April 5, 2004

Cornell Takes City to Court

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The University stepped up its intentions of building a West Campus parking lot in Redbud Woods by launching a challenge against the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Dec. 18 decision to reject Cornell’s request for a certificate of appropriateness last Friday.

As part of the $200 million West Campus Residential Initiative, the certificate was needed because the proposed area on the intersection of University Avenue and Lake Street was declared as part of a historical district this past summer.

Filing its lawsuit, labeled an Article 78, with the New York State Supreme Court for Tompkins County, the University went through extensive discussions as to whether or not they should challenge the ILPC’s decision, according to Linda Grace-Kobas, director of Cornell News Service. Ultimately, Grace-Kobas said the University had no other options than to take the case to court.

“Having carefully reviewed the recent decision of the ILPC, we have reluctantly concluded that Cornell has no choice but to contest the decision regarding the proposed West Campus parking lot,” President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 said in a statement. “The ILPC’s decision simply does not square with the facts of the case.”

This is not the first suit that the University has made over this issue. In February 2003, the University’s plan for the lot was rejected by Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board. The University decided to sue, and on Oct. 29, Tompkins County Supreme Court justice Robert C. Mulvey overturned the Planning Board’s decision.

In regards to Friday’s announcement, many individuals involved, including City Attorney Martin A. Luster, were not surprised with the challenge.

Luster said that the University thus far has been very aggressive with their push for the parking lot’s construction because of the West Campus project’s enormity.

“I wasn’t surprised because we’ve been meeting with other people in the administration since the ILPC decision, and they seemed to be moving towards [a law suit],” said Calvin Croll ’04, a resident and former president of 660 Stewart Ave.

Luster said his office received the University’s filed papers late Friday. Over the next week, he will go through the documents and eventually prepare responding papers and a memorandum of law.

Their response to the challenge is due on May 7.

In explaining the University’s attempts to integrate community feedback, Grace-Kobas said that the Cornell worked heavily with a variety of groups and received much input during the design phases. In addition, she also said that opponents of the project are not taking into consideration that the lot is part of a larger picture — namely the WCRI.

On the other hand, Croll said that there are many other alternatives that the University could follow including putting cars in spaces between the new dormitories or relocate the lot. Croll said that although he is against the University stance, he acknowledges that they have a strong case.

“We are hoping the court sees the University’s side,” Grace-Kobas said. “Once people see the finished design and how [the project] blends into the area, I think most people will realize that the University did its best to have a design that people could live with. Certainly we have one of the most beautiful campuses in our country — we would not do anything to damage that beauty.”

Croll said that one factor which may benefit the University is the fact that Mulvey will again be hearing the case. On the other hand, he also said that in the October case in which the planning board’s decision overturned, the former city attorney did not want to get involved in an appeal against the decision. This time around, he thinks the attorney’s office will be more involved if an appeal is needed because of a new mayor and city attorney.

In an attempt to improve the University’s partnership with the community, Lehman announced on Oct. 16 his plan to increase voluntary monetary contributions to the city — a move which many in Ithaca saw as a positive first step.

“Cornell deeply values its relationships with our surrounding community,” Lehman said in the statement.

Yet, this issue might create a more problematic situation for the first-year president. Although Luster said that this is not “an unusual case” and Grace-Kobas said that the WCRI will in a long term be seen as a positive venture to the community, Croll said that town-gown relations “are not especially friendly right now.”

“I think [the suit] will strain relations because there’s no way to get over the headline ‘Cornell takes city to court,'” Croll said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Writer