November 7, 2003

City Approves Parking Lot

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At the end of last week, New York Supreme Court Justice Robert C. Mulvey released his final decision regarding Cornell’s proposed parking lot on West Campus, ordering the City of Ithaca Planning Board to approve the lot and bringing a close to a debate that has sparked much controversy among residents and students alike.

The planning board has objected to Cornell installing a parking lot on the land between Stewart and University Avenues. On Sept. 9, the members responded in writing to the judge’s request to make a new case for their rejection of the lot. The judge’s recent order took that document into account but claimed that the board had not made a new argument to support their case. In their meeting Wednesday night, the board opted to obey the judge’s order and give their approval to the lot, deciding not to appeal.

Danny Pearlstein ’05, president of 660 Stewart Cooperative and a Sun columnist, attended the planning board’s meeting as a concerned resident. Although he wanted the board to vote in favor of appealing the judge’s decision, he explained that due to the order’s five-day deadline, the board had to meet quickly and was unable to make the meeting a public forum. According to Pearlstein, the members of the board went into a separate room to discuss a plan of action with city attorney Norma Schwab.

“[The 660 Stewart Cooperative members] were not allowed to make a public comment. We were frozen out of the meeting,” he said.

The part of the meeting that concerned Pearlstein the most was the fact that Schwab convinced members of the planning board not to appeal and suggested that they would lose the battle once again. According to Pearlstein, she did not make it clear that she would represent them if they continued to prevent Cornell from building the lot.

Pearlstein believes that much of the decision not to appeal stems from a recent condition within a memorandum of understanding between Ithaca and Cornell, announced by President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 last month, that allows Cornell to withdraw funds designated for the City of Ithaca if the University decides the city has acted arbitrarily in any way.

“I don’t see how … that was somehow a threat,” said Cornell lawyer Shirley Egan ’70. “We played by the rules and we expect others to play by the rules, and if we think they did not, we’re certainly entitled to go to court about it.”

Pearlstein also believes that the deadline was partially intended to prevent an open forum from taking place.

“I was really upset by the outcome,” he said. “We all would have told them to appeal; they just couldn’t listen to us.”

“Cornell has been waiting since February, and it’s starting to have an economic impact on the [West Campus Residential Initiative],” Egan said.

She said that the five-day deadline given in the order was “based on the fact that the planning board did not comply with the 45-day deadline by making … a new decision,” referring to the amount of time given to the board to write their statement, delivered on Sept. 9.

According to John Kiefer, associate director of planning, design and construction for the WCRI, the parking lot decision was welcomed by members involved in the WCRI.

“We’re happy to hear it,” Kiefer said. “We really need the parking. We’re anxious to get a resolution.”

Although the board has now approved the lot, Cornell must still get permission from the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission before construction can begin. The area in which Cornell plans to build was declared a city historic district earlier this year.

When asked whether he thought the process of obtaining approval from the commission would be as difficult as it was with the board, Kiefer responded, “It’s tough to say. It’s a big project now that it is in the public eye.”

Egan did not foresee any obstacles from the commission, explaining that when making its plans, Cornell assessed the area as if it were a historic district even before the area was officially declared as such.

Kiefer said that the WCRI planners will meet with the commission next Thursday.

“We’re anxious to get started,” he said, explaining Cornell’s need for parking to accommodate contractors working on WCRI construction.

A temporary lot has been created on Libe Slope to provide parking while construction takes place. The current parking lot on West Campus will lose a number of spaces due to the WCRI’s building additions.

Kiefer defended the future location of the parking lot, saying that, although it is a controversial site, it appeared to be the least offensive place for the lot of the many options considered. Other possible locations that were eliminated were Libe Slope, West Ave. and the south side of Campus Rd. These places were turned down due to safety concerns and landmark preservation issues similar to the ones that have caused many residents to object to the site behind Stewart and University Avenues.

Another possibility was to build the lot underground, but due to bedrock on the property, the cost of such an undertaking would force Cornell to sacrifice funding from other parts of the WCRI, such as programming in the future residential houses.

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz