he summer of 2005 was a memorable, but ultimately disappointing time for a large number of Ithaca residents. About 400 Cornell faculty members who signed petitions and wrote the president against the destruction of Redbud Woods, and the 50-member Redbud Faculty Working Group (RFWG), City of Ithaca residents and officials, University Hill community residents, and about 25 Cornell student and community protesters spent the months of June and July working intently to develop alternatives to replacing Redbud Woods with a parking lot. Despite these efforts, the administration consistently refused to reconsider its paving decision, and the woods was cut down in late July.
In holding to this course, the president ignored reasonable alternatives and the arguments of some of Cornell's (indeed, the world's) leading scientists. Tree cutting had actually commenced on June 6, during a harrowing couple of hours in which men hired by the construction firm began to cut trees all around a group of young protesters without erecting a fence and clearing the area first. That tree felling effort was cut short only by a thunderstorm that caught several of the protesters in the tops of tall trees. An extended pause in the cutting (occasioned by the alumni weekend events and anxiety on the part of the construction firm's insurance company) during the last weeks of the Lehman presidential tenure and the first three weeks of the Rawlings administration allowed for a phase of intense negotiation between faculty and students on one side, and three CU vice-presidents and provost Biddy Martin on the other.
On July 13, Professor Tom Eisner, one of Cornell's most distinguished biologists, and Paul Houston, chaired chemistry professor and associate dean, presented President Rawlings with a proposal for a six-month moratorium on destruction of the woods. This proposal called for the creation of a task force to study alternatives to the woods' paving and issue a report by Jan. 15, 2006, which he could then accept or reject. The faculty and student working groups believed this was an eminently reasonable proposal, and were shocked when the president and Provost Martin summarily rejected it the following day and began fencing the woods even as faculty met with them to hear their response to the proposal.
The destruction of the woods began after an agreement was signed on July 18 by President Rawlings with a group of Cornell students and Ithaca environmental activists who had occupied Redbud Woods to try to prevent its destruction. In the face of imminent extraction by means that might physically endanger them and others, the young people agreed to leave the woods in return for a commitment by the administration to take, or consider taking, a series of steps in environmental policy. The most important section of the written agreement (and the only important one that appears likely to be implemented) was an administration pledge to inaugurate a two-year experiment in abatement of parking demand via free bus passes for freshmen and other new students who do not bring cars to campus. Faculty and student negotiators had earlier made a broader proposal of free bus passes for all non-driving students as a way to limit parking demand. 1
At the urging of faculty, the administration's agreement with the student protesters also included a promise by the administration to work toward the dropping of judicial charges related to trespass tickets written after a fence was erected around the woods, and, in the case of several students, to recommend cancellation of earlier trespass charges stemming from an occupation of Day Hall by the protesters as they attempted to force a conversation with then-president Lehman.. Because of the latter incident, the administration had withheld degrees earned by two students involved in the Redbud protests. As it turns out, Cornell actually has no power to drop charges once they are in the domain of city courts. (Whether the administration knew this when they put that promise in the exit agreement cannot be discerned). The administration has yet to act on another section of the agreement, a proposal by Prof. Tom Eisner, that it consider contributing to the purchase of another parcel of woods for preservation by the Finger Lakes Land Trust.
Faculty members condemned the administration's use of coercion to get its way, and did not sign the exit agreement. Faculty comprise a large portion of the 90+ people charged with trespassing in the woods (and now awaiting trial on those charges).
Destruction of the woods began in earnest on July 20, two days after the exit agreement referred to above was signed.
However, a second group of activists not a party to the agreement continued to hold positions in trees in a last-ditch effort to prevent the woods' destruction. This last group were treated very harshly--allowed Gatorade, but denied food and water, medicine, sleep (via harsh flood lights trained on them all night), and a safety rope for one young woman, until her parents prevailed on a policewoman to allow one to be hauled up to her.
These measures, ordered by the administration, might have led to fatal accidents by hungry, exhausted, and groggy young people, as was pointed out to VP Murphy by concerned faculty and townspeople. Her safety concerns, she later indicated, extended "only to the Cornell community."
When the last protesters finally agreed to come down, as trees were being felled around them, they thought that they at least had a promise from the administration to spare the magnificent old oak tree in which they were perched. But that tree, like the other beautiful walnut, hickory, oak, and redbud trees were cut and chipped before their eyes.
Many Cornell faculty and students, along with alumni, residents of Ithaca and elected officials in city, county and state government perceived the destruction of this historic and tranquil woods as a critical issue in the history and quality of life in Ithaca , and in university governance. The short summary below explains why they protested the CU administration's destruction of Redbud Woods.
