Collegetown Store Thwarted by Zoning Board Decision

Council - Announcements

By Dan Hoffman,

Council Member

collegetown-store-street-view-2GreenStar's plans to open a third store, in Collegetown, hit a big bump last month, when the City's Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) denied a set of variances sought by the property's owners, throwing the future of their project into limbo. The new store won approval from the Co-op's Membership last year, but the lease for the space was contingent upon the developer's securing the variances by March.

The Co-op's serious exploration of the idea of a new store in Collegetown began in 2011, when Josh Lower — who, with his father, Bill, owns the property at 307 College Avenue — developed a plan to replace the current two-story building with a six-story, mixed-use structure and invited GreenStar to become its "anchor" commercial tenant.

As designed, the upper stories of the building (named "Collegetown Crossing") would contain 50 apartments. The intent is to create a project whose residents (most likely Cornell students or employees) could be "car-free," by locating it in a dense area, having a source of healthy groceries downstairs, providing state-of-the-art bicycle storage, locating a protected bus shelter at the front of the building, and offering free bus passes and car-share discounts to residents without cars. In addition to Josh Lower's commitment to reduction of car use, the narrow property has physical constraints that would make it difficult and expensive to satisfy the City's existing zoning requirement that over 50 off-street parking spaces be provided for the apartments.

The project drew strong support from the Collegetown neighborhood, with hundreds signing a petition in favor, and Mayor Svante Myrick endorsed it. A handful of people publicly opposed it, including alderperson Ellen 
McCollister, who represents the Belle Sherman neighborhood (further up East Hill), a competing developer (John Novarr, who received variances in 2010 for his own Collegetown Terrace project, on East State/MLK Street, which involved demolition of more than 25 houses, and construction of 1,230 residential units and 746 parking spaces, and which faced sharp opposition from neighbors), and a business owner across the street. The main concern voiced was that residents would in fact have cars, adding to traffic problems, and would seek to park in other residential neighborhoods.

The Collegetown Crossing project was initially reviewed by the City's Planning Board, which required the owners to commission a professional study of the parking issue. This study surveyed hundreds of Collegetown renters — including those who live where parking is provided and where it is not. The study found that overall, only 27 percent of these tenants have cars in Ithaca. (The current minimum parking requirement assumes 50 percent.) Among those who live in units where parking is NOT provided, a significantly smaller proportion (16.7 percent) have cars, even with no incentives to be car-free. Thirty-nine percent of residents who do have cars said they would give them up in exchange for a free bus pass or car-share discount. The study concludes that the real parking deficit for the Collegetown Crossing project would be closer to 5 to 10 spaces. The Planning Board concluded that granting the requested variances would have no significant environmental impact, and recommended their issuance.

A review of BZA decisions over the past five-plus years shows that many variances for larger projects, including some in Collegetown with no parking, have been granted. (The BZA refused to receive a report on this review, saying it was submitted too late.) In its unanimous decision to deny the variances, the BZA discounted the parking study and disagreed with the Planning Board's conclusions. Members criticized Common Council for taking no action to change or eliminate the minimum parking requirement.

In fact, a proposal to do just that has picked up growing support and is making its way through City channels; it may be ready for a vote within months. A yes vote would give the Collegetown Crossing project new life. Without it, the project may need an entirely new design — and parking for lots of cars.