That the aristocratic Village of Cooperstown and funky City of Oneonta are so different adds texture and richness to the experience of living in Otsego County.
Different as they may be, it turns out they are united by the same challenge: Both lack sufficient housing to thrive.
Cooperstown’s school and downtown are suffering from a declining population. Oneonta’s colleges and institutions attract young professionals, but many have to commute from afar.
Thinking people understand it: More housing is needed. Still, community opposition and lawsuits have stymied development in both places.
Housing doesn’t mean despoilment. In Oneonta, does market-rate housing have to include a dozen units for residents in rehab? In Cooperstown, do apartment complexes need to be jammed into streets lined with elegant homes?
Yes, build we must. For two views from the trenches, look below, to columns by consultant Alan Cleinman, who envisions Oneonta as a community of high-paid, low-maintenance “knowledge workers,” and Tim Hayes the SUNY Oneonta development officer and brainy president of the Cooperstown Central school board.
For those who are counting, that’s one “housing” for every year since I served on the Cooperstown Village Board’s Subcommittee on Economic Sustainability, where housing became a primary recommendation. Since then, the physical manifestation of village policies has been parking, parks and pavement. Hardly housing.
Why housing? Because, historically, housing nearly always accompanied economic prosperity in this village…
Most housing expansions in our one-square mile village have been out from a lakeside core. When the troops returned home from World War II, we built atop green fields to create housing in this village. Walnut Street to Susquehanna Avenue? Bulldozers
created that extension and The Freeman’s Journal at the time referred to this development as progress.
Housing soon followed. Lakeview Drive, north and south? Those are mid-century modern homes following the post-war boom. Fernleigh Drive from Mill Street to Estli Avenue? Only after Bassett Hospital had two major expansions and we needed more places for our newly recruited medical professionals and staff to call home, especially when on call.
That all stopped in the 1990s when people thought we had lost our historic village. What we lost was our ability to make (and re-make) history … and we lost friends and neighbors to the ex-urbs. What areas received the most building permits in the 1990s and 2000s? The towns of Middlefield and Otsego. These places are proximate to the economic hub of Cooperstown, but with huge-acre zoning intended to save open space and agrarian life.
There have been some limited examples of growth on the second way: in, or in-fill development where the density of housing increases adjacent to existing village homes. Schoolhouse court. Cooper Lane Apartments. Grove Street. Beech Street. Walnut. Delaware. These are more difficult for systemic reasons, as seen by the public deliberations over proposals between Chestnut Street and Pine Boulevard, or the demolition and sustainability-conscious rebuilding of existing homes on Walnut and Delaware. In-fill is also more difficult in our northeast community. If our homes are too close together, where do we pile all that snow and what happens during spring melts and summer rains?
Housing developments appear even more difficult. We have a ladder truck and municipal systems capable of reaching the top of multi-story structures that are regional economic engines, yet we have lacked the desire to support multi-story concepts or homes for people at heights greater than 35 feet above grade.
Our marshy soils and high water table likely lack the geologic integrity for massive residential towers, but a plethora of one-story detached structures could give rise to even more multi-story dual-resident homes – styles that already exist historically – or additions to apartment complexes already aesthetically acceptable and popular beyond their waiting lists.
When the market demands housing – and it does – and we have zoned out expansions of supply (which on, legal disputes, and subsequent creation of the Glimmerglass Historic District and HPARB), the impact on price is artificially upward. My family was lucky. Between family property, an economic anomaly, and sweat equity, my household could afford to own and maintain a home in the village. But my story is unique and, unfortunately, uncommon.
Preference for country living aside, the demographics and economics are positive for expanding housing in the Village of Cooperstown.
First, demographics: excluding tourists, the village’s daytime population change due to net commuting is nearly plus-200 percent from 1,800 residents, or an additional 3,800 people every day. University of Notre Dame students picked up on this influx, too, over a decade ago, writing in juxtaposition to tourism: “The fact is that more people come to town as patients at Bassett Hospital or as employees.”
And remember that most of the people working in Cooperstown had to come from other areas of our state, country, and world. The education required for most direct-service healthcare jobs simply is not available at scale in Otsego County. Affordable, quality housing is key to attracting and retaining these year-round, daily neighbors – people who live elsewhere right now. We are both losing people and leaking paychecks.
For those who question this potential, here is a back-of-the-napkin calculation based on publicly available data. A recent IRS filing from Bassett Medical Center lists it as having annual revenue of over $500 million, that’s a half-billion dollars. On the expense side, Bassett pays about $300 million to its employees. Most of them do not spend it living in Cooperstown.
For comparison, the village municipal budget is $5 million. The National Baseball Hall of Fame revenues are about $14 million and overnight accommodations county-wide (including Oneonta) that reported “bed tax” generated about $43 million in total sales ($1.7M in tax collected divided by 4-percent tax rate).
And yet in-village housing for some of the thousands of automobile commuters and their families – which would also impact declining enrollment at our local school district, a key component of any community (that, and healthcare) – is barely mentioned in any municipal comprehensive plan and or in any of the multitude of committee and sub-committee meetings within this village.
This village IS prosperous – and it continues to be prosperous when you consider the economic and demographic expansions already mentioned. The problem is that we are not making it easy for people to choose to invest their lives here. Not all of the commuters or transplants will – or want to – live in the village, but a ridiculously low number of them presently can.
I’ll close with a excerpts from a 2017 New York Times article covering a study of American boomtowns: “What’s drawing people there has more to do with [affordable] housing than high wages… The larger problem is that [people] are blocked from moving to prosperous places by the shortage and cost of housing there. And that’s a deliberate decision these wealthy regions have made in opposing more housing construction, a prerequisite to make room for more people.”
