Thursday, July 31, 2014

“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.)

1 comment:

Barbara Regenspan said...

Just to add that an experienced Hamilton police officer stated definitively that the Hamilton police were in no position to respond to the inevitable quantity of calls for their service that such a concentration of students would precipitate.