Silicon Island

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

Will New York's latest dream spawn the next Mark Zuckerberg?

In a sliver of land in New York City's East River, where a lunatic asylum and smallpox hospital once stood, banners proclaim with unabashed assurance (or chutzpah): "Roosevelt Island: A Fresh Look at the Big Apple."

The bleak cityscape on the lower half of the island, accessible by cable car and occupied by a hospital for convalescents with battered bricks and rusting air conditioners, will soon be home to a complex of buildings intended to transform the island from an image of urban decay to a bold statement about 21st-century urban design--and transform New York City into an enduring 21st-century economic powerhouse.

In an unprecedented cooperative venture between City Hall, Cornell University, and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, ground is about to be broken for a top-flight technology campus that Mayor Michael Bloomberg promises will give other hubs of entrepreneurial science around the country, and indeed the world, "a run for their money."

For the moment, the campus exists as an interinstitutional agreement, some architectural drawings, and the glimmer in the eye of an ambitious city executive who made his own vast personal fortune with information technology. ("This is going to be a very big hit," says Bloomberg, as of course he would.) But deliberately and relentlessly, the Big Apple has, in the last few years, been going after the same kind of power and preeminence in high technology that it enjoys in so many other fields; and the graduate school is a key to City Hall's strategic plan for digital conquest.

To realize the project, the city will provide much of the land and about $100 million in funding. Add to that a huge donation by Chuck Feeney, an 81-year-old duty-free magnate and Cornell alumnus, who has put up $350 million to see the first stage of construction through to completion. Early drawings of what it might look like (such as the one shown here) were impressive. But the noted Los Angeles-based architect Thom Mayne, who created the provocative, twisted, and torn Cooper Union building in the East Village, is expected to make it spectacular.

Until the complex is built, however, students at what's now called CornellNYC Tech will be studying in the big old brick building in Chelsea that Google bought for almost $2 billion two years ago: an outpost of the West Coast's mellow intensity under the roof of the enormous structure that used to house the Port Authority in Manhattan. (It's even got some real-life chutes and ladders for techies who want to have a little fun getting from one floor to another. The reviews on Google+ declare it, not surprisingly, "awesome.")

The graduate curriculum is designed to draw on talent and innovation in the many fields--global finance, medicine, media, design, and fashion--where New York City is already a powerhouse. Greg Pass, a former vice president at Twitter who's signed on with the Cornell-Technion team to help bring entrepreneurship into the mix, says the project offers "a huge opportunity to disrupt the higher-educational model."

If New York has yet to make its mark in digital innovation the way Silicon Valley has done--with Stanford as its engine of innovation, or even Boston, with MIT--some vital trends are moving in its direction. "You've got to understand how big we are," says Bloomberg, citing an encounter with a friend from Boston who told him, when the Roosevelt Island project was first being proposed, "Oh, you'll never succeed because Boston is the education capital of the country." Bloomberg says he told his friend bluntly: "New York City has more undergraduate and graduate college students than Boston has people." That, he said with a chuckle, "sort of ended that argument."

Like Google, with its $2 billion Chelsea building, some of the most important tech companies have been looking east. …