Last week, Untapped Cities brought its readers into a special sneak peek visit into The Hills, the new park on Governors Island. On a tour given by the Governors Island Trust, we walked through the historic part of the island, through the first phase of park space that opened in 2014 (Hammock Grove and the Play Lawn), and then behind locked gates to The Hills, which opens on July 19th.
Here are some of the fun facts we learned on this tour led by Meagan O’Neil from the Governors Island Trust and landscape architect Will Johnson:
1. The Hills Will Reach 70 Feet Above Sea Level
There are four hill that make up The Hills. The tallest, Lookout Hill is rises 70 feet above sea level. Slide Hill goes up 40 feet, Grassy Hill is 25 feet up, and Discovery Hill reach 40 feet. Discovery hill will have ornamental and experimental trees and plantings and a site-specific installation by British artist Rachel Whiteread. The park is designed by Dutch firm, West 8 Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, a nice connection to the history of New York, which was settled by the Dutch.
2. The Hills Are Made of….
According to the landscape architect Will Johnson, The Hills are constructed from fill made out of the demolition of existing buildings on this part of the island, recycled materials and steel slag from Perth Amboy. The materials were blended in South Jersey and barged in to Governors Island (using 137 barges). 14 buildings were demolished on this end of the island and 100% of the materials were reused amounting to about 50,000 cubic yards.
3. The Stones on The Hills Are from the Former Sea Wall
There are two ways to get up to Lookout Hill – you can take a path that goes up on a gentle slope or walk up the an adventurous scramble of large stones. Turns out these stones were originally part of the sea wall on this part of Governors Island. When used as a sea wall, the stones that were most refined were facing out. The flat stones were used as capstones and the awkwardly shaped stones were in the back.
In the architectural design for Lookout Hill, there was a plan to use the stones but no exact layout. Landscape architect Will Johnson said that he used blocks from his kitchen renovation and did little mockups. The result is fantastic – you see it and you just want to climb up.
The new seawall is made of concrete wall and riprap.
4. The Longest Slide in New York City is at The Hills
Slide Hill, which rises forty feet, has four silver-colored slides of different lengths. The longest is the longest slide in all of New York City. As built originally, they were actually too fast so the design team had to adjust the surface to slow down the ride a little.
5. There Will Be 42,963 Shrubs at The Hills
For Hammock Grove, 15,000 trees were planted and fill brought in from upstate to form the landscape. In contrast, The Hills will have 42,963 planted shrubs in five different types of topsoil and 860 new trees. According to the Governors Island Trust, “There are 9,000 perennials, grasses and ground covers representing 28 species and varieties. The Hills alone will have 29 species and varieties of deciduous trees, 5 species and varieties of evergreens, and 20 species and varieties of shrubs and vines.”
All in all, there’s a very natural, landscape feel to this part of the island that you’ll experience on a visit here.
6. The Views from The Hills Are Amazing
This is a point we can’t emphasize enough. The view from the top of Lookout Hill is stunning. You’ll see perspectives of Governors Island that you haven’t seen before – like the full length of the former Officer’s housing building (designed by McKim, Mead & White), all 385,000 square feet of it. That’s the Chrysler Building laid on its side.
There is a 360 degree view of the lower Manhattan skyline and New York harbor, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and of the industrial ports of New Jersey. You can see many of the city’s major bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and the Bayonne Bridge. And you can see the Brooklyn waterfront, with highlights like the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the tip of Coney Island.
7. This Part of Governors Island Was Originally Formed by Excavation from the Lexington Avenue Subway
One of New York City’s many man-made locations, the southern part of Governors Island (the cone of the ice cream cone) was made from landfill that came out of the excavation of the Lexington Avenue subway (4/5/6 lines) in 1912. 4,787,000 cubic yards of fill were used to add 103 acres to Governors Island. There was 175,000 cubic yards of fill added to create the first section of the new park that opened in 2014, and 297,000 additional cubic yards added to make The Hills. In total, 472,000 cubic yards of fill were added for both phases of the new park, which would fill the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal three times (with fill left over still) or a line of 1600 subway cars streching from Yonkers to Battery Park.
8. There’s a Huge Reservoir Underneath the Ball Field
The water management system here is impressive too. If you look around, you’ll see very few drains on the ground. That’s because the whole thing functions as a stormwater management basin. Underneath the ball field, there’s a huge reservoir that was built and the landscaping is such that the water drains into this space underground. Another engineering feat for Governors Island has been the the construction of a new pipeline to bring water in from Brooklyn. During the Coast Guard era, water was piped in through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel!
9. The Hills Will Make Governors Island (and New York City) More Resilient to Storms
The part of Governors Island where The Hills are now used to be super flat, created as mentioned earlier, from the landfill excavated from the Lexington Avenue Subway. On top of that, there were 2,200 parking spots on this site.
The Hills, Hammock Grove and the Play Lawn are more than just great public amenities. These feats of landscaping will help the city be more resilient to storms through the raising of the landscape, the plantings that will help absorb stormwater, and the engineering that will help retain the water from storms. The landscaped topography has been raised to anticipate sea level rise in the year 2100 and has lifted tree roots away from the projected 100-year flood line. And back to parking, there are now just 20 spots left here.
10. This Part of the Island Used to Have a Burger King
It’s pretty well-known that Governors Island used to have a Burger King (and Motel 6 and bowling alleys), part of the amenities for the Coast Guard and visiting families. As we walked through this portion park, our guides Meagan O’Neil and Will Johnson pointed out the spot where the Burger King used to be. It was the only Burger King in the chain that sold beer. According to the Governors Island blog, a pitcher of beer was a cool $3.99 and 32 ounces went for $2.10. The Coast Guard was on Governors Island for three decades from 1966 to 1996.
In his 2016 State of the City speech, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the City would start a comprehensive redevelopment of Governors Island to turn it into a year-round destination that would combine educational, non-profit and commercial uses – an “innovation campus.” Many of the buildings in the Historic District would be repurposed and an additional 33 acres of land would be developed on the western and eastern parts of Governors Island. There’s still a long way to go though , as the redevelopment needs to go through public feedback and master planning stages.
Check out more photographs below from our Behind the Scenes tour of The Hills on Governors Island and join us for more explorations!