Paving the Way

Agreement between Cornell and protesters -- some of them in trees -- clears the road for a controversial parking lot.
July 19, 2005

For weeks, they camped out, sometimes perched in trees, or chained to the ground. They had been ticketed, and encircled by fences, both temporary orange, and then chain-link. But late Monday, they agreed to unchain themselves, descend from the trees and pack up their supplies. Students leaders signed an agreement that ended the standoff with Cornell University over the proposed construction of a parking lot in the Redbud Woods.

Faculty members, 43 of whom signed a letter to the president, students and local activists had been pushing to preserve the two-acre plot. A handful of students who had hardly left the site in 40 days signed an agreement that will allow construction to proceed, in return for environmental commitments from the university. "We are relieved," said Thomas W. Bruce, a university spokesman, who was with Hunter Rawlings, the interim president, when he entered the protester’s tent to sign the accord. "We’re impressed by the seriousness of the students, and this project will be better because of the community input."

Last week, Rawlings issued a statement saying that Cornell was going forward with the project. He said  that the university was already short on parking, and that, while the exact spot of the lot has already been changed to leave as much forest as possible, the Redbud Woods location is necessary. Cornell officials said the parking lot, which will provide 176 spaces, is an integral piece of the ongoing redesign of the university's West Campus, which will be used by many more students and employees.

Under the agreement, Cornell promised to adopt several eco-friendly policies.

One guarantee of the agreement is that new students this fall will be given free bus passes, as faculty and staff members already are. The Redbud Woods Working Group, led by student protesters, wrote on their Web site that "reforming [transportation] policy will be more effective in the long term than providing stopgap measures such as new parking lots." In the agreement, Cornell also said it will forgive violations of campus code by protesters in the last week.

"The whole thing is pretty sad,” said Jane Mt. Pleasant, associate professor of horticulture and director of Cornell's American Indian studies program, who got a ticket at the site. “But at least there are some positives, the fact that they’re giving bus passes, and amnesty to the students.”

Other key points of the agreement include a year extension for an intern who was hired last academic year to try to find ways to make the university more environmentally sustainable. The rest of the agreement focused on creating public forums for students and faculty members to share thoughts about campus development, including an assessment in 2005-6 of issues like “a potential ban on cars for freshmen (or freshmen and sophomores),” according to the agreement. “I think it reflects our commitment to the long-term health of our campus,” said Bruce, who noted that considering sustainability issues is nothing new to Cornell.

But fans of Redbud Woods, which is named for its prevalent redbud trees, may be unable to replace the patch of forest in their hearts. “It’s a sacred space,” said Nancy Schuler, a Tompkins County legislator who was ticketed twice. “We have hills, and the gorges, and to say this space is needed for cars is sad. It’s a green break in a densely populated area.”

Parking issues vex many colleges. Frederick Mayer, who was a planner at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for 37 years, said that when people are moved into an area like Cornell's West Campus, local communities get upset if parking isn't added. He said that mass transit options, like the free bus passes, can be a great idea, but that moving completely to mass transit often proves difficult.


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