Community in Transition

On Roosevelt Island, Center of Gravity Shifts South

David Stone
The Future East Drive with 59 New Trees along Cornell Tech
The Future East Drive with 59 New Trees along Cornell Tech
Photo Courtesy of Cornell Task Force

The center of gravity, the place that draws people the most strongly on Roosevelt Island, has begun shifting south. By this time next year, with Cornell Tech's first phase up and running, the transition will be permanently in place.

What was once forgettable land south of the Queensboro Bridge, a dilapidated hospital, mounds of discarded fill, the Renwick Ruins and rough fields where a massive prison once stood, is now a remarkable space on the cusp to becoming a world class destination.

Years ago, when a friend was looking to move within New York City, I talked him into giving Roosevelt Island a try. Unfortunately, he came to visit by tram, and instead of marveling at the graceful glide over from Second Avenue, he and his wife were disappointed by what they took to be public housing and parkland left untended south of the bridge.

They found a place in Brooklyn instead.

All that changed, first with the development of Southpoint Park, then with the opening of FDR Four Freedoms Park, venues that, combined, offer visitors as well as local residents experiences they can't find anywhere else.

We always appreciated our unique location in the East River, how our rocky sliver of an island tucked itself into a unique groove in the urban landscape. To some extent, we jealously guarded it, torn between wishing to protect our secret and feeling invisible to the city around us.

How This Changes a Community

In the decades since the first housing opened on Roosevelt Island, Good Shepherd Plaza and the WIRE buildings aligned around it made up the center of town. Even when Manhattan Park, the Octagon and Southtown filled out the community plan, that gravity held firm.

These days, that's more nostalgia than fact.

Although we had remarkable historic sites, from Blackwell House to Lighthouse Park, until FDR Four Freedoms opened, we lacked any attraction worthy of drawing people from around the world. The dream of building a memorial monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his landmark address, embedded in history as his 1941 State of the Union, completed, a space that both honored the former president and welcomed community events tugged people southward.

On their way, the open spaces of Southpoint Park offered quiet lanes amid scenic views of Manhattan and of Long Island City as its spurt of growth gained an aura of graceful progress.

But what really broke the mold was the unprecedented decision to build Cornell Tech in the space where my friend mistook Goldwater Hospital for traditionally unimaginative and weatherworn public housing.

Cornell Tech will be more than just another remote outpost of what started as a land grant college and grew into an academic powerhouse with a tour de force of admired programs. Innovations arriving with it on Roosevelt Island may lead to its becoming the Ithaca-based university's most impactful operation.

Aimed squarely at the future, Cornell Tech will recognize in action, as Dean Dan Huttenlocher has explained, that technology is no longer a separate cultural thing but deeply and permanently installed as a driving, embedded force.

Even as campus completion creates a graceful introduction to the south end for the first time, it will alter both perception and fact about Roosevelt Island, moving its center of gravity permanently to a nexus of transportation and services in Southtown.

To Imagine an Altered Hometown

As we saw in presentations at last week's Cornell Tech Task Force meeting, the new campus is being architected in such a way that it will welcome visitors, not just to its own grounds, but to the parks beyond.

If the dream of a fence free Southpoint Park, as suggested by Cornell's Jane Swanson in a community meeting, is realized, you may barely feel the difference as you walk from one sculpted landscape into another, finally strolling down the slopping, tree-lined meadow at Four Freedoms.

Architect presentations make clear the intention of creating a people friendly venue at Cornell Tech, not an environment that shouts, "Academia!" at every angle. Trees will soften the pedestrian extension of Main Street curling past the Graduate Hotel and its residential neighbor, the futuristic Passive House that will become the biggest of its kind in the world on the day it opens.

Steps beyond, visitors will pass the Bloomberg Center, an academic building committed to innovation and collaboration, aspiring to be a "net zero" energy building by generating its own power from geothermal wells.

After, awaiting the next phase of construction, landscaped meadows will offer a pleasing pathway toward Southpoint and FDR Four Freedoms Parks, both of which have flourished even while construction inhibited visitors.

With the opening of Cornell Tech in the summer of 2017, restrictions on transportation fall. Red buses should resume making the circuit down to the fringe of Southpoint. Now, on warm spring days, they will pass brightly flowering cherry trees on both sides of the island, as illustrated above.

It's impossible to imagine these developments not shuffling the deck of perceptions about Roosevelt Island. Because development of longstanding assets like Blackwell House have been so badly neglected, the traditional center of town surrendered its advantages.

It's not too late to gain some traffic for the shops and services around Good Shepherd Plaza, but as no clarifying vision for Main Street exists, that won't happen easily or soon. After years of exhortation, RIOC continues its failure to provide so much as a single sign or set of directions for arriving visitors to find destinations north on Main Street.

Once the community's center shifts to Southtown, where there's a hardy lineup of eating places and transportation along with the gateway south into Cornell Tech and the parks, it isn't likely to shift back. It's not so much that pride of place has been lost as it is that it will be won by the soon to open campus, FDR Four Freedoms and Southpoint Park, which are set to define Roosevelt Island for decades ahead.

 

Comments powered by Disqus