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Neighbors push back on new Divinity School building

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[UPDATED 04/17/2017] Highland Park Neighborhood residents aren’t happy about a developer's plan to put a building and parking lot near the corner of Highland Avenue and South Goodman Street, on the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School campus.

The developer, Top Capital of New York, an investment firm that’s buying the divinity school campus, plans to turn the campus buildings into a boutique hotel and conference center, making minimal changes to the buildings' exteriors in the process. That part of the plan has been uncontroversial, at least so far.

But Top Capital also wants to build a three-story, 40,000-square-foot building that would serve as the seminary’s new campus and would provide 10 apartments for students, along with some first-floor space for what Top Capital's chief development officer Lou Giardino calls "compatible uses." The developer hasn’t submitted an application to the city yet.

Some residents of the area say the building will mar the view of a Rochester landmark. And a new institutional building set right against Highland Avenue would be inconsistent with the residential character of the area and would also clash with the neighboring Highland Park landscape, they say.

“I think the neighborhood wants to see the developer and the divinity school go back to the drawing board,” says Monica McCullough, who lives on Highland Avenue near the campus.

McCullough is also one of many residents who have raised questions about whether the property will have to be rezoned for the new building. The campus is currently zoned as an Institutional Planned Development district, which allows for some new construction on the property as long as it fits criteria previously agreed to by the city and school, says Zina Lagonegro, the city’s director of planning and zoning.

But when the city passed its 2003 zoning ordinance revamp, IPD’s were eliminated and were replaced with something called Planned Development Districts. Any major changes to an IPD site’s use would require that the property be converted to a Planned Development District, a detailed and deliberative process that includes public involvement.

Lagonegro says she can’t comment on the process the project might follow, since no application has been submitted yet. But from what she’s seen, she expects the property would have to become a Planned Development District. Those districts can incorporate detailed standards for landscaping, screening, building on steep slopes, building size and appearance, and signs.

Residents questioned Giardino – and shared their objections to the building’s location – during a Highland Park Neighborhood Association meeting last week.

Giardino told the neighbors that the firm presented the divinity school trustees with an option to stay on the campus, which in turn would allow the institution to remain a part of the Highland Park neighborhood. The trustees liked the idea, but they want their new building to have a prominent spot on the property, he said.

The new building would be built behind the existing fence, he said, and wouldn’t need new entrances off of Highland Avenue, where there is already a driveway leading to a small service building.

"Visibility is a concern for us," said Tom McDade Clay, the school's vice president for institutional advancement. The trustees didn't want the building in the rear of the property, he said.

Residents, however, suggested that's exactly where it should go. Some have realized that their best bet for relocating the building away from the Highland-Goodman edge of the property may be to press the school’s trustees.

Some speakers also suggested that the 100-car parking lot next to the new building would make the intrusion worse. Giardino countered that screening the lot with trees is a possibility, depending on the outcome of the city's review of the project.

"The divinity school needs to be stewards to the neighborhood," one resident told Giardino and McDade Clay.

The original version of this post has been replaced with an expanded one.


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