Thursday, July 31, 2014

Statement to the Village of Hamilton Planning Board, 7/30/14

by Geoff Holm
Associate Professor of Biology

First, I’d like to thank Fairmount Properties for their interest in making a significant investment in the Village of Hamilton. I appreciate their stated desire to build a high quality project, and I welcome the modifications they have made to their plan, including moving the building to have a street-front presence and excluding green space, to attempt to minimize the impact of the building on the surrounding neighborhood. I also appreciate the desire that they spoke of at the Zoning Board meeting on the 17th to be “a part of the community,” and it is this sentiment that I would like to address this evening.

The project, as proposed, will not merely be “part of the community.” It will fundamentally change our community, and irrevocably alter the relationship between Colgate and the Village of Hamilton for the foreseeable future. As a resident of the Village and a faculty member at Colgate, I understand that Colgate and the Village are interlinked. I am grateful that Colgate-based businesses, such as the Bookstore, provide a commercial anchor for other downtown businesses. I think that it is appropriate that housing for students living off-campus should be concentrated in the village core, and not on residential streets. I believe that the current model of separate apartments, each accommodating two or three students, located above the retail stores is reasonable. But even with these arrangements, to me, it still feels like the village and the campus are separate and distinct. Colgate students primarily live on campus, and come to downtown to shop or go to restaurants, the movies, or yes, even perhaps an arts center. The proposed project, however, significantly alters that model.

Nowhere else in the Village would there be such a high concentration of Colgate students living in one location, whether it’s termed a “boardinghouse” (though it doesn’t seem to fit that definition under the Village code), a collection of multiple “boardinghouses,” or, for all intents and purposes a privately owned dormitory. In essence, this project removes for all time any perceived separation between the Colgate campus and the Village of Hamilton. It is the final crossing of the line between “downtown Hamilton is a place where some students live and shop” to “downtown Hamilton is an extension of Colgate’s campus.” Reciprocally, as a faculty member, I can live off of the campus and still easily take part in the events that occur on campus, without that campus being in my backyard. Perhaps removing this separation is the vision of the current Colgate administration and the developers, but it is not my vision, and I do not believe it is the vision of many Colgate faculty and staff members that I have talked with, or many of the non-Colgate-affiliated Hamilton residents. I do not believe that, under the General Standards the Board must consider, this vision is “in harmony with the character of the neighborhood,” or of the Village of Hamilton.

I don’t dispute that some form of residence for Colgate students is an appropriate use for the property, and may in fact be a reasonable way to accomplish the goal of concentrating off-campus students to the village core. However, the size and scale of this project is not appropriate, and will change the character of the neighborhood. I do not believe that 10% of the senior class should be living in one building downtown. A development with a better balance of retail space and student residences would be more in keeping with the character of the downtown area. Having fewer students on the property, such as in the 14 or so units allowed on the property under current zoning for a multiple family dwelling, would also alleviate many of the concerns of parking, traffic, loitering, and noise that this structure poses.

In closing, I believe that this site represents a monumental, and perhaps the only, opportunity to truly plan for the future relationship between Colgate student residents and the downtown Village core. There will be, and should be, students living in the Village core, but this project will dictate the nature of howstudents inhabit the Village. Such a crucial decision requires careful and thoughtful planning; not a rush through the system, with key features of the proposal changing on a weekly basis; nor with attempts to reframe the nature of the project to circumvent zoning restrictions. It requires input from multiple constituencies, a careful analysis of its long-term effects on the Village, and a thorough vetting and approval through Colgate’s governance structure, which it has not received. It should be in harmony with the character of the neighborhood, and not be objectionable to nearby properties, including my property, adjacent to the site at 31 Montgomery St. As we all know, any development will never please everyone; but in whatever manner this location, in particular, is developed, the project should be one that has many residents excited about the future of our community, not worried about it. That is what it will take for Fairmount to be “part of the community.”


Open Letter on Fairmount Properties Proposal for Hamilton New York

by Peter Balakian
Professor of English; Director of Creative Writing

There has been substantial and serious criticism of the Fairmount Properties proposal for the development of an 81 bed student facility to be built on the site of the former Wayne’s Market.

