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.”


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