ITHACA, N.Y. — Developer Todd Fox has big plans brewing for Ithaca’s South Hill, but a cell phone tower stands in the way.

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Fox, one of the owners of local rental company Modern Living Rentals (MLR), shared preliminary plans for an 87-unit apartment building at 815 South Aurora Street at the Planning and Development Board meeting Tuesday evening.

Fox’s plans call for a multi-story apartment building built into the hillside, a block from Ithaca College and near Rogan’s Corner. The design, created by Ithaca-based architecture firm STREAM Collaborative, is reminiscent of nearby Emerson Power Transmission, with design cues from the former factory incorporated into the new apartment building. All 87 units would be studio apartments (i.e. no formal bedroom space). 87 parking spaces are also planned.

The building site at 815 South Aurora Street is currently a sloping grass field on the north side of a 2.5 acre lot. Two other buildings on the same property would be unaffected.

Compared to other projects that have come before the board in the past couple of years, 815 South Aurora has a unique obstacle: A cell phone tower — and, by extension, a city law.

The current city ordinance states that buildings can’t be built within a radius equal to double the height of a communications tower. In this particular case, the tower stands 170 feet tall, meaning nothing can be built within 340 feet of the tower. Two apartment buildings in the Hudson Heights Studio Apartments complex, and the current buildings on site are grandfathered in; they were built before the law was enacted.

To help make his case, Fox hired two private engineering companies (Ithaca’s TAITEM Engineering and Groton’s Spec Consulting) to analyze the case, and their findings determined that an appropriate fall zone is the height of the tower plus 10 feet for a little wind/bounce – so 180 feet total. With this info in hand, Fox is trying to get the city to allow the decrease in fall zone radius, and therefore permit the land to be used for the proposed apartment building.

Previously in June, Fox had approached the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) asking for a modification from the law. However, the BZA said it would not consider the application. The city attorney, Ari Lavine, advised the BZA that they couldn’t override a council-approved law outright. However, the BZA could make a consideration on a case-by-case basis, which meant that Fox and architect Noah Demarest would have to present a firm plan for the site, and then apply for a code variance before any decision could be made. Which leads us to the present – a project on the table, with a 160-foot hurdle.

In an email, Fox wrote “[a] fall zone of twice the height is an arbitrary safety distance. The ordinance was created at a time when Cell towers first began being constructed and there was not much knowledge about them at that time. We also contacted as many municipalities in Central New York that we could and everyone that we talked to had the fall zone being just the height of the cell tower plus several feet, give or take for debris throw off. ”

When asked how his project would be compatible with the rest of the neighborhood, Fox replied “[w]e feel like our project helps serve as a gateway into Ithaca. One of the things that we found very enticing about this project was the opportunity to pull Ithaca College students out of the South Hill neighborhood.”

“One of the constant complaints and desires of long-term residents is to try and see a shift away from the growing student population in the neighborhood. I don’t see the multifamily properties getting converted back to owner occupied anytime soon. But I do see the ability of single-family homes that are currently rentals, being sold back to families. The only way this is going to happen is if new developments are built that can support this transition. We need space for the students and we need space for families, and we think that our development helps create an opportunity for both of those demographics.”

Demographics or not, the project still doesn’t conform with the law. It will be up to the planning board and the BZA to decide whether or not the project site is safe, and if the proposed apartment building is a good fit with the South Hill community.

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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.