ITHACA, NY – After months of debates and delays, the divisive five-story, 70-foot tall apartment project planned for 201 College Avenue will be moving forward — in its original form, no less.

On Monday, the Ithaca Board of Zoning Appeals denied an appeal by Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board in a 3-1 vote. The appeal was attempting to prove that the 201 College Avenue project was not legal based on the zoning. With that decision overturned, the project is now free to proceed in its original form.

“We are planning on breaking ground immediately,” wrote Todd Fox, the developer of the project, in an email. “There is absolutely nothing that can stop us at this point from building 201 College Avenue in its current form.”

When it comes to development projects in Ithaca, 201 College Avenue may not have the same scale as some of the bigger projects, but it may have a big impact on the future of development in Collegetown.

Recapping the saga

It’s also had one of the most contentious and convoluted stories we’ve seen in some time. Let’s recap:

The project was announced back in March and from the start, the project had an opponent in Neil Golder, who lived next door to the property at 203 College Avenue. Golder argued that the building was boxy, monolithic and out of character with the neighborhood, not to mention the impact it would have by casting his home in shadow.

As the process went ahead, Golder gathered a groundswell of support in a mission to “Save the Soul of Collegetown” — to preserve the residential character with a smaller building that was more in harmony with the neighborhood. This led to several packed public meetings with people speaking both for and against the changing character of Collegetown.

As the project proceeded toward final site plan approval with the Planning Board, Golder filed a lawsuit in attempt to overturn the board’s declaration that the project had no environmental significance. If the lawsuit had succeeded, it would have required a lengthly environmental review process. The lawsuit was dismissed, however, since it was appealing the final site plan approval — a decision that hadn’t yet been finalized.

In July, the project was up to get that final site plan approval, but was derailed when Planning Board member John Schroeder pointed out a potential ambiguity in the zoning code that could have outright disqualified the project.

Against the protests of the project team, who said that further delays could sink the project, and in spite of the fact that the city’s planning staff had determined that the zoning was legal, the Planning Board decided to send the issue to the Board of Zoning Appeals, the final authority on zoning matters.

By August, it seemed like the developer may have been ready to throw in the towel. The property went up for sale, and Fox said they were “keeping their options open.” Then, a month later, the building came down, and Fox described an alternative plan for the property. It turns out that they wouldn’t need it.

“The rowhouse concept was definitely our plan B if for some reason the BZA ruled against us or if they tabled the vote. We had plans on pursuing the row house style in tandem with waiting for the BZA ruling, but luckily it didn’t come to that,” Fox said.

The final hurdle?

With the BZA’s decision legitimizing the original 201 College Avenue design, the path appears clear for the project — almost. Golder had said when his first lawsuit was dismissed, that he would refile it once the Planning Board’s decision was finalized. He’s done just that, but Fox says that he is not concerned.

“If we felt that Neil had one one millionth of a chance of winning then we would not move forward with construction until we resolve the lawsuit,” Fox said.

It remains to be seen if a battle like this will break out again in Collegetown. As it was a seemingly small ambiguity that proved to be the largest wrench in the gears, Board of Zoning Appeals chair Steven Beer says they included in their judgement a note to the Common Council encouraging them to take another look and clean up the language.

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.