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Cornell University Eyeing New Engineering Campus in City

By Amy Zimmer | July 25, 2011 12:22pm | Updated on July 25, 2011 12:25pm
Cornell University is competing to build an engineering campus on Roosevelt Island.
Cornell University is competing to build an engineering campus on Roosevelt Island.
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DNAinfo/Gabriela Resto-Montero

ROOSEVELT ISLAND — Cornell University wants more of the Big Red in the Big Apple.

After Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week the city is seeking bids to develop a major engineering and applied science campus — with up to $100 million to help kickstart the development — the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Ivy League college announced plans to vie for the project.

The school — which is competing against the heavy-hitting Stanford University and other international programs  — is building its case for why the city should tap an upstate institution to build here.

"There's already a significant Cornell presence in New York City, most visibly with its medical school," said W. Kent Fuchs, Cornell's provost.

The school currently has 5,000 employees in the city, including at its medical school, and a 50,000-strong alumni network here, many who work in the tech industry, Fuchs noted.

Cornell would build its proposed campus on Roosevelt Island rather than the other sites the city offered — Governors Island and the Brooklyn Navy Yard — because Roosevelt Island is the only one easily accessible by subway, Fuchs said.

The island is just across the East River from Weill Cornell Medical College  — which recently broke ground on a state-of-the-art, $1 billion medical research complex on East 69th Street — and is already home to many employees who work there.

"We think it's important for the location to be easily reachable by train," said Dan Huttenlocher, Cornell's dean of computing and information science. "This is not the taxi or limo crowd. These are grad students. Mass transit is key to making it part of the fabric of the city."

Cornell also runs several other programs in the city, including its Cooperative Extension, which works on local farming and ecology projects, and its School of Industrial and Labor Relations' Midtown conference center. It also sponsors the Food and Finance High School in Hell's Kitchen.

The city had received 18 less formal "expressions of interest" from 27 schools before announcing the official bid process, seeking proposals by Oct. 28. Though Columbia, which is expanding in Harlem, also reportedly expressed interest, the city is courting institutions from around the globe.

In response to its earlier call, interest came from Stanford, which is plugged into Silicon Valley, as well as the University of Chicago and schools from Finland, Israel, India and South Korea.

"There isn't a school in New York City that's demonstrated the national and international visibility in terms of [engineering and applied science],” Huttenlocher said. “There are great schools in New York City, but not at the leading edge. I think everyone has limited resources and makes strategic choices."

Fuchs said the city's decision to build such a campus would fill the “gap” in New York’s quest to prop up other industries such as health care and biotech, and offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a school.

Still, building the campus would require a huge investment, even with the city’s perks. Fuchs estimated the project would take several years, with a first phase costing upwards of $250 million, and all told more than $1 billion for the capital costs over time.

Huttenlocher said it's important to be in the city, since so many new partnerships between the technology sector and other industries — like media, advertising, health care and banking — are happening here.

That's unlike the first wave of the tech industry, which was centered around California’s Silicon Valley. Now, New York industries are looking for good engineers.

"The nature of the technology industry is changing," he said. "The ties between the academy and industry have been growing. The Ivory tower model — that’s really changed a lot in the engineering community."

 The city is expected to announce the winning bid in December.