On Roosevelt Island

For Cornell Tech and Roosevelt Island, A Shining Five Year Milestone

Updated 51 weeks ago David Stone
Cornell's Andrew Winter Listening
Cornell's Andrew Winter Listening
© David Stone for the Roosevelt Island Daily

Roosevelt Island’s Community Coalition and Cornell Tech show us how groups with different values, styles and goals can work together for the benefit of both.

 

It was a hot day in July, 2011, when my then editor at the Main Street WIRE Dick Lutz called to ask me to cover a news conference City Council Member Jessica Lappin held in the Tram Plaza in Manhattan.

Lappin announced that the Goldwater Hospital site on Roosevelt Island was a preferred location included in bidding for an applied sciences campus the Bloomberg administration hoped would attract international attention to New York.

The city’s technology profile might be transformed and carry our small community along with it to who knows where. It was both exhilarating and intimidating.

Big News, Little Island

A project big enough to sink the south end of Roosevelt Island into the poisonous waters of the East River incited a not always well-organized flurry of action.

With an award just months away and things happening fast, local residents scrambled to unify in identifying our concerns and interests, to root for our island’s success while still keeping those already here from being left in the dust as the project rolled forward. 

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was determined to have a deal in place and ground broken before he left office. That required agility, smarts and speed seldom seen in municipal projects. It required as much — and more — from residents.

Although the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association seemed the logical choice to speak for the community, its President Matthew Katz argued that RIRA’s charter allowed it to represent residents only, not the businesses and social groups that must be included in a unified effort. Central leadership must come from elsewhere.

Uncertainty wobbled along Main Street until a group, which came to be known as the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition, RICC, pretty much invented itself through the energies of a handful of residents who stepped up to fill the vacuum.

By the time Cornell, partnered with Technion, won the award winner on December 19, the RICC had already established a list of demands for community engagement and was poised to assert itself in what is known as a ULURP, the process most large new projects go through before building in New York City. 

A Mismatched Pair In a Strong Marriage

In the months that followed, I covered meeting after meeting for the WIRE. Members of the coalition showed up in sweltering churches, waited their turn in City Hall chambers and kept making their case in venue after venue.

For its part, Cornell, led by Cathy Dove, listened while not bending to every request. The truth was that they didn’t have to be as accommodating as they were. Politics were heavily on their side, and yet…

Around the time of the last step in Cornell’s successful ULURP, after a falling out with Dick Lutz at the WIRE, I stopped covering news stories until beginning to take over publishing and editing responsibility for the newspaper early this year.  

Because others had picked up the coverage, I didn’t take a long look at the Cornell Taskforce until dropping the WIRE in favor of my own, more broadly based newspaper, the Roosevelt Island Daily, late this spring.

What I found on July 25th was an harmonious resonance from five years ago, one as encouraging as anything I’ve seen on the island. Through mutual respect and rare transparency, the RICC and Cornell created a balance rarely seen in any political setting. 

It’s hard to see this quarterly engagement as political in the contemporary sense. Partners with markedly different interests have made a better match than most marriages.

Cornell’s Openness

Much of the credit for this success must go to Andrew Winter who’s lead the construction of Cornell Tech since Day One.

While both parties danced warily through the ULURP in 2012, Winter seemed a smart political operative, a veteran of the Bloomberg administration cannily angling his new employer through the bureaucratic maze. But that has changed.

At this meeting, Winter’s patience as both a listener and explainer never faltered. Having built trust with the RICC, his genuineness and soft spoken transparency made difficult answers easier to digest.

The RICC’s Christina Delfico asked pointed questions about barging in construction’s next phase, reminding him, “It’s important to us, with just the one street.”

“It’s important to us, too,” Winter responded, pointing out that Cornell had exceeded its goal for keeping trucks off Main Street so far.

Judy Berdy brought in concerns raised in Southpoint Park planning about the possibility of a fence free park. Noting the swath of green space at the campuses south end, where it abuts Southpoint, she asked, “Do you think your landscape people could talk with us about how to make that happen?”

”Yes,” he answered without hesitation.

While Jane Swanson, Cornell’s Assistant Director of Government and Community Relations, runs a refreshingly crisp and impactful meeting, it’s Winter’s disarming conviction that the school is and will be part of the community that’s key to making it all work. 

Cornell Task Force Reports

Winter’s construction updates were bookended by a pair of presentations worth noting.

First, Judith Spitz, Verizon Executive-in-Residence at Cornell Tech, outlined a public-private sector initiative, WiTNY, in which Cornell has teamed with CUNY and business partners to increase participation by women in the computer science industry.

If for no other reason, the initiative matters because even a small increase would help match qualified candidates with hard to fill technology jobs.

The other, less tangible reasons may matter more. For a number of reasons, ranging from a lack of strong role models to a discomfort with the working culture, women are missing out on the kind of opportunities that can help reduce gender-based economic equality.

Along with Verizon, companies supporting Cornell in this initiative include IBM, Citi and Xerox. The goal is to develop pathways, starting early in the education process, that ease talented women into the profession

Kate Bicknell, Senior Vice President at Forest City Ratner added context to Winter’s construction update with her own, explaining how her company’s development of what will become The Bridge at Cornell Tech. This multitiered hub is designed to facilitate creative interactions between academia and business, focusing on technical entrepreneurship. 

It’s an innovative concept, perhaps the most intriguing on the developing campus, that is just beginning to stir interest among potential partners from the business community. 

Both presentations were informative, as intended, but there was a more subtle message: Cornell is part of the Roosevelt Island community and hopes that we will be as excited at being part of this transformative enterprise as they are.

One Year to Go for Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island

The most important announcement Andrew Winter’s construction update was that everything is on schedule for the target opening next summer.

Permanent power has now been established for the site, and geothermal wells that will serve the Bloomberg Building have been completed.

Next month, facades for both the eco-friendly Passive House and Bloomberg Building will be completed. The exteriors will mature, although much interior work remains to be done.

About the Passive House, Community Board 8’s Larry Parnes suggested that it “looks like a typical Mitchell-Lama building,” not a flattering reference, but one I was relieved to hear.

Although the building has components that may strongly influence eco-friendly construction elsewhere, it’s a structure without attractive or distinguishing features outside. To me, it looks as if it was inspired by the suburban office parks sprinkled all over Westchester County.

So, the future may not be pretty, even if it’s good for us.

This fall, Winter promises that we will see rooftop PV panels and bulk barging of horticultural soil for the south end of the campus. 

Reflection: Five Years In

In 2011, when bidding for the new campus was announced, Jessica Lappin, now head of the Downtown Alliance, was our popular City Council Representative and Michael Bloomberg our Mayor. Goldwater Hospital was still operating, although already slated to close.

Ironically, both politicians are in Philadelphia this week, Bloomberg as a speaker at the Democratic Nominating Convention and Lappin as a delegate, both supporting the landmark nomination of Hillary Clinton who launched her campaign here, one year ago, on Roosevelt Island.

The world is full of surprises, and five years allows for a lot of change. Rarely does it ever go as smoothly as this one. 

 

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