ITHACA, N.Y. – The City of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board declared Tuesday that Cornell’s North Campus Residential Expansion project will not have a significant adverse environmental impact, clearing the way for the project to move forward.
The board issued a negative Environmental Quality Review declaration, meaning the project team is not required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement. The decision came over the objections of many environmental advocates, who had urged the board at meetings throughout the fall to insist on an EIS.
The NCRE complex will add six buildings with about 2,000 beds and a 1,200 seat dining hall to Cornell’s North Campus, where the Cradit Farm Drive recreational fields and CC parking lot now sit. While the site crosses into Cayuga Heights and the Town of Ithaca, most is within the city’s boundaries. All three municipalities have weighed in during the environmental review process, but the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board is the lead agency with authority to issue a declaration of environmental significance.
The project team, led by Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects, has emphasized the project’s energy efficiency at presentations throughout the planning review process. The buildings are designed to LEED Gold green building standards, and application materials emphasize the project’s adherence to Cornell’s Climate Action Plan. Architects Kathryn Wolf and Kim Michaels have highlighted design elements like a ventilation system that reduces heat loss, high-performance insulation and occupancy sensors attached to lighting at past meetings.
Community members demanding an EIS, however, insist efficiency measures do not go far enough and have questioned the project’s reliance on natural gas. The project will be powered by Cornell’s in-house energy grid, which currently burns natural gas. Commenters at meetings throughout the fall have asked why the project is not connected to the New York State grid, which they argue is shifting to renewable energy sources more quickly than Cornell will.
Fifteen members of the public spoke Tuesday in a final effort to prevent the negative declaration, though the board had already stated its intent in the final portion of the project’s Full Environmental Action Form.
Several commenters alleged the board has been overly deferential to information provided by TWMLA, while others suggested the board was missing an opportunity to set an example for future projects and other municipalities.
Lisa Marshall, a community organizer with Mothers Out Front, and Brian Eden, of Fossil Free Tompkins, circulated a joint statement Tuesday opposing the Planning Board’s expected decision. “The opposition is not seeking to stop the project, but rather for the City to weigh in on two key aspects of the proposal: (1) Examine the building design with an eye to greater energy efficiency. It has been demonstrated that Cornell could build far more efficient buildings without increasing costs. (2) Determine the upstream climate change impact of Cornell’s current proposal and seek alternatives to Cornell’s proposal to heat and power the buildings with their on-campus fracked gas power plant,” they wrote.
Long before Tuesday’s meeting, members of the Planning Board signaled they would move the project forward without an EIS.
In November, board member McKenzie Jones said she took the public’s concerns seriously and wants to see increasingly energy efficient projects going forward, but said the NCRE team had gone above and beyond SEQR requirements and could not be held to a higher standard than other projects. Other members concurred, with chair Robert Lewis saying, “Very often there will be things that we care a lot about … but that we don’t have the tools to impact.”
The board again acknowledged the public’s concerns Tuesday, but did not waver from its decision to grant a negative declaration.
“I agree with many of the comments made at the public hearing,” said board member Jack Elliott, “but while I sympathize deeply, I don’t think the public realizes that we’re very limited in what we can do as a board.” Elliott suggested members of the public should bring their concerns to Common Council to create rule changes going forward, since the Planning Board is bound by the city’s legal codes.
Jones said she and board colleagues are working to draft a memo recommending stricter energy codes and will circulate the memo to city staff and committees.
Board members Matthew Johnston and Emily Petrina likewise said they look forward to improving building energy efficiency going forward and want the city to work toward net zero projects.
Petrina thanked members of the public for holding the board’s feet to the fire through the NCRE’s environmental review. “This has been uncomfortable,” she said, “and I think that’s a good thing. It should be uncomfortable, because it’s our planet and our future.”
With a unanimous vote in favor of the negative declaration, the project will move forward without an environmental impact statement.
Featured image: Architects from TWMLA field questions at Tuesday’s Planning and Development Board meeting. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)