Saturday, July 26, 2014

“You Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till It’s Gone)”*: Colgate, Hamilton, and Fairmount Properties

by Jill Harsin
Professor of History


Lynn Staley
Professor of English

In an earlier post on this blog (reprinted from Next Door Hamilton, where it has occasioned much discussion), Doug MacDonald provided important information about the plans for a large apartment complex in downtown Hamilton.  He has also made an eloquent case for regarding this plan as one that will fundamentally alter the character of the town.  Very few, apparently, were aware of this truly momentous project until the July 15 meeting, in which residents of Montgomery and Lebanon Streets were provided with information for the first time.  More than those two streets, of course, will be affected.  

[Future Meeting(s): There was a meeting of the Planning Board, open to the public, on July 24; most of us heard about it only that morning on Next Door Hamilton.  Despite the late news of the meeting, there were nevertheless many residents of Hamilton and outlying areas in attendance who expressed grave misgivings about the project.  There was a planned meeting, as mentioned in Doug’s post, for a July 30 meeting at 7:00 p.m. at the Courthouse; a recent notice on Next Door Hamilton states that this meeting will indeed be held on July 30 at 7 p.m.  We suggest that anyone who is interested should keep checking Next Door Hamilton; if you are not on that site, ask a current member for an invitation.]This post is about the potential effect of Fairmount’s planned project on Colgate as a residential campus.  There are three fundamental issues that need to be addressed:

  • Campus planning at Colgate has been ongoing since 2011.  The process has been deliberative and remarkably open, and many faculty have been involved, as members of the Advisory and Planning Committee, as participants in the working groups, or as part of the numerous forums and presentations.  The sudden appearance of this new project is in sharp contrast to the measured and transparent approach taken up to this point.  Simply put: where does this project “fit” in regard to the Sasaki Plans for the campus and especially the two task forces—Campus Master Planning, delivered in final form on January 24, 2014, and Living the Liberal Arts, sent to the campus community on July 17, 2013?  Both task force plans represent a great deal of hard work on the part of faculty, administrators, and staff, and both are very recent expressions of Colgate’s vision for the future.  While there is mention of placing off-campus students in a “village core,” there is no reference to building an 81-student apartment house in close proximity to mostly single-family residences, as Fairmount Properties wishes to do.  (Both plans are readily accessible to those with Colgate email logins by looking them up on the Colgate Home page.)  

  • A second question involves the extent of Colgate’s legal liability for what will essentially be (whether owned by Colgate or not) a downtown dormitory (or perhaps “unofficial” fraternity annex).  How much supervision will Colgate realistically be able to exercise in this building?  At the meeting on July 24, one of the Fairmount representatives was repeatedly questioned on precisely the issue of the access that the officers of Campus Safety will have to this large concentration of Colgate students.  The answer, frankly, was ambiguous: the representative stated that Campus Safety “would be welcome,” or that their one on-site building manager would call the Hamilton police—or something of the sort.  It was not at all clear, in short, whether members of Campus Safety would have unfettered access.  (Even if Fairmount Properties grants this access, subsequent owners may not.) Many of us have lived through the time during which Broad Street properties were owned by outside entities, a problem that was remedied only at great expense and trouble; we don’t want to replicate a dysfunctional situation.  This issue has taken on additional prominence because there has been much recent discussion, in arenas ranging from the New York Times to this blog, about Title IX issues, the responsibility of colleges in these matters, and the increasing government scrutiny of college processes in sexual assault cases (and our students, wherever they live, will rightly come to us for help).  Are we setting up a situation in which an outside entity gets the profits and we get the lawsuits?  Are we potentially condoning a living space that might  become a dangerous environment for our most vulnerable students?

  • A third and final question involves Colgate’s responsibility to the village.  As we know, Colgate and its alums have been very generous to the village.  The movie theater, the Barge, the Bookstore, and most recently the refurbished Colgate Inn itself, are only the most visible examples.  Students provide customers for downtown businesses, and their talents are the source of sporting events, concerts, plays, and art exhibits.  Colgate generously brings to campus prominent speakers and authors, the Manhattan String Quartet, the Friday film series, and dance groups, many or most of them open to the public.  We also know that many students already live in the village—some of them in relatively large Colgate-owned housing clusters outside the main village, others in housing owned by local landlords, in groups of two or four.  This dense, concentrated housing project within the village seems profoundly different from all of these; even if it does not increase (but merely shifts to this location) the number of Colgate students living off-campus as before, it seems too intrusive and too sudden a remaking of the town.  As their online brochure indicates [google Fairmount Properties Hamilton NY, or go to this address:], Fairmount Properties has a comprehensive plan that has implications for local businesses, restaurants, landlords, and residences.  The footprint seems awfully big.  

The Fairmount Properties brochure announces a Fall 2014 start for their project in Hamilton.  As Professor MacDonald has noted, they have recently expanded their proposal substantially and are seeking approval for that expansion.  This last-minute request to change the zoning regulations—to allow for a much more densely populated facility than currently exists in the surrounding neighborhoods—frankly does not lead to much confidence in the extent of the planning that has been conducted already.  (On the other hand, they are now simply “renaming” the type of facility: the new change in plans described last night, in which it was suddenly proclaimed—so far as we could tell--that they did not require any zoning change, did not add clarity to the situation.) Fairmount Properties itself has mostly dealt with large urban universities, in areas where a downtown facility housing 81 students would scarcely be noticed; such is not the case in Hamilton.  The Living the Liberal Arts plan eloquently states, “Thus, at the heart of our proposal, we recommend that the residential experience be transformed, promoting intergenerational relationships and a healthier lifestyle where moderation in alcohol use is the norm, and the living community is interconnected with other aspects of Colgate life” (p. 3).  This proposed project seems a step in the wrong direction.

*From “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell (1970)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Let us be clear: this project is little more than an outsourced dormitory placed in the commercial heart of the village. As such, it provides very little in the way of a village living/learning opportunity for students that would live there. But it does occupy a key commercial parcel that we will never be able to get back if this goes forward. The project certainly seems inappropriate on many counts for the B2 business district designation of the property.

The lack of transparency and involvement of campus governance in this project is somewhere between disappointing and unacceptable. Because we did not utilize campus governance as a sounding board and vetting process, we have only succeeded in angering many (and quite likely the vast majority) of village residents, among whom are many of the faculty that enthusiastically serve this institution. I cannot remember a time in my 30+ years at Colgate when the college was so insistent on doing something that the village residents so strongly, and rightfully oppose. I hope we as an institution wake up and smell the coffee before it's too late, and the village and its relationship with Colgate is irreparably harmed.