ITHACA, NY – The plans set in place after years of debate about density and zoning in the core of Ithaca’s Collegetown are beginning to take shape, creating a conflict between those that want to maintain the area’s current character, and those who see it as the beginning of a new era for Collegetown.
A little background: two years ago, The Ithaca Voice reported on the housing boom in Collegetown. The renewed interest in Collegetown development came after the city finalized its new form-based zoning guidelines in 2014.
The new zoning guidelines aim to create a smooth transition toward a denser Collegetown core, centered around the intersection between Dryden Road and College Avenue.
Looking at the map below, the tan colored areas labeled MU-1 and MU-2 are intended to be used for mixed structures up to six stories and 80 feet high (for MU-1) or five stories and 70 feet high (for MU-2) high. The blue CR-4 is for larger houses, townhomes and mid-sized apartments up to four stories, while the green CR-3 through CR-1 areas are zoned for houses up to 3 stories.
For reference, here’s the view if you’re looking north from near the corner of College Avenue and Bool Street, where the MU-1 zone starts, today.
Clearly, if the MU-1 and MU-2 zones are built out to their full density, this view would like quite a bit different.
The first mover: 201 College Avenue
One of the first big developments slated for this area is a five-story, 44-unit, 74-bedroom apartment building propsed to replace the old two-story, 12-bedroom apartment house that currently sits on the lot. The current building is used as student housing, and the new building would be as well.
The plan for this building has created a conflict between the developer, Visum Development Group, and the longtime resident of the home at 203 College Avenue, Neil Golder.
Golder spoke before the city’s Planning and Development Board in April, saying: “203 College Avenue is my home. It has been my home for almost 44 years. The house means a lot to me: my best friend’s children were born in it and my wife Kathy died in it…”
“I’ve decided to spend the rest of my days there and have made many improvements, inside and outside: a new roof, painting and new windows, re-insulating of the walls, solar panels. I’ve spent over $100,000 so far and will probably spend that again on interior renovations. 203 College Avenue is my home.”
“The massive apartment building proposed for 201 would basically ruin life for anyone living in 203,” Golder went on to say. Golder says the apartment building would cut off the light not only to the plants in his gardens, but also to the solar panels on his roof.
The building would also require the removal of three large spruce trees in front of the property, which Golder describes as irreplaceable historic landmarks — likely over 100 years old and roughly 80 feet tall.
Beyond that, Golder feels that the building simply wouldn’t fit in with the neighborhood, which largely consists of two- and three-story houses as well as two nearby historic buildings, the Grandview House and the John Snaith house. Golder described the building as a boxy, monolithic eyesore that sticks out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood.
Golder has collected over 300 signatures from passers-by for a petition to save the three spruce trees. He also has presented letters of support from Historic Ithaca and the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Committee, recommending a redesign for a building that’s more in tune with the existing neighborhood.
Golder says that he’s not opposed to development, noting that he’s supported other density-increasing development projects in the past. However, he feels that the developer could construct a building that is more in harmony with the existing neighborhood and one creates a gentler transition into the denser part of Collegetown.
Is Collegetown’s character changing?
Developer Todd Fox of Visum Development Group says that cutting down the structure just isn’t feasible. Even as a traditional five-story structure with 10-foot floor-to-ceiling heights, they weren’t able to make a building that was profitable.
Fox says they had to get creative, utilizing more of the 70-foot height allowance and putting the bedrooms above the living rooms on three of the floors in order to provide enough units for a project profitable enough for a bank to be willing to finance.
Fox says that Visum Development Group has tried to work with both Golder and the city, going so far as to offer to pay to have Golder’s entire house moved to a nearby lot in one of the CR-4 zones. They also offered to relocate the spruce trees. They’ve also trimmed some rooms from the project to bring the height closer to 60 feet instead of the 70-foot maximum.
As for the character of the neighborhood, Fox presents an alternative view. While the apartment slated for 201 College Avenue might look out of place now, Fox believes that within a few years, the entirety of College Avenue will be developed and Golder’s house will be the one that doesn’t fit.
“Right now, we’re the first mover, and it does look out of character. But it’s in context of what the zoning calls for,” says Fox. “If you look at the character of this block five years from now or 10 years from now, it’s all going to be continuous.”
Fox also disagrees more generally with the sentiments that the building is out of character, pointing out that the now-historic Grandview House at 209 College Avenue, itself a five-story, 60-foot tall building, was completely out of character when it was built in this neighborhood of two-story homes.
“What we’re saying is, why can’t we build a building today that 70 years from now it’ll be looked back on as historic,” says Fox. “Why can’t we have the opportunity also to create something that’s reflective of what we think is beautiful architecture?”
Fox says he feels its somewhat ironic that Ithaca, which prides itself on celebrating diversity and progress, seems hung up on maintaining the status quo.
After a lengthy discussion at Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board meeting in May, the board voted 6-1 in favor of a negative declaration of environmental impact for the project, meaning that the project is able to proceed.
Planning Board member John Schroeder was the dissenting vote, agreeing with the sentiment that the building would be out of place, and pushing for setbacks from the road to avoid turning College Avenue into a tunnel-like atmosphere, as Dryden Road is now.
Schroeder also stated that the zoning alone doesn’t establish the vision for Collegetown, noting that the Collegetown plan emphasizes graceful transitions and structures that fit in with the surrounding neighborhood.
The Planning Board next meets on June 28th, when it will continue to consider the 201 College Avenue projects.
According to Fox, they are hoping to secure final site plan approval in July and begin construction immediately.