August 25, 2000

Council OKs Southwest Development

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Opinions clashed at City Hall last night as Common Council members voted to approve the Design Guidelines and adopt the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) for the proposed Southwest Area Land Use Plan.

While some residents have hailed the project as a chance to introduce much-needed retail chains to Ithaca, others have condemned it as an attempt to push “big box businesses” into a small-town economy.

In part because part of the proposed construction site is located near scenic Buttermilk Falls State Park, the site’s environmental and aesthetic impact has been hotly debated within the community since the city began discussion between council members and the public in 1992.

The FGEIS is the final stage of a lengthy environmental review designed to determine what negative impact, if any, the proposed plan would have on the surrounding natural areas.

The Design Guidelines supplement the city’s site plan review process and make recommendations on dimensions, landscaping, building setback (the distance between buildings and the street), and architectural features.

Mayor Alan J. Cohen ’81 repeatedly warned heckling and jeering audience members to quiet down during the meeting. Two uniformed police officers stood by to ensure that order was maintained.

“If any member of the public chooses to try to disrupt this meeting, they will be asked to leave,” Cohen said. “If they do not leave, they will be considered trespassing.”

One man was asked to leave during the proceedings and several others were given final warnings. Protesters carried homemade picket signs with slogans including “Stop Gambling with Taxpayers’ Money” and “Shopping Malls Don’t Mix With Waterfalls.” The council members have previously held several forums for public comment during which many of the same issues were debated

Council members Diann Sams and Josh Glasstetter were the only two opposing votes as the council approved the Design Guidelines.

“This is an enormous project, and it has tremendous impact on this community,” Sams said. “I encourage development, but I’m not sure this isn’t too much development.”

Sams’ remarks were met by applause and cheering from protesters seated in the audience as she questioned the implications of “something so large.”

“Are we wed to this? Is there a process to stop something we don’t want?” Sams asked. “It’s going to snowball and we don’t know the impact.”

Glasstetter questioned what other types of businesses might join the so-called big box stores in the future and suggested that offices and smaller businesses would be better located in “burned-out” areas of the city.

“By having [big box stores] there, but nothing else there, we can answer that need but still protect everything else,” Glasstetter said.

The FGEIS findings, which were first accepted as complete by Common Council members on May 25, were also approved following a second vote in which Sams and Glasstetter abstained.

Archived article by Katherine Davis