Thursday, September 24, 2009

From Metroland - Volume 32 - Number 39 - September 24, 2009

The School on the Hill

Eagle Hill residents say there are alternatives to the proposed construction of student housing in their neighborhood

Last Thursday, more than 100 residents of the Eagle Hill neighborhood bordering the University at Albany uptown campus gathered at a public hearing to voice their concerns over the proposed construction of student housing for 500 college students. Although university President George Phillips and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings left minutes into the meeting, the residents spent the next hour and a half expressing their concerns to John Giarrusso, the university’s vice president of physical facilities.

“We felt that we fairly represented ourselves to the University,” said Steven Sokal of 36 Tudor Street and a seven-year resident of Eagle Hill.

In addition to concerns over the environmental, financial and quality-of-life impact of the proposed construction, the residents also take issue with what they feel is a lack of honest communication between the university and the residents of Eagle Hill.

The proposed project would be constructed on the southeast end of the campus and would include two five-story dormitory buildings in addition to a 250-space parking lot. The construction would take place on a 13-acre piece of land that remains the only natural untouched environment on the uptown campus.

“On the plus side, the university will be allowed to take steps to enhance their position as a world-leading educational institution,” Sokal said. “There will be, for the duration of the project, some activity on Wall Street issuing bonds in order to fund the project, and there’ll be some construction jobs as the project is being done, but that’s about it for positives.”

Sokal and his neighbors are concerned with the quality-of-life issues that 500 additional college students will bring to the residential neighborhood, as well as the environmental impact regarding flooding in the area.

“There have been a number of underground streams that have been paved over in the immediate neighborhood,” Sokal said. “It’s a preexisting condition. On our property itself, we do have water lying on the back of the property, and the reason for that is the university’s property is about 15 feet higher in elevation than us, so it drains into our backyard. The university, in examining the water issue, took a look at their own property but they failed to acknowledge that if you start paving over 13 acres of land, which they probably will do in putting down 250 parking spaces, the water will have to go somewhere.”

In addition, Sokal expressed concern over the increased cost to the city with the construction of the student housing.

“The dormitories are going to be located in the city, so the fire and police departments will have to respond to emergency situations,” Sokal said. “The city will have to deal with the downstream storm-water sewage from the proposed project, and it seems as though the university has said that there will be absolutely no increase in their PILOT payments to the city nor will there be any taxes coming to the city for all the additional costs inflicted on the city.”

According to Sokal, the city may also lose tax revenue were the assessed property values of the homes in Eagle Hill to drop due to the proposed project.

In November 2008, S/L/A/M Architects P.C. prepared a “Feasibility Study and Options Analysis for New Student Housing,” in which they identified the three potential sites for new student-housing construction. While the southeast corner was designated as the ideal site, two other locations—Dutch Quad West and State Quad East—were classified as optimal sites.

There may also be a private alternative to new construction of student housing.

“We have heard from an attorney representing an owner of a very large building in the city of Albany,” Sokal said. “He said that he heard about our situation, and that he had a building space to offer that would be a very good alternative to the university constructing.” According to Sokal, the space would have twice the capacity, is currently available, has previously been used as dormitory space, and would be available for a fraction of the cost. He said that he does not know where this building is located, and that the attorney would not name his client. Sokal declined to name the attorney, saying that he did not want to jeopardize what he considers to be the best way out for the neighborhood and the university.

Communication between the residents and the university had been limited prior to the public hearing last Thursday. Thirteenth Ward Common Councilman Dan Herring sent a letter to the university president on behalf of the Eagle Hill neighborhood outlining concerns over the proposed project. Phillips responded with a letter saying that the university does intend to communicate with the residents of Eagle Hill, but that “at this point into the project, we are still evaluating site conditions and have not yet hired the architects to start the design process.”

“The draft generic environmental impact statement is due out at the end of October,” Sokal said, “and at that time the university would state their position concerning the proposed construction. It’s critical that any action that does occur takes place before that report is issued.”

A call to John Giarrusso was directed to Media Relations, who did not return a call as of press time.

—Cecelia Martinez

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