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Columns

July 16, 2011

SUNY Oneonta expansion will be bad for city

Recent plans by the State University College at Oneonta to expand its reach into the community have threatened to change the character of several neighborhoods here in the city.

Not only will the anticipated townhouses on the western edge of the college campus above Clinton Street affect the immediate neighbors with traffic, noise and light pollution, but it has come to light that the university's Board of Trustees in Albany is nearing completion of several land purchases of several acres along the south edge of the campus at a cost of $320,000. These will allow further college construction into the areas north of Normal Avenue, Cedar Street and Monroe Avenue.

These purchases, whose relationship to the townhouse development is unclear, will remove these acres from our tax base and from any local zoning and environmental control.

Plans are already in the works to encircle the Old Main Townhouse and the Bugbee building, creating an entrance to the campus with a new road directly behind the modest houses on the north side of Normal Avenue. Those families will be faced with student traffic in their backyards at all hours that will threaten safety and quiet of those families and their children.

Among the many issues raised by all this activity is the process the college used to acquire some of these parcels. The records indicate that two parcels above Cedar Street were purchased, not by the college directly, but rather by the College at Oneonta Foundation, a separate nonprofit entity, governed by a board that includes SUCO administrators.

The foundation's stated mission is "to raise and administer gifts and grants to enhance the academic status of the college through endowment, scholarships, and institutional programs."

Of course, we don't know what discussions have taken place regarding the purchase of this property, but if the foundation then had given the land to the college for academic purposes, our issues would have been limited to the need for and the use of those properties that justify removing them from the county and city tax base.

But to add to the confusion about the foundation's mission, in March, the chancellor of the State University system in Albany, as part of the $320,000 purchase package, requested $70,000 of state money to reimburse the foundation for the land it purchased. This request changed the role of the foundation from benefactor of the college to that of a shell corporation, whose additional role now is to float bridge loans for projects that might suffer controversy in the light of day.

By seeking reimbursement from the state, the board of the foundation now suffers the embarrassment of having its fundamental credibility and integrity questioned. In addition, as the foundation board lists high-ranking college officials in its membership, the college not only has to answer for its controversial land purchases, but it has to own the embarrassment of the foundation's role in the process.

I doubt the generous local donors to the foundation had any idea that their money might be used in a financial scheme to remove land from our tax base and devalue the properties of their neighbors.

Questionable land purchases aside, there is also the question of the rationale of increasing the availability of on-campus housing for its students. Whatever other rationales colleges use for building on-campus housing, the fact is that on-campus housing brings in net revenue to colleges.

Construction bonds are issued by the state to cover the construction, and housing fees charged to resident students more than covers the college's bond payments.

As a consequence, moving 200 students from the Oneonta rental market redirects more than $600,000 away from our community and local businesses to enhance the revenues of the college and state bond holders.

Removing those 200 students from the rental market will also create vacancies in perhaps 60 three-person rental units. Without that demand for housing, the value of the rental inventory in the community will decrease and so will the incentives to maintain any attractiveness of these properties.

It is clear that the population of the area is not seeing a lot of growth, and given the number of "for sale" signs around, it is likely that some of these properties will be neglected and end up like the condemned property on the corner of Spruce Street and Ford Avenue. Condemned houses add even more to the tax burden of the rest of us, and obviously reduce the attractiveness of the city.

Finally, there is the question of the role of the college in the bigger picture of public education. The chancellor, speaking for the college in her $320,000 requests to her board, justifies the new housing in the following way:

"This new facility will help the college meet residential demand, fill a gap in its current student housing portfolio and help the college avoid a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining academically well-qualified students."

There is nothing in this rationale that mentions improving the education of the students. Rather, by implication, the college can do a better job only by accepting better students.

I'm particularly troubled by the term "competitive disadvantage." In the last decade, public four-year institutions were educating some 60 percent of New York students. If one includes students at community colleges, the percentage of the publicly educated would be much higher. In addition, there have been no significant changes in the annual number of New York births in the last decade, so the number of potential students is not going to change.

If the college thinks it is competing against the private college sector, I wonder about the rationale for that competition, as the missions of private colleges without the same level of state funding are usually quite different.

If, as I think is the more likely case, the college sees itself competing with the other state-supported colleges like Geneseo, then it appears that we are witnessing, at our expense, a resume-building skirmish in a turf war within the University system itself.

Not only do our state taxes fund that war, but they are funding a likely increase in our local tax burden as well, all with the help of the college foundation's questionable use of tax-free private donations.

John Willis has lived next to a student rental on Cedar Street for more than 20 years and is a retired Hartwick College administrator.

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