College Suites development still in limbo

It has been six years since United Group Development first introduced their plan for off-campus housing to the Oswego community and almost two years since they had to return deposits to students for the still unbuilt complex.

United Group Development has been seeking approval for an off-campus student housing project called College Suites since 2005, which led to a public hearing on Monday for Oswego Town residents to raise their concerns.

The project’s site locations and building plans have been changed numerous times. These setbacks, coupled with issues connecting to the city sewer system forced United Group Development to refund deposits to students from whom they had collected in the fall of 2009.

Currently, the project is slated to be at 2733 Johnson Road, near Laker Hall. The complex would house 400 students, and cost about $7,000 per academic year.

The new location on Johnson Road is zoned specifically against dormitories, which has caused confusion among residents, because the description of the complex is similar to that of a dormitory. According to Project Manager Karen Schlederer, the complex will be specifically for junior and senior college students, though not necessarily restricted to Oswego State students. There will also be resident assistants, maintenance staff and security officers. United Group Development would manage the project and work with the college on repercussions for judicial offenses depending on infractions.

The definition of a dormitory, according to the Town of Oswego’s Zoning Law, is a building with group living quarters for a student body or other group associated with college use.

"They didn’t want dormitory usage of this property," said Attorney Scott Chatfield who is representing landlords in the city and the town. "They intentionally prohibited dorms because of the impact."

The Zoning Board of Appeals determined that the College Suites project is a multi-family complex, not a dormitory.

"It walks like a duck, talks like a duck. If it is a duck, I don’t know," Chatfield said.

Various landlords in the City of Oswego such as Doug Waterbury and Lee Walker, have expressed concern that this would hurt renting business, especially since they have seen a decrease in demand for the off-campus housing since The Village opened.

"It’s a whole new ball game," Walker said. "I had a tougher time renting out last year."

The project was originally developed prior to the opening of The Village. The last time United Group conducted a market survey to evaluate student interest was an update in 2008 for the information collected in 2006 or 2007, according to Schlederer.

However, according to Chatfield, the issue is not that there will be more competition; it is how competition enters the community.

"Competition isn’t bad," Chatfield said. "The real issue is to compete at a fair basis."

Walker also said that this project was bringing in too many outside resources for it to be economically beneficial to Oswego area businesses.

"They’re carpetbaggers," Walker said. "They’re coming to our community to take money from people who have been here for generations."

Residents in the surrounding area are also concerned for the safety of students because of the lack of sidewalks leading from the college to the project site and the additional buses that would be necessary for student transportation. United Group Development had talks with Centro in 2007, but there has not been a follow up discussion, and no resolution was reached.

"We have been known to buy our own buses and shuttle students back and forth," Schlederer said.

With the location on Johnson Road, the project was originally slated to be a five building project. But with that design, United Group Development received a negative declaration for the State Environment Quality Review (SEQR). This meant that SEQR ruled the project would not negatively impact the surrounding area in terms of traffic, noise, environment and crime.

The original location for the project was in the City of Oswego, near Fajita Grill. It was in a residential area called Ontario Heights, which stretches from Route 104 to Washington Boulevard. But due to concerns with over-crowding, traffic and crime in the area, United Group Development moved the project to the Town of Oswego, according to City of Oswego Alderman Connie Cosmento.

The project changed in 2009 to include one main complex. Part of the decision was for security, to reduce the number of entry points so the students residing there are safer. Another benefit of the change was to reduce the impact on the area. The SEQR was not reconducted with the new design, and there is a dispute whether an entirely new SEQR is required.

"It’s less of an [environmental] impact because there’s not five buildings going up, it’s just one," Schlederer said.

The residents were also concerned about the protected wetlands located on the property. Although the new project shows is located farther away from the wetlands, there was still confusion as to who the wetlands were protected by; the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers or both. This ownership would be considered by the next SEQR review, if it is decided that a new one is required.

The submission for the new plan has been submitted to at least ten different "interested agencies," including Oswego State.

"We really are not directly related with the project," Vice President of Facilities Tom Simmonds said. "We review any proposed neighboring development projects to understand the intent of the project, and ensure they do not have any adverse effect on the environment and personal safety of the college community."

Other interested agencies include Centro, Empire State Carpenters and the National Grid. On January 1 the Oswego Town Planning Board met and was declared the lead agency in the project. They are currently waiting for all SEQR interested agencies to comment on the project, according to Kevin Caraccioli, the Oswego Town Planning Board’s legal advisor.

"I have never seen a project undergo so much scrutiny," he said.

But representatives of the landlords disagree.

"I don’t think I’ve seen a project of this magnitude going through with such a rush," Chatfield said.