On March 4, 2011, a team of high-ranking Cornell administrators gathered in lower Manhattan, walked two blocks south and boarded a ferry. With less than two weeks until their initial proposal was due in the high-profile tech campus competition, University representatives were meeting with New York City officials to visit prime real estate.
Surprising, perhaps, is that their destination was not Roosevelt Island — the small strip of land between Manhattan and Queens on which Cornell will construct its $2 billion applied sciences campus — but Governor’s Island, a smaller island just south of Manhattan.
Although Cornell is now wed to Roosevelt Island for 30 years , the matrimony was far from inevitable, according to emails and documents about the tech campus recently obtained by The Sun through a Freedom of Information Law request.
In fact, when first considering where to propose its new school, months before submitting the final tech campus proposal, the University may not have even considered Roosevelt Island a potential suitor.
On Feb. 8, 2011, the documents show, New York City officials hosted an event from 6 to 8 p.m. in a wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art to explain the Mayor’s vision. Hors d’oeuvres and drinks were served, and afterward, the museum offered its collegiate guests an optional tour of a Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel, in the Greek and Roman galleries.
Cornell skipped the artwork, but did participate in two group site tours for potential tech campus locations: the Navy Hospital Campus at the Brooklyn Naval Yard and the Farm Sanctuary in Staten Island.
While much of the focus on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tech campus competition has centered on what the universities stand to gain, several New York City neighborhoods had perhaps as much at stake. On Monday, Bloomberg announced that New York University, in conjunction with other universities, will build another tech campus at 370 Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn.
Until at least January, the Brooklyn Naval Yard — an old industrial complex in north Brooklyn — had been pursued by Carnegie Mellon University as the location of its own bid for an applied sciences campus in New York City.
The site clearly held some appeal for Cornell as well. In an email Friday, Provost Kent Fuchs confirmed that the Brooklyn Naval Yard had been a site the University had looked into before ultimately rejecting the location.
He also confirmed that the University had explored the Governor’s Island site before deciding that, like the Naval Yard location, it was not the ideal location of Cornell’s tech campus.
“We decided that Governor’s Island and the Brooklyn Naval Yard were great sites for a campus that might start 10 or 20 years from now, but not one that needed to start as soon as possible,” Fuchs said, adding that if the site is still available then, the University might be interested in creating a tech campus at those locations.
Now, however, the main drawbacks of those alternate locations are their lack of access to consistent transportation and local housing, Fuchs said. He noted that Governor’s Island only has intermittent ferry access to Manhattan and no train or bridge access.
“Access to Governor’s Island in particular will improve over the next 20 years, and will be at that time be a good site for a campus, but not yet,” Fuchs said.
By contrast, Roosevelt Island provides immediate access to transportation and local housing, Fuchs said. It is also closer to the Weill Cornell Medical College — an important factor for the University, Fuchs said.
Despite Fuchs’ expressed concerns about the Brooklyn Naval Yard and Governor’s Island, as late as May 2011 the University said it was amenable to other possible sites for the tech campus.
“We are open to considering alternative locations that the City might propose that would require less capital investment by both NYC and Cornell,” Provost Kent Fuchs wrote in an email to Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, in May. “Location is critical — a successful location must be integrated into the fabric of the City, have excellent subway access and … provide proximity to and be a destination for industry and customers critical innovation.”
Additionally, in an email sent from President David Skorton to Pinsky in November, Cornell expresses its willingness to expand to the Brooklyn Naval Yard as a “satellite commercial location.”
“While we think there is value to having some commercial space proximate to the academic space, we strongly support the notion of helping companies that are ready to expand find affordable space in New York City and are open to the establishment of a satellite location at the Navy Yard,” Skorton wrote. “As discussed in our proposal, we see Queens and particularly Long Island City as a great location for spin-off companies, given its proximity to and strong transportation connections to the NYC Tech Campus.”