Cornell Tech celebrated the official opening of its campus on Wednesday with a dedication event attended by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Cornell University President Martha Pollack, Technion President Peretz Lavie, and Cornell Tech Dean Daniel Huttenlocher.
For the past three years, Cornell’s Tech’s 30-member faculty, 400 students, and staff have been spread out in borrowed space waiting for their permanent home. This summer they finally received the okay to move in.
For many, being in their new home has reignited their mission, and changed the way they work.
“I walked into this building, and everything changed for me,” said Cornell Tech’s Senior Director of K-12 Education, Diane Levitt about her move. “I do not think of myself as a person who is particularly sensitive to environment,” she said. “But our work was elevated by being on this Island and being in this space.” Levitt has been working with PS/IS 217 for the past few years to help support the school’s adoption of a new computer science curriculum. She drives Cornell’s engagement with the New York City computing education community, including the Department of Education’s CS4All initiative, and works with five schools, besides ours, catalyzing growth in K-12 computer science.
“My aspirations grew – and I was aiming high before. A lot of this has to do with the long runway that gave us time to get to know this Island, and be part of it. My work at the school has made me feel like I belong here. We’ve developed relationships. I landed here, and I was different in every way, it felt right. I felt like I fit.”
She sees, in the school, the potential for what it can bring to education on Roosevelt Island and beyond. “I feel this idea that, through this building, we open doors for children all over the city. I really feel that. I want this to be a gateway to a digital future for children. I didn’t even understand that until I stood in this building. It’s so amazing that a physical space can embody an aspiration.”
Recipients of a Cornell Tech Startup Award, Speech Up’s David Cheng and Eliza Bruce, were also familiar with the Island before moving in. They had volunteered at “hackathons” at PS/IS 217, sponsored by Cornell Tech. The former students turned entrepreneurs described a “symbiotic” relationship between the Cornell Tech community and the Islanders living “up north.”
Members of the Speech Up team include David Cheng (second from left) and Eliza Bruce.
In their work building a speech therapy app for kids, Cheng and Bruce have had an opportunity to work with Island kids to test their app. They say there’s something special in the interactions they’ve had since moving here. Cheng already had a relationship with Hope Church’s pastor, Dan Sadlier, and meets Islanders that way as well.
“At first I was like ‘Why would I want to live on Roosevelt Island?’” recalls Cheng. But since moving here for work, he says, “I would like nothing more than to live on Roosevelt Island. It is so much more peaceful.”
Another Cornell Tech Startup award winner, Ursa’s Gabriel Ruttner, said of the island, “I love it.” Ursa’s software enables teams to efficiently and effectively analyze interview findings.
After working out of the New York Times building, across the street from Port Authority, Ruttner says, “[The Island is a] noticeable improvement, a great place to work. Here I take 50 percent of my meetings outside. I’ll take phone calls outside, and take a walk on the campus. It’s much more enjoyable.”
Gabriel Ruttner at his desk in The Bridge building.
He hasn’t spent much time up north, but he says, “I know there’s stuff up there. I know a lot of people have been going up there. So you’ll start seeing the twisted “T” shirts [which display Cornell’s Tech’s logo].”
“For a move of this scale, things went extremely well,” said Cornell Tech Dean Dan Huttenlocher. “To me, one of the miracles of this campus is the pace of which this happened.”
Mayor Bloomberg first announced he was accepting proposals for an applied science campus to be built on city land on Roosevelt Island back in 2011. In December of that year, Cornell Tech was declared the victor. The university spent 2012 and 2013 in land-use review processes and didn’t acquire possession of the land until early 2014.
“This land was not ready to build on,” recalls Huttenlocher. Goldwater Hospital, which he describes as an “850,000 square foot masonry building built as a WPA project.”, still stood on the site and would have to first be demolished. “I discovered post hoc that no drawings existed to portray actually what was built, where anything was, how to demolish safely.”
“But we managed to demolish it,” Huttenlocher said, and “we were able to move in time for classes to start this fall. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it’s been wonderful.”