The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation received $25 million on December 20, 2018, promised five years ago as part of a deal awarding Cornell Tech the rights to the 2.62-acre parcel of land that rings the new campus. The money had been included in this year’s $168 billion state executive budget proposed earlier this year by Governor Andrew Cuomo and then passed by the New York State legislature. According to the December 16, 2013 letter of agreement, executed by the Empire State Development Corporation, the appropriation was to occur no later than the last day of 2018.
RIOC plans to add the funds to its existing five-year $40-million major capital improvements schedule, an aggressive plan addressing aging Island infrastructure and public facilities that have had neither improvements, nor significant repairs since their original construction 40 years ago.
Upcoming projects include waterproofing the Motorgate garage, the renovation of Sportspark, including new HVAC, bathrooms and lockers; AVAC upgrades, Octagon sports field renovation, and the ongoing elevator construction project at the Manhattan Tram Station.
The Land Grant
In 2011, the City awarded Cornell and Technion Universities 12 acres of land, which, at the time, held the Goldwater Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility, to build a new campus. However, the land grant also included the property on which Loop Road sits, which is operated by RIOC, a State agency.
The deal, negotiated in 2013, specified that the State would pay RIOC $1 million per year until 2069 – when Roosevelt Island is scheduled to revert to New York City’s control – as a lump sum payment of the net present value, all before December 31, 2018.
Former RIOC Board member Margie Smith
“We said, ‘Wait a second,’” former RIOC Board Member Margie Smith recalled of the negotiations. “Part of the land on campus still belonged to us, to RIOC. So when they came and said, ‘We want you to give us that section of the land,’ we said we’d be very happy to - for a reduced ground rent of $1 million per year, but in present value, up front by [the end of] 2018. We are providing services for everybody that [will live] there.”
Ultimately, for $1.4 million a year through 2068, RIOC surrendered its rights to the property surrounding the Cornell Tech campus. Of the $1.4 million, New York State agreed to supply $1 million and Cornell Tech, the rest – $400,000 a year, an amount that will be revised upward every 10 years, but only 2% each time.
After the completion of the negotiations, Smith said, “I want to make something clear – New York State came through for us like gangbusters.” The funds were meant to compensate RIOC for costs associated with having Cornell as a user of infrastructure that RIOC must maintain. Without the money, all those costs would ultimately be borne by Island residents through our ground rent.
The Roosevelt Island Community Coalition
Formed during the planning for the campus, the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition brought together the interests of some three dozen resident organizations to give the residential community a say in negotiations between the university and RIOC.
RICC saw the planning through an Environmental Impact Statement and through the steps of the City’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), creating a term sheet as a guide for the population’s wants, wishes, and needs as the host community for a major university graduate school.
Council member Ben Kallos presents Judy Buck with a City Council Citation for her work on the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition
Founding RICC co-chair Judy Buck recalls that time as “frantic.” She says, “We pulled together a coalition, taking ideas from many different sources, meeting with Cornell and City officials, and testifying at every step of the ULURP process.” According to Buck, the goal in doing all of this work was “vigilance – trying to make certain Cornell and New York City are alert to our community presence, our needs, and our fears.”
The RICC board created the term sheet and according to then co-chair Ellen Polivy, “we presented it to Cornell, the City agencies, the officials, and, ultimately, Charlene Indelicato, then the newly installed President of RIOC, who used it in her early negotiations with Cornell. As you all know, most of the items in it became part of Cornell’s contract with New York City.” But, she says, the items in the contract are “described in language that, although legal, is vague.” As a result, she says, negotiations continued long after it’s submission to interpret those vague items and to attempt to resolve them in favor of residents.
The term sheet’s goals established RICC’s demands, including minimizing trucks on the Island in favor of barging, and advocating for more robust air-quality monitoring to be done by Cornell.
In the term sheet, education was an important item. The agreement says that Cornell will “adopt” PS/IS 217, but what that means is still being defined. The term sheet specifies the initial focus as tech education in the middle school. In a letter from Cornell to then City Council member Jessica Lappin, PS/IS 217 Principal Mandana Beckman is quoted as suggesting “teacher training and support, STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] education, after-school programming courses, tech events, Career Day options, and hardware and software programming development” as ways that Cornell could become involved in the school, and Cornell affirmed at the time that “All of these elements are items that Cornell is anxious to pursue.”
The RICC term sheet asks that elected officials and RIOC hold Cornell and New York City responsible for the security expenses necessary to provide for everyone in the community. Cornell committed only to security services for its campus and buildings, not the Island at large. Cornell also committed to giving $400,000 annually to RIOC to be used for infrastructure. RIOC, in-turn, increased the number of officers in it’s Public Safety Department.
RICC asked that Cornell replace destroyed or damaged trees with trees of equal number and size. Later, it became apparent that Cornell removed 95 of the 134 trees on what would be their campus.
A system to help the hearing-impaired and transportation solutions were also on the list.
In the years following the 2013 agreement, the State appeared to go back on the agreement, insisting that the payment was optional and would be released only if needed.
“The following year [after the deal was made], the State Budget Office said, ‘Take that line out. We don’t have a contract that says you are going to get that money,’” former RIOC board member Margie Smith said at a 2016 Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC) meeting after the funds were once again left out of RIOC’s budget.
“Both RIRA and RICC were outraged,” says former RICC member Joyce Short. Both groups submitted resolutions to RIOC demanding that the funds be requested.
At the time, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal said she’d never believed receiving the $25 million was an absolute. “What I’m trying to tell you is this: We can’t ask the State for money when we don’t need it. You can’t expect the State to give you money when you’re sitting on money,” she said, referring to a multi-million surplus RIOC had at the time, the result of many years’ worth of deferred maintenance, in some cases decades’ worth. “We need to show the State we spend and we’re competent at spending. By spending money we can say to Albany, ‘look at us, we’re doing stuff.’”
Since then, RIOC has developed a five-year, $40-million major capital improvements schedule to address aging infrastructure and public facilities, including Sportspark, and Motorgate.
Former senior director of capital projects for Cornell Tech, Andrew Winters, unveils the plan for the new campus on the construction site in October 2016. Cornell used barging for almost all of the demolition. At the time Winters said, “Cornell is undertaking the most voluntary use of barging in United States history.”
As novel as the concept for the Cornell Tech campus was – net-zero energy, LEED platinum, interconnected outdoor and indoor spaces – this narrow sliver of land has always inspired innovation.
Goldwater Hospital was first envisioned as part of an Island-wide hospital park serving the chronically ill, writes Roosevelt Island Historical Society Director, Judith Berdy, in her book, Roosevelt Island. World War II prevented that concept from spreading Island-wide, but what it offered to wheelchair-bound patients was certainly uncommon.
Goldwater Hospital had its share of elite science, too. It holds a significant place in 20th century medicine. According to the National Institutes of Health, in 1942 Goldwater became the focal point for a national campaign to develop a new treatment for malaria, which was one of the most significant medical problems for the Allied Powers in World War II.
Meanwhile, Goldwater had been built on the site of the Blackwell Island penitentiary, chosen by then New York Governor Philip Hone, for criminals to have an ordered place to reconsider their actions, says Berdy.
From colonial-era hog farm to prison to hospital to tech center, the south end of Roosevelt Island has always had a unique role. The biography of this piece of land rolls on.