January 31, 2008


Student housing plan draws mixed reaction

Development’s influence on housing stock remains point of contention.

Student Housing Plan

Bob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland student Tanna Pascarella walks past student housing on Clayton Avenue, Wednesday morning.

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — Local landlords and city and college officials have different ideas about what the proposed development of apartments for more than 350 students off routes 13 and 281 near the former Cortlandville fire station would do to the local student housing market.
The college and city hope the influx of fully furnished apartments will push local developers to improve their own properties. Landlords see market over-saturation and declining housing stock as the most likely scenarios.
United Development, a division of the United Group of Companies, based in Troy, Rensselaer County, presented plans to the Cortlandville Planning Board on Jan. 15.
The company hopes to construct a total of 134,000 square feet, split between two buildings, on an 8.5-acre parcel between routes 13 and 281. A total of 90 apartment units would house 358 students and the complex would be monitored 24 hours a day by maintenance, security and residential management personnel.
United Development Executive Vice President Jeffrey Smetana declined to comment substantively for this article. He said he preferred to stay within the official channels while the project is under consideration by the town Planning Board.
The private development company is not formally associated with SUNY Cortland, but college President Erik Bitterbaum said he has met with company representatives.
The apartments would be furnished with the kind of trendy furniture expected to appeal to students, and there would be common areas in the buildings themselves as well as in grassy areas in the center of the property.
Many local landlords already provide safe, clean and attractive housing, Bitterbaum said. For those who do not, he hopes the increased competition from a high-end developer would spur even more improvements.
“We’re anxious to have the best for our students’ living arrangements off campus,” Bitterbaum said. “But for me, it’s always about safety. Are these clean, safe places?”
Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Glover, city director of code enforcement, said he expects the housing stock to improve with the increased competition.
He pointed to Clayton Avenue as an area that has vastly improved over the last couple of years.
All parties agree some students are now in substandard housing because in some cases, that is all that is available. The new project will leave those less-desirable developments empty, said local developer and landlord John Del Vecchio of Cortlandville.
“If it’s in a good location and it’s quality housing, it will get rented,” Del Vecchio said. “A lot of the apartments that aren’t going to get rented to students are going to deteriorate further.”
Del Vecchio said he is not personally concerned — he said the majority of his properties, which amount to about 130 student beds, are in good shape and in good locations.
He and John Jackson, the owner of the JE Management Group, feel the improvements in rental properties over the past several years, both student and nonstudent housing, would reverse itself if the new development were completed.
Jackson said he manages apartments for about 50 students, and he knows there are already a couple of hundred vacancies in the city.
“I’m not a landlord, so I have a different perspective. I’m not saying that (housing deterioration) might not initially happen; there might be some of that,” Glover acknowledged, but he believes an upswing would follow soon afterward and the housing stock would continue to improve.
And if landlords who currently do not maintain their properties to a high standard start to feel the crunch, that could be an opportunity.
“That’s not a bad thing, because if they get out of the business then maybe someone who has the ability to properly maintain the property will buy it up,” Glover said.
Although Mayor Tom Gallagher has some questions about the project, he is also hopeful for the opportunities it could provide. He points to last year’s controversy over the seeming proliferation of student housing in the city.
“Is it going to draw students out of the city apartments?” Gallagher asked. “If, in fact, that does happen, then this gives the opportunity to all the people who wanted the neighborhoods turned back into residential to help give young families the ability to purchase and transform these houses to (single-family) residences.”
The mayor said he does not see a downside to the development, except that “the property owners who are currently owners of student housing will have to upgrade to compete.”
Del Vecchio disagrees. Out-of-town landlords with run-down housing do not know what is going on locally and only have the bottom line to work with.
“When you take the students out of the picture and the numbers go down, they’re not going to be able to afford their mortgage payments,” Del Vecchio said.
Mike Holland, the assistant to the vice president for student affairs at SUNY Cortland, sees the positive possibilities for those he is most concerned with — students. Rents should go down and the quality of housing should improve.
The college enrollment is about 7,000 students, and there are only accommodations for about 3,000 students on campus. Freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus — sophomores can apply for special dispensation — and Holland says he does not like turning away graduate students who want to live on campus because the dorms are already overcrowded.
He believes the United Group development would provide college dorm-like facilities without the college having to expend the money.
The college is rehabilitating its residence halls, about one a year since 2000. Fitzgerald Hall is scheduled for improvements starting in December or January 2009 and finishing before August 2009.
Del Vecchio pointed to the development of the West Campus apartment complex in the early 1990s as an example of what an influx of about 240 student beds could do to the market.
A private developer had built the apartments, formerly called Pineview, at the request of the college. The college leased the complex between 1991 and 1998, after which it was left vacant for a year before the college purchased it.
Steve Muka, a local landlord who rents to only a handful of students, said when the college began requiring that transfer students move into the West Campus apartments, there was a decline in the housing along Lincoln and Maple avenues that the students had vacated.
Muka said the influx of apartments would affect his business, which for the most part does not rely on students but rather families and working people.
“The thing that I noticed over the years with the stock of housing in Cortland is that landlords, by and large, are just barely making ends meet, especially for the nonstudent housing,” Muka said.
“Whenever you have disruption, which could keep the rental rates down, there really isn’t much cash flow for landlords to put back into their property,” he added. “Whenever there is an oversupply, I think it tends to show itself by houses not being fixed up.”
Del Vecchio provided the starkest warning.
“If you look around, you will see that there are landlords … who have bought properties and improved them to make them nice for students. And you’re not going to see that anymore,” he said. “It’s going to help Cortlandville, but it’s going to hurt Cortland badly.”




