Friday, May 28

Special Double Radio Post: Is 'Option 4' still an option?

In our last two Finger Lakes Morning News interviews with Ted Baker on WGVA radio (April 16 and May 21), we discussed our point of view that Ontario County’s process for deciding which one of five building options ought to be pursued for the permanent home of Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) Geneva Extension Center had a preordained outcome, an outcome which, itself, was ill conceived.
Now we wonder if Option 4-- to demolish the architecturally and historically significant 1926 Geneva High School edifice and build a new, significantly smaller structure-- is still an option. It seems that the County rammed through Option 4 only to discover that state law may not allow the plan to go forward.
What the County finds itself up against are two state-placed hurdles. First, County Administrator Geoff Astles says that he has received notice that purchasing the building will trigger a series of code enforcement actions that would render the building unusable for FLCC’s intended purpose. Second, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) must sign off on the County’s demolition and mitigation plan before any state funds can be drawn down for the project.
In a sense, the County has found itself having gone full circle back to the position held by some opponents of the plan. The 1926 building may, in fact, have to stand with FLCC remaining the primary tenant.
On Friday, May 21st, FLCC announced it would seek to renew its current lease with the Geneva City School District, rather than executing the purchase offer that was on the table. The purchase offer was used by the Projects Committee as the main reason that additional options could not be considered. They announced that the purchase had to be made before the end of June and therefore, time was of the essence. Turns out that isn’t the case after all. And as Capraro pointed out in the April interview, anytime a multi-million dollar project hinges on an accelerated deadline, there’s probably a lot being overlooked, a lot of important reasons to slow down and do a more thorough review.
In the May radio appearance, we challenged the Mayor of Geneva’s suggestion that it was “arrogant” for the Geneva City Council to take a position on the FLCC project that did more than just support whatever the County proposed. Arrogant? Since the County had asked for a resolution from the City on the project it was not arrogant but rather the responsible action to take. As we had covered in our post, state legislation that forbids state money to be used to demolish architecturally and historically significant buildings, and the 1926 building is one of them. It is not a given that the state would approve the drawdown of funds for the demolition option. Between that and the code issues, the County Board of Supervisors might have given their unanimous support to an option that isn’t really an option at all.

Thursday, May 20

What the Electeds Neglected and the Public Pointed Out in the Former Geneva High School Debate

The Ontario County Board of Supervisors unanimously set the course for “Option 4” at their May 13th meeting, declaring its intent to raze the 1926 Geneva High School building in favor of a new one story structure that Projects Committee Chairman Dick Calabrese (R-Gorham) assured the public would last “50 years.” In doing so, the Ontario County Board of Supervisors put aside a number of compelling arguments put forward by members of the public which had supported fiscal restraint, due diligence, and educational vision-- and which relied mostly on the County’s own data and planning documents— in favor of the preordained outcome.

In other words, the ‘public input’ sessions conducted by the County served exactly the purpose Geneva City Supervisors stated, “to help the public understand what is being proposed” not to actually allow for the public to have input on what the options might be. So the ‘output’ of the ‘input’ remained the same as it had always been: a County commitment to spend $12 million on a new building to house eight (8) classrooms that might not even outlast the students who will sit in them. At $1.5 million per classroom, we can’t tell our readers exactly what to expect, but we suspect that English 101 won’t ever be the same.

And then, at long last—and, unfortunately, too late to do much good-- the Finger Lakes Times decided to take up the role of public information engine and government fact-checker, to start reporting some of the real facts behind how the County made its decision, facts which, by the way, challenge the local paper’s own, previously stated editorial stance on the project. (Remember, the Times came out early saying that the project was akin to buying a shiny new car).

On Tuesday, the Finger Lakes Times ran an above-the-fold story about the problems the County likely will encounter when they attempt to draw down the State’s pledged $6 million contribution to the project. As members of the public doing their own due diligence, had warned, there is a prohibition on using State (or Federal) funds for the demolition of “historically or architecturally significant structures.” The existing 1926 structure is significant on both counts, which means the County will be required to undergo what is known as a “Section 14.09 review.” The County will be required to prove not only that demolition is necessary, but also, that steps will be taken to mitigate the impact of demolition.

It is hard to see how the County will meet either one of those thresholds without expending additional time and money though the Supervisors claimed that there was no truth to these ‘rumors.’

See for yourself. On the last page (page 13) of the County’s “responses to questions” posed by Geneva City Council on behalf of the community, the first question pertaining to due diligence is asked and answered:

“Have any architects ever been charged with developing a $12 million adaptive reuse program?” In other words, did the County ever actually verify whether or not the existing building could be renovated using the available funding? The County takes a paragraph to tell us, essentially, ‘No, they did not.’ They talk about wanting to take the building off the hands of the Geneva City School District. They talk about multiple cost estimates for remodeling the site, and the school district’s inability to find any other “legal use” for the property. But even the County has to admit that they never specifically asked the architects to see what they could do to that building for $12 million. This will likely not fly for the State, who demands a higher threshold of proof that all alternatives are exhausted.

Whether analyzing the Community College’s space needs, the County’s ability to draw down State funds, or the viable reuse strategies for the space in question, the public has exercised the due diligence and fact-based critical thinking that would have served the County well. Too bad the County followed the lead of the FLCC administration in choosing pomp over circumstance, and the Finger lakes Times didn’t catch it earlier.

Monday, May 10

Discussion about FLCC Geneva Center Continues

As you know, the debate about the Pulteney Street campus center for Finger Lakes Community College continues. As we work on our next installment, be sure to follow the discussions that continue after the posts. We welcome any and all comments, so long as the author signs his/her name to them!

Read more here.