museum nor do we aspire to be a cultural institution, but we do live in a city where a lot of people make culture and want to experience culture.

We wanted to come up with a transformative design. The deed of transfer from the federal government said that you have to build a park south of what was called Division Road. So I called someone who was considered an authority on parks and I said, “I want to do this competition and hire a great landscape architect.” And he said, “Well, I got two names for you: Frederick Law Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.”

So, our park had to be extraordinary because we were competing with the Olmsted parks. Brooklyn Bridge Park didn’t exist yet. The High Line was only starting construction. Olmsted was how people thought about city parks at the time, and they were meeting everybody’s needs.

More fundamentally, we set out with specific goals about what our park needed to be and what it needed to do for New York. It was not a conventional design competition, nor was it a traditional government tender offer with lots of bureaucratese—one of the official goals was that the park had to “provide two hours of delight.” The park we wanted would have to immerse people in the views of the harbor, create a great promenade around the perimeter, and then create a place that New Yorkers would return to again and again. This needed to become an authentic part of New York.

What about West 8 stood out to you in this process?

I was very concerned about a scheme that couldn’t be realized, so one thing that was really important for me was whether or not it could actually get built as opposed to just being rendering pornography. With West 8, there’s an almost crazy mix of vision and pragmatism in their work. We think of that as being very Dutch, but it’s what drew me to Adriaan.

Adriaan Geuze (left) inspects one of his “Hills” during a site visit last month. (Mark Byrnes/CityLab)

I met Adriaan almost 10 years ago. He owns the vision but behind every little detail is a collaboration. And in our case, the public was at the table the whole time because we spent a lot of time listening, observing, improvising, and then seeing people’s reactions to things we were trying.

The ultimate reason we hired West 8 was that they had exactly the right balance of designing for people and creating a one-of-a-kind place. Parks are about nature but they’re also about what people do in them. There’s a tendency in conventional park planning to provide a grid of activities that dictate which activity you get to do where. And then there are designers who have a great sense of landscape but no sense of how people want to use a park. People aren’t going to visit just to admire the native grasses.

Adriaan responded to those goals and did us one better by coming up with the Hills. He gets 1,000 percent of the credit. That was not in our imagination until we met him. It really does have that sense of the panoply of New York—you’re standing on top of the hill and seeing everything from the sea to the sky.

Were there any big ideas that got pushback or were taken off the table?

Not really. The Hills are 10 feet shorter than they were originally going to be but I don’t think that affects their experience at all. We spent a lot of time discussing and measuring that. Adriaan has done beautiful beading works in other parks, but they proved to be too expensive for our project. So there’s a corner of a park where I miss seeing that but I don’t think anyone else does. I actually feel better knowing there was something we didn’t build.

There are so many recently built parks and landscaping projects in New York. What will make West 8’s work on Governors Island stand apart from the High Line or Brooklyn Bridge Park 30 years from now?

The park is only 40 acres including the Hills, but you really feel a sense of openness. You’re accessing the water, the sky, and seeing the city in a completely different way. That’s something people talk about with the High Line, that you’re up at a different level seeing the city, but this is at an even grander scale.

The High Line and Brooklyn Bridge park have a relationship with the water, but when you experience Governors Island on the ground—all of the programing, food, everything in the experience—it’s also capturing the openness the site. I think that when you come in 10 years, you’ll know that we tried some swings on Picnic Point and that gave us the courage to create play areas without fences. You won’t necessarily know the origin of it, but you’ll feel that we’re allowed—as adults—to climb the climbing structures. The scramble up the hill was built expressly to create a path for kids but it’s also for adults.

A concrete-cast piece by Rachel Whiteread, meant to resemble a wooden shack, sits on one of the Hills. (Mark Byrnes/CityLab)

With Olmsted parks, they just feel natural when you’re there over 100 years since they were built, and that’s what great design is. It’s way too early for us to say that about Governors Island, but I remember the first day in 2014 when we opened up the first 38 acres, turning on the spray fountain and sitting there in disbelief. We had been working on this park and all of a sudden it came to life and everybody was doing all of the things we had been talking about in design meetings and they just did them because it made sense. When people don’t sit on the benches because they’re not comfortable, or when anything else in a design doesn’t work, the public will vote with their feet. And in a worst-case scenario they neglect them, so that’s the test. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to yhe Hills when it opens and in the years following to see how people are using those spaces.

What comes next for Governors Island after the Hills open?

We’ve stabilized the historic buildings and the next step will be the opening of the first commercial tenant—a destination day spa which will be a mini campus inside three historic buildings. The opening of the spa and the rents that they’re paying to the Trust will allow us to dramatically expand ferry access to Governors Island. We’ll go from being open 120 days a year, with ferries leaving every hour until 6 p.m. on weekdays, to being open 365 days a year with boats every 20 minutes.

That’ll change the public experience on the island. You’ll be able to come out on a blustery winter day to go to the top of the hill. It’s going to be a more appealing place for non-profit and commercial organizations. We already have students and teachers going to the harbor school every day; we have artists who work year round in the artist studio program. The goal and the vision has always been for Governors Island to be a place where you can come to work, study, and eat: for the island to be a part of New York. These are the building blocks for that vision.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Leslie Koch had left her position in June. She will retire in August.

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