March 18, 2005

C.U. Wins Redbud Appeal

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Cornell University is now one step closer to starting construction on a 176-space parking lot in the area that is known as Redbud Woods on University Hill as part of the West Campus Residential Initiative (WCRI). The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division decided yesterday in favor of Cornell after the City of Ithaca appealed the Supreme Court’s June 2004 ruling that the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) must issue a “certificate of appropriateness” to the University. This certificate would allow Cornell to move forward with its plans to construct the parking lot on West Campus.

“The [WCRI] is an exciting part of Cornell’s academic program for the future. We hope that now, with this decision, this matter is finally resolved and Cornell and the city can move forward cooperatively,” said Tommy Bruce, vice president for communications and media relations in a press release.

The decision is part of an ongoing controversy surrounding the proposed parking lot that would be constructed in Redbud Woods at the intersection of University Ave., Willard Way and Lake St., near the 660 Stewart Ave. Co-operative.

As a part of WCRI, the University applied in 2001 to the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board for a permit to build the parking lot, but the application was denied. The University sued the city in response and an Oct. 2003 New York State Supreme Court decision forced the board to accept the University’s proposal.

While this decision was pending, University Hill was declared a “historic district,” which meant that the ILPC had to approve any development plans in the area. That winter, the ILPC denied the University a “certificate of appropriateness” for the project.

Shortly thereafter the University filed a lawsuit with the NYS Supreme Court against ILPC, which resulted in the June 2004 ruling in favor of Cornell. Yesterday’s decision is the third in the series of court decisions that has supported Cornell’s position since this controversy began.

“The city is disappointed with the decision. We have not yet discussed whether there are any other options available to the city. We will [make a decision] within the next few days. … We would have to apply to the Court of Appeals [in order to receive permission] to appeal,” said Martin A. Luster, city attorney for Ithaca. Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson led the movement to appeal the Supreme Court’s June 2004 decision. According to the press release, the court’s decision stated that, “It is plain that [the ILPC] failed to engage in a deliberative process balancing the public interest in [the educational use] against the public interest in [historic preservation],” explaining why the court unanimously came to this decision.

Since the University’s announcement to implement WCRI, Cornell students and Ithaca residents have voiced concerns that the construction in Redbud Woods would create light and sound pollution and destroy a historic site.

“I really do believe … that laying down asphalt clearly significantly alters the landscape,” said Elizabeth A. Millhollen ’05, who on Nov. 13, 2003 situated herself on a 50-foot-tree behind 660 Stewart Ave. for eight and a half hours in protest of the proposed parking lot.

The University Hill site includes approximately 10 acres of land owned by the University and, according to yesterday’s decision, “is zoned exclusively for educational use.” The area was the site of the Treman family estate as well as Ezra Cornell’s Llenroc mansion, and Ezra’s brother Elijah Cornell’s house. The Tremans were famous for their role in the development of Tompkins County state parks.

“We are opposed to the construction of this lot because it would cause a significant decrease in local property values, privacy, aesthetics, and overall quality of life for the residents of this neighborhood, and destroy the historic integrity of the Treman estate. Furthermore, this issue highlights the problems with Cornell’s transportation policy, and we believe that reforming that policy will be more effective in the long term than providing stopgap measures such as new parking lots,” stated the website for the Redbud Woods Working Group, a student organization created during the last academic year that is devoted to saving Redbud Woods.

“This has been the most successful community-involved activism and opposition to something Cornell has tried to do. I don’t see that stopping because it’s very important, and it’s home-based. This hits home,” Millhollen said.

“We’re trying to keep hopeful about the things that could potentially change [this situation] around,” added Norah Kates ’07, who lives in the 660 Stewart Ave. Co-operative.

Yesterday’s decision stated, “The record evidence shows that the proposed parking lot will have little, if any, impact on the surviving, original landscape features … Given the undisputed minimal visual impact of this parking lot, there is no evidence that it would cause the loss of any of the remaining historic elements of the landscape or reduce their historic and architectural significance.”

“We’re devoted to keeping the woods as they are. It makes the house a hundred times nicer. It would be the saddest thing if we looked out the window and it was a big parking garage,” said Kjirsten Alexander ’07, who is Kates’ roommate.

The decision concluded that ILPC had “no rational basis” for believing that the parking lot would adversely change the landscape of the area.

The appellate division agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision that “ILPC’s determination was arbitrary and capricious.”

“We all love the woods and it’s really beautiful. Anyone that has seen it would agree. … It’s really a tragedy if they end up going through with the project,” Kates said.