2012-03-14 / Features

LICP Hears Details Of Roosevelt Island Science Campus

BY THOMAS COGAN


Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert K. Steel. Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert K. Steel. On March 7, the Long Island City Partnership welcomed Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert K. Steel to its business breakfast. In the Queensboro Room of the MetLife Building on Queens Plaza North, Steel told a large audience about the Cornell University graduate science campus that is to be built on Roosevelt Island. He described the history of the science campus project, which got its start a year ago last December when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg “challenged us”, in Steel’s words, to come up with a way to attract information innovators. Steel said the mayor reasoned that New York should certainly be able to provide a favorable atmosphere to information innovators in the way that it has for centuries been favorable to industrial and financial innovators.

New York City had several points in its favor when initiating the appeal to innovators, Steel said. First, it has a strong quality of life; second, it has a probusiness environment, with largely “sensible regulation”, and, he added, a “tension” between business and the regulators. There is a good basis here for what he called “investing in the future”, with sound infrastructure, transportation and services; and finally, there is also a great spirit of innovation and economic transformation. Steel also repeated the notion that New York could be considered a “college town”, having a greater number of post-secondary students than the population of Boston, a city often cited as a stronghold of higher education. Then, he said, it tried appealing from weakness too, saying that the city needed a science campus because its spirit of innovation and exploration, however vaunted, needed to become more appealing to science and engineering. In New York, the number of engineers in the workforce is only a quarter of the number in California’s Silicon Valley.

In December 2010, an RFEI or request for expressions of interest, was issued to a long international list of higher education institutions, and many responded. In the summer of 2011, the city made an RFP, or request for proposal, to a short list of candidates, saying that it would finance the campus measure up to $100 million and offer one of three spaces where a campus could be established: the south end of Roosevelt Island, a part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or a parcel in Staten Island. The RFP included an option for a candidate to make its own choice of space. In October 2011, interviews commenced between the city and the seven finalists. The city also sought advice in the matter from institutions such as Princeton and the University of California that were not in the competition. During the interviews, the city stressed that the desired effect was that the chosen institution become part of New York City, not merely attached to it. In December 2011, a year and a week after the RFEI went out, the entry presented by Cornell University and Israel’s Haifa-based Technion Institute was the winner. Cornell immediately chose the 11-acre plot on Roosevelt Island as the site of the new campus, a benefactor who contributed $350 million with the stipulation that it must build there providing further incentive.

Steel showed an illustration of the campus buildings as currently imagined on the site of the old Goldwater Hospital, though he said no architects have been chosen yet. Ultimately the buildings and grounds will be built out to two million square feet and employ a total of 8,000 workers. The deputy mayor stressed that there would be a connection to thousands of other jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars financially from the city’s $100 million investment. The first students will begin classes this fall, though the first phase of campus construction on Roosevelt Island will not be completed until 2017, with further expansion to be carried out for a decade after that. Steel called this a splendid combination of capital, real estate and talent which can be seen developing frequently, all over the city. He likened the Roosevelt Island venture in informational technology to the development of aviation technology in the 1940s.

Steel was asked if benefits were extended to any of the six runners-up. He answered that three of them, Carnegie Mellon University Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and two local institutions, Columbia and NYU, were dealing with the city on smaller projects. Eric Baard, a devotee of the city’s waterways, asked Steel if the Roosevelt Island project has considered the maritime connection between Queens and Roosevelt Island. The deputy mayor replied that there is a “triangle of interest” between Roosevelt Island, Western Queens and Hunters Point, next to Newtown Creek, and that the city plans to develop the waterfront beyond the current East River ferry experiment, conclusions about which will be disclosed when the ferry’s one-year trial is up. As for Roosevelt Island itself, he said the only dockable side is the one facing Queens, so Baard and others with a developed interest in the Queens shore of the river can work toward a boating connection to the island.

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