At a January 31 Cornell Task Force meeting, Cornell Tech announced that it planned to set aside 66 of the 352 apartments in the Passive House, the campus residential building set to open this summer, for Weill Cornell Medical personnel.
But according to Jeffrey Escobar, president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, the plan violates the terms of Cornell Tech’s lease and sets a bad precedent for the future.
“When Cornell went through the ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process, one specific item of concern was the impact that the new housing will have on the infrastructure, transportation, and services on the Island,” said Escobar. “The community was reassured repeatedly that, because the campus will provide housing to all faculty, staff, and students, there would be no impact on transportation because there would not be a population commuting back and forth.”
The Environmental Impact Study (known as an EIS) for the Cornell Tech project states that there will be “one residential building to house campus leadership and faculty, postdoctoral fellows, Ph.D. candidates, and master’s students. The residential units would consist of a mix of studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units.”
Escobar recalls that during the EIS process, questions were raised as to whether the housing would be made available to other members of Cornell, not just Cornell Tech. “We were again reassured that the housing would only be used for Cornell Tech, and that the reason why the Hotel is necessary to construct is because the housing building would be fully occupied with Cornell Tech students and staff.”
Cornell Tech’s Julie Delay, senior director of human resources, disputes the idea that the plan conflicts with the university’s lease, and says the additional tenants will be necessary while the campus grows. “It is anticipated that Cornell Tech will not have a population large enough to fill the residential building … for the first five years. The lease allows for Cornell-affiliated occupancy as our populations scales. Weill Cornell Medical will have 66 apartments for five years. [Specifically] Weill Cornell Medical medical students, postdocs, and possibly a small number of visiting academics.”
According to the relevant portion of the lease, which was shared by Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright’s office, the Passive House may be occupied by an “Academic Person,” defined as “a student, faculty member, administrator, staff member, educator, lecturer, academic researcher, or counselor, in each case, who is involved in the University’s degree-granting programs or related academic research and education at the Overall Project.”
“It is my understanding that the lease allows Cornell Tech affiliates to reside at the Passive House for a limited period of time,” said Seawright. “My office gave a full update on [what was presented by Cornell Tech at the Task Force meeting] to the Roosevelt Island Residents Association on February 1. We are committed to a process that is transparent and responsive to the Roosevelt Island community.”
Seawright welcomes community members to submit questions to her office prior to the upcoming Town Hall, March 29, to ensure they are answered.
One of the concerns with bringing more Weill Cornell employees to the Island is the impact they will have on the Island’s transportation infrastructure.
Escobar says the issue was raised during a Community Board 8 (CB8) transportation meeting about Cornell. “Impacts were brought up with respect to commuters. Some in the community repeatedly said that it was a false assumption Cornell’s consultants were making that no one would be commuting and that everyone would stay on campus,” recalls Escobar, who is a member of the CB8 board. “Again, Cornell Tech reassured the community that all of its population would be on the Island and that there would not be a segment of the population housed on the campus who would need to regularly commute elsewhere.”
In assessing the impact of Cornell Tech on Island services, the EIS assumed “During other hours of the day (i.e., the midday peak period) ... 1⁄4 of the population living on-campus would leave the campus for discretionary trip-making (for example, to get lunch) while 3⁄4 would remain on campus and use the on-campus amenities (i.e., cafe/restaurant) or return to their on-campus dwelling.”
Escobar says, “To now have Cornell say that they are going to utilize 66 units for Cornell Weill, and without clarification; we now face the potential that there will always be a segment of Cornell commuters who will be vying for the same services that the current Roosevelt Island population utilizes – the Tram and the F train. Moreover, they will be commuting at the same exact time as the current population. The EIS did not study nor address this situation, and it goes counter to what we were reassured again and again: that the likelihood of impacts were none.”
Cornell Tech’s Delay, however, does not believe there will be a conflict during rush hour. “We do not anticipate this will affect rush hour commuting on the island. Commuting patterns for medical students and professionals are atypical and vary widely. Medical students in their third year are typically at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. and return in the afternoon. If a student is doing a residency, their hours are long and never 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Postdocs would commute during a range of hours with many getting to work later in the morning and working into the evening. They may have 15-18 hour days, and work on weekends.”
Weill Cornell Medical already subsidizes Island housing for employees in 455 and 465 Main Street on Roosevelt Island.
Escobar is also concerned about what this could mean for the future. “What we are creating is a precedent for Cornell to be able to use and stock the housing as they wish and as they require, whether residents are part of the Cornell Tech community or not. This is against what the EIS addressed and the intent of the ULURP approvals,” he says. “The Community was repeatedly reassured that because the Cornell Tech population was a set and insular community of faculty, staff, and students, there would be integration of the Cornell population into the Island and our community. The stocking of this other Cornell population whose center of gravity is at Weill Cornell, and not the Island, is contrary to their reassurances.”
Ellen Polivy, co-chair of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC) which monitors Cornell Tech’s relationship with other Island organizations, says she understands that the Passive House will have room to spare in the beginning, but that her group had hoped the space might be filled with disabled housing. “First, we believe a limited supply of disabled housing would be fair because disabled housing is disappearing to privatization on Roosevelt Island, an Island built specifically to be accessible. Second, [Cornell-Tech students] would be able to interact and learn [the disabled’s] needs first hand [for the technology many of them devise to help the disabled and elderly]. And third, Cornell is on the land of the former Goldwater Hospital, a chronic care facility for disabled patients.”
Despite these goals, Polivy understand why Cornell-Tech declined. “It probably makes better business sense to bring in the Weill-Cornell personnel. Short-term tenants preserve the apartments for their intended use when the Cornell-Tech population increases. Could you imagine the outcry if a disabled tenant had to be evicted to make room for the increased population of students?”