I don’t want to reiterate all of the issues and problems that have been raised by many residents of our town, but would like to highlight some central ones made by Bob McVaugh and Norman von Wettberg, and put some of these issues in an additional perspective.

1) McVaugh (NSH 7/28) has noted that Fairmount’s efforts to evade zoning requirements by calling itself a boardinghouse is a false claim and it falls outside the concept of both boarding house regulations and zoning requirements. Furthermore, the third party commitment (Colgate University) to underwrite an individual user undermines the boarding house claims further.

2) McVaugh also notes that the proposed 81-bed student facility with its large parking space necessity will disrupt the delicate balance of the downtown business zone and contiguous residential zone, and he refers us to the Village Code (174-24). McVaugh also notes that the concept and reach of the 81- bed facility will have an “egregious impact” on the complex, mixed environment of the business/ residential neighborhood in what many of us would call a crucial nexus of the town.

3) von Wettberg has underscored how negatively the Fairmount project will impact the community in an 11 point list (letter to Hamilton Zoning Board of Appeals 7/22); even if only half of the points on that list are indisputable, the impact is of major proportions: the increase in empty apartments; the impact on local landlords; the reduction of taxes paid by owners on student rental properties; the increase in rental rates for downtown landlords; the increase in empty storefronts in downtown, and more.

4) von Wettberg notes that the variance needed to avert Hamilton zoning requirements is so extreme that this alone embodies the problem with the entire project.

5) Both vonWettberg and McVaugh offer perspectives on Fairmount that others in the community have also expressed: Fairmount has not presented itself in a scrupulous way—shifting and changing its identity to evade legal parameters; it has positioned itself in relation to the community in a negative if not offensive manner with its rhetoric and assumptions. Many feel that Fairmount has been less than transparent in its general approach to Hamilton community.

6) It is clear that Colgate’s support of the project is essential for the project to go forward. President Herbst’s memo to the community of July 24 portrays this project in glowing terms
as a wonderful fit with town and the community. Yet, given the serious and thoughtful concerns and admonitions from many places in the community (I use McVaugh and von Wettberg as representative voices here), it strikes me that this is not a time for Colgate to embrace this project without serious listening and reflection to the many seasoned voices of assessment and critique.

In my 34 years at Colgate, I’ve seen Colgate engage in superb building and restoration projects that have contributed greatly to the village, town, community and region. The Colgate Bookstore, the Movie Theater, and the Barge among them. But, I’ve also seen Colgate rethink and retract what were fast and furious plans, for example, in 1990, when the university was going to build 2 dorms and a dining hall on the Merrill House Lawn. In rethinking that project the university made a wise and creative decision to add 2 grand dorms adjacent to Frank Dining Hall.

In short, Colgate’s leadership in this moment is crucial and I among many— both on the faculty and in the town— are counting on Colgate to rethink its support of this project.

It seems clear from the McVaugh/von Wettberg representative perspectives that the Fairmount projected projects—both at the Wayne’s Market site and the lots adjacent to Oneida Savings Bank
are not well-suited to our village, town, and community. The projects disrupt the delicate social/economic/geographic eco-system of our community and town. McVaugh has aptly used the term “blight” and many people in the community concur—this would be a blight on our small,
cohesive, complex community.

I urge the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals and Colgate to consider the problems with this proposed project with a sense of the long term impact on our community.


Peter Balakian 

“A Norman Rockwell Moment”: Update on the July 30, 2014 Meeting of the Village Planning Board in Hamilton, NY

by Jill Harsin
Professor of History
Lynn Staley
Professor of English

Bottom Line: No decision was made.  Fairmount Properties [FP] have changed their plans since last Thursday, and have not yet submitted updated plans to the Board.  Therefore the Board had to close the meeting, after over three hours of presentations and public comments, and following a similar meeting on Thursday, July 24.  FP will submit an updated plan by the beginning of next week, and the Planning Board will meet in the courthouse on August 6 and August 13 at 7 p.m.  The Board asked FP to submit plans electronically as well as in hard copy, and they will post the submitted plans on the Village website.  The Board stated that the public comment period was over, after about five hours spread across two meetings; several members of the public protested, noting that they would like to respond to the plans as they change.  The Board will take this into consideration.  As always, check the Next Door Hamilton website for updates.  If you are not a member, ask an existing member for an invitation.  You will find there information as well as clear and substantive analyses of village zoning board regulations in relation to this project.

