ITHACA, NY – Dozens of people attended a meeting of the Town of Ithaca’s Planning Board on Tuesday to express concerns about the scoping document for the Maplewood redevelopment project.

The project aims to replace the current 394-unit, 480 bedroom Maplewood Park apartments with a complex with 887 bedrooms across 453 units and a mix of townhomes, stacked flats, and multi-family apartment buildings. The project would be located between Mitchell Street and Maple Ave, just east of the city line.

As Maplewood does now, the redevelopment would cater primarily to graduate and professional students.

Like many developments of its size, the Maplewood project is under a lot of scrutiny from its would-be neighbors.

EdR’s pitch

Two executives from EdR Trust, the company that is partnering with Cornell on this project, were also in attendance. Before the public comment period, they each spoke briefly about why they felt the project would be a benefit for the community.

EdR President Tom Trubiana emphasized the fact that EdR is a long-term owner and operator of the facilities it builds. He pointed out that the company’s first project, built in Chapel Hill in 1964, is still owned and managed by the company. Trubiana added that EdR takes pride in being a good partner to the universities and good community stewards.

Vice President of Real Estate Development and Construction Jeffrey Resetco laid out a series of community benefits:

  • providing much-needed affordable housing for graduate and professional students is the main driver of the project
  • built with the needs of those students in mind, including outdoor recreation space, and an open walkable neighborhood that is inviting to the community
  • long term ownership means the buildings will stay in good condition and not fall into disrepair like current Maplewood apartments
  • in regards to sustainability, Resetco says that EdR has plans to document and track sustainability goals, and that a walkable community, more efficient fixtures and a focus on electricity and over natural gas and opportunities for solar and wind power would help these goals
  • as for economic benefits, Resetco says the project will bring 300 new construction jobs noting that the company will work with LeChase construction (during public comment, local labor leader David Marsh offered some praise for this as LeChase has a good track record of working with local and union labor)
  • it will also create ten new fulltime jobs on-site, and its affordability focus will let tenants spend their money elsewhere in the community
  • the buildings will add approximately $1.5 million in property taxes to the tax rolls

It is worth noting that an updated version of the scoping document was released on the day of the meeting. Many of those who spoke during public comment said that their comments were based on an earlier version of the document, with some adding that they felt the newer version had made some improvements.

During the public comment period several people spoke about a variety of issues they had with the project, the most prominent being: sustainability, aesthetics and traffic.

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“Belle Sherman Under Siege”

The issues of aesthetics and traffic are both linked heavily to the location of the project, which is very near the light residential Belle Sherman neighborhood.

Tessa Rudan, of Belle Sherman, noted that the area just west of Maplewood is zoned for low-density single family homes. While Maplewood is in the town, Belle Sherman is part of the City of Ithaca. The city’s comprehensive plan calls for preserving the character of Belle Sherman.

Rudan said that she felt that the design of the redevelopment could more sympathetic to the character of the surrounding neighborhood, referring to the project as a “large, monolithic landscraper.”

She also expressed concern about the project’s proximity to Belle Sherman Elementary, saying,”Please remember that the nearest campus, and the nearest students to Maplewood are at Belle Sherman Elementary School.”

Many others echoed these concerns, especially as it has to do with the additional traffic generated by the project. One speaker noted that 887 bedrooms didn’t necessarily equate to 887 tenants. If roommates are factored in, the number of new tenants could be even higher, bringing additional traffic, noise, and sanitation concerns.

Another speaker framed the project in the larger context of development in the area around Belle Sherman. She noted that 2,500 new bedrooms were planned in areas bordering the neighborhood, with another 500 to 1500 rumored. She referred to the situation as “Belle Sherman under siege.”

Krys Cail, of Ulysses, had a similar sentiment. She stated that given the long-term agreement between EdR and Cornell and Cornell’s existing plans to expand, she felt it was important to think ahead to how each new development would impact the surrounding area.

Aside from the feeling that the project was in disharmony with the neighborhood, another major aesthetic concern was that the large, four-story structures would completely block the view of the valley for several people in the area.

Sustainability

While EdR pledged to work with sustainability in mind, several of those who spoke did not seem convinced.

A number of speakers questioned Resetco’s point about the company being focused on electricity as opposed to natural gas. They pointed out that much electricity is still produced by fossil fuel-burning plants, so simply focusing on electric power is not enough in itself.

Brian Eden, of the Energy Committee of the Tompkins County Energy Management Council said that the newest version of the scoping document had made improvements in sustainability. However, he emphasized that building extremely efficient green buildings isn’t a goal that is 20 or 30 years off. Eden said that those goals could be achieved with a 5 to 10 percent cost premium, some of which could be recouped by government grants.

Several other speakers also focused on sustainability as a primary concern, although some did agree that the newer version of the scoping document was moving in a good direction.

Moving forward

After the nearly two hours of discussion, the Planning Board opted not to discuss the project amongst themselves during the Tuesday meeting. The issue will be back up for discussion during the July 5 meeting after the board has had more time to mull things over.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.