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Roosevelt Islanders Not Smitten With Cornell's Campus Design

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The masterplan for Cornell's tech campus on Roosevelt Island won approval last spring, giving the university the green light for construction to begin this year. Even though all systems are go, Cornell is trying to be a good neighbor, so they're making an effort to keep the community informed. After revealing detailed designs for the first buildings last month, Cornell presented the updated plans for the first academic building (highlighted by the red arrow in the picture at right) to the community board last night.

Designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, the building features glazed glass on the first floor so that activity within the building can be seen from outside. Sustainability is key for the whole campus so while glass will make up 40 percent of the building, the rest will be solid materials to minimize heating and cooling needs. The whole thing will be topped by a solar panel array to help the building achieve net-zero energy usage. All of the architects and developers congratulated each other and tooted their own horns when the design were recently detailed, but the community wasn't so smitten.

For all the school's modern touches, including an open floor plan designed for maximum "flexibility," the board pointed out a glaring omission: no audio induction looping for the hearing impaired outside of the public spaces on the first floor. Cornell previously promised to include audio loops, but they were left out of the updated plans. "What's especially frustrating is that this is a technology school," said one hearing-imparied board member. The American Disabilities Act requires new buildings to offer assisted listening systems in assembly areas or lecture spaces, so the systems will be added to all upper-level classrooms.

Another sticking point was the landscaping. Longtime resident Judy Berdy was saddened by the proposed removal of the vast majority of trees currently on the site, particularly on the northern end. She gave an impassioned plea for the architects to "go back to the drawing board" and reconsider whether all those trees needed to be removed. Community members met her comments with a smattering of applause, and the board voted to include tree preservation as a condition for approval of the academic building plans.

Plans were also presented for the renewal energy Central Utility Plant or CUP, which will be used by Con Edison and select members of the Cornell community. Since Con Edison requires the building to be opaque, the plan is to create a secondary façade around the building with dark rust-colored panels that are slanted to provide different perspectives and create "rhythm." But residents thought the paneling was too dark and "much more stark than that being proposed for the other buildings." Berdy felt the material would detract from the "open campus" feel the architects were going for. The board approved CUP on the condition that they change the façade and provide sufficient off-street access to the equipment vans that would be entering the building.

Several board members felt that there was a lack of cohesiveness to the plans; the buildings are being designed by different architectural firms—Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects designed the first academic building, while Weiss Manfredi is creating the corporate co-location building— on different construction schedules. Even something as relatively simple as garbage disposal became problematic because of the various architects on the project.

Initially, board members claimed they were told that all the university's garbage was supposed to go to a central location on campus to minimize truck traffic on the island. While the first academic building does have one location in the cellar—designed to decrease organic waste by 95 percent through the use of a pulper and dehydrator—there is no specified place for all the University's waste because some of the plans for future buildings are still being created by other architectural firms. Despite the objections, plans the campus will proceed, and Cornell Tech will break ground later this year.
—Kizzy Cox
· Cornell Tech's Glassy Green Roosevelt Island Campus Revealed [Curbed]
· Cornell NYC Tech: Future Campus [official]
· All Cornell coverage [Curbed]