The Predesigned Innovation District: Cornell Tech

By Sarah Carnes

In December 2010, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg –- who framed his candidacy around innovation, introducing “bold new solutions to tough problems” –- announced the creation of Applied Sciences NYC, an unprecedented attempt “to capitalize on the considerable growth presently occurring within the science, technology, and research fields” through the development and expansion of applied sciences campuses around the city, namely to elevate New York’s attractiveness as an innovation hub in the knowledge economy.

The Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island Campus Project –- a partnership between Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology –- has emerged as one of the most promising products of the Applied Sciences NYC Initiative and very much so as a “hopeful pillar of Silicon Alley.” Architectural renderings and design principles are sure to excite those tracking the innovation district model as an approach to economic development. The campus master plan aligns with the innovation district platform, purposefully integrating characteristics overwhelmingly identified in the literature. The Cornell Tech Campus will inevitably advance the larger innovation ecosystem conversation, helping to answer whether innovation can in fact be designed. The campus also begs the question if urban campuses inherently exhibit innovation district tendencies.

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Cornell Tech Master Plan

 

Background

Temporarily situated in the bustling Chelsea neighborhood, Cornell Tech’s permanent home –- a redefined urban campus that will be “intimately integrated – in both mission and design – with the city” –- will eventually occupy 12 city-owned acres on Roosevelt Island and boast an equally impressive two-million square fopt real-estate portfolio, a healthy amalgamation of academic, residential, commercial, and public spaces upon completion in 2043. The first phase, slated to open next year, will feature 2.5 acres of public plazas and greenways and 800,000 square feet of building space.

Cornell Tech embodies several innovation district characteristics and even appears to favor one of the innovation district typologies identified by Katz and Wagner: the re-imagined urban area model, which places innovation districts along historic waterfronts in evolving industrial or warehouse corridors. This typology typically encompasses a comprehensive re-development project, as is the case with Cornell Tech, which is replacing the Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility. The universities will also act as anchor institutions.

Government-Sponsored Innovation District

Moreover, the proactive measures taken by the City of New York have enabled the realization of the Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island Campus. The City awarded the Cornell/Technion consortium access to the city-owned property on Roosevelt Island as well as $100 million in city-backed capital to be used to develop the site. The public investment will spur the creation of new firms and thousands of new jobs in addition to billions of dollars in economic impact. The New York City Economic Development Corporation estimates the Cornell Tech campus will “double the number of graduate engineering faculty and students in the city, and increase the number of engineering Ph.D. students by 70%.

The City of New York and Cornell Tech leadership clearly recognize the importance of cross-sector relationships. Harvard Professor Michael Porter suggests that there is inherent overlap between the public and private sectors’ success and the need for both to support productivity. The lines of appropriate investment are blurred due to a linked wealth-creation system between these two sectors. Applied in the innovation district context, this supposed linked system manifests as the “Triple-Helix thesis,” which connects university, industry, and government partners.

Innovation District Characteristics

At this stage in the planning process, three buildings support Cornell Tech’s status as an innovation district. Including:

1. The Bridge at Cornell-Tech

Touted as the “first-ever building in New York City designed and built to leverage resources from a cutting-edge research university with those from industry,” The Bridge will bring together well-established firms with burgeoning startups. Intentional design principles encourage serendipitous collaboration and collisions, which are common themes observed in innovation districts; students will have the opportunity to engage with business leaders and faculty-researchers. The Bridge will also house a business incubator, which Katz and Wagner also identify as an important economic asset within the innovation district.

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Artist’s rendering of the Bridge at Cornell-Tech

2. The Verizon Executive Ed Center

Similarly, the Ed Center “will provide another venue for synergy between the Cornell Tech academic community and industry.” The Ed Center will help facilitate purposeful networking opportunities across sectors.

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Artist’s rendering of the Verizon Executive Ed Center

 

3. The Bloomberg Center

Made possible through a $100 million endowment, The Bloomberg Center will primarily function as an interdisciplinary academic building but will also act “as a venue for chance collisions between academia and the world at large.

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Artist’s rendering of the Bloomberg Center

The long-term success of Cornell Tech will similarly be determined by how the market responds, including additional third-places to create a more interactive environment to attract more visitors in the surrounding community.

Conclusion

Cornell Tech is positioned to function as a successful urban campus and an innovation district because of the purposeful strategies, from physical design to intended industry mix, that have been prescribed in its plans. Immediate innovation district competitiveness is questionable, however. Given the 2043 completion date, we must closely monitor cross-sector interaction and collaboration over the next couple of years. Cornell Tech leadership must then integrate new and reformed strategies to better perfect the innovation district model as conditions on the ground change. Although in its infancy, the forthcoming Cornell Tech will likely demonstrate that innovation districts can in fact be inorganically conceived.   

 

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