Dear Friends of George Eastman House,
On the evening of Wednesday 8 May, the Rochester Preservation Board held a hearing on the proposed demolition of the existing building and construction of a 102-unit, four-story apartment building at 933 University Avenue. The hearing began at around 7:30 p.m. and continued until approximately 9:15 p.m.
Peter Siegrist, the City of Rochester Preservation Planner, opened the meeting by announcing that the discussion during the meeting should be limited to topics relevant to the Preservation Board’s consideration of what recommendation it should make to the Rochester Planning Commission concerning the impact of the proposed project on historic resources (as defined under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act). No disclosure was made in advance of the hearing that the discussion should be limited; most speakers did not limit their comments to this topic.
In total, about twenty people spoke in opposition to the project; about six people (including three veterans from the Monroe Voiture 111) spoke in favor. The first speaker was Larry O’Herron, from the Neighborhood of the Arts Neighborhood Association, who conveyed that an online survey of neighborhood residents indicated that a substantial majority opposed the project.
I opened my comments by objecting to the lack of public notice that the scope of the discussion would be limited and stating that a recommendation that the project would not adversely impact historic resources was tantamount to the Preservation Board’s approving an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness (this application will be considered by the Preservation Board only if the Planning Commission approves the granting of a Special Permit for the project). I then gave my prepared statement about the strong past record of preservation in the East Avenue Preservation District, the dangerous precedent that would be set by permitting the demolition of the existing structure or the construction of a four-story apartment building, and the inequity of permitting this construction given that Eastman House had gone to great expense to protect the preservation district by constructing more than 75% of our archive and gallery building underground. Tom Jackson made a persuasive argument that there is little basis to believe that there would be significant net economic benefit from the project, especially given that Rochester has neither a housing shortage nor a growing population. Ralph Wiegandt, of our Conservation Department, made an effective analogy between the critical roles of the preservation board and the of conservators. Trustee Robbie Baltzer spoke eloquently about the importance of protecting George Eastman’s gardens from the construction of the proposed apartment building only 20 feet from our property line.
Other residents of the neighborhood and representatives of other neighborhood groups also spoke in opposition to the project. Amiel Mokhiber, representing the Greek Orthodox Church, which owns the property immediately to the east of 933 University Avenue, spoke in opposition to the project and indicated that the church would be prepared (either on their own or in cooperation with George Eastman House) to repair the existing structure for the veterans’ clubhouse. Wayne Goodman, the director of the Landmark Society of Western New York, spoke in opposition to the demolition of the existing structure, but also indicated that the Landmark Society does not oppose the construction of the apartment building.
Last Friday, our attorney at Harris Beach sent the attached letter to Marcia Berry, objecting to the procedure of the Preservation Board meeting for failing to give appropriate public notice of the purpose of the hearing and seeking limited the scope of public comment.
Late yesterday afternoon, we learned from Peter Siegrist (see e-mail below) that the Preservation Board will not be making a recommendation to the Planning Commission until the Preservation Board’s next meeting, which will occur on June 5. Our understanding is that, as a result, the Planning Commission will not consider the issue of 933 University Avenue until its meeting on June 17.
Although the Preservation Board’s recommendation to the Planning Commission remains uncertain, we consider this delay of the process to be advantageous to our efforts to oppose this inappropriate project. The next stage of our efforts will be focused on the Planning Commission.
Thank you for your support.
P.S. All the while, there are many wonderful things happening at George Eastman House. It is a beautiful time to visit our gardens. The renovated Dryden is magnificent. Our Wish You Were Here speaker series has resumed its globe-hopping. The Gender Show, which will feature 160 photographs from our permanent collection and borrowed photographs by some of the most important contemporary art photographers, will open to members on the evening of Friday 14 June. I hope to see you there.
The Planning Commission will not take up the case at all on May 20th. Since the Preservation Board was unable to make a recommendation at its hearing last Wednesday, and since its discussion must occur in public session, there isn’t sufficient time for notify for a public session before May 20th. Therefore, we’ve scheduled the case first on the Pres Board docket of June 5th, at which time we expect the Board to issue a recommendation. We believe the Board has collected adequate testimony, so we don’t anticipate taking additional testimony on June 5th. The Planning Commission would then take up the case at its June hearing.
Peter Siegrist, AIA, LEED AP
City of Rochester