Site of $55M project gets review after uproar from neighbors, officials
By JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writer
First published in print: Saturday, October 31, 2009
ALBANY -- The University at Albany has agreed to re-examine alternate locations for a new 500-bed dorm proposed for 12 wooded acres on the school's uptown campus.
UAlbany and Mayor Jerry Jennings revealed the development Friday, less than 24 hours after university officials unveiled a tentative layout for the site near Indian Pond, which featured two 55-foot buildings and was designed to make the proposal more palatable to neighbors on nearby Tudor Road and beyond.
The plans included moving the university's ring road several hundred feet closer to the homes in the Eagle Hill neighborhood, in order to move the dorm buildings further away. The move would also include flanking the ring road with an earthen barrier that would deaden noise and impede storm water runoff.
Despite efforts to answer residents' concerns, the university found itself facing a wall of opposition from citizens and elected officials who contend the university has failed to justify why the complex can't be built somewhere else.
"We're spending a lot of time here trying to make a bad decision good -- and it's a frustrating process," Assemblyman Jack McEneny told UAlbany officials at crowded community meeting Thursday night.
On Friday, UAlbany President George Philip said he was willing to reconsider, according to the to the mayor and a university spokesman.
"Based on numerous conversations with Mayor Jennings and on discussions with Senator (Neil) Breslin and Assemblyman McEneny regarding the concerns expressed by our Albany neighbors and others, President Philip will be reaching out to elected and community leaders to explore viable options, which we hope will be in the best interests of all concerned," said university spokesman Karl Luntta.
Minutes earlier, Jennings had told the Times Union that he discussed the matter with Philip and both agreed it was best to slow the process down.
"I appreciate the president for taking a step back and saying, 'OK, let's look at some other options,'" Jennings said.
While there is no commitment not to build to the dorm on the land just southeast of the Boor Sculpture Studio, the agreement would appear to give critics some breathing room.
Chief among their grievances is their belief that the UAlbany has yet to adequately explain why it chose that site over six others included in a feasibility study it commissioned -- and only involved the public after that key choice had been made.
"I don't understand why the university waited so long to reach out to us," Michael Weisberg, who has lived on Tudor Road for more than 12 years, told UAlbany officials Thursday. "Why are you alienating people who want to work with you?"
Luntta said he could not speculate what options the university would explore or whether they would include revisiting those already examined in the feasibility study. The university rejected other on-campus options, in part, because they would have meant a loss of parking spaces -- an excuse that neighbors and others said was unacceptable.
Residents have beseeched university officials to look at alternatives, including the possibility of building a privately run dorm on the adjacent Harriman State Office Campus, which would help meet the university's housing needs while also putting some of that coveted public land back on the city's tax rolls.
Tudor Road resident Steve Sokal, who helped organize neighborhood resistance to the estimated $60 million project, praised the university's decision. "It's more than breathing room, it's just what we asked for," said Sokal, who started a blog at http://albanyeaglehill.blogspot.com to chronicle the fight.
Given the neighbors' detailed arguments against the proposal, 13th Ward Councilman Daniel Herring, who represents Tudor Road, said he wasn't surprised the university chose to stand down but was surprised it happened so quickly.
The neighbors had "some very strong arguments based on some pretty good research," Herring said. "It gave it a greater dimension than just anger."
Councilman Michael O'Brien, who represents the 12th Ward and also opposes the project, had another take on the sudden reversal.
"Isn't it amazing," O'Brien said, "what can happen in private discussions when an angry mob is standing outside."
Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.