By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
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By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The rumor sprouted last summer, quickly moving among Long Island environmentalists. Everyone knew that officials at SUNY Old Westbury planned to develop nearly a third of the 600-acre, heavily forested campus. But no one expected those plans to include the kind of garish development that's been whispered about since at least August. College officials, according to the rumor, are considering mowing down trees at Old Westbury and putting in a K-Mart.
Old Westbury president Calvin Butts flatly denies the rumor, but the fact that it's circulating shows how edgy people are about the future of the campus.
Minna Barrett, an Old Westbury professor and a leader of 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition, calls the rumor "crazy." She says what's at stake is not the type of development slated for the campus, but whether that development will harm the environment.
Old Westbury sits atop a fragile aquifer, so any construction there could potentially threaten the Island's water supply. Yet the proposal to pave open space for buildings was created, at least initially, with little input from teachers and neighbors. "My sense is that what they want to do there is problem enough," Barrett says. "A K-Mart would be outrageous, but the real issue is who controls the development. It sure is not the people of the state or the faculty."
For the record, Butts insists that the school will not put up retail or office buildings. Butts, who continues to serve as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, was hastily appointed not long after the development proposal surfaced in late July. The ally of Governor Pataki also sits on the board of directors for the Empire State Development Corp., which tries to develop unused state property. Given the timing of his hiring and his tight political connections, Butts has had to spend much of his brief tenure meeting with teachers, students, local residents and officials in an effort to win their trust. He even intends to move to the campus next year, when renovations to the president's house are complete, so he'll become more a part of the academic community and so he can stop making the daily 75-minute schlep from Manhattan.
"The more I get an opportunity to talk to people and tell them what's really going on, the more it quiets down," he says. "I've been absolutely open with [teachers and students]. They're always in and out of my office, which is why I can hardly get any work done."
College officials' wish-list of new buildings includes a dorm, some faculty housing, a police academy and an athletic complex. "Absolutely no K-Mart," Butts says. "I would never do that."
Backers of the plan to develop part of the campus say the scheme will generate much-needed revenue for the school, which has struggled to attract top students and steady funding. Joseph Kearney, a member of the board of the directors of the Old Westbury Foundation, says his group won approval in Albany to take title to nearly a third of the campus with the goal of building facilities that outside parties would lease, providing money for school coffers. The Republican executive leader and former Hempstead town councilor says a better-designed campus with a new dorm and an improved equestrian center would draw more students, increasing the amount of tuition the school receives.
Kearney says the public should rest easy about development at Old Westbury, since any proposals must be approved by state education officials. "We're not going to destroy the environment out there," he says.
But environmentalists aren't convinced. Three weeks ago, neighborhood activist groups formed a new coalition to fight development at the school. Joe Lorintz, an Oyster Bay attorney who has spearheaded efforts to preserve the pristine Underhill property, says the same people who've fought to stop other developers have now banded together as the Long Island Drinking Water Coalition. Lorintz, recently named the Long Island Sierra Club's environmentalist of the year, says the new coalition is studying the options and may eventually lobby legislators or take legal action. "We're all pulling together on many different issues," he says.
Help from community activists can't come too soon for professors like Barrett, who says the faculty still hasn't had significant say about development plans. "Whether it's a K-Mart or a private athletic club doesn't really matter," she says. "There's still no process in place for the land."