For about five years, Cornell University has planned its West Campus Residential Initiative (WCRI), a significant part of the university's efforts to provide our students with the best possible undergraduate education. The planning has been extensive and detailed and has involved hundreds of individuals from the faculty, student body, staff and administration. These plans have consistently called for parking to replace the spaces lost to the construction of the WCRI project, of which the Alice Cook House is the first stage.
Over the past months a significant number of students, faculty and community members have organized in opposition to the construction of this parking lot. Their concern for the protection of green space is genuine, and I respect them for their commitment to a very important cause. I wish to provide as clear as possible an explanation of the reasons why I believe we must nonetheless proceed with this project.
Since returning to the presidency on July 1, 2005, I have reviewed the plans for the replacement parking lot on West Campus. Following several redrafts in response to community discussion, the firm of Trowbridge and Wolf has developed an excellent design for the parking lot, a design that incorporates key principles of sustainability: preservation of endangered species such as yellow oaks; retention of as much extant vegetation as possible, such as redbuds and other invasive species; a carefully designed system for stormwater retention that incorporates filtering before release and acknowledgment of the history and culture of the site by preserving the carriage path, pavilion, stone base, tennis courts and other elements on the property.
Cornell is, on an overall basis, short of the parking needed to meet demand from its faculty, staff, students, surrounding community and visitors. In the past 11 years, the university has not created any net additional parking space. The number of requests for permits has risen by about 1,000 during this period. In order to address additional demand, Cornell has implemented a program of free transit and other incentives such as rideshare for faculty and staff members. This program has now reached 35 percent penetration among the faculty and staff members who drive alone to campus for work. These individuals now use free transit, rideshare or other alternatives. Among universities, that level of participation is quite high and demonstrates the seriousness and success of Cornell's program.
In the next five years, Cornell estimates that it will lose some 750 parking spaces on campus to the construction of new buildings, primarily research facilities. The university is making plans to cope with this loss, but it is clear that solutions will be difficult and expensive. They will almost certainly include structured parking and further incentives to persuade the university community to switch to alternative modes of transit.
The shortage of parking on West Campus is particularly severe. If the proposed replacement parking lot with its 176 spaces is built on University Avenue, the total number of parking spaces on West Campus will be 266. The number of students eventually to be housed in the WCRI is approximately 1,800. None of these students are freshmen; most are sophomores and juniors. In addition, about 100 staff members work and park on the West Campus, and faculty members visit the residence halls to participate in their programs. Some faculty members will live in the residence halls, as will some graduate students.
For whom is the proposed parking lot intended? In the next five years, the period of peak construction of the WCRI, the lot is intended primarily for construction workers, some of whom currently park in temporary spaces on Libe Slope. Unfortunately, others are forced to park wherever they can in the surrounding neighborhood. When construction workers are not using the spaces in the new lot, some will be available for staff, faculty and students. Once construction is completed, Cornell intends to sell approximately 50 of the proposed spaces to staff workers and another 120 spaces to students. In off hours, spaces will also be available to faculty members participating in WCRI programs. In addition, when future construction or maintenance is required on West Campus, the lot will be available again to construction workers. Currently, students often park their cars on the streets below West Campus, an additional burden to the university's neighbors.
Cornell has done four studies of the parking needed on West Campus as a result of the decision to build the WCRI. All possible alternatives to the proposed new parking lot have been exhaustively considered. The studies show that Cornell has no viable alternative to replacing the lost lot on West Campus. Every option considered turned out not to be feasible either because of cost or because of both cost and complexity of construction, compounded by considerations of proximity and suitability. Administrators considered building a garage at the University Avenue site. The university rejected the underground structure, not only because of the costs, which would be considerable, but also because of topography and shallow bedrock. A structure above the ground was deemed too visually intrusive. The option of providing for spaces under the West Campus buildings was also considered, but rejected for the same reasons in addition to the difficulty of mitigating impacts on nearby historic resources. Building under Libe Slope was also evaluated. At an estimated $50,000 per space, such an undertaking was considered much too expensive.
The alternatives studied are all provided in the West Campus Residential Initiative Environmental Impact Study, excerpts of which appear at http://www.parking.cornell.edu/wcri.html. At the same Web site you may also find a map of the plan for the new parking lot.
The University Hill Historic District, where the replacement lot will be located, comprises approximately 15 acres. Cornell owns about nine of those 15 acres. The proposed parking lot will occupy only about two of those acres. Already, Cornell has, in response to suggestions made by students, faculty and community members, moved the placement of the parking lot toward the east side of the site. The new position of the lot will leave standing 1 to 2 acres of woods on the west side of the site and south of the carriage path, which will be preserved under this new plan.
Contrary to what many have claimed is the University's lack of commitment to sustainability, Cornell maintains nearly 4,000 acres of natural preserves on the campus, in the Plantations, gorges and elsewhere in Tompkins County and surrounding counties. Building the first LEED certified "green" residence halls (Alice Cook House and Becker North) in New York state, saving more than 25 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year through the Lake Source Cooling project, and recycling more than 2,000 tons of material each year are excellent recent examples of Cornell's commitment to sustainability. Cornell has been practicing sustainability on a large scale for many decades, and the results are evident.
As The Ithaca Journal said in its editorial published June 8, 2005, "Redbud Woods: Right fight, Wrong spot," this is not the "right fight" for "the defense of long-living forests against the short-term demands of human convenience." The editorial goes on to explain, "… There are no rare species there. No endangered habitat. There is only a lot that has grown wild in the decades since the Great Depression, a reality common to much of what was once farmland throughout this area."
On three separate occasions, opponents petitioned the courts to rule on the merits of the replacement parking lot proposal. Each time, the court upheld Cornell University's position. Most recently, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Albany unanimously ordered the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) to grant the approval sought by the university. The following captures the essence of their findings: "The Supreme Court correctly concluded that none of ILPC's findings has a rational basis in the record and the adverse effects noted cannot reasonably be viewed as substantial…" The Appellate Court concluded, 5 to 0, that, "Since there is no basis in the record for such a presumption, we find no error in the Supreme Court's conclusion that ILPC's determination was arbitrary and capricious."From the start, the Cornell administration has kept its board of trustees informed about the need for a replacement parking lot to support the WCRI. As early as the November 2002 meeting, and in its subsequent meetings, the board received regular progress reports from the President of Cornell University and from its own Buildings and Properties Committee (B&PC) about the WCRI, of which the proposed replacement parking lot has always been an integral component. On Dec. 12, 2002, the board, through B&PC, approved the design for the proposed parking lot next to University Avenue.
John Ullberg, a retired Cornell landscape architect who lives in Trumansburg, stated the facts in an opinion piece in The Ithaca Journal (July 12, 2005): "The design that evolved avoids intrusion on the Treman Triad lawn, restores the deteriorated carriage path, saves major trees and plants a landscape buffer zone between the parking and University Avenue." Ullberg added, "It has been my experience as a landscape architect at Cornell that the university works very hard to reconcile enormous development pressure against a need to respect the land that it occupies."
It is time now to proceed with the construction of this parking lot. Dean of the Faculty Charles Walcott and I will form a faculty committee to serve in an advisory role to the University as it studies the balance between environmental sustainability and parking needs. Over the past several days, I have received generous offers of help from faculty with relevant expertise interested in making the issues this project raises into educational opportunities. I will ask Provost Martin to make $50,000 available to faculty who present specific proposals. We actively solicit projects that involve undergraduate research.