September 8, 2008

Cornell Takes Ownership of University Ave. From City

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After 25 years of debate, the City of Ithaca and Cornell came to an agreement on Sept. 3 over the maintenance of University Ave. The Common Council voted 8-2 to forfeit the right of way of the road, under the agreement that Cornell will finance the estimated $2 million project to repair it. This decision bears no implications for the future of the controversial new building Milstein Hall, which Cornell plans to build over University Avenue.
Cornell and the city have been neglecting University Avenue. because both parties have felt that it was the other’s responsibility to maintain it. Cornell owns the underlying title to the road; however, the city has the right-of-way. Cornell has tried to compromise with the city, offering to take on half of the costs of repair, but agreements were never reached.
“The debate over who is responsible for maintaining University Avenue. has been ensuing for over a quarter of a century. The city has felt it is Cornell’s responsibility and Cornell has felt it is the city’s responsibility. As a result, the road has been neglected and now has a significant amount of pot holes,” Daniel Cogan M.S. ’95 (D-5th Ward) said.
Common Council members who voted against the city’s plans to hand off the ownership of University Avenue. have argued that Cornell should have repaired the road as a contribution to the community.
“The University could repair the road themselves, in lieu of raising citizens’ taxes, as a contribution to the community. The estimated cost of repair is $2 million,” Nancy Schuler (D-4th Ward) said.
The transfer of the rights of University Avenue. should have no consequences for the public. Pedestrians and drivers should notice no difference in their use of the road and will still have full access. However, members of the Common Council who objected to the discontinuance of the city street are worried that Cornell may exercise some of the newly acquired rights that come with the transfer.
“If there is an event on campus, the road can be closed for up to four days,” Schuler said.
In the resolution between Cornell and the city, Cornell will have to meet certain stipulations, and council members are hopeful that the University will hold true to the contractual agreement.
“There are a lot of stipulations according to the agreement between Ithaca and Cornell. There are specific agreements regarding continued public access, bike lanes, sidewalks, bus shelters, clearance above the road, etc. that the city needs to monitor to make sure all are respected,” Schuler said.
Despite the assumption that the resolution made by the two parties will have some sort of effect on the building of Milstein Hall — a construction project that was announced in 2001 and has been stalled due to a series of design proposals — the two projects are completely independent of each other.
“Milstein Hall is currently under environmental and site-plan review by the city’s planning board. It is important to note that the ownership of the road and the proposal to construct Milstein Hall are independent of each other,” said John Gutenberger, director of Cornell’s Office of Community Relations and former mayor of Ithaca. “The design for Milstein will be judged on its own merits and positive impacts, as well as any mitigation measures developed for potential negative impacts that might be identified by the planning board.”
The building of Milstein Hall, which will be the newest home to the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, has been a controversial topic due to its modern design. Part of the building will jut out and project over a section of University Avenue. Members of the community, including members of the Common Council, have opposed this design.
“I think it’s an egotistical building design, it’s not attractive aesthetically and there’s no reason for it to be built over University Avenue. Its more about building a fancy landmark than it is about having it fit in with its surroundings,” Cogan said.
In April, Alderwoman Nancy Schuler (D-4th) and Mary Tomlan (D-3rd) voted against an earlier resolution regarding ownership of the road, citing reservations about Milstein’s design and “unanswered questions,” respectively.
The project has yet to be approved and will have to be reviewed by city boards before construction can begin.
“The building plans for Milstein Hall will have to be approved by the Planning and Development Board and the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council,” Cogan said.
Members of the Cornell community are hopeful that Milstein Hall, which was designed by the world renowned, Pritzker Prize winning architect Rem Koolhaas, will be approved by the city.
“The question of responsibility for maintaining University Ave. and the negotiations around the University’s offer to financially assist the city in the repair and maintenance predates the proposal for Milstein Hall by many years. To the best of my knowledge, the city has not said it is opposed to the construction of Milstein Hall,” Gutenberger said.