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City Review Process: First Look (with video) at Cornell&#146s Tech Campus and Thom Mayne&#146s Academic Building

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Rendering of the planned first academic building of Cornell Tech, designed by architect Thom Mayne’s firm, Morphosis. Dan Huttenlocher, dean of the new school, calls it “very 21st-century architecture” for “a 21st-century campus.”

This is a big week for Roosevelt Island (formerly Welfare Island), a scenic, underutilized site in the middle of New York City’s East River. On Friday, the Louis Kahn-designed Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, at the southern tip of the island (reviewed by Bloomberg‘s James Russell here) will celebrate its opening with a free open house (reservations sold out). Tomorrow’s formal dedication ceremony was suddenly thrown in doubt, however, when private funders went to court in a dispute over promised donor-naming inscriptions on the FDR monument. [UPDATE: As of this afternoon, the invitation-only dedication was still set for 10 a.m. tomorrow.)

In more harmonious proceedings yesterday, the New York City Planning Commission formally certified the Cornell Tech project, marking the beginning of an arduous odyssey through the city’s land-use review process for the university’s proposed 12-acre campus dedicated to entrepreneurial technology. (Next stop: the neighborhood community board on Oct. 22, followed by the Borough President’s office, City Planning Commission hearings and City Council consideration. The entire process is expected to take no more than seven months.) The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, is partnering with Cornell on the project.

Here’s what Cornell Tech’s future home currently looks like:

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Roosevelt Island, looking north

And here’s a rough rendering of what the island’s south end, in the foreground of the above photo, may look like once the project is fully built. The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge (aka 59th Street Bridge) is at the right of the photo below, passing over the island, which is connected to the city by subway and aerial tram:

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Below is a schematic rendering of the massing on the site (which appears quite dense). The master plan was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The irregularly shaped Morphosis-designed academic building (pictured at the top of this post) is in the lower left corner of this drawing. (Architects for the nine other buildings have yet to be announced.):

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And here’s another rendering of how this will all fit together (Mayne’s building is at upper right):

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As you can see, a lot of real estate is being allocated to “Corp Co-Loc” (labeled in red). That’s short for “Corporate Co-Location Building.” Corporations working in partnership with Cornell’s scholars to develop innovative projects will lease space in those buildings, to facilitate the school’s stated goal of “fus[ing] academic excellence with real-world commercial applications and entrepreneurship.”

Here’s a look at the futuristic atrium inside the main (Mayne) academic building:

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Some 2.5 of the project’s 12 acres are to be “publicly accessible areas,” including this central lawn (complete with the student Frisbee flingers):

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Here’s a breakdown of the various types of facilities that will be constructed:

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For more details about the campus and its areas of academic specialization, go here and here.As you will hear in the CultureGrrl Video, below, City Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden predicted that this project would “transform Roosevelt Island into New York’s own Silicon Valley.” Who knows. though, if California will have a Silicon Valley by the time this is finished: Construction is not scheduled to begin until 2014, with the opening of the first buildings on campus planned for 2017. The “full build” is not expected to be completed until 2037.As a Cornellian myself and wife and mother of Cornellians, I’m very excited about this project, which Big Red won in a city-run competition against other major institutions. But I’m also concerned about my alma mater’s ability to pull off this $2-billion undertaking, notwithstanding the $350 million pledge by another alumus, and the city government’s promised infusion of up to $100 million more.

The corporate-academic nexus at the heart of this project also troubles me. Although corporate sponsorship of and involvement in academic research are, for better or worse, already firmly embedded in academia, it sounds to me like the balance of power in these partnerships may become much more heavily (and problematically) weighted towards commercial, rather than academic, imperatives. Corporate executives, not college professors, may be the ones calling the shots. As you will hear Cornell’s President David Skorton state early in the video below, the new school’s philosophy is: “Not tech for tech’s sake, but tech in support of commerce.” So much for pure research.

My video begins at a meeting of Cornell alumni leaders in Washington, DC, last January, where Skorton exulted in the city’s December selection of Cornell for this project. (The fly-through video that he showed bears little or no relation to Mayne’s eventual design.) We move on to a June alumni reunion in Ithaca, NY, where Cornell’s vice provost and dean of the planned new campus, Dan Huttenlocher, proselytized for the project.

Finally, come sit in with me at yesterday’s City Planning Commission meeting in Manhattan, where city planner Dominick Answini enumerated some of the details of the project. You’ll hear one of the commissioners, Anna Levin, elicit an admission that the renderings and drawings presented at the City Planning Commission’s meeting yesterday are “conceptual,” not final, and that the massing could turn out to be even denser than what was shown.

I’ll give the the final word to the enthusiastic City Planning Commission chair, Amanda Burden:

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