Two new points of information:
  • FP has changed their plans to a 73-bed facility—a change needed, perhaps, because they do not in fact have a five-year agreement to lease parking spaces from Curtis Hardware next door, as they stated last week.  They are now configuring the space as 12 4-bedroom apartments, 12 2-bedroom apartments, and 1 single unit, the last for the supervisor of the building.
  •  Colgate has made an agreement to pay FP for unrented apartments for the next twenty years.  The agreement has not yet been signed.

Ideas that emerged from the FP presentation and public comments, in no particular order:
  •  “Colgate” does not support this project.  Many, probably most, of Colgate’s employees are opposed to this project, which threatens the tranquility of the village as well as their property values.  The project is supported by members of the Colgate administration (perhaps not all of them) and apparently by the Board of Trustees (perhaps not all of them).  A number of Colgate faculty members spoke against the project and made precisely this point, stressing also their concern about faculty governance at Colgate and the way it had been overridden in this matter.  Case in point: the lengthy planning process that resulted in the Living the Liberal Arts and Campus Master Plan documentsThe faculty supported those documents as expressions of the direction in which we would like to take Colgate.  They do not include a 73-person privately owned off-campus living facility, which would have an outcome that is antithetical to the goals expressed in those documents.
  •  FP does not yet have a clear idea of how they are going to manage this property in terms of order and safety, nor have they made binding commitments about student safety and public order in the neighborhood.  They have firm plans only for a single on-site manager.  They have in mind several things they might “potentially” do in addition: a satellite office somewhere in the building that could potentially be shared between campus safety and the village police; faculty, coaches, etc. who potentially might want to live in the building; a person potentially hired to be in the parking lot area from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursday through Saturday, to help students get into the building.  They believe that cutting the distance between the bars and the residence will prevent vandalism and trash as students make their (shorter) way home.  The reasons for the surprising uncertainty of their plans was illuminated by one of the public commenters, who had researched other FP alliances with colleges and universities and discovered that FP really doesn’t have much experience with managing undergraduates; their other collaborations with universities have mostly been apartments for young professionals, faculty, or medical personnel.  Another commenter pointed out that the tendency to keep all these commitments merely “potential” was in fact a way to keep them from being firm commitments.
  • The project is too big for the site.  It is too great an intrusion into Hamilton.  It has too great a potential to blight the neighborhood.
  • The project is too residential for the commercial district of Hamilton, and thus is economically detrimental to the village in the long run.  Indeed, the commercial space available in the project has been severely reduced, from 5,500 sq. ft. (still promised in FP’s online brochure) to no more than 1,000 sq. ft. of commercial space as of last Thursday—and this, in prime property in the center of our small business district.
  •  The disruptive presence will likely strain the Hamilton village police force; the stress on the fire department through false alarms (a common on-campus occurrence, managed by campus personnel) was discussed at the Thursday meeting.
  • The project erases the distinction that has always been made, and needs to be made, between Hamilton and Colgate.
  • The village needs affordable options for new and visiting faculty and staff, as well as residential choices for ageing Hamilton residents who wish to “downsize” from their big family homes but have no other choice within the village.  Such housing would be welcome.

In other news, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is spearheading a bill, “The Campus Safety and Accountability Act,” co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of eight senators, to tackle the problem of sexual assault on college campuses.  We already are in compliance with at least one of the features: training standards for on-campus personnel involved in such cases, through our Equity Grievance Panel.  One of the most important features, however, is a transparency requirement, to be carried out by means of an anonymous and standardized survey of every college student on every campus about her/his experience of sexual violence.  The plan is to publish the results online so that parents and potential future students can make a comparison of schools.  Will the Bill get passed?  Given the politics of this era, in which the two political parties agree on few things but do seem to agree on one thing—namely, “transparency” in colleges and universities (till now described in terms of educational “outcomes”)—this Bill might get passed in some form.  []

This new legislative initiative is relevant to the issue at hand.  As we have previously suggested, there are many potential problems in allowing private ownership of a facility that houses so many Colgate students.  We don’t have to imagine what those problems are: we’ve lived through them with the Broad Street houses, acquired about a decade ago with much difficulty and expense.

