Friday, August 1, 2014

Putting the Community in Community Development: A View on the Fairmount Proposal

by Chris Henke
Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology

During the time I have taught at Colgate, the institution has become more and more active in terms of its engagement with our local community in Hamilton and Central NY.  Through local partnerships and campus organizations, Colgate has done many positive things to stimulate development, promote civic engagement, and to help our students get out into the community to learn from and help our neighbors

With that perhaps overly-earnest preamble stated, the recent news about the Fairmount Properties proposal to build a student housing unit downtown seems entirely out of step with the kinds of development practices that help to build goodwill and good neighbors with Colgate’s community.  Rather than working with existing community partners to help find a way to develop more affordable and attractive housing options in the village, Colgate faculty and the larger Hamilton community have been caught entirely off guard by the Fairmount proposal.  Other posts here describe very well how this proposal violates many principles of our recent strategic planning initiatives.  But the proposal is also just plain bad in terms of Colgate’s commitment to developing strong community relationships---in fact, it seems custom designed to antagonize our neighbors and provide ever more fuel for those who unreflectively blame the university for every problem facing Hamilton. 

To date, none of the arguments advanced in support of the Fairmount proposal by the university administration---especially in terms of community development---seem to add up.  Here are a few key points I believe need much more detailed justification before the proposed development will make sense for Colgate and the Hamilton community:

  • A recent email from President Herbst explains the rationale behind the Fairmount project, claiming that, “the university can no longer be the primary economic driver for this community.”  If that is the case, then why is the university promising Fairmount full capacity with Colgate students for TWENTY YEARS?  Rather than offloading some of the financial burden for housing in the community, we have made a sweetheart deal with an out-of-state developer, a deal which commits the university for many thousands of dollars of revenue each year.  How does this take Colgate out of the economic driver’s seat?
  • In that same communication, the President also claims that the Fairmount project will “increase the housing stock available to families and individuals moving to the community, and reclaim some of the neighborhoods where increased student housing has changed the character and quality of life.”  But it is not clear how or if this change will happen.  Will current property owners be able and willing to convert off-campus student housing stock to properties suitable for non-student rentals?  Is Colgate planning to provide incentives for existing owners to retool their properties or for new staff, faculty, or other interested new homeowners to buy fixer-uppers in the village?  If that is the case, then how, again, does this take Colgate out of the driver’s seat for Hamilton’s economic engine?
  • Finally, how do we know that our students actually want to live in the building proposed by Fairmount?  The 250 Colgate seniors who are approved to live in off-campus housing each year want to experience the independence of renting a home in the community and begin their transition to post-graduate life.  If those seniors wish to live in a more dorm-like setting, isn’t that exactly what we currently have in the campus townhouses south of campus on Route 12B?  Those townhouses were identified as undesirable and inconsistent with our strategic goals in the recent campus master planning process.

Ultimately, effective communication is essential for good relationships with our community neighbors and partners.  I urge President Herbst and the Colgate administration to make a more detailed and coherent case for the Fairmount proposal or to withdraw the university’s support for the project.


David McCabe said...

Thanks for this very cogent statement, Chris. You have raised a host of important issues that I (for one) hadn't fully considered. Among these, the utter disregard for any serious commitment to community planning in this thing (I am thinking of the communities of (1) residents of Hamilton, and (2) the faculty) is especially worrisome. Thanks for stating the case so clearly.

Geoff said...

Fantastic post, Chris. To emphasize your point, several of the landlords that rent houses to students in the village have stated that if they can't rent to Colgate students, they will rent to Morrisville students, rather than convert the property to rentals for faculty, staff, etc. They can charge far more to students than they can renting to a single family, so it is not financially viable to convert their housing stock away from student rentals.