Letter to the Editor

As indicated in the January 30 edition of The Miscellany News, Vassar’s Inn & Institute (I/I) project is facing some serious hurdles before any demolition or construction can begin. Alas, to understand what’s going on requires delving into a few technical details.

Section 210-38 of the Town of Poughkeepsie’s Zoning Law explicitly lists the “permitted uses” for the “Institutional Zone,” to which all of Vassar’s property belongs. For Vassar, the only relevant item in that list is “colleges and universities.” Now, the text of the zoning law does not define “college” or “university,” but Section 210-13.F states that “Where permitted uses are identified by generic words or descriptions, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) shall determine whether a specific use shall be construed to be part of such generic class.” In November of 2019, the Town’s Zoning Administrator ruled that “conference center” is a permitted use within the Institutional Zone—presumably because a conference center helps the college fulfill its educational mission—but “hotel” is not (i.e., the “Institute” is okay, but the “Inn” is not). That should be the end of the story.

However, Vassar is appealing the ruling, arguing that colleges operating hotels is “customary,” apparently relying on Section 210-8.A, which states that: “Except where specifically defined herein, all words used in this chapter shall carry their customary meanings.” In the public hearing on January 13, Vassar noted that eight of Vassar’s 20 “peer institutions” (i.e. 40 percent) have college-owned hotels. However, four of those are located within downtown commercial districts; another is not on or adjacent to campus; and another is adjacent to campus but located on a street labeled “high traffic density” on the zoning map. Only two (i.e. ten percent) are located on campus, but neither of those is adjacent to a residential area. In other words, it is customary for colleges either to not own hotels or to place them away from campus in downtown commercial districts. It is relatively rare for a college to place a hotel on or adjacent to its campus, especially if it is adjacent to a residential neighborhood. For these reasons, the ZBA may very well deny Vassar’s appeal. This issue will be taken up at the Feb. 10 public hearing at the Zoning Board of Appeals (6 p.m. at 1 Overocker Road; public comments welcome).

Even if Vassar ultimately wins its appeal with the ZBA, it would still have to win approval from the Planning Board, whose next public hearing may be at the Feb. 20 meeting (5 p.m. at 1O Overocker Road; public comments welcome). When making its determination, the Planning Board must heed the content of the Zoning Law. In particular, Section 210-38 says that “[The Institutional Zone] recognizes the importance of these institutions and provides protections for their continued growth and operation while ensuring that nearby residential neighborhoods are protected,” (emphasis added). Therefore, the impact of Vassar’s I/I project on the adjacent College Avenue residential neighborhood is front and center. Vassar’s project would ruin one-half of the lovely green park along Raymond Avenue (home to the weekly Farmers’ Market and other community events), it would demolish the 21 apartments within the three Williams faculty housing buildings (gifted to Vassar in the 1920s by Harriet Williams, class of 1870) and one more faculty house, replacing them with two giant parking lots; and it would increase traffic and noise, and decrease pedestrian safety. Concerned by these impacts, one of the Planning Board members admonished Vassar at the September 2019 Planning Board meeting:

“We don’t want you to waste your time and money…We are not satisfied…That building is going to be a dominant factor in that neighborhood. And it seems to me you could spend a little more time— and I wouldn’t be surprised if our Board didn’t ask you to spend a little more time looking at some alternatives. I think you get the idea that we are not happy…In that location, we are not happy. And if you wanted to put that same building on the campus somewhere, on the east side of Raymond Avenue, or if you wanted to put it on the Farm, on Hooker Avenue, I don’t think we would have any problem, because there it’s a different context. That’s the problem that we’re having. It’s not that we don’t want you to do this. It’s that design, in that location, I think, generally that we’re having a problem with. Really, we’re imploring you—so that we don’t have to keep doing this over and over and over again—to come up with a different plan” (YouTube, Town of Poughkeepsie, “Planning Board 201909-19,” 09.26.2019).

In short, the I/I is far from a “done deal.”

Anyone who is concerned about the serious impacts of Vassar’s I/I project is welcome to attend any of the public hearings of the ZBA or the Planning Board. The Planning Board’s Feb. 20 meeting is likely to be crucial. (Check the Town’s website to confirm the agenda.) Public comments are limited to three minutes per person.

Sincerely,
Prof. Luke Hunsberger

Chair of Computer Science

2 Comments

  1. I am impressed with Professor Hunsberger’s concise summary of the I/I situation. I, for one, am opposed to building a hotel on campus, especially given the information outlined above. In addition, all of us need to recognize the importance of maintaining green space for various uses, most especially if it means sacrificing it for parking lots.

  2. FYI. Vassar requested that the I/I be taken off the zoning board’s agenda until the march 9 meeting– during spring break. Wonder why…

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