City housing project raises concerns

About 75 people attend meeting on proposed 56-unit apartment complex

Staff Reporter

For 59 years, Helen Whitney has lived at 115 S. Pendleton St. A vacant field, an apartment complex, a junkyard and a rundown house surround her property.
A 56-unit apartment complex for low-to moderate-income families proposed nearby has her worried.
“What’s going to happen to the value of my home?” Whitney asked.
Whitney was one of 75 residents of the city’s 5th and 8th wards who attended a special informational meeting Wednesday night for the proposed Pendleton Street apartment complex.
The meeting was set up by Aldermen Dan Quail (R-5th Ward) and Tom Michaels (R-8th Ward). Cortland County Legislators Kathie Wilcox (R-5th Ward) and Chad Loomis (D-8th Ward) also attended.
The residents came with questions and concerns about Conifer Realty LLC’s plans to develop the 6.9-acre lot at 111-115 Pendleton St. near the east end of Huntington Street.
“I would say it needs to go someplace else but here,” Whitney said.
Traffic, an influx of students at the Randall Elementary School, types of tenants, effects on other landlords and a possible increase in property taxes were some of the concerns raised by residents.
“We have such a large amount of people in such a small area. The traffic situation going down and even up the hill is a problem,” said Charlene Bushnell. “Randall School already has so many kids that they have to send them somewhere else.”
Andy Bodewes, a project director with Conifer Realty, and Timothy Fournier, president and CEO of the company, presented an overview of the company. They also explained similar projects to the one proposed in Cortland, details on the Pendleton Street proposal, and addressed concerns of many individuals.
“We’re about high quality and working closely with municipalities and neighbors … we’re not about real estate, we’re about people,” Fournier said. “We’re different. What we develop, we build and manage.”
Fournier said a traffic study and an environmental study, among many things, would have to be completed for the project to be approved by the city’s Planning Commission. He also assured that background and credit checks would be done for prospective tenants.
Fournier said the rents are not subsidized, but the project has income restrictions because of federal and state laws for this type of project.



