Atlantic Cities

What Cornell's New Tech Campus Means for New York's Roosevelt Island

What Cornell's New Tech Campus Means for New York's Roosevelt Island
Cornell University and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Today the Bloomberg administration is expected to announce that Cornell University will be awarded the right to build a vast new tech-focused campus in New York City. Cornell beat out a number of competitors, domestic and international alike, for the honor — presumably securing the award with the announcement, last Friday, of a $350 million anonymous gift that will go toward the project (we're looking at you, Andy Bernard). Its top competitor, Stanford, dropped out of the race the same day, citing an inability to reach an agreement with the city on the project (though the Wall Street Journal reports that the school "preferred to quit than lose").

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the competition earlier this year, saying he wanted New York City to have an engineering-technology program on par with those of Silicon Valley and Boston — regions that lead the high-tech industry thanks mostly to similar programs at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As the New York Times reported in April, none of New York's universities has a graduate engineering program in the country's top ten; Columbia is ranked No. 16 by U.S. News and World Report. Cornell, which already has its medical school located in Manhattan's Upper East Side, has proposed a $2 billion tech campus on Roosevelt Island if granted the award. The school, which would be created in partnership with the Israel Institute of Technology, would open in 2012 as development plans solidify.

The real winner here may be Roosevelt Island — that skinny landmass, 2 miles long and .15 miles wide, wedged between Manhattan and Queens in the East River. The Bloomberg administration has promised $100 million in city funds to the competition winner for the purpose of infrastructure improvements. Much of that will presumably go toward transportation upgrades. Right now there are few good ways to reach Manhattan from Roosevelt Island: a single subway stop along the F line, or a recently modernized air tram, which runs but four times an hour during off-peak times. Only one bridge connects the island with the city, and that via Queens; the Queensboro Bridge linking Manhattan and that borough goes right over Roosevelt Island without an exit. In other words, if you want to take a cab from Manhattan back to Roosevelt late at night, you have to go into Queens first.

The lack of a bridge to Manhattan does have its benefits. Areas of Roosevelt Island have been designated as "car-free" zones, and its small scale also makes it a natural choice for bike-share development. In 2009 a group of planning students from Hunter College put together an "accessibility" blueprint for the island. According to the study, the island's original development, which dates back to 1969, envisioned a completely auto-free environment, but since the time of that idealized vision the area has experienced problems from its "aging and neglected infrastructure." The report suggests improved pedestrian facilities, reliability upgrades to the F train, and the development of a ferry service among ways to make Roosevelt Island more navigable. It also proposes a cantilevered bike path [PDF] to improve the safety of bike riders along the island's lone bridge, as well as a 1,000-foot bicycle bridge across the East River into Manhattan:

This visionary bridge will allow residents to reach Manhattan by foot in less than five minutes, by bike in less than two minutes, relieving congestion on the tram and the F-train (these travel times are calculated using an average pedestrian speed of 2.5 miles per hour and an average cycling speed of 12 mph).  The new bridge would make biking particularly convenient, as it will make it possible to ride from Roosevelt Island to Central Park in 4-6 minutes.  The bridge will also provide an emergency access route off the Island in the event of a tram and/or subway outage.  A similar bridge, the 1,000-foot Simone de Beauvoir Pedestrian Bridge in Paris, was constructed in 2007 for 21 million Euros ($29.5 million) (Dietmar Feichtinger Architectes 2009).  Roosevelt Island’s new bridge would be required to have a center span allowing a 140-foot clearance because of the East River’s use as a shipping channel.  

That's exactly the type of thing Cornell might like: it would be attractive to prospective students (there isn't much nightlife on Roosevelt Island) and facilitate a connection with the medical campus, which is right across the river. Of course it will take a radically cost-effective design to make that happen for $100 million, but that's for the new engineering students to figure out, right?

Top image of Cornell's proposed designs for its Roosevelt Island campus, courtesy Cornell University and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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