Parks Get Better With Age

By Candice Monhollan

A once-abandoned island in the harbor of New York City has become one of the city’s most intriguing tourist destinations with miles of paved pathways, baseball fields, natural space, and historic buildings.

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Governors Island is only a few hundred yards from both Manhattan and Brooklyn, and is still in the midst of a long transformation process to complete the city’s vision of becoming a year-round destination for recreation, arts, and culture with commercial, nonprofit, and educational facilities.

Originally serving in various military roles, Governors Island was home to the U.S. Army and U.S. Coast Guard before closing in 1996. The 172-acre park is filled with two National Parks Service-run forts that served as the original fortification system protecting New York Harbor, and more than 50 historic buildings ready for their next chapter.

“The island used to be closed off to the public,” says David Opferkuch, Project Manager with BrightView Landscape Services. “Military service members were the only people who could experience it, and then it was just empty when they left. It was neat to see the city take it over and embrace the island, and now seeing people visit and make memories.”

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Gaining Momentum
Once Governors Island was transferred to the City of New York, the lower 43 acres were set aside for redevelopment as a park.

“A design competition was held and the Governors Island Trust chose the winning concept for The Hills and Phase One of the redevelopment project from a company in the Netherlands,” Opferkuch says. “BrightView had a smaller role in the first phase and only installed the two baseball fields.”

The Hills are four themed mounds in the southern portion of the island. The project for the newest attraction came in over budget, and the Trust turned to the landscape contractor to design-build one of the four artificial hills, Slide Hill, and to stay within the parameters of the original design and within the $1-million budget.

The initial design for Slide Hill featured rounded logs that crisscrossed for children to climb up to get to the slides. The firm modified the design by using square black locust logs to make the tiers bigger.

“We didn’t want to change the footprint of the hill because it would change other aspects around the site,” Opferkuch says. “The change of the logs and tiers would require less wood, less material, less labor, and be less intricate. Using the square logs also made stacking easier and allowed for better soil retention.”

The architect was skeptical of the changes, but by using a playground design-build company located in Canada, a 3-D rendering was created. The landscape company even flew the architect and a representative from the Trust to Canada to see a mockup.

Another change in design with the slides added an element of Governors Island’s past. The original design had the logs running underneath the slides, but the landscape firm took large granite stones from the old seawall to line the slides, which in turn serves as a buffer zone. Using the existing stones not only saved money, but also ties the hill in with other features on the island.

Of course, it wouldn’t be called Slide Hill if it weren’t for the four stainless-steel slides for children and adults to enjoy. One of the slides is 57 feet long—the longest in New York City.

“All the kids want to go to Slide Hill,” Opferkuch says. “It’s a big draw for the park and the island.”

Along with Slide Hill and the baseball fields, BrightView also:

  • Did the landscaping for The Hills

  • Installed the pathway on Discovery Hill

  • Re-graded, installed irrigation, and sodded an old, abandoned 9-hole golf course, and turned it into lush Parade Grounds

  • Added landscaping to a 4-acre site along the western side, which has been transformed into a campground.

Thinking Ahead
Any project can present its share of challenges, but Governors Island brought a new one: access to the mainland. Ferries are the only option to get to the island, and they only run every hour from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“The biggest obstacle is scheduling materials and the team members to be out there,” Opferkuch says. “What if you’re cutting logs and the chainsaw breaks? You can’t just jump into your truck and run to pick up another blade. We had to think about what could go wrong and prepare a solution by having backup materials with us.”

On top of that, the project itself was a large task in terms of the amount of plant material needed and the short time to install it.

More than 42,000 shrubs and hundreds of trees were planted, each specifically chosen because of its ability to thrive in the island’s environment.

“The job wasn’t overly complicated, but there were a lot of plants involved,” Opferkuch says. “We brought in three augers to dig the holes at a faster rate ahead of the planters. The area looked like it was covered in mole holes as we went.”

This was one of several adjustments made in order to meet an aggressive timeline; in the end, The Hills project was completed ahead of the expedited schedule and within the allotted budget.

“The key to our success was coming in with a game plan, and to constantly be planning ahead,” Opferkuch says. “The plant deliveries were brought in by the area as we got to those specific spots. We also made sure to have the right tools for the job, such as bringing in the augers or having the right saw to cut the tough black locust logs. We didn’t want to waste any time.”

The landscape outfit has been chosen to return on some of the newer projects on Governors Island as they are developed, allowing team members to revisit their previous work and see how it has progressed and become a popular location for visitors.

“It’s truly neat to see how much bigger the trees and plants are now than they were when we first installed them,” Opferkuch says. “We can sit here and watch it all grow over the years and become places where people can relax and enjoy the shade provided. Unlike buildings, which remain the same, a park like this gets better with age. It’s the best part of being in the landscaping industry.”

Candice Monhollan is the Communications Specialist for BrightView Landscaping Services. Reach her at Candice.Monhollan@brightview.com.