Colgate Divinity site rezoning triggers lawsuit

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The lawsuit brought last week by neighbors of the former Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School campus was a step they hoped would not be necessary to take. An Aug. 20 City Council action forced their hand, however.

At the meeting, 40 residents of Highland Avenue neighborhoods voiced their concerns over plans for the property. The residents—and more than a thousand others who signed a petition online and in person—called for a thoughtful approach to developing the site.

But in a 5-3 vote, City Council decided in favor of the proposed rezoning, pushing the redevelopment project ahead. Developer Angelo Ingrassia of Roc Goodman LLC is expected to close on the property at the end of the month, says Bob Thompson, spokesman for the neighbors. 

“One of the things we’ve been asking for is to slow it down so we could better wrap our arms around the whole thing, but that didn’t happen,” he says about the Aug. 20 meeting.

Ingrassia had requested an amendment to the rezoning of the 22.42-acre Colgate property from an institutional planned development district to a planned development district. The rezoning is expected to enable the reuse of five existing buildings, and the construction of two multifamily buildings.

The Colgate neighbors’ civil suit against the city and Ingrassia seeks to annul and vacate the rezoning decision, asking for a permanent injunction against Ingrassia from commencing work on the site, among other requests.

Thompson and his neighbors contend that the developer neglected to assess the project’s impact on various factors such as the environment, quality of life, traffic, recreation and community character.

“The Divinity School is kind of a sacred place, it’s been part of the Rochester landscape for over 90 years,” Thompson says. “Most folks look at it as almost a continuation of Highland Park.”

He adds: “Now we have a developer who goes up there and all of a sudden (is) wanting to build on that landmark landscape and change the character of the campus, and we feel that’s part of Rochester’s heritage and deserves to be preserved.”

Ingrassia, who also is the owner of the former Medley Centre in Irondequoit, announced his decision to purchase the Divinity School last year. Since then, his plans have been scaled back taking into account the historical significance of the property, preserving buildings on the campus and not developing the south lawn portion of the site.

“The Divinity School was one of the main supporters of this project. … That was a major sticking point for me as far as me wanting to vote for this project,” says Willie Lightfoot, vice president of City Council. “I felt that there had been no one with better expertise for this property other than the Colgate Divinity School and the board and its members. They were very supportive of this developer and supportive of this project.”

Lightfoot is among the five Council members who voted in favor of the project. 

“I didn’t want this to become a property that was vacant and blighted and just end up being an eyesore and difficult to find someone else to do this,” he says. “These were things I had to take under consideration, and I think we as City Council persons should make sure we’re doing our due diligence and make sure that we are not creating the blight in our community.”

City Council member Mitch Gruber, who voted against the rezoning, says it is a scary to think about grounds like Colgate being without an owner. 

“Colgate is no longer maintaining it, they’ve moved on and that’s clear,” Gruber says. “For some people, the argument was that we need to have someone in there ready to invest in the property and make sure it continues to be the jewel that it is in the city. 

“For me, the issue is that I don’t believe we need to rush decisions on such an important piece of property. I thought we could continue to have more and more conversations with the neighborhood association (and) with other stakeholders.”

The history of the property is not lost on its neighbors or City Council. Colgate and Rochester seminaries merged to become the Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1928, resulting in the historic campus on the southeast of Rochester. A merger with the Crozer Theological Seminary in 1970 gave the school its current name.

The neighbors sent a letter to the council noting that the project had seen many changes over a short period of time, Gruber says. A July 31 letter documented concerns including a request for an increased setback from the northern border of the property, limits to building height, and an environmental assessment. In a letter that followed, neighbors asked if the Council would hold off on approving the rezoning.

Lightfoot notes that Ingrassia did make some changes, including his decision to maintain historic buildings. The developer is willing to pay for a traffic light if traffic problems arise and install sidewalks where there are none, he adds.

“I know this is probably controversial with some of the residents, but this guy went back and did numerous amount of conversations with residents, and some may feel there could have been more,” Lightfoot says. 

The Colgate neighbors understand that the campus needs to be redeveloped, Thompson says.

“I think there was one person who said we don’t want anything to happen up there and while that might be idealistic, it’s not realistic, and we understand that it does need to be redeveloped,” he says. “But this was done in such a rush, it was incredible.”

Thompson would have liked to better understand the impact of putting two new buildings on the property. 

Rochester has seen its share of controversial projects over the years that centered around preserving character. It is important to maintain a balance by not only listening to citizens but also looking at the big picture, Lightfoot says.

Gruber believes everyone involved in the process—the city, the zoning team, the developer and the neighborhood association—worked together. 

“It is important for everyone to know that,” he says.

At the moment, however, Thompson and other Colgate neighbors are left with a sense of frustration.

“It just doesn’t sit well with anyone who cares about the historic nature of that campus,” he says.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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