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April 23, 2013

Blodgett housing plan inches forward

By Denise Richardson
The Daily Star

---- — Engineers continue to revise some water-related plans for the student apartment complex proposed for Blodgett Drive in the city of Oneonta, the developer said Monday.

And as some opposition to the project persists and concerns about environmental and other issues linger, two local organizations — the Otsego County Chamber and Citizen Voices — have issued statements supporting the project.

Newman Development Group of Vestal proposes building a four-story, 330-bed complex on about 14 acres near the State University College at Oneonta.

The Otsego County Chamber’s board of directors has heard presentations from supporters and opponents of the project during its review of the proposal, according to a media release issued Friday.

“The chamber believes the project will enhance the appeal and competitiveness of Oneonta for prospective students, generate long-term tax revenues for the city of Oneonta, school district and county and create valuable economic activity for the region,’’ the Chamber’s announcement said.

Meanwhile, the city’s Planning Commission is preparing to consider a mandated State Environmental Quality Review form as it considers Newman Development’s application for site-plan approval. Planners held a meeting April 10 to review the developer’s plans to address storm water impact and for use of city water and sanitary sewer systems. Engineers for the developer and for the city also answered questions posed by residents who live in the vicinity of the proposed project.

In the wake of that session, the planners’ meeting scheduled for April 17 was canceled because Delaware Engineering, the firm hired by the city to review the proposal, ruled Newman Development’s application incomplete in regard to environmental studies, fire equipment access and other property-access issues.

The city has announced no date for a rescheduled meeting. The planners’ regular meeting is on the third Wednesday of the month.

Separately, the Oneonta Common Council is considering Newman Development’s application for tax abatement.

On Monday, Jeffrey Smetana, vice president for student housing development with Newman Development, said that some information and recommendations raised during the April 10 meeting are being included in the final plans to be submitted to the Planning Commission.

No major changes are being made to the original proposal, Smetana said, but there wasn’t enough time before the city planners’ regularly scheduled April 17 meeting to make adjustments and for planners to review them.

“We’re hopeful that the schedule can stay on track,’’ Smetana said.”This is really how the process works. We’re still very comfortable with how it’s going.’’

The proposal calls for Hillside Commons to open for the 2014-15 academic year.

Save Oneonta, a group including residents, property owners, merchants, real-estate brokers and landlords, formed this year in opposition to Hillside Commons, citing oversupply of rental apartments among other possible negative economic impacts.  

SUNY Oneonta has remained neutral on the proposed student housing complex, and refrained from commenting on the project. The college enrolls about 5,720 full-time undergraduate students, officials said, and about 3,350 students live on campus.

Public hearings are required for the SEQR process and the application for tax abatement, but officials haven’t announced hearing dates.

At the April 10 meeting, some concerns were raised about lack of secondary access to site of the proposed complex.

Michael MacInerney, who lives in the Blodgett Road area, said he has attended many meetings about the project and remains particularly concerned about traffic and public safety issues.

MacInerney, a police officer with almost 30 years of law enforcement experience, said current plans don’t adequately address traffic control, pedestrian safety, police coverage and access to Blodgett Drive by emergency vehicles. Infrastructure issues may be addressed if systems don’t work, he said, but “public safety is not something that can always be fixed later.’’

“We have to get it right the first time,’’ he said, “or there can be dire consequences.’’

Oneonta Fire Chief Patrick Pidgeon said while a secondary access might happen in an ideal world, the idea isn’t on the table for Hillside Commons. The city has dead-end streets and culs-de-sac, he said, and the department has contingency plans.

However, two other concerns about the proposal have been raised, Pidgeon said. In two sections of the perimeter road around the apartment complex, the width is about 13 feet instead of the 26 feet set by state fire and building code, he said. The fire department’s aerial ladder truck, which could provide access to the fourth floor, requires 21 feet for setup, he said.

Oneonta Code Enforcement Officer Robert Chiappisi provided the code details about roadway width, Pidgeon said.

The building’s proposed height is another issue, Pidgeon said. Under the proposal, the fire department cannot reach the fourth floor of the building from the interior courtyard, Pidgeon said. Crews could take ladders into the courtyard area, he said, but the ladders only reach three stories, he said.

The same lack of access exists on the back side of the recently opened Courtyard by Marriott on Southside Oneonta, Pidgeon said, but the code issue was addressed by the town of Oneonta.

Newman Development engineers in designing the perimeter roadway were trying to conserve on the environmental impact of paving, Smetana said, but the proposed road has been widened to meet code, as requested.

Smetana said he wasn’t aware of the concerns about interior access to the fourth floor and he would check on the issue.

Plans and other documents related to Hillside Commons are available at the city’s website at www.oneonta.ny.us/oneonta/hillside-commons/

On April 15, Citizen Voices issued a statement reviewing the “pros and cons’’ of the proposed Hillside Commons. The group, a pro-business organization, said said it supported the project because it will meet a housing need of SUNY Oneonta and add to the tax base.

“We recommend that all the concerned parties work together to ensure that this project will take place while mitigating the concerns of the community,’’ Citizen Voices said.

The Otsego County Chamber statement said the project represents a “significant financial investment’’ by a developer with a “proven track record of building quality student housing.’’

“Modern student housing will make Oneonta much more competitive as a destination for college students,’’ the Chamber release said.