Move Over, Grandpa: Cornell to Transform Sleepy Roosevelt Island Into a $2 Billion Tech Playground

Rendering of Cornell's new applied sciences and engineering campus on Roosevelt Island, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
(Courtesy Skidmore Owings & Merrill)

The good news came on Monday, as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the highly-anticipated winner of the bid to build the cities’s new applied science campus. Cornell, whose $2 billion designs were dreamt up by architectural giants Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, beat out a host of formidable competition, including Columbia, NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and institutions from around the world.

As a result, Cornell, in partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, receives an 11-acre parcel on Roosevelt Island and $100 million towards infrastructure (truly a drop in the bucket for their pricey proposal), as well as the responsibility of creating an East Coast Silicon Valley, an effort to add technology to the list of New York’s other reigning industries.

Roosevelt Island, while it may be a forthcoming bastion of technical innovation, is an area where few New Yorkers can say they've ventured. While NYU had proposed a campus in Downtown Brooklyn, Cornell will be building on a place that was called Welfare Island for a good 50-year chunk of its existence. Its current population, made up of family households as well as residents of nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, is just under 10,000 souls. A few have expressed concerns about the influx of traffic on and off the island the campus will cause, while others worry it will turn their neighborhood into a college town — it might have to, since the future school's competition in Palo Alto (Stanford), after all, was named the country's most poshest student resort. Currently, the island’s amenities include the ruins of a decaying former smallpox hospital, and more recently, a Starbucks and a Duane Reade.

Although the angular campus of metallic rhomboids looks a bit like a blinding eyesore in current videos and renderings, the winning news came as little surprise. Cornell’s proposals were simply the largest and most ambitious. At 2.1 million square feet of classrooms, labs, auditoriums, housing, and more, the institution will have the capacity to teach 2,500 students. It includes some very progressive environmental features, including solar energy and geothermal wells.  

Cornell’s main competition, longstanding nesting ground of fledgling tech superstars Stanford University, abruptly dropped out of the competition three days before the announcement and abandoned their $2.5 billion plans to reinvent the island's Goldwater Hospital campus with Ennead Architects. Whether Cornell won because Stanford dropped out or if Stanford dropped out because Cornell was going to win remains unclear. Around the same time as Stanford's withdrawl, Atlantic Philanthropies founder and Cornell alum Charles Feeney had donated $350 million (at the time, anonymously) towards his alma matter’s efforts.

“It’s certainly something that boosted Cornell’s fundraising goals, but it wasn’t the determining factor,” a project spokesperson told ARTINFO. “Cornell’s was simply the best proposal, and its plans have been made all the more possible by this large donation.”  

In addition the high hopes that this campus will produce the next Steve Jobs, or at the very least Bill Gates, Bloomberg also claims the campus will produce $23 billion in economic activity over the next 30 years and $1.4 billion in tax revenue. Construction alone is slated to create 20,000 construction jobs, and, after completion, 8,000 permanent jobs — not just for Ph.D’s — to operate it.