Cornell Watchdog Group Enters Phase Two

Written by Briana Warsing. Posted in Volume 37, Issue 10 - February 4, 2017

In 2012, concerned with the impact Cornell Tech construction would have on the Island, a collection of 37 Island organizations came together to form the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC), a watchdog group focused on monitoring Cornell Tech’s construction plans, and advocating for Island interests. Ultimately, RICC drew up a list of community demands, many of which were included in Cornell Tech’s contract with NYC.

Now, with the first phase of Cornell Tech’s 25-year construction plan wrapping up, RICC is shifting focus to what may end up being an even bigger challenge: making Cornell Tech see itself as part of the community.

RICC board members Christina Delfico, Joyce Short, Ellen Polivy, and Judy Buck.
RICC board members Christina Delfico, Joyce Short, Ellen Polivy, and Judy Buck.

“When RICC started out, we were more concerned with the build,” said RICC co-chair Ellen Polivy at Monday’s board nomination and election meeting. “We worked to make sure they didn’t trample us and pollute us. Now the campus and students will be here soon, so we are more focused on building a relationship with them and having them see RICC as an organization that will continue long term.”

Polivy invited coalition members to help shape the group’s future agenda. “If people want to come up with good ideas on how we can work together as a community, how we can tap the resources from Cornell and have them work with us in our community and have them improve things here, we would love that.”

Continued Vigilance

According to the RICC board, the group’s mission has always been to ensure that Cornell Tech fulfills the promises it made in the original City contract, in public meetings, and in writing. The board participates in the Cornell Tech Community & Construction Task Force and Cornell Tech town hall meetings. They also attend relevant RIOC meetings, and lobby elected officials concerning campus developments.

“We’ve been in the startup phase for years,” said RICC co-chair Judy Buck. “Vigilance: watching and waiting and making sure they adhere to what they promised.” Buck described the coming years as “Phase Two.”

“We beat up Cornell so badly in the build part of this, forcing them to barge and to watch their pollution, and there’s a whole list of items they had to fulfill,” Polivy said. “When it came to the lease with the City, it was vague enough that they could do whatever they wanted. We are being vigilant on that, long term.”

School Partnership

According to Buck, one issue that will remain a focus for RICC in the coming years is Cornell Tech’s relationship with the Island’s public school, PS/IS 217. The RICC board continues to urge the full implementation of STEM education in PS/IS 217, as required by Cornell’s lease, in which Cornell Tech committed to adopt the school.

“The school has been a very sensitive and complicated issue,” said Buck. “It actually created some hard feelings when we were pushing vigorously to have them come up with a plan. The lease says [Cornell] will adopt our school, [but] it’s not really spelled out [what that means]. You can’t do this stuff overnight. It all starts with teacher training.”

RICC’s original term sheet included the request for a K-12 education expert, and Cornell has hired one. Additional RICC requests include creating a “shadowing” program for middle school students to accompany Cornell Tech students, and the creation of mentoring programs for the Island’s post-high school young adults.

RICC Director and PS/IS 217 PTA President Erin Olavesen says she’s seen a lot of progress on this issue and hopes to see more in the future. “217’s faculty is committed to teaching computer science to every student, and it’s been great to see Cornell Tech supporting this with the Cornell Tech Teacher in Residence, Meg Ray, who is at 217 one day per week. In addition, Cornell Tech recently purchased iPads, hosted a family Maker Night, and brought 60 graduate students and faculty to the 217 campus for their annual Let’s Code RI event with 217 middle school students. [Cornell Tech Senior Director of K-12 Education] Diane Levitt is working hard for us and, as a RICC director, I want to be certain this level of commitment and engagement continues and increases.”

In an email, the RICC board praised Cornell Tech’s expanded programming at the school, but said it remained concerned that “even with continued requests, there is no permanent, embedded STEM program [from Cornell Tech] and no budget commitment for its support.”

Island Services

RICC members also remain concerned about money.

Cornell Tech, a university with a multi-billion dollar endowment, received their 12.5 acres on the Island free of charge from the City of New York, and has received additional contributions that, according to the RICC Board, total $733 million (and counting). On top of that, the school will lease space to for-profit investment firms with the goal of building collaborations between the academic and business worlds. On January 23, in fact, tech and investment firm Two Sigma Investments became the first such company to join Cornell Tech’s campus.

