High Tech and High Design, Cornell’s Roosevelt Island Campus Opens

The final building, the Bridge, will host work spaces and classrooms for Cornell Tech in about 30 percent of the building, while the rest will be leased to companies by the building’s owner, Forest City New York. The roof of the Bridge is speckled with solar panels and a planted area.

Daniel Huttenlocher, the dean and vice provost of Cornell Tech, described the Bridge as the physical embodiment of the institution’s goal of bringing together academia and industry.

“Academic excellence here is necessary, but not sufficient,” Dr. Huttenlocher said. “You also need to be engaged with the commercial or societal aspect of your work.”

Roosevelt Island is a bit of an anomaly in New York City. It is home to just 14,000 people, and its isolation makes for very little car traffic and an unusually quiet atmosphere.

Once known as Blackwell’s Island, it was called Welfare Island from 1921 until 1973, when it was renamed Roosevelt Island.

“Mae West was in a show she wrote called ‘Sex,’ and for that she was sentenced to 10 days in the women’s workhouse on the island,” Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, said in an interview.

“The site where Cornell Tech is was originally the Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary,” she said. “I just did a tour for about 30 of their students. ‘Yes, hi! Your site was a penitentiary!’” The penitentiary was so corrupt, Ms. Berdy said, that city officials decided the only way to fix it was to shut it down and start all over again, which they did by building on Rikers Island.

The Cornell Tech site was most immediately preceded by the Goldwater campus of the Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital, which specialized in long-term care. The Coler building remains on the north end of Roosevelt Island, and the Goldwater patients were moved either there or to a new building in East Harlem.

The island’s remove now offers Cornell Tech something unusual. It is in the city, but not of it. Though the campus is only about one-third built — two other major phases of construction are to follow by the year 2037, by agreement with the city — it has the nascent feel of its own little community, as well as a grassy green where students can sprawl, and impressive views.

Beautiful as it is, being surrounded by water is taking on an increasingly ominous cast. Dr. Huttenlocher said that with potential flooding in mind, masonry from the Goldwater hospital building was ground up and the site was raised by almost seven feet, putting the height of the building entrances two feet above the 500-year flood level.

“Now, of course, with changing sea levels, those numbers are likely to change,” Dr. Huttenlocher said. “But the other way to think about it is most of Manhattan south of 34th Street is actually lower than the entrances to these buildings.”

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