City Hall Picks a Winner

Cornell University and its partner, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, have won a highly competitive, global competition to develop a 21st-century engineering school on Roosevelt Island. But that’s not the only good news to emerge from Mayor Bloomberg’s visionary plan to transform the city into a hub of 21st-, and 22nd-, century technology.

Along with details of Cornell-Technion’s winning bid, the mayor announced that, in essence, he’s not done yet. The city still is negotiating with several other academic institutions, including Columbia University, Carnegie-Mellon and a consortium that includes New York University, to develop other initiatives in applied science in Harlem, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and downtown Brooklyn, respectively.

The mayor was not exaggerating when he described these developments as a “defining moment” that will prove to be “transformative” as the city recreates and reimagines itself as a leader in the technologies that will define the next century—and beyond.

That transformation, it would appear, will not be restricted to Roosevelt Island. If negotiations with the other academic institutions prove productive, huge swaths of the city could benefit from the financial and intellectual investments inspired by the mayor’s Applied Sciences initiative.

That said, there’s no question that Cornell-Technion will be leading the way. Thanks in part to the generosity of Cornell alumnus Charles Feeney, the famously reclusive billionaire and philanthropist who donated $350 million to support the partnership’s bid, Cornell-Technion will get to work immediately on a plan to construct 300,000 square feet of space by 2017—with the eventual goal of two million square feet by 2037 (this surely is a long-term project). When completed, the facility will be home to 2,500 graduate students and nearly 300 faculty members.

Incredibly, the Cornell-Technion plan calls for classes to begin in the fall, albeit in a temporary location. The program’s future students will have the benefit not only of Cornell’s expertise and reputation, but that of Technion’s as well. Although Cornell’s partner may not have instant name recognition in New York, it is a leader in Israel’s high-technology industry and has a proven record as an incubator of cutting-edge research and development.

Overall, the Cornell-Technion plan calls for an investment of some $2 billion. That includes $150 million dedicated to supporting local businesses as well as math and science programs for 10,000 city kids. The plan will create 20,000 construction jobs and tens of thousands of other jobs in hundreds of new businesses that will be created as a result of the Cornell-Technion investment. The cost to the city? Some $100 million in infrastructure improvements and the value of the land on Roosevelt Island that the partnership will occupy. Not a bad deal.

New York overtook its commercial rivals in the early years of the 19th century because it had the vision and determination to build the Erie Canal.  Now, two centuries later, the city once again is seizing an opportunity to not simply gain a competitive advantage over rivals, but to reimagine itself. The days when Roosevelt Island was an afterthought, indeed, a place of exile for sick and the discarded, are long over. The days when the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed thousands of blue-collar workers similarly belong to the city’s industrial past.

Now, these locations—and perhaps others—are on the verge of a radical and welcome (and long overdue) transformation thanks to the vision of political, academic and business leaders.

It’s often said that we simply don’t have the kind of leaders who made New York great so many decades ago. But 50 years from now, New Yorkers will look back with awe and affection when they consider the creativity and daring of those leaders who, in 2011, saw the future and made certain that New York was not simply a part of it, but helped to shape it.