Aside from the values we wish to nurture in our students, or—more bluntly—the behavioral standards we must, by law (Title IX), enforce, there is another issue to be considered in regard to this proposed project, and that is the appropriate relationship between college and town.  Colleges in small towns are sources of employment.  They pour cash into the community through student business.  They provide entertainment and cultural events.  If not for Colgate, Hamilton would be as dead as (fill in your own blank).  Perhaps there are those who think that Colgate has been so generous to the village of Hamilton that they are entitled to remake it as they choose.

But Colgate does not own the village of Hamilton.  The administrators of Colgate, who most certainly do not speak for all of Colgate in this matter, do not have the right to impose a vision drawn up in the Cleveland headquarters of Fairmount Properties without consideration for the wishes of the people who live here, and have lived here for many years.  They do not have the right to pick winners and losers.  (Sorry, Montgomery Street!  Your property values are going to tank!)  They have no basis for making the assumption that the owners of current student rental units in village neighborhoods will convert their rentals to faculty units, or even sell to faculty (as several speakers pointed out tonight).  Indeed, one such property owner at the July 24, 2014 meeting predicted that if the owners could not rent to Colgate students they would rent to Morrisville students—thus increasing the total number of students in the village.  More to come.

(The title of this piece refers to a comment from the FP attorney, who complimented the residents of Hamilton present at the meeting for their interest in the Village.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Open Letter to President Herbst Regarding Fairmount Properties

by Wanda Warren Berry

Professor of Philosophy and Religion, emerita

I write both as a long-standing member of the Colgate community and as a resident of the Village for 57 years.  Beyond teaching Colgate students for many years (during nine of which I taught all men), I have been an active and participating member in the civic and political life of the Village and Town of Hamilton. You may have heard of the numerous times when I have defended Colgate when it has been unjustly criticized by those in the town who resent Colgate's influence.  I have tried to explain the reasons it matters to Colgate that the Village be vibrant and attractive. I have tried to encourage realistic gratitude for the importance of Colgate to the village and of the village to Colgate.

I also have been well aware of the need for more rental housing in the village as well as the village's need to increase its tax base.  I was more than ready to support the proposals from Fairmount Properties if they met those needs without damaging the village and the college.

However, I think the current proposal for the Eaton Street location is bad both for Colgate and the village.  It seems designed to encourage exactly the kind of immature behavior our stated educational goals discourage.  I remember when my own daughters were tired of dorm living and sought apartments in the communities where they were in school.  But it is a very different thing to share an apartment with one or two fellow students than to be able to choose "apartments" with eight clustered bedrooms. This seems designed to encourage groups of students (many probably affiliated in Greek-letter societies) to move downtown for the senior year in order to be free of University supervision and to indulge in the most dangerous aspects of our drinking and drugging cultures. 

On Nextdoor Hamilton I have argued that the apartments over the retail units in the Eaton St. building might best be one and two bedroom units that cater to adults, either Colgate staff or students-- or others working in the region.  If Colgate seniors successfully competed for one of these apartments, they would be expected to live up to normal standards for decent behavior in interaction with other adults. 

After years of observing village and college, I think the better plan is to move all students to the campus.  But if 250 students must live in the village, I cannot think of a more dangerous plan for Colgate's reputation and the health and safety of the village than the current proposal. This is not said out of personal interest, since I live on the other side of the village.

In sum, I urge you to withdraw your agreement to guarantee full occupancy of the building Fairmount Properties has proposed for Eaton St.  If an attractive and secure rental complex is open to tenants on a first come-first serve basis, it will draw tenants by its own merits.   Our students who live there will be encouraged to be adults in a community of adults.