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Pols Sing Merits of Roosevelt Island for City's New Engineering Campus

By Amy Zimmer | July 27, 2011 4:41pm

UPPER EAST SIDE — Will Roosevelt Island become the next Silicon Valley?

As top tier engineering programs from across the globe duke it out over who will win the city's bid to develop a major engineering and applied sciences campus, a group of pols are entering the ring, too. 

A group of East Side elected officials joined forces to press the schools vying for the city's $100 million engineering campus grant to build on the 10-acre Goldwater Hospital site on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.

"We know they have a choice," said City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin. "We are here to say: We want you. We want Roosevelt Island to be Silicon Island."

The Goldwater Hospital will be closing by 2014.

The competing schools have their choice to submit proposals for city-owned land at Roosevelt Island, Governors Island or the Brooklyn Navy Yard, with up to $100 million in city funds for infrastructure upgrades. They can also develop on privately-owned land anywhere in the city.

Already, two serious contenders — Cornell and Stanford — have voiced their preference for Roosevelt Island.

Many employees at the Weill Cornell Medical Center are among the 12,000 residents on the island, and Cornell officials told DNAinfo they're eyeing the 2-mile-long sliver of land in the East River across from their medical school since it is the only one easily accessible by subway. It is only a 3-minute ride on the recently refurbished tram.

Among the politicians who backed the plan on Wednesday were Lappin, state Assemblyman Micah Kellner, state Senator Jose Serrano and someone from Rep. Carolyn Maloney's office.

Lappin continued her pitch: the island has an "excellent" school with a gifted and talented program and several parks, including a new 7-acre park on the southern end set to open next week.

"We have retail," Lappin said. "We have Starbucks. Every student needs Starbucks and we have mom-and-pop shops." The island's Main Street is getting a makeover with new shops under a new agreement with the Hudson and Related companies taking over the leases.

Lappin's office has fought other plans for the island. "We didn’t want a hotel," she said. "We didn't want a big box store or luxury condos. But a world-class university, we want you."

Building an engineering campus will help the city diversify its economy, said Kellner, noting that only 6 percent of the economy is currently from high tech industries.  The lesson from Silicon Valley where Stanford is based, Kellner said: "Where people are educated, that's where people innovate. That's where they create jobs."

Roosevelt Island has been a hub for innovation since its 1969 master plan by famed architect Philip Johnson, said Matthew Katz, president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association. 

"Roosevelt Island is a planned community," Katz said. "Innovation is what we are all about."

Roosevelt Island already has amenities that might interest universities, including a complex system of underground pneumatic tubes to whisk trash away rather than have garbage trucks clutter up the island.

More recently, the island has been a petri dish for green technology, Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. President Leslie Torres said.

The Octagon Towers residential building (built in a formal insane asylum) is the first in the state to have a fuel cell, which powers its 500 units. There are underwater turbines in the East River powering a parking lot and supermarket. It has parking sensors helping residents find empty spaces and is talking about a bike share program. The island is planning on installing electric car stations, Torres said.

Reps for the Trust for Governors Island and the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation — the competitors for any future deal — directed inquiries to the city.

Governors Island, which has a public high school on its shores and is only accessible by ferry, has been floated by New York University as possible site for its 2031 expansion plans.