Before July 20, there was, on the western rim of the campus, a de facto green belt of which Redbud Woods was a vital section. It had been a part of the historic estate of Robert Treman, a founder of the NY State park system. Treman's estate was designed by Warren Manning, a student of Frederick Law Olmstead. Manning's principle was that "nature is the best gardener" and he defended the value of wild forests, with only selective removal of undesirable plants. The estate was left to Cornell to keep as a natural area. Cornell violated the trust of the Treman family with its plan to destroy the woods and pave it, and that action was strongly protested by the Treman descendants.
The Cornell administration also violated the expressed values and policies of the City of Ithaca and the adjoining residential community. The administration fought the city in court in two different lawsuits to override decisions of the city government and the historic preservation organization that would have spared the woodland. When the old residential community adjoining the woods on University Avenue organized to secure designation as an historic area, Cornell's administrators tried to block that as well.
University Hill residents valued the forested slope opposite them for its natural beauty, the home it gave to birds and small animals, and for its enormous water-absorbing functions. A concrete parking lot will mean, even with the plan modifications Cornell has made to channel some of the water, a great increase in runoff water. One of Cornell's eminent forest ecologists, Tom Whitlow, informed us that when 10% of a watershed (like the main campus hill) becomes covered with impermeable surface, there are serious ecological consequences in flooding, erosion and unfiltered pollutant runoff. That ten percent figure has been exceeded already, and the destruction of the woods and its paving will undoubtedly increase the ecological damage. Many cities and universities are now recognizing the economic value of green spaces and trees in water retention, pollution abatement, and air cooling, but our administration remains oblivious to such knowledge. Every other consideration is sacrificed to a narrow focus on "parking needs."
The ostensible purpose of the new lot is to provide parking for students and a small number of staff, and to facilitate faculty visits to the new West Campus (WC) dorms. The design of this residential complex raises questions of its own about the administration's planning; President Rawlings's determination to build an expansive residential complex at that site in the face of budget constraints yielded not only glaringly unattractive buildings, but rejection of the better option of accommodating parking on the site itself, preferably underground.
Because the intense opposition to the destruction of the woods delayed construction necessitating years of expensive litigation (to override two city decisions against the paving), and required almost a week of overtime pay for police officers needed to clear and patrol the woods against protesters, the new parking lot cost much more than anticipated (and no doubt more than the other options that were originally rejected as too costly--like additional decks on existing parking lots, or an underground lot). Even in simple dollars and cents (not to mention reputation, donations, and community good will), administration intransigence has been very costly for this university.
It is clear that Cornell cannot go on paving green space to accommodate increasing automobile traffic, without doing severe ecological damage, displacing costs onto the community below University Avenue, increasing the heat radiation and ugliness associated with parking lots, endangering pedestrians and bicyclists, 2 and violating its much-ballyhooed commitment to "sustainability." The administration continues to call itself an international leader in sustainability, using a narrow, technical/material conception of that term and citing repeatedly the facts of lake-source cooling, paper recycling, and the occasional "green building" adjustments. Preserving green space and saving energy and fossil fuel throughout the campus are not part of the administration's conception of sustainability.
The severe hurricanes of September, 2005 underline the necessity of limiting driving (and fossil fuel consumption in general) in the United States , which is the largest contributor to global warming 3.
Alternatives to continued paving of the Cornell campus include offering free bus passes to all students who don't bring their cars to campus, restoring the old ban on freshman (or freshman-sophomore) parking, and building UP on existing lots (like the construction parking lot behind the 660 Stewart coop, or the existing lots on Williams St., behind the law school, and behind Willard Straight). There are, at present, large and under-utilized parking lots (the A and B lots), but the administration persists in its assumption that people cannot be asked to walk a few blocks from parking lot to building (here they are ignoring the physical fitness advantages of walking for able-bodied Cornellians; the administration does students no favor by encouraging driving).
The Redbud Working Group recommended development of better and more extensive walking and biking paths, incentives for car-pooling and shared parking spaces, and other measures. The Working Group circulated a study of the effort at UCLA to limit driving on campus. By the simple measure of providing free bus passes to all campus personnel, UCLA reduced the demand for parking spaces by 20% in the first year. 4 If we added a ban on freshman parking, which many universities have, we could certainly have reduced parking demand by far more than the 176 spaces in the new University Avenue parking lot. The working group also located spaces for temporary construction parking needs in various places, including Libe Slope and the A and B lots.
