A little island in New York Harbor long used for military defenses will soon house new defenders of the coastline: researchers, students and workforce trainees looking for solutions to climate change.
Stony Brook University’s selection this week as anchor of the New York Climate Exchange — to be located in a 400,000-square-foot campus on Governors Island and expected to open in 2028 — was met with enthusiasm for its promise of thousands of green jobs and innovations turned into profitable technologies.
But like any new venture into unexplored space, the project comes with risk and no guarantees.
“I view this as one of the investments you make in the future,” said David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation, a major Stony Brook University benefactor that has committed $100 million over 10 years to the new Climate Exchange. “When you invest in things that can spin off businesses and technologies, it’s venture capital. Of every 10 technologies you attempt to spin off, nine will fail, and one will make it very big.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Stony Brook University’s selection as anchor of the New York Climate Exchange hub on Governors Island was met with enthusiasm for its promise of thousands of green jobs and innovations turned into profitable technologies.
- The Exchange, to be located in a 400,000-square-foot campus of renovated and new sustainable construction, is expected to open in 2028.
- Students from Stony Brook and other participating universities will spend semesters on Governors Island as a "study abroad" option, one administrator said. But plans for future development of the island could meet challenges from opponents.
“You have to expect that most things you try, they work in the lab, they are interesting, but when you put them out in the real world, they don’t work,” he said. “I think if I were to guess, looking back from 2040, we’ll see that Governors Island spawned one or two big ideas and big companies."
Nonetheless, he sees the Exchange’s role in fostering innovations and training a green workforce as the “heart” of the project.
“It’s an important program that is drawing a lot of talent, and because [climate change] must be addressed, there will be a lot of opportunities," Spergel said.
He said tens of billions of dollars will be needed over the next 50 years to protect New York Harbor, and the Climate Exchange is part of that.
“One of the things this Exchange will be doing is training the workers who will be defending New York Harbor against sea level rise,” he said.
In a press conference Monday on Governors Island, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that Stony Brook University had won the two-year competitive process to anchor the climate hub. He said the plan would generate 7,000 permanent green jobs plus 2,200 construction jobs, give a $1 billion boost to the local economy, and reach thousands of K-12, college and graduate students with educational programing and an expansion of the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, a public high school.
'A magnet for talent'
The emerging clean-energy economy — including offshore wind farms, solar energy, electric transportation and green construction — has business leaders enthusiastic about the Exchange’s potential impacts on the region.
Combining resources and talent from leading New York City and Long Island institutions is “just a game-changer,” said Matthew Cohen, president and chief executive of the Long Island Association, a regional business group based in Melville.
He cited cutting-edge research already underway at Stony Brook, the Brookhaven National Laboratory — which is co-managed by Stony Brook and is on its Climate Exchange advisory board — and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. And he noted companies from abroad and other states already were investing money and resources into Long Island, which would only be magnified by the Exchange.
“Do I think it will be a magnet for talent from around the world? The answer is a resounding yes,” he said. “It only enhances the entire downstate region. This further puts us on the map.”
Matthew Aracich, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk counties, said the “benefits of this project begin the moment shovels break ground. Once built, the green energy innovations pioneered on Governors Island will positively affect the entire downstate region.
“Any project that will create thousands of local union building trades jobs will have major positive economic and workforce development benefits,” he said. “As two-thirds of our affiliated local unions are shared with the New York City Building Trades, there will definitely be Long Islanders working both as journeymen and apprentices on this project.”
Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council — and an alumnus of Stony Brook University — also was supportive of the Exchange’s mission, saying it addressed the climate challenge on multiple fronts. Research, green jobs, training and “proving concepts of resiliency and natural coastal barriers are all a piece of the solution, and that’s what the new plan envisions.”
He sees the Exchange’s location on an island as a feature as it confronts the rising seas and more intense storms attributed to the effects of a warming planet.
“It’s a good place to locate a new center that can have both research and job training. They’re on the front lines of coastal resiliency. So, it’s a plus.”
He noted that while concern remains in any coastal area, the federal government had made significant upgrades to the island's protections before transferring it over to state control on Jan. 1, 2003, including creation of natural barriers, elevated construction along the shore, and berms.
Governors Island was a military post and later a major command headquarters for the Army from 1794 until 1966, when it was transferred to the Coast Guard, which left in 1996. The state opened the island to the public before handing control to New York City in 2010.
'Study abroad' option close to home
Kevin Reed, associate dean of research at Stony Brook and a professor in its School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said details on projects and research topics will be developed in the coming “months and years.” They will represent new approaches and initiatives and will not replace work already underway on Long Island.
But work done on Long Island, such as research into coastal resilience and bay restoration, could inform future approaches on Governors Island, he said. And students from Stony Brook, as well as from other participating universities, will spend semesters on the island as a "study abroad" option, he said.
The city previously had allocated $150 million in capital funding to the project, according to Mayor Adams' spokesman, Charles Lutvak. That pairs with the $100 million Simons Foundation donation and $50 million from the philanthropy of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The consortium led by Stony Brook, which also includes IBM, Georgia Tech, the University of Washington, New York University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Pace University and CUNY, among others, must raise the rest of the $700 million development costs and ongoing funding needs.
“We obviously have more fundraising to do,” Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis said.
Stony Brook was one of three finalists to anchor the hub and was selected over proposals led by CUNY and by Northeastern University.
“We do think it was an embarrassment of riches,” including its multipronged approach that, beyond research, quickly delivers benefits to local workers, students and communities, said Clare Newman, president and chief executive of the Trust for Governors Island, which oversees the operation of the island.
Ben Furnas, who oversaw climate sustainability under Adams' immediate predecessor, Bill de Blasio, and who's now executive director of Cornell University's climate-research initiative, said: "The Stony Brook team is particularly oriented toward the way humanity interacts with water — everything from coastal protection to thinking about the future of coastal communities to offshore wind power to advanced climate projections to help folks think through the policy changes that might be needed with seawater rise or other types of coastal storm shifts."
Challengers to island's redevelopment
The Stony Brook expansion comes more than a decade after Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology were chosen to create an institute on another island in the city, Roosevelt Island, exploring technological solutions to urban challenges, including sustainability.
“Stony Brook and Cornell are both catalysts for development, from tiny islands to the city’s economy,” said Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor of urban policy and planning.
But not everyone applauds the development on Governors Island, which attracts nearly a million visitors annually to its open space, waterfront promenades, cultural events and historic buildings from its military past, some of which will be renovated for the Exchange campus.
A group called the Metro Area Governors Island Coalition has challenged what it sees as plans that ruin the island’s “uniquely welcoming openness and expansive parklands quality.”
A lawsuit by opponents of what they consider to be excessive height and density on Governors Island was dismissed last year but is being appealed, according to a plaintiff, Roger Manning.
The new campus — to include renovated and new sustainable construction with 142,000 square feet of rooftop solar panels to generate all of its power — will greet visitors arriving via ferry service at a renovated Yankee Pier and a new plaza.
Spergel predicted that the road to the projected 2028 opening will come with its own challenges.
“I think the step today is a big step, but there are a bunch of other steps, from fundraising to the challenges of doing construction on an island. And you can’t do anything in New York without someone trying to sue you,” he said.