From the President’s Desk: In Support of Cornell’s North Campus Residential Expansion Project

Last week I spoke at the City of Ithaca’s Planning Board meeting, at their second of two public hearings (so far), in support of Cornell’s North Campus Residential Expansion Project. Because speakers were limited to 90 seconds (due to the high number of speakers anticipated), I had to submit most of my comments to the board in writing. At the end of this piece, I’ll provide you with some tools to submit your thoughts on this project as well, if you should feel compelled to weigh in.

I suggested at the meeting that the construction of these residence halls on campus is a necessary and welcome addition to our community, and that Cornell’s significant efforts regarding sustainability to date should speak for themselves. At the end of my comments, I also shared some brief notes about Cornell’s substantial community investments and economic impact, which are far too often overlooked and instead replaced with frequent Cornell-bashing in nearly every public forum available.

Some key points about the project, and Cornell in general, that I felt were worth noting are listed below.

  • Only about 48% of undergraduate students live on campus currently—much lower than most of Cornell’s peer Ivy League institutions.
  • Maintaining Cornell’s attractiveness among its peers as an institution of higher-education is paramount to their long-term success, and that of our community’s economy in turn.
  • Freshmen and sophomores will benefit from a campus-living requirement, as will our residents, if more housing in our communities becomes available for families and workforce housing needs.
  • New on-campus housing must be built to accommodate students while deferred maintenance and preservation of historic campus residences like Balch and Risley is conducted; neither the campus nor the community can absorb these students while the construction takes place.
  • Given constraints on the existing housing market locally (particularly in smaller, more affordable units), it is logical that we support Cornell’s efforts to accommodate their planned enrollment growth of 900 students over four years on campus, vs. off campus.

Regarding Cornell’s plans for energy efficiency:

  • Cornell is often ranked as one of the greenest, most sustainable colleges in the nation. Cornell University is ranked No. 7 in the country in the 2017 Princeton Review’s Guide to Top 50 Green Schools; Cornell is the only Ivy League school in the top 20. They’re also sometimes also ranked 1st or 2nd, depending on which source is cited.
  • Cornell is currently using less energy today than they did in 2000, with 20% more square footage of facility space. We should trust them to continue this trend.
  • The NCRE project will require no new gas infrastructure for building heat, hot water, power, or cooling. This point should be welcomed by opponents of natural gas infrastructure expansion.
  • Modeled energy use for this project is 30% better than the latest State Energy Code standards; the new project will represent only about 1.4% of today’s total campus district energy despite being 4% of Cornell’s utility-interconnected net square footage.
  • Cornell’s net energy use is STILL expected to be lower in 2022 when the buildings come online than today, and an ever-increasing percentage of campus energy needs will be supplied or offset with renewables.
  • While New York State has a 2030 goal of 50% renewable electric energy, and Cornell’s goal is more aggressive – achieving 100% renewable energy and a carbon neutral campus by 2035. Cornell, due to its size, will be largely responsible for our community meeting its goals as well.

It’s also worth noting, because it is so often overlooked, the amount of community investment annually by Cornell University. I’m going to mention a few notes about their economic impact just from 2017:

  • $7.5 million was invested in voluntary contributions to local governments, schools, public transit, and non-profits; an additional $750,000 is to be raised for United Way in 2018-2019.
  • $3.1 million in municipal fees were paid
  • $2.8 million in property taxes were paid
  • $143 million in goods and services were purchased in Tompkins and adjacent counties, ranked by supplier/vendor
  • $56 million in construction spending in Tompkins and adjacent counties, by prime contractor location
  • Cornell pays nearly a billion dollars in payroll annually at its Ithaca campus, a substantial portion of which goes to local residents.

Given all that we know about Cornell’s efforts to consistently become more sustainable and their goals to continue doing so—and the campus plans to continue reducing carbon emissions to ensure a deficit is created to accommodate this construction—why wouldn’t we support this?  All of the evidence points to Cornell being able to deliver on this promise.

Well over two years ago, Cornell engaged leaders from our community—including the impacted municipalities—over a yearlong planning process to assess their student housing needs, deferred maintenance needs, and to better understand the community’s housing issues. They brought the community along with them through this process. It’s commendable that they are now proposing to do exactly what they planned to do, and what their students, faculty, staff, and the community agreed was a good and solid plan for growth and sustainable facilities management.

Imagine if rather than fighting Cornell, our largest employer and economic driver, at every turn—we collaborated with them more? They’ve demonstrated the capacity to be a great partner, to be engaged listeners, and to be savvy investors in this community. The North Campus Residential Expansion project is another example of all of these things, and the Chamber supports them in this effort.

Jennifer Tavares, CEcD
President & CEO, Tompkins Chamber


North Campus Project Information:

Project FAQs:

Submit comments to the City of Ithaca Planning Board before 4 p.m. 10/30:

Or, attend the City of Ithaca Planning Board Special Meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, October 30th.

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