One of the biggest stories in the news this week is the announcement that the City of New York will give a hundred million dollars and a chunk of Roosevelt Island to a consortium of Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to build an Applied Sciences campus. The establishment of a new technical institute in the heart of the city can be thought of as another victory in the resurgence of urbanism over job sprawl. But how urban will it be?
University study has traditionally been an urban practice, whether at Bologna, Paris, Harvard or Chicago. There has been another educational tradition of rural cloistering leading in the U.S. to the college town, a small town dominated by one college or several. Ithaca, the home of Cornell's main campus as well as Ithaca College, is one such college town. In the second half of the twentieth century, many small-town and suburban campuses sprawled, inviting students, faculty and staff to drive in and turning most of the space between buildings into parking lots. Even in those campuses, most of the students and significant numbers of faculty arrive on foot, by bike or by transit, leading to very high transit mode shares, but often a small minority of administrators, faculty and staff insist on driving and on having their parking dominate the campus.
This college sprawl has been one part of the general sprawling of America, along with job sprawl, housing sprawl and shopping sprawl. This trend is not sustainable, and there are signs it is losing steam. Sarah Goodyear has chronicled attempts by corporations like Facebook and Apple to make their campuses more urban, but they remain isolated along their suburban collector roads, and Sarah concludes, "Maybe they will be happy in their custom-made, self-contained bubbles. Or maybe down the road, they'll be like one-time innovative giants such as Sears -- looking longingly toward downtown."
The Applied Sciences campus is part of Mayor Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Steel's strategy to make New York the downtown competitor, the target of those longing gazes, and it just may work. Roosevelt Island seems isolated, and Eric Jaffe thinks that it will need transportation upgrades, but I can't really see what needs upgrading.
With no improvements the entire campus will already be within a ten minute walk of the aerial tram and F subway line to Manhattan. Like the R train, which the Daily News dubbed the "Silicon Subway," the F runs through Midtown, Soho and Downtown Brooklyn, connecting a number of start-up companies. An Applied Sciences student or faculty member could be at the Housing Works Bookstore for coffee with a corporate researcher in half an hour, door to door, and a staff member from MakerBot Industries in Brooklyn could take the D to the F and be at a seminar on Roosevelt Island in 45 minutes. With the city's planned bike share, Court Square in Long Island City is only twenty minutes away.
The proposed bike/pedestrian bridge to Manhattan could be cool. The old way to get to the island was by trolley to an elevator on the middle of the Queensboro Bridge, and rebuilding that would be nice as well. But neither of those are urgent.
Stephen Smith points out that the city could probably get people to build a tech campus for free just by raising height limits and removing minimum parking requirements in transit-connected areas. On Twitter, he also opined that "Cornell's Roosevelt Island plan is basically a few bldgs hidden beneath solar panels in a quasi-Corbusian urban form." It's a very appropriate criticism. The oldest residential buildings on Roosevelt Island are at least clustered around Main Street, which feels very urban, but the newer buildings built in the past twenty years break the grid and force pedestrians to make odd detours. Why did the designers of the Cornell-Technion plan feel the need to propose something even less urban?
My main concern is for Roosevelt Island to remain as car-free as it has been, and maybe even become more so. The original plan for the island's current developments was to have all the cars parked at the Motorgate garage, and the rest of the island be nearly car-free - they don't even have garbage trucks. Sadly, over the years, everyone with a little bit of power has decided that they're too good, or maybe too disabled, to park at the Motorgate and take the bus. The space around Goldwater Hospital, which now occupies the land that will be given to the Applied Sciences campus, is filled with cars. When an old insane asylum on the north end of the island was redeveloped into condos, the developers were able to get permission to build a 148-space underground garage.
Let's hope that the Cornell and Technion designers have more vision than they showed in that lame fly-through, and that they build something urban and scholarly, with really narrow streets, like in Paris's Latin Quarter. Let's hope that they don't think they're too good to take the train to work, or at least to park at the Motorgate and take the bus. But if they do, let's hope that Bloomberg, Steel and the RIOC will make them do the right thing.