November 16, 2007

Cornell’s Comprehensive Master Plan Progresses

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Nearly two months have passed since Cornell presented a preliminary draft of its Comprehensive Master Plan — a plan devoted to the physical development of its Ithaca campus over the next 10 to 25 years — to an open house full of members of the Cornell and Ithaca community. Those who attended the open house, as well as those currently interested in the future of Cornell, are eagerly waiting to hear what progress has been made since the draft was released.
“What we have been doing since [the open house] is taking all the input very seriously. By and large, the input was very positive. It told us that the general direction we are going in [is] the right one,” said Mina Amundsen, co-chair of the CMP Working Committee and director of the Campus Planning Office.
“We are just refining the overall layout of the campus. We want to really have a very clear pattern of roads and open space. That’s something we’ve been refining,” Amundsen said.
Amundsen said that, since the open house, the Comprehensive Master Plan Working Committee has looked “more seriously” at aspects of the plan involving the Ithaca community, such as the development of East Hill Plaza and Collegetown.
“We have an edge with the community, and [we] are looking carefully at what goes there,” Amundsen said.
Some, however, are apprehensive about Cornell’s plans and how they might affect the city. Alderperson Joel Zumoff (D-3rd Ward) of the Ithaca Common Council, one of three members who opposed the recent moratorium on building in Collegetown, expressed his concern over potential off-campus building.
“If Cornell buys up property in Collegetown and downtown and takes it off the tax roll, it’s more of a problem for the City,” Zumoff said.
“The biggest issue with the Master Plan, to me, is essentially the tax-exempt nature of Cornell property. 67 percent of Tompkins County is owned by Cornell and tax-exempt. The other 33 percent is paying the property taxes. Cornell gives a PILOT payment, in lieu of taxes, out of the generosity of their own hearts, but it’s nowhere close to what their tax bill would be. Ithaca College doesn’t give us any, which I think is reprehensible,” Zumoff said.
However, Amundsen said, Cornell will not be buying up any property.
“That land [which Cornell expects to build on] is not off campus. It already belongs to Cornell. This is the big idea of the plan: we are building on the existing footprint. We are making the footprint more dense,” Amundsen said.
John Gutenberger, director of the office of community relations and former mayor of Ithaca, wished to differentiate between PILOTs and “voluntary payments.”
“A PILOT is a payment in lieu of taxes. Cornell doesn’t make PILOTs; we make voluntary payments. A PILOT assumes some kind of obligation to pay,” Gutenberger said.
According to Gutenberger, Cornell is the only college or university in New York that makes voluntary payments to the town it is in.“One of the old arguments is: ‘Well, if Cornell was fully taxable, then there would be a lot more tax income.’ But if a college or university was fully taxable, it wouldn’t exist — or, there would be a tuition that students couldn’t afford. If we were a regular, taxed corporation, [Cornell] wouldn’t look anything like it does today,” Gutenberger said.
Still, according to Zumoff, the money Cornell pays to Ithaca is not sufficient.
“David Skorton has an argument — that I don’t buy — about how many millions of dollars Cornell adds to the community. This is very true, but it doesn’t compensate. I don’t accept that trade off,” Zumoff said.
While Zumoff is critical of Cornell’s voluntary payments to Ithaca, he appreciates the idea of the Master Plan. Yet, he is nonetheless skeptical about its actual implementation.
“It’s nice to know what people have in mind; I just get very leery when the plans become this long term. To me, the longer the term of the plan … the less likely it is to actually be implemented,” Zumoff said.
Sustainability is another aspect of the Master Plan currently being considered by the Working Committee. Amundsen stressed the Master Plan’s focus on conservation and its effort to create a more sustainable campus.
“Since we already have infrastructure and parking lots, we aren’t going to build on any green cites. We are making [the campus] more dense and more of a mixed use development. These are some of the best emerging ideas in sustainable planning,” Amundsen said.
While Ithaca City Forester Andrew Hillman did not wish to comment explicitly on the Master Plan, he said that Cornell is already actively involved in sustainability efforts in Ithaca.
“The level of coordination and collaboration between the Urban Horticulture Institute at Cornell and the City of Ithaca Parks and Forestry is fantastic. I don’t see how it could be any better,” Hillman said.
According to Amundsen, the second draft of the Plan will be reviewed at the end of the month. The Board of Trustees is set to approve the final plan by the end of March 2008.
“We are still refining the plan; it’s by no means final. It’s a rough plan,” Amundsen said.