by Albert Goldson
The December 26, 2011 New York Observer article entitled “Campus Confidential” discussed the possible irregular procurement process in connection with the joint venture winners, Cornell University and the Israeli firm Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (CTJV), who will receive $100 million in grant funding to build “a new engineering mecca” on Roosevelt Island. I strongly recommend that the community engage politicians, businesses, and educational institutions for alliances and partnerships to promote the growth of high-tech facilities in Williamsburg-Greenpoint.
The explosive growth of high-tech firms in New York City is undoubtedly exciting. This is the birth of new 21st-century technology that is replacing the moribund and defunct blue collar manufacturing of the 20th century. Brooklyn’s DUMBO can attest to the successful conversion of manufacturing and warehouse buildings into high-tech firms. Even downtown Brooklyn will spawn additional high-tech facilities, as New York University is interested in establishing its applied science and urban facility at the former New York City Transit building on Jay Street.
However, the ideal location for new high-tech expansion is Williamsburg-Greenpoint, which has a number of advantages over DUMBO, downtown Brooklyn, and Roosevelt Island. North Brooklyn already has the brick-and-mortar infrastructure in place, with numerous large underused industrial spaces, like the former Domino Sugar factory, stretching up and down the waterfront. DUMBO has similar structures, but not in the quantity, variety, and total space available in North Brooklyn. And rents are much more affordable for the smaller tech firms. Although downtown Brooklyn is the commercial hub of the borough, total space is limited and only new buildings can be built to accommodate more high-tech firms.
But the biggest advantage Williamsburg-Greenpoint offers is accessibility and amenities. While the CTJV proposal includes creation of “new public open space” on Roosevelt Island, it is meaningless because the island would be a destination only for the island’s residents and the students and academics at the new facility, rather than the general public. Williamsburg-Greenpoint offers the very best in community amenities for high-tech workers and students. The cafés, restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and overall neighborhood lifestyle represent the best cultural “software” to their hardware. High-tech workers and students are a creative group and would come in droves to a neighborhood that already has a highly educated creative population. It would be a tremendous benefit for everyone because the arts community uses ever more software in its work and social media for promotion and outreach. High-tech firms would already have the perfect testing ground to promote their products.
What is important in the development of mini high-tech communities is how well they will genuinely support the real growth of the community through direct educational investment. Pumping money into a community is terrific, but its effects are limited, and financial sources dry up during slow economic times. Young people, the local seedlings, are the real investment.
Recent history has seen a series of bold and aggressive land grabs by Columbia University in Harlem, an Occupy Harlem that preceded Occupy Wall Street. Columbia’s maneuver would have made land baron Noah Cross of the movie Chinatown proud. The strategy of applying eminent domain is the corporate carpet bombing of resident communities to force them to sell and evacuate so that the well-heeled can then occupy and rebuild in their own image.
The Roosevelt Island project is a prime example of extremely poor long-term planning. According to the CTJV press releases, the estimated cost is almost $2 billion. This is about the same as that of the original Atlantic Yards development and the Domino Sugar complex. The cost will be met by tuition, philanthropy, technical license fees, and corporate partnerships. Of course, what percentage of costs will be covered by which sources was not provided, leading me to the all-important conclusion that only the “best and brightest”—and richest—will be able to afford the tuition, which will be higher than the current price of a one-bedroom midtown Manhattan condo. Those students with mere millionaire parents will be indentured techies for life to pay off the loans. And the students of the middle class will just have to keep on asking, “Do you want fries with that?” Welcome to the new corporate slavery that’s establishing even deeper roots.
This does not bode well for the ethnic diversity of the student body. An island is a perfect gated community, protected by a de facto moat (East River), as the educational gap between the haves and the have-nots becomes a ravine. The large universities are the new partners with these super-corporate powerhouses, educational feeders of students of the elite to elite corporations run by the elite. It’s a cradle-to-golden-parachute system. And it’s lock-down time for the other 99%. How can we measure talent when we use the size of a family’s wallet?
Unfortunately, there is no mention of a percentage of scholarships dedicated specifically for the awesome pool of local young talent as part of CTJV’s contribution to the community. Any large undertaking of this kind should guarantee a minimum percent placement (in the range of 15%) for New York City students. It’s the obligation of firms leading mega-projects like this one to nurture a genuine legacy within the community, with direct participation in education and not just construction or service sector jobs, which are all well and good, but whose long-term impacts are limited. What if the children of those working in the construction and service jobs—homegrown, qualified talent—could attend such superb institutions? Certainly in a population of 8 million there must be some kids who can do math.
Another major impetus for this project is Emperor Bloomberg’s personal legacy. As a billionaire, there’s no way he can depart after three terms (12 years) and be totally forgotten if he leaves a major indelible mark. This is a can’t-miss project for him. Why? Because of the shocking dearth of media coverage of such a costly project, especially during the Great Recession. I’m all for development to meet the challenges of the future; it’s the planning and execution that will always be questionable—and how the promises will be enforced.
Albert Goldson is an Architectural & Engineering Contract Manager specializing in transportation mega-projects, energy, and urban planning. He has also been a resident of Williamsburg for ten years and is an internationalist and avid jazz aficionado.