Cornell’s $2 Billion Campus Fuels N.Y.C. Search for Tech Jobs

Engineering Campus
Research towers and sloping lab buildings are oriented for the most efficient capture of solar energy in this proposal for a new engineering campus in New York City. The joint proposal by Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.) and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Haifa) could be a large as two million square feet on Roosevelt Island, across the East River from Manhattan. Source: Skidmore Owings & Merrill via Bloomberg

Broad sloping buildings roofed by solar panels and swaddled in plants that filter storm water will rise on an island in New York’s East River.

That’s Cornell University’s vision for a new applied-sciences campus in New York City. The school was named yesterday as the winner of a competition set up by the city to build a facility for job-spinning engineering research -- the way Stanford University has helped seed innovation in Silicon Valley.

The question now is whether the project will run counter to the trend for spinoff jobs to flee the city for suburbia.

Seven proposals involving 15 universities were considered. Cornell’s bid was bolstered by the announcement last week of an anonymous $350 million gift to the university for the project.

Cornell, based in Ithaca, New York, worked with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa on a $2 billion proposal for a 10-acre campus on Roosevelt Island. The city offered the site free, along with providing $100 million for infrastructure work.

The project could involve more than 2 million square feet for more than 2,000 students. The first 150,000-square-foot building would generate as much power as it would use.

In Cornell’s proposal, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, people move through multilevel interior courtyards lit by sun sliding between arrays of photovoltaic panels. The courtyards become places where engineers meet entrepreneurs and new media pioneers pitch budding venture capitalists.

Since the campus will be built over a number of years, it could be shaped less by the technology of labs and more by the collaborative necessity to bend very complex teams to daunting tasks. The campus also exemplifies how much “green” design has permeated the world of technology.

Uncertain Outlook

Beyond the campus, the economic upside for New York is far from clear. The city has proved congenial to small media startups and makers of applications, but can’t compete with the suburbs’ cheaper, horizontal space once a company’s growth requires more room.

New York City is a powerhouse of medical research, for example, but much of the spinoff wealth is created in drug labs and medical-device makers that dot New Jersey’s suburbs.

And yet the intensely urban and collaborative engineering scene in New York City suggests that tech must increasingly leave isolating suburban office parks behind.

“Software and applications need the kind of dense expertise that cities are full of,” said Seth W. Pinsky, president of the sponsoring New York City Economic Development Corporation in a telephone interview.

MIT, Harvard

High-tech companies that used to locate in office parks along route 128 in Boston’s suburbs now tighten bonds with MIT and Harvard by building large-scale labs in urban Cambridge. That’s the kind of linkage New York City wants to build with the major applied-sciences institution it doesn’t now have.

New York hopes that spinoffs create such a Cambridge-style future for gentrifying Long Island City, near Cornell’s planned location. Inevitably, the spinoff would likely benefit the region not just the city. That’s fine as long as suburbs share the costs (mainly in transportation improvements).

Stanford University and City College of New York floated a 1.9-million-square-foot Roosevelt Island proposal featuring a street hanging high in the air and dubbed “the river,” but that was withdrawn last week. Other universities sought sites at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in midtown Manhattan and on Governors Island.

Falling Short

Before the competition was announced, New York University had planned to expand its recently acquired Brooklyn Polytechnic, but that campus is small and landlocked. Working with five international institutions, it bid for the new campus anyway. Columbia University offered a slice of its $7 billion expansion in Manhattanville, but winning may have required the university to shift away from its medical-research focus.

I hope the high environmental performance and the seamlessly interweaved research and educational facilities proposed by both Cornell and Stanford will spur NYU and Columbia to look anew at their feeble, innovation-averse growth plans.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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