Silicon City Develops on Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island, two miles long and narrow, will soon be home to students focusing on technology. The island is preparing to become Silicon City. AP /Mark Lennihan

In the East River and in plain sight of  Long Island City and the Upper East Side is Roosevelt Island, a two-mile-long sliver of  land that many New Yorkers have never set foot upon. Aside from the constant drone of the FDR drive to the west and the Queensboro Bridge overhead, the island’s 14,000 residents live a quiet existence — one that will likely soon change.

Mayor Bloomberg is pinning the future of jobs in New York on the applied sciences tech campus to be built on Roosevelt Island and run by Cornell University and its partner, Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology. The campus won’t open until 2017, but residents are preparing for the island’s biggest development ever by forming Silicon City, a coalition group.

Silicon City will work with CornellNYC Tech, as it’s officially called, in making sure that infrastructure and transportation improvements will be made to accommodate the influx of 3,300 students and 70 full-time faculty members to the island.

“They [Cornell/Technion] want to work with the community, and we want to be the mechanism for that,” said Jonathan Kalkin, a former board member on the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) who is heading up Silicon City.

The group, made up of representatives from co-op and tenants associations, Manhattan Community Board 8, religious institutions, parent-teacher associations, the Coalition for Queens and active residents, has met with representatives from Cornell already and is eager to continue working with them.


The tech campus designs show a silvery and futuristic campus of multiple glass structures. Video courtesy of Technion.


Roosevelt Island has one road and transportation to the island is limited to the bridge that connects it with Queens, the F train and the the city’s only tram system that runs shuttles between the island and a stop at East 60th Street. Silicon City says the island needs more transportation options, and wants  East River Ferry service, specifically.

“Both Cornell and the island have shown an interest in a ferry stop,” said Kalkin.

Infrastructure improvements are also needed, but first the campus must go through the city’s land-use process, where community board members and local officials determine the environmental impact of a development project. While that process has just begun, said Kalkin, movement on the part of the community is forging ahead. Representatives from Cornell attended a town hall meeting last month and discussions about the island’s future are happening all the time.

“It has to happen as quickly as possible,” said Kalkin.

Roosevelt Island is a mixed-income community where housing is a mix of market-rate luxury building, condos, rentals and subsidized housing. The island has been home to a penitentiary and an asylum and has consistently housed the city’s sick at its hospitals. Called Welfare Island from 1921-1973, Roosevelt Island has in recent years seen a bit of a housing renaissance: the old asylum’s architecturally significant Octagon Tower was converted to luxury housing and the multiple building luxury complex Riverwalk was completed.

A rendering of Cornell and Technion's plan for the new tech campus on Roosevelt Island. The project is a cornerstone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's mayoral legacy. Image courtesy of Cornell University

The campus will be located on the city-owned southern portion of the island, but Roosevelt Island is actually state land. In 1969, the New York State Urban Development Corporation signed a 99-year lease for the island, and housing was constructed for 20,000 residents. In 1984, the state legislature created the RIOC, whose mission is to “plan, design, develop, operate, maintain and manage Roosevelt Island.”

But according to a recent article in City & State, residents on the island want more control over the land. The RIOC board is appointed by Albany, which is something residents are hoping to change after a board member was dismissed by the Cuomo administration and replaced by a non-island resident.

RIOC also used to run the Main Street retail strip, which had been largely vacant until last summer when real estate developers the Hudson Companies and the Related Companies took over management of the strip, according to The New York Times. Now, retail is set to open, and not a minute too soon. New arrivals include a grocery store, a liquor and wine shop, a Subway sandwich shop and a bakery.

Beyond land-use and transit improvements, Silicon City hopes Cornell will become a part of the community and also give back to it, either through mentoring or programming for residents.

“We don’t want the campus to be an oasis, we want it to be a part of Roosevelt Island,” said Kalkin. “We’d love for people from the tech community to interact with our community.”

Cathy Dove is the Vice-President of CornellNYC Tech, and a new resident, having just moved to Riverwalk.

“We have been working closely with our new neighbors on Roosevelt Island and will continue to keep the island informed and engaged as we plan and build this exciting new campus,” said Dove in a statement. “Cornell truly views Roosevelt Island as a partner in this process. We are just kicking off the land-use review process and are now studying the various components of the project and any impact they may have on the island and surrounding areas.”

But not everyone on Roosevelt Island is happy about the campus.

Some residents of the island are being forced to leave. Currently located at the nearly 10-acre site of the campus is Coler-Goldwater Hospital, which will soon close to make room for the future engineers and teachers. Many of the 800 residents living at the rehabilitation center and nursing home do not know where they will be moved to, and don’t want to be pushed off the island, according to DNA Info.

Over the next eight months they will be relocated from the hospital complex, which was built in 1939 as the first public hospital devoted to chronic diseases, to other facilities across the city. Goldwater’s closing was announced back in 2010, but a firm date wasn’t set until the tech campus plans were finalized.

“I know I’m going to miss this view,” Armand Xama, 30, a paraplegic injured in a diving accident five years ago, told DNA Info of the quiet promenade overlooking Manhattan, which he visits regularly in his wheelchair.

Kalkin says he is looking forward to continuing to work with Cornell.

“We want to create this tech community and we think it will be great,” he said.

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.


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