October 5, 2007

Plaque Marks Activism

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Members of the Cornell and Ithaca communities gathered yesterday afternoon to observe the dedication of a recently installed plaque commemorating the spot where the Redbud Woods once stood.
In July of 2005, the University had this patch of urban wildland, located near the intersection of University Avenue and Lake Street, leveled to make way for a 176-space parking lot as part of its West Campus Residential Initiative. The administration’s decision to pave over Redbud Woods was the cause of many well-publicized protests over a several year period by environmental activists including students and faculty. It also was the center of two legal battles between Cornell and the City of Ithaca. Despite the Court’s finding that Cornell could use the land, local community activism about the now demolished Redbud Woods has continued to persist.
According to local activist Brian Eden, a group of environmentally concerned citizens and students known as the Redbud Woods Plaque Committee formed after the trees were cut down in July 2005 to negotiate with the City of Ithaca’s Board of Public Works. The committee sought permission to erect a permanent monument on the site of the University’s parking lot to commemorate the Redbud Woods.
“This was a culmination of six years of protest,” Eden said. He was one of several people to speak at the dedication ceremony, which included former Ithaca mayor Prof. Emeritus Ben Nichols ’49, electrical and chemical engineering, as well as faculty members who participated in the Redbud protests against the administration of former Cornell president Hunter Rawlings III. Eden said he felt the plaque is significant because “a lot of people were heartbroken by the loss of the woods, and now they’ve had two years to reflect.”
The plaque reads, “Remember the trees … remember all who tried to save them,” and also details the plot’s history as the former location of the Treman family estate, which belonged to an early 20th century Cornell alum and his family.
The plaque, which cost the Committee approximately $1,100 to manufacture, is situated only a few feet in front of the parking lot on University Avenue, but is legally on City property because it stands within the right of way of a nearby sanitation drain. Simeon Moss ’73, director of Cornell’s Public Relations office, stated in an e-mail that “we’re satisfied the plaque went through the appropriate approval process in the Board of Public Works.”
However, Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, claimed that the University tried to stonewall the establishment of a monument to the Redbud Woods with “meeting after meeting” to discuss the plaque’s wording.
“This was a shameful suppression of history. The administration didn’t want people to know they paved over a natural green space, because then its ‘sustainability’ effort would be a slogan without meaning,” Sanders said. She did express hope that in the future the university will be more open to discussion with the town-gown community. “President Skorton seems to be more in touch with issues affecting the environment.”
Sanders was also critical of tactics employed by the administration such as ordering a fence to be put up around the Redbud Woods while she and her colleagues were in a meeting with President Rawlings to discuss a moratorium on construction of the parking lot.
“The University’s Comprehensive Master Plan reveals that the amount of parking space on campus was already adequate without this parking lot,” Sanders said.
Prof. Mike Latham, natural science, suggested that the controversy over Redbud Woods raised larger questions about the power the university possesses.
“We professors and students had a difference of opinion, but the gods in Day Hall decided it’s acceptable to take unilateral action against the opposition of student and community sentiment,” he said.