Roosevelt Island, the skinny, two-mile-long strip of land between Manhattan and Queens in the East River, has been home to a prison, a lunatic asylum, a smallpox hospital and a workhouse, among other institutions.
It now adds high-tech university to that list, as the Cornell Tech campus is set to be dedicated on Wednesday, marking the opening of the technology-focused graduate school, which officials hope will encourage the growth of the New York City tech sector.
The campus was born of a 2010 competition started by the Bloomberg administration, which invited top-flight universities to compete to open an applied-science graduate center. Cornell University and its partner, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, were declared the winners and awarded $100 million along with a stretch of city-owned land on Roosevelt Island.
“High-tech companies and new, small companies that will be the next big companies, they tend to be created where the founders go to school,” the former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in an interview. “You see that in Silicon Valley. Here was a chance to get a bunch of people educated and create the economy of the future for New York City.”
To create that economy, Cornell Tech will offer about a dozen masters and Ph.D. programs in fields like information science and electrical and computer engineering. It has been operating out of the Google building in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan since 2012. This will be the first academic year the institution, which now has about 300 students and 30 faculty members, will have its own home.
Since Mr. Bloomberg left office, his Bloomberg Philanthropies have given an additional $100 million to the project for its main academic building, called the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center.
On the inside, the building looks in some ways like a contemporary office tower, with open seating plans for Ph.D. candidates and faculty. The rooms are dotted with soundproof enclosures that serve as 21st-century phone booths, a Cornell official said, in that they have no phones, but offer privacy, a place to sit down and little shelf for a laptop. A collection of small meeting rooms are dominated by large art installations, an idea that a Cornell official said was borrowed from Pixar.
“I was particularly pleased with the academic building, which I was able to name for my daughters,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “When we went over to take pictures, I was pleased that they were pleased,” he laughed. “You never know!”
The Bloomberg Center is one of three buildings completed so far, each with an environmentally conscious design. The Bloomberg Center aims to generate as much electricity as it uses, a concept called “net zero.” The House, a high-rise that will be a mix of graduate student and faculty housing, is a so-called passive house, which uses very little energy.
The final building, the Bridge, will host work spaces and classrooms for Cornell Tech in about 30 percent of the building, while the rest will be leased to companies by the building’s owner, Forest City New York. The roof of the Bridge is speckled with solar panels and a planted area.
Daniel Huttenlocher, the dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, described the Bridge as the physical embodiment of the institution’s goal of bringing together academia and industry.
“Academic excellence here is necessary, but not sufficient,” Dr. Huttenlocher said. “You also need to be engaged with the commercial or societal aspect of your work.”
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Roosevelt Island is a bit of an anomaly in New York City. It is home to just 14,000 people, and its isolation makes for very little car traffic and an unusually quiet atmosphere.
Once known as Blackwell’s Island, it was called Welfare Island from 1921 until 1973, when it was renamed Roosevelt Island.
“Mae West was in a show she wrote called ‘Sex,’ and for that she was sentenced to 10 days in the women’s workhouse on the island,” Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, said in an interview.
“The site where Cornell Tech is was originally the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary,” she said. “I just did a tour for about 30 of their students. ‘Yes, hi! Your site was a penitentiary!’” The penitentiary was so corrupt, Ms. Berdy said, that city officials decided the only way to fix it was to shut it down and start all over again, which they did by building on Rikers Island.
The Cornell Tech site was most immediately preceded by the Goldwater campus of the Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital, which specialized in long-term care. The Coler building remains on the north end of Roosevelt Island, and the Goldwater patients were moved either there or to a new building in East Harlem.
The island’s remove now offers Cornell Tech something unusual. It is in the city, but not of it. Though the campus is only about one-third built — two other major phases of construction are to follow by the year 2037, by agreement with the city — it has the nascent feel of its own little community, as well as a grassy green where students can sprawl, and impressive views.
Beautiful as it is, being surrounded by water is taking on an increasingly ominous cast. Dr. Huttenlocher said that with potential flooding in mind, masonry from the Goldwater hospital building was ground up and the site was raised by almost seven feet, putting the height of the building entrances two feet above the 500-year flood level.
“Now, of course, with changing sea levels, those numbers are likely to change,” Dr. Huttenlocher said. “But the other way to think about it is most of Manhattan south of 34th Street is actually lower than the entrances to these buildings.”
Source: New York Times – Art and Design