Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth’s lip service to Hanover residents’ concerns is community theater

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/13/2022 10:48:00 PM
Modified: 8/13/2022 10:44:37 PM

It’s nice, I guess, that Dartmouth officials are at least pretending to care what Hanover residents think about the college’s plan to bulldoze a slice of its defunct golf course to make room for an upscale student housing complex off Lyme Road.

Last Monday, the college staged its fourth of five public meetings this summer to “solicit input and community engagement” on its “North End Housing” project.

One “engagement session” probably would have sufficed. At the initial meeting last month, the college made it clear that Hanover residents who don’t like seeing the Dartmouth bubble expand 1½ miles beyond the center of campus will just have to get used to students zooming along Lyme Road, aka Route 10, on electric skateboards and scooters.

At the first meeting, Dartmouth Executive Vice President Rick Mills informed the 150 attendees that “we will do our best to be good neighbors as we proceed with something that we think we need for our students and for the college.”

Which is a polite way of saying that Hanover residents can grumble all they want. They can even bring in lawyers. But in the end, the college usually gets its way.

Ever since Connecticut preacher Eleazar Wheelock set up camp in the New Hampshire wilderness more than 250 years ago, Hanover has been a company town.

By far Hanover’s largest property taxpayer, Dartmouth forked over slightly more than $9 million to the town in 2021. (Kendal of Hanover was a distant second at $1.2 million.)

After the college shuttered the 120-year-old Hanover Country Club in 2020, claiming it wasn’t a moneymaker, it was only a matter of time before the college began paving over former fairways.

The North End complex, consisting of three multi-story apartment-style buildings for 400 students, is part of the college’s “Planning for Possibilities: A Strategic Campus Framework.”

And with Dartmouth’s $8.5 billion endowment, just about anything is possible.

At Monday’s session, interim Dean of the College Scott Brown said the North End complex is “not just a place where people are going to sleep and study by themselves.” (It’s a safe bet that once an alumnus writes a check with ample zeroes that the name will change.)

Each apartment, ranging from one to four bedrooms, will feature its own kitchen. And to create a “holistic student experience,” Dartmouth is looking to include amenities such as a yoga studio, cafe and rooftop terraces with “nice views,” said Cooper Melton, an architect with the Maryland design firm hired to “connect students to each other and the college community itself.”

Not to mention Hanover cops. With the police station next door, it will be interesting to see how cops respond when the first whiff of funny-smelling tobacco drifts across the boundary line.

Students won’t have trouble getting to and from campus, the college maintains. Classes, dining halls and Baker Library are all just a five-minute shuttle bus ride away.

Students will also have the option to walk or bike to campus. In its presentation at one of the community meetings, college officials displayed a graphic that had “confident cyclists” using Lyme Road’s bike lane, which is less than 2 feet wide in some parts, while “less confident cyclists” and pedestrians stuck to the asphalt sidewalk.

Michael Wooten, associate dean of residential life, acknowledged at Monday’s meeting that “there are trade-offs. We get that there are challenges to being a mile and a half from the center of campus.”

Until design options are finalized in the next month or so, Dartmouth won’t be able to discuss the cost of the project, college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me. As long as the town building permit process goes smoothly (and there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t), the buildings should be ready for students to move in by the fall of 2025.

With several of Dartmouth’s aging dorms needing major work, I haven’t heard anyone question the college’s desire to expand its stock of living quarters.

“I’m all for creating new student housing,” Jack Wilson, an architect who has taught at Dartmouth for 30 years, told me. “But I don’t see how having 400 beds at the end of the (old) golf course, next to the police station, creates a sense of community.”

Wilson has attended most of the community meetings, including last Monday’s, which is where I caught up with him.

Dismayed by the college’s lack of transparency, Wilson said he’s been “scratching his head” to figure out why Dartmouth is set on the site. (Wilson lives in another part of Hanover, so he can’t be thrown in with the NIMBY crowd that has come out against the plan.)

Josh Keniston, vice president of campus services and institutional projects, told residents at the first meeting that Dartmouth looked at almost a dozen potential sites. None were large enough, however, to accommodate 400 students in apartment-style housing.

Originally, Dartmouth intended to build on the other side of Lyme Road and closer to campus at Garipay Field — or that’s what college officials wanted the public to believe.

Some people I’ve talked with believe the Garipay Field proposal — you might even call it a threat — was a ruse. A red herring.

The college had to know that plowing under Garipay, a popular outdoor recreation area, would send Hanover residents into a tizzy.

Which is just what happened. After the public, along with the Dartmouth faculty, had spoken, the college announced in February that the project was on hold.

Why did Dartmouth give in so quickly?

By taking Garipay Field off the table, the college could say it had listened to the public and was willing to compromise.

Like a good neighbor.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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