In a New York minute – at least, in terms of real estate projects – local graduate school Cornell Tech signed a land transfer lease with the city of New York for a 50,000 square-metre plot of land on Roosevelt Island, in December 2013, and one month later began construction of its Roosevelt Island Campus. This momentum is set to continue, with three out of the four main campus buildings scheduled to open in 2017.

Development on the island will not be straightforward: before building work can begin, abatement has to be conducted on a hospital that currently occupies the site. Only once asbestos and lead have been removed from the building can it be demolished and work begin on the new campus buildings. But progress is already being made.


“Demolition of the existing hospital has begun. We are removing all debris – that is not being used to build up the land above the flood plain – by barge," says Andrew Winters, director of capital projects for the Cornell Tech Campus. Mr Winters was the founding director of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's Office of Capital Project Development before being tasked with managing the development of the Cornell Tech campus.

A tall task

It was the administration of the New York mayor that made the project possible. It recognised the growing role that technology is playing in economic development, and saw an opportunity to attract and retain talent in the city. Mr Bloomberg launched a competition, offering the grant of land on Roosevelt Island and $100m of investment to build the city's first technology university, in a bid to expedite growth of the city’s tech sector.

Cornell and its academic partner, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, won the competition with an ambitious plan for the vast site. 

“The campus sits on 50,000 square metres [sq m]. The project site is as long as the Empire State Building is tall,” says Mr Winters. “Along with the buildings, in phase one [there] will be utilities and roadway upgrades, with an extensive landscape plan. The first academic building will be 14,000 sq m, with classrooms, lecture halls, work space and meeting rooms.”

With the site ideally situated for exposure to the sun, the academic building will be ‘net zero', meaning that it will create as much energy as it consumes. When completed, it is set to be one of the largest net-zero buildings in the US. “The design will have solid walls with only 40% windows, capped by a solar canopy,” says Mr Winters.

“Next door will be the office building, a co-location facility that will be loft-like with large open floors, fostering interactions and collaborations between tech companies and students and faculty."

Collaborative effort

Another of the buildings to be completed as part of phase one is a residential tower, which is being developed by New York-based real estate firm Forest City Ratner Companies. “There will be 350 apartments built for graduate students and faculty. The tech lifestyle is demanding and frequently includes work at all hours. Having the residential building on campus makes it more convenient,” says Mr Winters.

The fourth and final building on the campus, he says, will be a hotel with an “education conference centre, ideal for company retreats”.

It is not just its collaborative efforts with industry that have made Cornell's new campus so innovative, but also its collaboration with academic partner, Technion.

“Cornell University and Technion started separate submissions for Mr Bloomberg’s tech campus competition. We shared similar goals and, after several months, we came together as academic partners,” says Adam Shwartz, director of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, a department within the Cornell Tech campus that offers a joint degree from both Cornell University and Technion. “There is an MBA programme and master of engineering programme at Cornell Tech, and master of information sciences at Jacobs Institute. Students from all degrees share lessons, and interact with venture capitalists and companies that have offices on campus."

Cornell Tech campus is changing many things about academia – and much of this innovation is reflected in the design of the new campus. Professors from the two universities will teach side by side with industry leaders, creating a new educational model that embraces experimentation.

“The Jacobs Institute is about exploring new ways to do research and education – engage, pitch, collaborate – and do experiments." says Mr Shwartz. "It is a sandbox-like environment.”