ITHACA, N.Y. — There are few projects that have stirred as much debate as the State Street Triangle project at 301 East State Street, just across from the Commons.

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On the one hand, Austin, Texas-based Campus Advantage says it will be a “newly energized urban space on a currently underutilized site.” On the other hand, an unsigned, typed letter taped to the site plan review notice on-site declared it would “plunge Ithaca into chaos.”

For many local residents, it’s led to a lot of questions: Why doesn’t the site require parking? Is 11 floors appropriate for Ithaca? Why was the site up-zoned in 2013? Do we want student housing downtown?

Those are questions that JoAnn Cornish, the city’s planning director, has had to think about as the State Street project makes it way through the planning board.

“We were surprised that it was a student housing proposal,” she stated in a phone interview. “We didn’t anticipate that. We definitely saw residential mixed-use, it’s a perfect location for new retail and restaurants. We get a lot of business people interested in new retail space. We figured it would be [non-student] residential like Seneca Way is.”

Officially, the project isn’t student housing, and the developer has broken down some 4-bedroom units into studios in an effort to appeal to non-students. However, most of the occupants are expected to be students from Cornell and Ithaca College. Campus Advantage has contacted student groups and asked students to take surveys to help determine the proper ratio of unit sizes and rents.

The site takes advantage (no pun intended) of the city’s Central Business District (CBD) zoning, where no parking is required by law. The high cost of building downtown makes it difficult to finance a project if parking is required. With a number of parking garages downtown that aren’t used near capacity, the zoning is designed to encourage denser development in the city’s core by removing the parking requirement.

Only a limited number of properties fall under CBD zones, which are separated into subcategories by height. In 2013, the Trebloc Building’s zoning was up-zoned from CBD-60, where a developer could build a building up to 60 feet tall, to CBD-120, which allows a building to be as tall as 120 feet.

According to Cornish, “by encouraging density in the core, we can help encourage people to not use their cars except when they really need them. The garages are at excess capacity and they’re costing the city a lot of money. We want to see them at capacity. Until we’re at the tipping point, we don’t want to encourage parking [spaces].”

That doesn’t however, mean that all projects should forego parking altogether. “It’s surprising that no parking is provided. We need to keep a careful eye on the parking situation. We need to understand what impacts a 620-bedroom building will have,” Cornish said.

She stressed that the city is working on a downtown parking study that will look at the combined impact of new projects in the city’s core, to make sure Ithaca has capacity to welcome new workers and residents to its city center.

Cornish stands by the decision to up-zone the Trebloc property. “The site’s so underutilized, and we really wanted to see density. Our mayor and council wanted to densify the core, and that is a good site to raise the height to 120 feet. It’s not out of character, there are other areas nearby of similar heights.”

The Seneca Place building a few blocks away is 121 feet tall, and the Hotel Ithaca/former Holiday Inn is 120 feet tall, according to the Emporis building database. State Street Triangle as proposed stands at 116 feet.

However, while defending the zoning, she and deputy planning director Phyllisa DeSarno were quick to point out some flaws with the proposal.

“I think an 11-story building is welcome in the city. But it’s the style and quality of the architecture that is what’s important. I’m not sure they [Campus Advantage] hit the mark on that one.”

“It’s a premiere corner, we want people to say ‘wow!’ when they see that corner,” added DeSarno. “We want a high quality design that incorporates street vitality. We don’t think they hit it quite yet, but there have been some good changes in the latest revision.”

State Street Triangle conforms to all zoning requirements, which allows it to be built as-of-right. If the planning board returns a negative CEQR (City Environmental Quality Review), meaning that the negative impacts are appropriately addressed and mitigated, then the building is likely to be approved, and could move forward with construction.

However, whether or not it actually does get built may depend on the requested tax abatement. Although representatives for the company have stated the project won’t move forward without the abatement, there’s no way to determine if the claim is the result of genuine financial concerns, or posturing.

Cornish doesn’t think poorly of them for trying for the abatement. “A good business-person would go for it, why wouldn’t they try if they qualify?”

“But will they go forward with the project if they don’t get the abatement? We never know until they get an answer from the IDA.”

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.