Courtesy of Cornell University

A rendering of the interior quad for freshmen students for the North Campus Residential Expansion.

February 28, 2019

Local Leadership Notes Concerns About North Campus Housing Project After Environmental Review

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As local municipalities review the University’s plan to expand North Campus housing, chairs of multiple planning boards expressed concern about how the project will affect traffic, parking and sewage on campus.

The North Campus Residential Expansion will build two new housing sites on North, which will provide beds for 1,200 freshmen and 800 sophomores, The Sun previously reported. The expansion will also add residential facilities, such as a new dining hall and an outdoor basketball court, to the campus.

The project will take place in three municipalities — the City of Ithaca, the Town of Ithaca and the Village of Cayuga Heights — and each will have to approve the project’s site plan before construction can begin. The site plan review started in late January, according to Rick Burgess, Vice President of Facilities and Management.

“While the timing of approvals will be dictated by the local municipalities, we are hopeful to receive them later this spring,” Burgess said in an email to The Sun.

Before the site plan review started, the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board conducted an environmental review of the project. Lisa Nicholas, senior planner for the City of Ithaca, said an environmental review looks at “big, macro issues” such as traffic and energy usage.

The project will bump usage of natural gas by Cornell’s power plant by 1.4 percent, according to an assessment conducted by Taitem Engineering, an engineering consulting business. Environmental activists have voiced concerns over how the project will contribute to upstream methane emissions.

The Planning and Development Board completed the environmental review in December, and determined that the project will lead to “no significant adverse impacts on the environment,” according to a resolution.

According to the full assessment form, the University predicts that the campus’ energy demands will decrease after the project ends, and Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power Plant is expected to decrease natural gas use after the expansion is finished.

Now that the environmental review is finished, local municipalities are beginning the site plan review, narrowing down details such as the building materials and the landscaping, according to Nicholas. She said that there were issues introduced in the environmental review that have to be mitigated during the site plan review, such as how visible buildings will be from certain areas of the Cornell Heights Historic District.

She said the site plan review is expected to take up to three months, as it involves multiple  public hearings and an approval vote by the Planning and Development Board. According to Nicholas, the board has already held two public hearings, one of which was on Tuesday.

The city is not the only municipality that has a say in the expansion — so do the Village of Cayuga Heights and the Town of Ithaca. Fred Cowett, chair of the Village of Cayuga Heights Planning Board, told The Sun that representatives of the NCRE’s design team will speak at the village board’s meeting on Thursday.

He said the board will likely vote in favor of a resolution to accept the project for site plan review, and will likely vote to schedule a public hearing at its March 25 meeting. At the end of the public hearing, the board can either close the hearing or adjourn it until the board’s meeting in April.

“The Board sometimes adjourns rather than closes the public hearing so as to ensure that the Board hears as fully as possible from members of the public,” Cowett said in an email to The Sun. “It’s hard to say beforehand what will transpire and whether the public hearing in March will be closed or adjourned, but, once the public hearing is closed, Board members will then discuss the project.”

The planning board will then make findings based on criteria in the village’s zoning law and will ultimately either approve the project, approve it with conditions or disapprove it, according to Cowett.

He said that it is possible that the site plan review will be completed by the end of March, but that completion by the end of April or May is “more likely” to him.

Cornell does not have “a firm start date identified” at this time, according to John Carberry, a spokesperson for the University. “As with any large construction project, the start dates are fluid and contingent upon permitting.”

However, according to the NCRE Preliminary Site Plan Review Booklet published on Feb. 8, work on the sophomore site is expected to begin on April 1, before Cowett expects the overall review to be finished.

The Village of Cayuga Heights Planning Board has several concerns about the North Campus Residential Expansion, according to Cowett, revolving around traffic and parking.

The board is concerned about an increase in traffic on village roads during the project or after it is finished, according to Cowett, and the CC Lot will be built over because of the project. This will likely cause some students to park in A Lot in Cayuga Heights, and Cowett said that the A Lot cannot hold all of the cars currently in CC Lot.

“The Board is particularly concerned about parking associated with events such as move-in day and reunion weekend when parking in CC Lot typically overflows onto Jessup Road; what is going to happen during those events when the CC lot is lost to the NCRE?” Cowett wrote in an email to The Sun.

Fred T. Wilcox III, chair of the Town of Ithaca planning board, told The Sun the project will have an impact on traffic in the city, the town or in the Village of Cayuga Heights. Another concern is the sewer system which may not “be sufficient to handle increased load” from the additional students on campus.

In addition, the Town of Ithaca is concerned about the appearance and architecture of the buildings that will be constructed in the town, according to Wilcox.

“Planning board members have expressed the idea that they may not blend in as well as we would like,” he said. “So we don’t know whether Cornell University, when they come back to the town for approval, might change the building materials on the outside. We’ll see.”

The town will discuss preliminary site plan approval of the North Campus project at a March 19 meeting. Wilcox said that projects “of this size” are usually approved with conditions. Once conditions have been addressed, the project will undergo final site plan approval.