Cornell Tech's Campus Opening Inspires A Look Back To Its Start

David Stone

On a hot summer day in 2012, Dick Lutz, Editor at the Main Street WIRE, where I was then a contributor, sent me out to the Tram Plaza on 2nd Avenue. City Council Member Jessica Lappin had summoned the media for an announcement. None of us knew, as we struggled to stay in the limited shade, how consequential this would be for the future of Roosevelt Island.

The information Lappin's office gave out that day was as exciting as it was sketchy:

  • Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Economic Development Corporation developed an RFP for a pioneering college campus unlike anything before it, designed to create jobs and push New York into the lead in technological development.
  • The City was offering a choice of land and some cash as inducements to build. What put Roosevelt Island in the spotlight was that one of the land options was where the soon to be closed Goldwater Hospital squatted.
  • Outreach had identified an international roster of top of the line colleges eager to win the bid and build in New York City.

Intuition told me, even while Lappin answered questions from reporters trying to dodge the midday sun, that change, big change, was coming to Roosevelt Island.

Whatever school won the bid, we were in for a win.

I just felt it as a sure thing.

On the Beat

Until then, because I hadn't much taste for Island politics... Check that. My taste for Island politics had soured enough that I'd confined most of my contributions for the WIRE to the arts, but now, I got the leading role in local reporting for the biggest story for Roosevelt Island since its founding.

I'd dealt with Requests for Proposals (RFP) at work in the past, so I wasn't completely lost, but there were funky moments.

Eager to get a jump on the competition for the story, I tracked down a contact Lutz knew from his days as an academic journalist and got a callback, after hours on a Friday, and carried on an interview while pacing around a friend's apartment where I'd promised to feed her cats.

The cats clearly had a problem with my babbling on the phone and not filling their dishes with grub. It did not feel like a world class journalistic moment.

Later, I thought I got a great jump on every other reporter when I landed a meeting and walking tour with Stanford University's public relations contact who was coming for a site visit.

We all knew then, of course, that Stanford was a shoo-in to win the RFP, didn't we?

When she pushed our conversation back an hour on short notice, I wandered down to Southtown a little early, with time to kill, and got to observe her sharing a coffee, outdoors, at Starbucks, with Rick O'Conor of the Roosevelt Islander, the WIRE's main competitor.

It wasn't the last time he'd get the jump on me, but it was the last time Stanford did.

Recalling her pretending to hear all about the Island for the first time from me, I confess to a bit of sadistic glee when Cornell beat them out in the homestretch.

That's what you get for... Look, reporters have so few chances to gloat.

First Big Win for Roosevelt Island

It didn't look like much to start with, but the founding of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition was a landmark achievement that's still paying off.

It was messy.

Looking for a voice to represent the community, almost everyone turned instinctively to the RIRA Common Council and its popular President Matthew Katz. But Katz was having none of it.

RIRA, he pointed out, is a residents only organization. Its constitution did not offer any option for representing businesses or community groups that must be part of the mix. The Common Council could be a part of it, but only a part, not IT.

With no established leader in place but no time to lose, an impromptu collection of activists pulled together a first meeting - in the basement of Westview, if I remember correctly - where Jonathan Kalkin and attorney Jeffrey Escobar explained in detail the process any builder must go through - the ungainly titled ULURP - when they put up anything substantial in New York City.

This was where the community had its best chance to be part of the deal.

Neither Kalkin nor Escobar were free to lead the Community Coalition, it floundered as any vehicle would while rolling down the road with no driver.

Unwilling to let the moment get away, Joyce Short called a meeting in which she told a dwindling group of members that they needed to pull themselves together and get to work, no more dawdling over who was going to lead.

Short's no nonsense approach seemed to work.

Although Short disappeared as leader, her push seemed to galvanize attention, and future meetings of the Coalition required bigger rooms and more organization.

The key to its success was that the RICC pushed ahead without a single leader, becoming reliant instead of a rotating team of leaders who learned to work together in creating an effective community force.

Ellen Polivy, Judy Buck, Linda Heimer and others, as needed, rallied people into focus, assigning some to logical specialties and generally clearing a lot of clutter out of everyone's heads.