911 calls played in Manos  trial

Staff Reporter

ITHACA — Marie Manos’ tone of voice during two 911 calls she made as her niece lay dying in May were the focus of testimony Wednesday in Manos’ murder trial in Tompkins County Court.
“She’s breathing fine, she’s just not coherent,” Manos said in an even voice in a recording of the call she made after she is alleged to have drowned her 2-year-old niece. “We’re really freaked out.”
Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson introduced the recordings of the calls Manos made May 15, when her brother Michael Manos and his wife, Jennifer, arrived at her Dryden home to find their daughter, Grace, pale and not breathing after having been in Marie Manos’ care for the afternoon.
Marie Manos is charged with three counts of second-degree murder, two counts of second-degree aggravated sexual abuse, felonies, and one count of endangering the welfare of the child, a misdemeanor, in connection with the death of Grace Manos, whom she was baby-sitting May 15 at her home.
Jurors listened intently as the recordings played in the courtroom and followed along with transcripts provided by the prosecution as additional evidence.
In the background, a woman’s voice, presumably Jennifer Manos’, could be heard screaming “Oh, my God!”
“She just had water in her mouth,” Marie Manos said to the operator in the recording. “We just freaked out.”
Marie Manos reacted little to the playing of the recordings, mostly looking down at the defense table where she was seated.
According to testimony from Grace’s parents, Jennifer Manos dropped the girl off at Marie Manos’ home at about 10:45 on the morning of May 15.
Jennifer Manos said her sister-in-law did not answer the phone when she called to say she would pick Grace up early that day. When Marie Manos called back at about 3:30 p.m., she told Jennifer Manos that Grace had fallen asleep during the ride back from Marie Manos’ doctor’s appointment, and that she thought the child should be allowed to sleep.




Hospital expansion topic of meeting

Staff Reporter

An informational meeting Wednesday for 1st Ward residents about hospital expansion plans gave way to questions about why Cortland Regional Medical Center did not notify them earlier about the development.
About 20 people, including 10 neighbors and four government officials, attended the presentation that CRMC officials held at the hospital. Alderman Val VanGorder (R-1st Ward) organized the meeting.
The hospital is planning a $25 million project to build a three-floor surgery and obstetric unit on the parking lot at the northwest corner of Homer Avenue and West Main Street. A bigger parking lot and medical office building would be built across West Main Street, along Homer Avenue south to Van Hoesen Street.
CRMC also has received approval to expand the parking lot in front of the Here We Grow day care center on Homer Avenue.
Neighbors said they were disappointed to first learn of the project through the newspaper, especially that six houses would be knocked down for a bigger parking lot and medical office building. Five of the houses and the former Kleen Korner dry cleaner/coin-operated laundry building already have been knocked down.
They had no warning the former Kleen Korner, on which the hospital has a purchase offer, was coming down, let alone that asbestos was being removed from the building.
The Kleen Korner site is owned by 4545 Properties, which is based at 45 W. Court St., Bud Ames’ home.
“If you’re looking for community support, PR goes a long way,” said Melissa Holl, who lives next door to the site of the former Kleen Korner at 9 Van Hoesen St.
David Hardy, the hospital’s chief financial officer, said the hospital should have held Wednesday’s meeting two or three months ago. He apologized for not doing so.
The project is awaiting approval from the state Department of Health.
The hospital expects to begin construction of the new wing in March 2009. Construction would take 30 months.




2 new police officers on beat in Homer village

Staff Reporter

HOMER — Roland J. Eckard II always knew he wanted to be a police officer for a small department.
“I grew up around it. My dad is a police officer for a sheriff’s department in South Carolina. I grew up with him and his friends and it really influenced me,” said Eckard, 29. “It’s a sense of helping out where I grew up. I’m familiar with the people and the surroundings.”
Eckard is one of two new full-time police officers at the Homer Village Police Department hired within the last year to assist in patrolling the village.
Eckard was hired in May and graduated in November from the Central New York Police Academy in Onondaga County. His graduation ceremony will be in March.
Ryan P. Mead, 26, a volunteer firefighter in Homer, also joined the force full time in March and graduated from the academy in July.
“I wanted to join a small department. The benefit is that fact that when you work for larger departments, you get to do less,” Mead said.
Eckard and Mead live in the village and will have a starting salary of $32,500 under a contract with the village for three years of service.
Homer Village Police Chief Daniel Mack said each was chosen because he had a clean background, good qualifications and village residency.
“They know the area and the people,” Mack said. “ And the people know them.”
Mack said crime in the village has dramatically decreased since before he joined the department in 1998 due to the police presence.
“We are very visible,” he said.
Eckard and Mead said it takes patience and commitment to become a police officer.
“The whole process of the civil service exam and the academy is very time consuming,” Eckard said.
Mead said the academy and police work is physically and psychologically demanding.
“Every situation we go to we look at differently than you would if you weren’t a police officer,” Mead said.
“People’s demeanors change rather quickly when they see a badge. They tend to think you’re invading them,” Eckard added.