By Natalie Crnosija
While some Stony Brook University professors express dismay at the possibility of a five story, 135 room hotel that will be built near the Main Campus Entrance, Research Professor Robert J. Frey of Applied Math and Statistics is taking a different approach entirely. He is building it.
“I am doing this as a good citizen of the university,” said Frey.
Frey, who specializes in Quantitative Finance at SBU, is the President and CEO of Harbor Construction Management, LLC, a real estate and construction firm that has been taken on as the tenant of the Stony Brook Foundation Realty, Inc., an extension of the Stony Brook Foundation. The Stony Brook Foundation, a private, nonprofit corporation which raises funds on behalf of SBU, owns the lease to the 11-acre swathe of forest which separates the university from Nicholls Road. The New York State Legislature granted the lease to the Stony Brook Foundation in 1989.
The land, located to the south of the SBU entrance, was granted for the explicit purpose of building a hotel on SBU campus, said Vice President for Facilities & Services Barbara Chernow during a meeting of the University Senate Environmental Committee.
Chernow explained that since 1989, campus hotel developers interested in building the hotel had wanted direct access to the hotel from Nicholls Road for commercial visibility, which would completely eliminate the forested buffer between the highway and the university. These proposals were all rejected by SBU and the Stony Brook Foundation.
“Here, we keep the buffer as big as possible,” said Chernow. “The ground lease prescribes that there must be the least amount of negative impact possible.” Currently, the hotel and parking is expected to occupy seven of the 11 acres of the available land with the possibility of future expansion.
Frey said that he and his company were the only entity to date who were willing to follow the parameters that had been set for on-campus hotel construction by the SBU administration.
“We offered [the Stony Brook Foundation] the best deal financially and met all the conditions,” said Frey, who will earn a modest profit from the hotel’s construction. Prior to Harbor Construction Management, LLC’s deal with the Stony Brook Foundation, Frey was a trustee on the board of the Stony Brook Foundation. He stepped down when Harbor Construction Management, LLC was proposed as the sub-leasee for the land.
The hotel itself is being financed by foreign investors, said Frey, without SBU investing any capital in the venture. The university will, however, receive three percent ownership equity.
Though the company that will manage the hotel has not been finalized, both Frey and Chernow said that Hilton Garden Inns would most likely be signed by Harbor Construction Management, LLC as the hotel’s managers.
Hilton Garden Inns Public Relations Officer Dawn Ray said that the corporation’s management of the hotel on campus had not yet been finalized, but said she believed that both SBU and Hilton Garden Inns could both benefit from the relationship.
“We really think it’s going to be a great addition to Stony Brook Campus and the Hilton Garden Inn brand,” said Ray.
Although the plan is in motion and building plans will be established within the next four to five weeks, Chernow said the builders must perform an environmental impact assessment of the area as per the State Environment and Quality Review Act.
It is the environmental impact of the hotel that has professors on the University Senate’s Environmental Committee worried. Professor Malcolm Bowman of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences said that if President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr. appealed to the New York State Legislature and asked for another lease in another location, the forest could be preserved.
“If President Stanley sat down with Senator John J. Flanagan (R, C, IP), if President Stanley sat down with State Legislator Englebright and if President Stanley sat down with State Senator Ken LaValle, that suitable arrangement could be made for a new land lease,” said Bowman. “A new land lease requires the agreement of the state legislature.”
Senator Flanagan said he has heard the environmental concerns and the university must determine the best way to approach the hotel and find a way to protect the university and its surrounding areas.
“To have an amenity [like the hotel] can only help,” said Flanagan. “Stony Brook needs to continue to reach out to local businesses like the Three Village Inn to make sure what they do is comparable.”
Internally, Bowman is looking for the administration to commit to on-campus environmental protection as former university President Shirley Strum Kenny had. Bowman said he had asked for President Stanley’s promise to protect the Ashley Schiff Nature Preserve, a 26-acre wooded area adjacent to Circle Road. Bowman said he received no answer from the president. Bowman spoke of an idea proposed seven years ago of a “green belt,” or an area which would surround the university composed of private and public lands like Clara’s Woods, the Ashley Schiff Preserve and the 11 acres of woods by the main entrance.
“The removal of 11 acres will further fragment the habitat [of native species],” said Bowman. Professors are not the only group that does not view the hotel’s construction with enthusiasm. Undergraduate Environmental Club President Michelle Pizer organized a student protest against the hotel plans during family weekend to show students and their families how students opposed the hotel’s construction. Pizer said that President Stanley had repeatedly ignored her and the club’s concerns regarding the hotel.
“He might perceive that we are fighting with him,” said Pizer. “He is not listening unless it is in accordance with what he believes in.”
Pizer stressed that the administration should search for other locations for the hotel, like the Student Union.
President Stanley responded that the New York State Legislature was the only entity that could grant another lease and, in this current economic climate, there is not an option to build anywhere else.
“It is very difficult to grow without making some compromises,” said Stanley.
The hotel is a necessity for the future of the university as a research conference center and university, said Stanley, because of its proximity to the university itself and the possibility of housing Health Center patients’ families.
Though environmentally-aware faculty oppose the ecological impact of the hotel, faculty like Dr. John Robinson, chair of the University Senate Environmental Committee, and Professor Robert C. Aller said they recognize the necessity for the hotel, a site for conferences and housing for university and hospital patients.
“I am convinced with the need for a hotel,” said Robinson. “But there are trees and I feel for them.”
Frey said his company would preserve the “green belt” but said the hotel’s construction was essential for SBU.
“Add up students, faculty and patients [of the Stony Brook University Hospital], it’s a city of 40,000 people,” said Frey. “It’s not as if we are opening a Sears on campus. It is fitting in directly with the campus mission. “
Chernow similarly emphasized the necessity for the hotel as an academic conference center. The planned 5,000 square feet of conference space in the hotel would be used in conjunction with the Wang Center and the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, the latter of which is still under construction. This triad of conference space, said Chernow, would turn SBU into an ideal location for academic conferences and raise SBU’s profile.
In order to mitigate the environmental impact of forest clearing, the hotel would be following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) specifications according to Public Relations Officer Lauren Sheprow. SBU’s other LEED building, a library, was just opened on Southampton Campus, a SBU satellite where sustainability and environmental consciousness is capitalized upon as a shining virtue.
Pizer said she believed SBU, on the whole, tries to be green, but added that this consciousness is not uniform.
“I think if Stony Brook wanted to go green, there wouldn’t be only one school dedicated to sustainability,” said Pizer.
Aller, a member of the University Senate Environmental Committee and professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, similarly cited SBU’s patchy approach to sustainability.
“The minimal destruction of natural forested areas…is a set of values,” said Aller. “There is this ‘can’t do’ attitude [towards finding other sites] because destruction is the easiest thing to do.”
With the forest’s fate all but determined, arguments against the hotel’s construction seem to have little affect on the plans to push forward. However impassioned the debate, students, faculty and the administration seem to share in the benefits of SBU’s continuing expansion by the exchange of one type of green for another.