So, in addition to upgrading the necessary municipal services needed to maintain a prosperous community like ours – especially clean, consistent water; environmentally sound effluent treatment; human-scale transportation systems; and storm-water and snow removal – I urge the village to update its stance on year-round housing so that more colleagues, co-workers, and friends can enjoy their brief walks home rather than hour-long commutes from a shuttle to a parking lot to a car to a county road to a driveway at a far-away place.
Please change our outdated zoning law soon; and then remember to re-examine it again in time and then shortly after your next comprehensive plan.
COOPERSTOWN – Matt Phillips, CCS ’02, shared a poignant story of his family’s affection for Redskins (now Hawkeyes) football, and the 200 fans in the CCS high school auditorium applauded.
“If not for football,” said Phillips, today Clark Sports Center’s Activities & Group Reservations director, “I wouldn’t have come to school.”
Cooperstown varsity football has had bad years, for sure, but always rebounded. “My senior year,” he said, “we won one game. My senior year, we were undefeated.”
Today, his daughter Leah plays with the team, continuing a family tradition. “She even talks about playing in the NFL someday.”
The term “Life Births” – a term that floated through the room as the school board contemplated a wide round of cuts to the 2020-21 budget; the budget vote and school elections is May 19 – could trump the fans’ and others’ concerns.
“We are forced to make decisions that don’t feel great,” Superintendent of Schools Bill Crankshaw said that evening: In 2007, there were 1,048 K-12 pupils; today there are 850, a 19 percent drop.
“Life Births” are compiled annually by ONC BOCES Superintendent of Schools Nick Savin for all 19 school district in his purview, nine in Otsego County. Based on the number of births in a district any one year, he projects those numbers forward: for instance, babies born in 2015 will enter kindergarten this fall.
If fewer seniors are graduating in June than kindergarteners are arriving in September – and this goes on year after year – a school district is headed for trouble.
For the 2019-20 school year, CCS has 79 students graduating, and only 50 kindergartners entering, a 37 percent drop, by far the largest among the ONC BOCES schools.
“At base, if you want a school, you have to build housing,” CCS board President Tim Hayes said in an interview, “affordable, quality housing … Until we start to create places for people to live in the community, I’m worried about the future of the community.”
Hayes served on the task force that created the Village of Cooperstown’s new Comprehensive Master Plan, approved last fall, which – to some community concern – allows larger homes to be broken up into apartments.
If there are no exterior changes, sufficient parking and other standards are met, village Zoning Enforcement Officer Jane Gentile can simply issue a permit; a project doesn’t have to go through the H-PARB, planning or zoning boards, said Deputy Mayor Cindy Falk, who has played a central role in the comp plan and resulting zoning code.
Apartment houses – the Railroad Avenue neighborhood, in particular, is designated as appropriate – still require a special permit from the Village Board, she said.
It’s only been a few months since the new zoning was approved, but Falk said she’s unaware of any house conversions or apartment complexes being proposed.
In the 1970s and ’80, Hayes said, homes were being built in the district, but in the 1990s “preserving open space was more important than building houses for people who wanted to live here.” Much of the surrounding towns of Otsego and Middlefield requires three-acre lots, he said.
That may be changing, Hayes said. In addition to Cooperstown’s new zoning, the Town of Hartwick has contracted with Delaware Engineering for a Route 28 study. The study wasn’t focused on housing, Falk said, but as survey results began coming in, housing needs were frequently mentioned.
With the largest employer in the county – Bassett Hospital, “a half-billion-dollar medical center” – just three blocks from Cooperstown Elementary, things should be different.
“Every day I see ads for employees at this medical center,” Hayes said. “We definitely don’t have enough housing for people who want to live here.”
At last week’s meeting, Hayes and Crankshaw repeatedly said no firm decisions have been made about football or anything else. The next of a series of “open budget discussions” is planned 6-6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 4, in the high school library.
Savin, the BOCES superintendent, said that while CCS’ situation is the most dire this year, it’s not alone. “In Oneonta,” he said, “they seem to have some growth in the younger grades. Every other school in our region: They’re either staying flat or losing students.”
He continued, “In more schools, because we have declining enrollment, the school boards and communities are looking at more collaborative ways of keeping their teams. It’s appropriate, in my view.”
“That’s what the data does,” he said: “It causes the right kinds of conversations.”
COOPERSTOWN – Some 200 people filled the high school cafeteria for a half-hour this evening, expressing fears to the Cooperstown Central school board that the development of the 2020-21 budget would bring an end to varsity football and curtail other extra-curricular activities.
Despite the size of the crowd, school board President Tim Hayes cut off discussion after the 30 minutes scheduled for public input. “There is no plan right now,” he said, although the school board is considering all options in its budget deliberations. Decisions will have to be made by May, when the school budget goes to a public vote.
Parent Tom Ives, Mount Vision, described ending football as “cutting the head off the snake,” suggesting that all the striving, discipline and community spirit engendered by the sports – the body of the snake – will die, too.
COOPERSTOWN – Short shorts enlivened this evening’s League of Women Voters’ forum.
“What’s enough?” asked citizen Richard Blabey, referencing the in-school mini-furor when eight female students who showed up at the high school in short shorts on April 11, the first day when temperatures got into the 70s, and were taken out of class and counseled for a half-hour.
“Or,” he continued, “it is anything goes?”
Responding, the five candidates for two seats on the Cooperstown Central school board offered the widest range of opinions to any of the seven questions posed by audience members – about 60 attended – in the two-hour session.