ITHACA, NY – The “Soul of Collegetown” saga seems to be inching its way toward a conclusion, but not before striking a few raw nerves among several involved parties.

The debate revolves around the 201 College Avenue project, a five-story, 70-foot tall apartment building. For some, particularly 203 College Avenue resident Neil Golder, it is an oppressive, out-of-character monolith that ruins the neighborhood feel. For others, like developer Todd Fox, it represents the vanguard of a new Collegetown — modern, urbanized, and as Fox argues, inevitable.

After much discussion at a Tuesday meeting of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board, the board unanimously voted to grant final site plan approval to the project. However, due to a possible zoning issue brought up last month, the board will forward the issue to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a final say.

Tuesday’s discussion was mostly a morass of legal minutiae, but a few moments of brutal honesty put the situation in perspective.

“Collegetown has always been a dump.”

During the public comment, Golder once again spoke out against his would-be neighbor, focusing largely on the history of Collegetown. Two others also voiced their opposition.

Golder referenced a book about Ithaca’s neighborhoods, noting how Collegetown had struggled with change in the past, but the city and community worked together to keep the area’s historic character, mainly by keeping the residential-looking exterior even while packing in as many students as possible.

When it was Fox’s turn to speak, however, he called into question the entire narrative of the “Soul of Collegetown.”

Fox had compiled a fairly lengthy — about 30 pages — of history about the neighborhood, which he summarized during the meeting. (you can read some of it here, starting on page 30).

Fox put it bluntly:”In the history of Collegetown… essentially its always been a dump.”

He described Collegetown’s history, dating back to 1850 when the area was mostly farmland. As it evolved, Fox said, it was never some shining beacon of urban design.

He quoted a Cornell historian, who wrote in 1890 that the houses on College Avenue were “cheap, ugly and hazardous.” In 1899: “Collegetown was becoming Ithaca’s student ghetto.” In 1965, he explained, students pitched tents on the Cornell campus to protest the poor housing situation in Collegetown.

Fox said that the character of a neighborhood is defined by its demographics, not architecture. Essentially, he argued that students were the one consistent element of Collegetown — it’s true soul.

“I’m not trying to be insulting, I’m really not,” Fox said, “But at this point the only thing that’s not in the character of Collegetown is Neil [Golder]’s single-family owner-occupied home and, demographically, Neil.”

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“It’s bad government”

Much discussion on Tuesday revolved around the exact procedure of sending the issue to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Board member Robert Lewis, however, remained an opponent of passing the issue on at all, as planning staff had already examined the issue and made a determination that the project fit the zoning.

“This seems to me like a digging up an arguably artificial but definitely ambiguous zoning issue to kill a project at the goal line,” said planning board member Rob Lewis. “I think it’s bad government, I don’t like it.”

Board members McKenzie Jones-Rounds and John Schroeder — who had brought up the zoning issue in the first place — made clear that they had no intention of killing the project. Board chair Garrick Blalock pointed out that the planning boards most basic responsibility is ensuring that a project is compliant with zoning.

Schroeder said that he — and many others — had spent six years and countless hours working with others during the long process of the Collegetown rezoning effort.

“My concern is that after all that hard work, so many people contributed to it, all the open meetings we had — that the intent of the plan and the explicit wording of the ordinance should be respected and reflected in the actual, built results,” Schroeder. “That’s why I raised the concern, not out of any ulterior motive.”

Later, the project team made one last effort to kill the plan to send the issue to Zoning Appeals — since any further delays could mean that the project would be delayed by a full year. They attempted to show that there was no ambiguity on the zoning issue, but the board was not swayed.

“If there’s no ambiguity, then you don’t have anything to worry about going before the BZA,” said Jones-Rounds.

“We know we have nothing to worry about,” said architect Noah Demerest. “That’s the point.”

“Let the town go like Elmira… rot”

Joel Harlan, who is a frequent contributor to public comments on various issues, asked what appeared to be a rhetorical question: “Why bother?”

“They’re against everything. So why build anything? Let the town as it is, like back in the colonial days, or Pennsylvania dutch country-type stuff,” he said. “They don’t want nothing, so why bother building? Let the town go like Elmira… rot.”

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(Photo: Collegetown past and present, shown in city planning documents.)

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.