In 2013, after extensive negotiations, Cornell Tech agreed to pay RIOC $400,000 per year for 55 years, escalating 2% every 10 years. But considering the significant increase in population that will result from the school’s employees, partners, students, and visitors on Roosevelt Island – an increase of nearly 50%, if estimates are accurate – the RICC Board believes that Cornell Tech should contribute more significantly to the community services that support it.

Matthew Katz
"I am proud of the impact on the quality of Island life this coalition has accomplished. My hope now is to welcome our new neighbors and to encourage Cornell Tech to join us in financially assuring the future of our organizations as they expand to include the Cornell Tech academic community."

– Matt Katz, RICC Director

RICC Director Matthew Katz explained, “RIOC’s budget is entirely generated from the ground leases. But Cornell is on City property.” Katz says, “It would be very nice if Cornell, and the thousands of people who come next summer who will be using our organizations, if they’d be asked to participate in the life of this Island financially. They are not obliged to, but we are, because we are in State housing.”

For example, Island residents pay for the Public Safety Department (PSD) out of the rents that contribute to land leases and direct payments to RIOC. However, when Cornell Tech uses Public Safety officers to escort construction trucks down Main Street, or has officers stationed at the campus construction gate, they do not reimburse RIOC for the cost or supply additional manpower. RICC Director Joyce Short is concerned that Cornell Tech is using our PSD staff as their private police. “If they need service from our Public Safety Department, they should provide funds to hire and maintain the staff they need,” said Short. (See related letter on page 14.)

Currently, RICC is gathering data on how Cornell Tech’s estimated 7,000 residents and visitors will impact Island life. The focus is to ascertain what the Island’s needs will be where policing and security are concerned, whether we’ll need additional sports and field space, school facilities, and improved transportation.

RICC board members point out that congestion on the F train and Tram is already an issue. Ferry service is set to arrive this summer, but it is being designed as a double-fare system, which means there will be no free transfers between the ferry and other MTA transit. RICC is urging the City’s Economic Development Corporation, Hornblower Cruises, and the MTA, to enable free transfers to the subway and bus system. They have asked the Island’s elected officials, RIOC, and Cornell Tech for their support.

State Funds

The RICC board also plans to keep pressing State officials for funds they say were promised but have not been delivered.

New York State committed to pay $1 million per year to RIOC either annually or in a lump sum based on present value, which amounts to $23 million. The State subsequently stated in its Memorandum of Understanding on this issue, that the $23 million was to be used to support capital improvements on Roosevelt Island, and that what had been termed “boilerplate requirements” enables them not to make good on their commitment.

RICC members say they are deeply disturbed that RIOC has not received any of the funding the State committed to. RIOC failed to itemize capital projects for which the funds are needed in their 2018 budget. Without this inclusion, there is neither a demand for the money, nor evidence of need before the State’s Budget Office. RICC, together with the Roosevelt Island Residents Association, simultaneously enacted duplicate resolutions that insist on payment from the State to make good on its promise. These were just sent to State legislators and RIOC.

The Future

Several RICC members said they hoped building a deeper relationship between Cornell Tech and Island organizations would lead to broader prosperity for the Island as a whole.

“Change is exciting and can lead to tremendous partnerships and opportunity,” said RICC Director Christina Delfico. “My hope is to avoid a “Town & Gown” division. I appeal to City and State elected officials to extend the excitement, innovation, potential prosperity, beauty, and funding partners now pouring into Cornell Tech, to the Island at large. In other words, elevate the entire Island population and infrastructure while protecting the green spaces of Roosevelt Island.”

The group hopes the Island will endeavor to become both a major educational and entrepreneurial enterprise – and a unique community founded on humane ideals. To that end, RICC board members offered praise for several Cornell Tech employees that they say have shown themselves to be good partners, such as Andrew Winters, Sr. Director of Capital Projects, Jane Swanson, Assistant Director, Government and Community Relations, Diane Levitt, Sr. Director of K-12 Education, and Floyd Young, Sr. Director of Facilities Operations.

RICC Director Dave Evans says, “I envision a productive interaction [between the two communities] with support and integration into this Island community. When folks think of [Roosevelt Island] or ask about it or speak of it, live on it, use and thrive on it, they will not have in mind to say ‘Cornell-Technion’, but rather, ‘Cornell-Technion Roosevelt Island’.”

Tags: Cornell construction Briana Warsing Island Life RICC

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