Attention was drawn to the year long ULURP about to launch and the part the RICC must play in it.

As Memory Has It

Memory has a way of lining up stories that make them easier to recall. The founding of the RICC was much sloppier than it sounds in the retelling. At several points, there seemed to be a good chance it wouldn't happen at all.

Long lists of demands to be presented to Cornell varied from the critical to whimsically bizarre. Everyone wanted a hand in or had an idea, and you could sense a creeping hope that Cornell's deep pockets could be accessed to answer a myriad of local needs, relevant of not.

But our community is loaded with talent. The right leaders got set in the right places, and Roosevelt Island's presence at the many sessions along the ULURP trail was unfailingly effective.

ULURP: Uniform Land Use Review Procedure

There's a lot about New York that's more democratic than almost anywhere else, and the land of the ULURP is one of them.

After winning the RFP over serious rivals - NYU, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and others - while teaming up with Israel's Technion, Cornell geared up for a long distance run through the ULURP, which required a full year before groundbreaking could begin, and so did Roosevelt island's Community Coalition.

Residents filled up the Roosevelt Island Theatre Club for a town hall with Cornell President David Skorton and his team. (Before that, O'Conor beat me to the punch again, and Lutz and I got to wait patiently as he recorded an interview with Skorton who'd commandeered a room at Roosevelt Landings.)

Questions ready, residents stepped up to the microphone to talk and listen to Cornell's executive team until exhaustion set in.

For me, it was enlightening in multiple ways. Observing how cooperative Cornell was as the school sought to engage, rather than overwhelm, and how well organized the RICC was in getting serious questions out for discussion lent excitement to the promise of dynamic town/gown unity.

I was, however, dismayed when, reading my article in the printed WIRE, I found that Lutz had "adjusted" the attendance upwards from what I'd walked the room to count, one by one.

The RICC he told me wanted it. It was the first, but not the last time Lutz changed a story to fit a result he believed the RICC wanted.

So much for honest journalism.

Step by Step, Roosevelt Island Steps Up

Before Community Board 8, in hearings before the Planning Commission and the City Council, Roosevelt Islanders stepped up with charts and calculations solidifying local concerns that needed to be met before Cornell Technion should be allowed to break ground.

At the risk of forgetting someone, an inevitable failure I confess in advance, I can't recall a single step along the ULURP trail where Linda Heimer, Judy Buck, Matthew Katz, Sherie Helstien, Ellen Polivy and Christina Delfico weren't there from beginning to end.

They brought data, calculations about barging and parking, worries over pollution and news, presenting it again and again with a force that got attention.

When they filled up the chairs before the City Planning Commission, Larry Parnes, a resident and former Commission employee, who served as an expert advisor, sported a tie with a graphic diagram of the ULURP.

You'd never have thought such a thing existed, but that's how Roosevelt Island does things.


Yes, I was there too, but I was getting paid. They weren't. RICC leaders traveled all over town, prepared and presented on their own time as volunteers.

At the end of the ULURP, Cornell Tech's final approval, announced by Jessica Lappin and City Council President Christine Quinn, flanked by RICC members, in City Hall Park, included an interlocking set of agreements between the RICC and the school that guided the merging of Cornell into the community, reaching well beyond the campus gates and into the future.

It wasn't and still isn't perfect, but the RICC showed the community what a determined group could do, even faced with challenges as large as asserting itself in the milieu of one of New York City's biggest municipal initiatives in decades.

On July 17th, they and Cornell Tech open the campus gates with the first tangible step in a triumph.

A Personal Coda

For me, as a reporter for the WIRE, the final stop along the ULURP brought my role to a conclusion. An article I submitted to Lutz and worked through with the proofers showed up in print with major "adjustments," without my awareness and certainly without my approval.

In trying score points with or for the RICC, Lutz doctored up the article in ways that made it both dishonest and inaccurate, so much so that I told him to remove my name from the byline. Unfortunately, it was too late for that, but I refused to report on Cornell Tech of the RICC from then on.

The funny thing was, the RICC had done such a great job, they didn't need the artificial support he gave them.

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