Opening Cornell Tech, the years long trek that hit Roosevelt Island out of the blue, was a lesson in community unity, but it tilted south. In many ways, it ended the original idea of Roosevelt Island as an isolated experiment. Now, it was international.
By David Stone
Opening Cornell Tech started with an abrupt change in routine…
One hot summer day in 2012, my editor sent me out to the Tram Plaza on 2nd Avenue. Our newspaper usually shut down in August because… Well, because there wasn’t any news in New York in August.
But the first step that seeded opening Cornell Tech changed that. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on a mission and sped up work on his legacy project before leaving office
City council member Jessica Lappin summoned the media for an announcement, and it was a rare press conference. We all angled for some shade in the small park under the Second Avenue Tram Plaza.
And none of us knew, as we struggled to stay in the limited shade, how consequential this was for the future of Roosevelt Island.
Lappin’s office handed out printed details as exciting as they were sketchy:
- Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Economic Development Corporation had an RFP for a pioneering college campus unlike anything before it. The school would create jobs and push New York into the lead in technological development.
- The City offered a choice of land, infrastructure upgrades and some cash as inducements to build. Putting Roosevelt Island in the spotlight was one of the land options: The soon to be closed Goldwater Hospital site.
- Outreach identified an international roster of top of the line colleges eager to win the bid and build in New York City.
Under Lappin’s leadership, we were in it for a win.
For no rational reason, I felt it was a sure thing.
On the Beat…
Until then, because I hadn’t much taste for Island politics… Check that.
My taste for Island politics soured enough that I confined most of my articles to the arts. But now, I got the leading role in local reporting for the biggest story for Roosevelt Island since its founding.
Just dumb luck. Everyone else was off enjoying summer vacations.
I’d dealt with RFPs — Requests for Proposal — at work in the past. 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 my editor knew from his days as an academic journalist and got a callback. That came after-hours on a Friday, and I carried on an interview while pacing around a friend’s apartment where I fed her cats. She was on vacation too.
The cats had a problem with my babbling on the phone and not filling their dishes with grub. And it didn’t feel like a world class journalist moment.
Feeling our way to opening Cornell Tech
Not much later, I thought I got a great jump on other reporters when I landed a meeting and walking tour with Stanford University’s public relations contact.
This was when we all knew, of course, that Stanford was a shoo-in for winning the RFP contest. Roosevelt Island would be their first and only campus outside California.
When she pushed our conversation back an hour on short notice, I wandered down to Southtown a little early, time to kill. And I stumbled on her sharing a coffee, outdoors, at Starbucks, with the Roosevelt Islander, my main competitor.
Stanford bumped me.
It wasn’t the last time he’d get the jump on me, but it was the last time Stanford did.
So, I walked around with her pretending to hear all about the Island for the first time, and 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 an achievement. And it’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 reasoned, is a residents only organization. Its constitution doesn’t cover 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. Jonathan Kalkin and Jeffrey Escobar explained the process any builder must go through when putting up anything substantial in New York City.
It had an ugly acronym: ULURP. But it was very democratic and served communities well.
This was where the community had its best chance to be part of the deal.
Did you say, “ULURP?”
Neither Kalkin nor Escobar had the bandwidth for leading the Community Coalition, and it floundered, rolling down the road with no driver.
Refusing to let the moment get away, activist Joyce Short called a meeting. There, she told a dwindling group of members they needed to pull themselves together and get to work. No more dawdling over who was going to lead.
Short’s no nonsense approach worked.
Short’s push galvanized other activists, and future meetings of the Coalition required bigger rooms and more organization.
Its key success was that the RICC pushed ahead without an isolated leader. It relied instead on a rotating team of leaders working together, creating a collective community force.
Ellen Polivy, Judy Buck, Linda Heimer, Mark Lyon and others, as needed, rallied focus, assigning logical specialties and generally clearing a lot of clutter.
Attention turned to the year long ULURP. It was about to launch and the part the RICC must play in it.
Opening Cornell Tech, the early days…
On into ULURP: Uniform Land Use Review Procedure…
Memory lines 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 for Cornell varied from the critical to whimsically bizarre. Everyone wanted a hand in or had an idea, and Cornell’s assumed deep pockets fueled imagination.
But our community’s loaded with talent. The right leaders fought their way into the right places, and Roosevelt Islanders were always there along the ULURP trail. They were unfailingly effective.
The Uniform Land Use Review Procedure
There’s a lot about New York more democratic than almost anywhere else, and the ULURP is one of them.
After winning the RFP over serious rivals — NYU, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and others — teaming up with Israel’s Technion, Cornell geared up for the long distance run called ULURP. It demands a full year before groundbreaking, and at every step along the way, there was Roosevelt island’s Community Coalition.
Residents filled up the Manhattan Park Theatre Club for a town hall with Cornell President David Skorton and his team. (Before that, The Roosevelt Islander beat me to the punch again, and I stood by as he recorded a first interview with Skorton at Roosevelt Landings.)
Questions ready, residents stepped up to the microphone with questions and comments for Cornell’s executive team until exhaustion set in.
For me, it was enlightening. You saw how cooperative Cornell was as the school sought to engage, rather than overwhelm, and how well organized the RICC was at getting serious questions out for discussion.
I was, however, dismayed when, reading my article in print, I found that someone “adjusted” the attendance upwards. Because I walked the room counting, one by one, and the printed number wasn’t right.
The RICC, I was told, wanted a higher number. It was the first, but not the last time a story changed to fit a result the RICC wanted.
So much for trustworthy journalism.
As opening Cornell Tech moves forward, Roosevelt Island Steps Up
Before Community Board 8, in hearings before the Planning Commission and the City Council, Roosevelt Islanders presented charts and calculations solidifying local concerns that needed to be met before Cornell Technion broke 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.
They brought data, calculations about barging and parking, worries over pollution and news, presenting again and again with smarts that got attention.
Larry Parnes, a resident and former Commission employee, served as an expert advisor, and he 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.
At the end of the ULURP, Cornell Tech’s final approval, announced by 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 one of New York City’s biggest initiatives in decades.
On July 17th, 2017, they and Cornell Tech opened the campus gates with the first tangible step in a triumph.
A Personal Coda…
For me, as a reporter, the final stop along the ULURP brought my role in opening Cornell Tech to a conclusion.
An article I submitted and worked through with the proofers ended up printed with major changes. These came without any warning and certainly without my approval.
Scoring points with or for the RICC, an editor doctored the article in ways that made it both dishonest and inaccurate. It was so offensive, I asked to have my byline removed.
Unfortunately, it was too late, but I refused to report on Cornell Tech or the RICC from then on. Politics and personal relations should have no bearing on what the facts really are.
And the funny thing is, the RICC did such a great job, they didn’t need artificial support. But such was how that game got played, back then.