November 14, 2003

Students Protest Lot

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“Oh, joy,” said a befuddled and perhaps somewhat dejected Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 as he made his way through a capacity-brimming Common Council Chambers last night in the midst of a five-hour-long meeting of the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Four projects were up for review by the commission last night, including the Lake Street and University Avenue parking lot which met with strong criticism from members of the Cornell community and the Ithaca area.

Last year, the parking lot controversy arose with concerns over the negative impact such a project would have, including noise pollution, aesthetic destruction and historic loss. The City Planning and Development Board did not approve the project as it was presented at the time with the Phase One plans of the West Campus Residential Initiative and asked the University to seek other alternatives.

The University brought suit against the city in response. An Oct. 29 New York Supreme Court decision forced the planning board to accept the parking plan, which it did on Nov. 5.

During the course of these events, students and local residents petitioned the city to turn the area just west of the current WCRI construction into the Cornell-Treman Historical District, spanning from the Von Cromm and Stewart Ave. Cooperative residences to Llenroc.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is the last major review for the University before construction may begin.

“The purview of the commission is to determine the significance of the proposal, or lack of significance with respect to historic preservation,” said commission president David Beer to the standing-room-only crowd which consisted of roughly 80 students from the area wearing red shirts.

However, by the time proceedings began on the parking lot project, it was already after 9:30 p.m.

“If it’s past midnight at the end of the public commentary period, we will recess to the next meeting,” Beer said.

Kathryn Wolf, a principal architect with Trowbridge & Wolf, the landscape architecture firm working for the University on the lot, began the presentation by addressing the details of the project and pointing to changes made in response to past objections.

“We are seeking a certificate of appropriateness,” she said in her opening remarks.

In response to historic preservation concerns, Wolf noted that the Carriage Path, a trail near the Treman properties on the northeast edge of the site, would “still well around the three houses.” She also said that according to sources at the Cornell Plantations the Redbud Woods, the area directly affected by the proposed construction, was “basically a good example of poor-quality ecology.”

Wolf then addressed some of the other concerns of community members. “No increase in parking spaces is being proposed for the neighborhood,” she said. The lot is intended to directly replace spaces destroyed during WCRI work.

Wolf also said that “a number of alternatives were considered.” However, the firm determined that the site was the best choice in the area for their needs.

A major concern Wolf addressed was the aesthetic impact of the lot. “The parking lot is terraced to fit into the slope,” she said. “The entire parking lot is not visible from any location.”

Also planned is “along the west and wrapping to the north, a continuous planting of evergreen trees.” The intention is that the trees will act as a screen for both unwanted sights and sounds.

Other efforts include major steps such as the depression of the lot to 12 feet below street level in some places and ornamental shrubs around the evergreen screen. Also proposed are state-of-the-art “spill eliminator” lights which would direct less intense light more efficiently and less invasively to adjacent residences.

Nonetheless, with the practical details of project explained, the commission’s purview remained essentially over the historical significance of the area and the proposed project’s effect on it.

Robert Corby, of the Rochester architecture firm Bero Architecture, spoke next. The firm’s specialty lies with historic preservation concerns.

“[We] refer to the standards developed by the National Park Service,” Corby said in his address’s opening. He then went through the process as it was done by Bero in accordance with the standards advocated by the park service.

Corby said they researched the entire area stretching from University Avenue to Myron Taylor Hall. Then the firm identified the historic period or style that was being dealt with. Corby said that the Cornell-Treman Historic District’s major historic importance was that of “country estates.”

One step in the process which brought up particular debate was evaluating historic resources. “[We are] trying to quantify differences in different areas of the site,” Corby said. “We are searching for the site of least impact.”

Corby said Wolf’s firm followed suggestions made to help maintain these historic resources including utilizing the slope of the area, having a single entrance drive, preserving long-existing trees and renovating the Carriage Path.

After Corby finished his presentation, Kathleen Malone, a landscape consultant based in Cazenovia, N.Y., who was hired by the University through Wolf as an independent peer reviewer, addressed the commission.

According to Malone, the area “lacks a high level of historical integrity.”

She also said that “the juxtaposition of suburban versus urban estates reflects an understanding” represented in the Cornell-Treman area which she described as “an oasis in an urban setting.”

Malone hailed the work of Bero during the evaluation as “model” and that the concerns before the commission “represent Ithaca’s landmark preservation efforts.”

Malone’s remarks ended the University’s presentation to the commission. Next, experts from Ithaca were brought in to give their own testimony concerning the historical significance of the area and the project’s impact.

Thaisa Way grad presented her research into the relationship between the Cornell-Treman area and noted architect Warren H. Manning. Such involvement can greatly raise the historical value of an area, according to Secretary of the Interior guidelines.

“Manning bridged the gap between Victorian gardens and modern landscapes,” Way said, emphasizing the relevance of the architect.

Presenting with Way, Janet Shur said, “the lack of documentation [of Manning’s work with the area] does not in any shape or form disprove anything.” Both presenters cited an Ithaca Daily News article from the turn of the century which claimed both Manning and famed Ithaca architect William Henry Miller were involved with the Treman property.

“Manning became a partner in Treman’s first civic park planning shortly after the completion of the [Treman] property,” Shur said.

Also with Way and Shur, Trina Meiser grad continued with the presentation, saying that the project “clearly contradicts Secretary of the Interior guidelines.” Meiser also noted that though the integrity of the site may be compromised, “it can be restored.” However, Meiser said that once the construction begins, the Cornell-Treman areas’ integrity can never be regained, which, if true, is in disharmony with guidelines.

After the presentations were finished, debate was opened to the public with half an hour left until midnight, after which the discussion would be tabled until the commission’s next meeting in December. Beer, the preservation commission’s president, said 80 people had submitted requests to speak i
n the room, which had a 76-person capacity.

Most of the 80 requests were from students who came out to speak against the project. Many shared experiences living in one of the properties in the area and enjoying the Redbud Woods area.

“I was in a tree all day, for about nine hours; it was cold,” said Elizabeth Anne Millhollen ’05. “The view was definitely historic.”

Millhollen, who spent the morning sitting in a tree on the Cornell-Treman lot protesting the project, also commented on problems with the proposed evergreen tree screen: “There is going to come trouble when [the trees] get big.”

Faith Dukakis, an Ithaca resident and frequent attendee of Town Hall meetings, also addressed the commission against the project.

“This is the last hurdle; here is the pivotal meeting,” she said. “This meeting is going to tell Cornell you can’t just dump on me.”

Some speakers brought up concerns over evergreen overgrowth, sound pollution, drainage problems and lot safety, among many others. Discussion was held after half an hour.

“I think we had a real solid day,” said Sun columnist Danny Pearlstein ’05, president of the 660 Stewart Cooperative Residence. “Now we have a full month to mull this over.”

“This is truly what democracy looks like — a couple of hired guns and everyone else who hates the idea,” Pearlstein added.

Corby thought it was a bit “premature” to say how the meeting went. “I think there is some confusion in understanding what the goal is.”

“The point is not to freeze time but to preserve as much as possible,” he said.

Archived article by Brian Kaviar