Just as a trench dug in the 1800s created a shortcut to the nation's interior and helped make New York a global trading hub, the city is now hoping for another "Erie Canal moment" with a high-tech research complex to be built on an island in the East River.
The idea is to create an applied-sciences university where engineers are also trained as entrepreneurs from day one. Proponents say New York, home to powerful global companies and now exploding with technological startups, could shift this sector into top gear if the latest findings went straight into new businesses.
"Today we're second only to Silicon Valley as a tech center, and we don't like to be second to anybody," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
The $2 billion, 10-acre campus planned for Roosevelt Island is being calledCornellNYC Tech and is a partnership between the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Cornell University, which has its main site in the upstate town of Ithaca but also has a major presence in New York City with its medical school.
CornellNYC Tech expects to generate $1 billion or more in tax revenue over several decades, plus tens of thousands of construction jobs.
Graduate students will start working in September, using 22,000 square feet of Manhattan space loaned free of charge by Google. The island campus is set to open in 2017, with construction beginning after a half-abandoned, rust-tinged hospital is demolished in early 2014 to make room for the gleaming new community.
Roosevelt Island, a relatively placid oasis facing the United Nations on the Manhattan side and Queens on the other, is home to high-rise residential buildings and an aging hospital complex. The little automobile traffic is courtesy of one road connected to the mainland, and most residents get back and forth on the subway or on a sky tram over the river.
Patients are still getting care at a public hospital built in 1939 that includes a nursing home and long-term rehabilitation center. Plans are in the works to move the patients to facilities elsewhere in the city.
Officials are reassuring residents that their lives won't be disrupted.
"We're going to use our expertise to try to minimize the number of cars on the island," Cornell President David Skorton told concerned residents at a recent town hall meeting.
The land for the project belongs to the city, which is also providing $100 million in public money for infrastructure. Another $350 million comes from Cornell alumnus Charles F. Feeney, 81, who made his fortune from duty-free shops.
With academic brains linked to business brawn and the initial injection of money, CornellNYC Tech is expected to be different from other academic endeavors.
At most graduate research centers, practical applications follow academic results -- hoping for a profitable connection.
But at this school, students will develop software and hardware for three core industries that already are the city's strength: medical technology and environmental and green energy systems, plus digital media being used in fields from fashion and financial services to advertising.
Mentors from various industries will work directly with students, so innovative ideas and business develop side by side and any patents belong to those involved, with a minimum of middlemen. Students can then immediately help grow startup companies with interested investors.
"We hope to bootstrap quicker," said Craig Gotsman, a computer science professor at Technion-Israel in Haifa, Israel, who was named director of the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute within CornellNYC.
"We will involve industry right away, on campus, to develop entrepreneurial skills in the students," he said.