On Roosevelt Island, Cornell and the city host a feel-good meeting about a university expansion

Goldwater Hospital (Dan Rosenblum)
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“Just imagine as you come over on the tram from Manhattan, and you look south at the 11 acres that you’ll see,” said Robert Steel, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development.

Steel, one of the leaders of the Bloomberg administration's attempt to attract a technology campus to the city, went on to describe the coming transformation of Roosevelt Island’s soon-to-be disused Coler-Goldwater Hospital into Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute with 2,000 students, 250 staff and 2 million square feet of space.

Steel, along with other officials and representatives of Cornell, were addressing a town-hall meeting of 150 people who had come to learn more and weigh in on the Cornell plan. Earlier, Steel asked the room to consider that the selection process had only taken 54 weeks, from sending out the first requests for proposals to announcing Cornell as the winner last December.

“When you think about it, this one of the single largest investments ever made by an American institution of higher learning anywhere, anytime,” Steel said. “When you study higher education in America, people are building, but it’s almost always outside the United States. People are going to the Middle East, they’re going to China, other parts of Asia as people around the world recognize the value of American higher education. In those situations, those locations are paying all the expenses for the schools to go there. That’s not what’s happening here.”

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While the city donated much of the land south of the Queensboro Bridge and $100 million, Cornell is raising $2 billion to fund the project. It’s part of larger initiative, from the administration's perspective, to lure engineers and people with technology backgrounds to the city to grow the local tech sector.

Demolition of the Goldwater Hospital should start next year and construction will then begin on the first building on campus, due to take on its first students in 2017. After that, academic buildings, apartments and a conference center will rise. Officials expect the final campus, what they call “full build,” in 2037.

(Steel said the city would help prepare a "tableau" for Cornell to start building, but there was no word on whether that involves the island's space-age pneumatic garbage collection system.)

“We’re in a listening mode,” Cornell president David Skorton told the room. “I mean really listening. I don’t mean that we’ve come here with all the decisions made. Most of the specific decisions have yet to be made and we want to work with you and listen to you and listen as partners.”

The recently named heads of T.C.I.I., dean Dan Huttenlocher and vice president Cathy Dove, introduced the plans and took on many of the questions. They said nearly everything else is still being discussed from the architect of the first building, campus amenities, the street-grid and parking. In fact, after Dove showed the proposal’s glassy rendering, she said, “the campus will not look like this when it’s done.”

(Though there were four Cornell officials sitting at front, there didn't seem to be any representatives from Technion.)

Huttenlocher said to keep to their quick development schedule, T.C.I.I. operated more like a start-up tech company than a university.

“And those of you who know about start-ups, start-ups need to be nimble and quick and move fast. Neither universities or governments are known for that,” Huttenlocher said.

He credited the Bloomberg administration for the rapid-fire schedule.

“They went from not understanding about universities to being some of the world’s experts about universities and what universities could do in six months," he said. "I’ve never seen anything like it. A-plus, and I don’t give A-pluses too easily. I’m one of those B-plus kind of graders.”

Huttenlocher said they expect 30,000 to 120,000 permanent jobs over the next three decades, and coined another technology district for Silicon Island to sit upon.

"We view the F train as sort of a technology corridor in New York City,” he said. “If you think about Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, the tech companies there, then coming up 6th Avenue, you’re heading near Union Square and Chelsea and Flatiron with a lot of tech companies. And then here, where there’s going to be a new tech campus, and then into Long Island City, Queens, where there’s an incredible opportunity for the companies that will spin from on this campus to locate themselves and build the… economic development in Western Queens.”

The mood at the meeting was a stark contrast with the angry tone of meetings about N.Y.U.'s plans in the Village, or about Columbia University’s Manhattanville expansion.

Perhaps the noisiest dissent was from one woman who handed out fliers on behalf of a group decrying Technion’s role in developing weapons for the Israeli army against Palestinians. She was told to hand them out outside and she came back in soon afterward, without the fliers.

Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association president Matthew Katz read some questions from audience members, including concerns about crowded transportation (they would take a serious look), hiring local employees (Cornell would try) and whether Cornell would preserve a group of historic W.P.A. era murals at the Goldwater Hospital (they would restore them).

By 8:20, many audience members seemed satisfied, or at least tired, and some of the chairs emptied as Katz read a question about oceanography.

Representative Carolyn Maloney said their time was up.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the end of questions, it’s just the beginning," Katz said.

Afterward, people walked to the front crowded the leaders with more questions and accolades. Dove, who moved to Roosevelt Island in January stood with an ever-growing number of business cards in her hand.

“It’s funny because I have a daughter who lives in Brooklyn and her boyfriend is a native New Yorker and he had never been here," she said. "And when he first heard Roosevelt Island, he said, 'Are you kidding? It’s the other end of the world.' Well now, he wants to live here. It’s just a great place, not a lot of New Yorkers know about it.”

On their way out, a married couple and residents’ association members Helen Chirivas and Russell Fields said they were happy to see Cornell reach out and offer a minimal-impact approach to the community. Fields, a resident for 30 years, said he hoped Cornell could use solar energy in their plans and they contrasted Cornell’s plans with other contentious expansions.

“We think it’s an addition to Roosevelt Island,” Chirivas said. “It’s a positive, we’re getting a good thing to come to us, to our little island, rather than that we’re losing something.”

Chirivas was enthusiastic about the 25-year plan.

“I’m really looking forward to it," she said. "I think it’ll be a fantastic addition, and I hope I’m still around by the time it’s built out.”