In addition, over 60 members of the faculty submitted creative proposals for ways that they would become involved in the new West Campus dorms (for example, Prof. Tom Whitlow would have adopted the Redbud Woods as his class project in restoration ecology), and all pledged to do this WITHOUT driving to the dorms. The Redbud faculty working group even raised over $30,000 in pledges for restoration of the urban woodland to make it even more valuable for campus teaching and student/faculty/community life.
One of the Faculty Redbud group, professor of city and regional planning Barbara Lynch, told her colleagues that in studies of the position of universities in their larger communities, the consensus is that the worst type of boundary between town and campus is a wall; the second worst is a parking lot. On the other hand, what we had, until July 20, was a beautiful wooded area that comprised a permeable natural boundary beloved to city neighborhoods, students, and faculty. Other campuses, like Berkeley and the University of Indiana , have maintained such urban woodland boundaries, and they are cherished natural areas for both campus and city.
Cornell could take a very different path from that chosen by the Rawlings/Lehman administrations. We could nurture the unparalleled natural beauty that surrounds us, and strengthen the ecological programs that have been weakly supported in the past 5 years. We could connect good environmental citizenship to personal physical fitness, discouraging the use of automobiles. Instead, Cornell officials have stated that they hope to attract students by advertising that they can bring their cars here and park in convenient locations.
We think that is a great miscalculation. Good students are much more likely to be attracted by academic offerings and programs addressing growing concerns with global warming and loss of green space, and by a university that PRACTICES what it preaches by minding its imprint on the local environment. No other peer institution allows cars on central campus to the extent Cornell does, so it is unlikely that we are going to lose good students to other ivy league schools because of opportunities to drive and park on central campus (note also that the Student Assembly voted three times to oppose the destruction of Redbud Woods). That this claim was repeatedly made by Cornell officials, along with observations that "This parking lot is going to be one of the prettiest parking lots in the Northeast;" and "It's going to be MUCH prettier than that ill-kept woods full of invasive species" (the latter was argued by President Rawlings himself) shows how distant our administration is from today's informed environmental consciousness.
There was a wonderful opportunity this summer to harness the creative energies of faculty, students and town in a positive effort to make Cornell a genuine environmental leader, and to shape a university that would operate with intelligence, sensitivity and open discussion. Instead, the administration followed a course of misrepresentation and stubborn exploitation of its coercive power to build a parking lot that destroyed a woods.
In the past three years the administration has said many things that were misleading or simply untrue. For example, VP Susan Murphy told a faculty-student negotiating group in June that Cornell was required by the City of Ithaca to build the new parking lot to accommodate campus needs. At the same time, she was certifying to the city that Cornell had more than enough parking spaces to meet the city requirement EVEN WITHOUT the Redbud lot. (The city sent us a copy of that affidavit).
The administration also described the woods as "an overgrown lawn" full of "invasives." In fact, there were some invasive plants there that could easily have been removed, but the bulk of the trees were black walnuts, oaks, hickories, and redbuds (which are not classified as invasives-a term the administration seemed at times to confuse with "non-native"). There were also some magnificent and locally rare trees and plants in the woods (see the species list compiled by Prof. Kenneth Mudge, at the redbud web site). After the fence went up, construction workers smashed two plants that were on the New York state endangered species list, and which had been circled with a small protective fence. But even a woods FULL of actual invasives would still have performed valuable ecological functions-- in water absorption, carbon absorption, heat-reducing shade, habitat for a variety of valued birds, and so on. It is incredible that the administration of an ivy league university would argue that an asphalt parking lot on that site is preferable in every way to a woodland.
The initiation of a search for a new president is an opportunity to find more enlightened and humane leadership, and to think about a different governance structure on campus that will not allow one or two people to ignore the informed judgment of a large community of scholars and residents, and to get itself locked in (because of sunk costs or simple intransigence) to a flawed course of action inadequately vetted in a wider group of experts and stakeholders.
Once the administration prevailed in its second court case last spring, it had the legal right to destroy Redbud Woods. But it did not have the moral right to commit this offense against nature in the face of so much opposition, and for so flimsy a purpose.
1 based on the successful parking abatement experience at UCLA (click on the study "Fare Free Public Transit at Universities.", http://redbudwoods.org/oldsite.html).
2 It would be interesting to see statistics on accidents in which cars hit pedestrians or bicyclists over the past decade or so. Such accidents are an inevitable result of increasing traffic (which grows, even if all other conditions are held constant, when more parking lots are built); several serious accidents have occurred just in the past few months.
3 On the connection between the increasing severity of hurricanes and global warming, see http://www.livescience.com/forcesofnature/ap_050731_hurricanes_stronger.html
4 See Journal of Planning Education and Research 23, 69-82 (avail. at Redbud website)