A Man, a Plan, a Hamlet

STREAM Collaborative's Noah Demarest architect designed Modern Living Rental's much-discussed, finally-approved townhome project at 902 Dryden Rd in the hamlet of Varna.

The lone cell phone tower within the Ithaca city limits will soon have less personal space.

On Wednesday night, Common Council passed a change to the telecommunications ordinance that reduces the required “fall zone” surrounding a cellular phone tower from twice its standing height to 120 percent of that distance.

In effect, the change in law serves as a zoning change for Todd Fox and Charlie O'Connor of Modern Living Rentals, who want to build student housing on a 2.5-acre parcel at 815 S. Aurora St.

The property is a short stumble down South Hill from the Ithaca College campus, just across from the Route 96B/Danby Road entrance to the Emerson Chain Works property.

At a height of 170 feet, the existing fall zone ordinance meant that nothing could be built for 340 feet in any direction from the tower, which was granted an easement by former property owner Harold Fish Jr. in 2003. Except for a couple of corners, building on the five-sided polygonal parcel was outlawed. With the new, 180-foot fall zone, Fox and O'Connor will be able to develop a student housing project that they've already shown off in preliminary form to multiple city boards.

Fox said after the meeting that their project should be arrive in sketch plan in June, perhaps with a few more units than the 87 his team showed the Planning Board last September. The project, as drawn up by Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative, will contain studio “microapartments,” complete with folding Murphy beds – a boon for any Ithaca College film student with an interest in early American comedy.

Fox and O'Connor were visibly pleased in council's decision after the meeting; Fox said they have been working on developing this property for about two years. The property's last sale shows a valuation that expects the parcel could be developed; Skyline Investment Properties, a LLC with a Missouri address, bought it from Fish Jr. in 2012 for $1.7 million.

In June 2015, Fox and O'Connor came before the Board of Zoning Appeals with studies from Taitem Engineering and SPEC Consulting in hand, which showed that the double-the-height fall zone was unnecessary for safety purposes. They urged the board to consider that “pretty much every other municipality in New York state” has a fall zone ordinance with much less required space than double the tower's height. They were hoping to receive a zoning variance, but city attorney Ari Lavine determined the BZA could not override a council-made law, so changing the law became necessary.

O'Connor thanked council on Wednesday, calling the project a “win-win for the neighborhood” that should take student rentals pressure off the South Hill neighborhood. Fox said that he has met with the South Hill Civic Association and received their endorsement.

Over the course of numerous discussions, the motivation for the existing, double-height law was speculated upon; some suggested that it was a reaction to the 2010 scare when it was thought the state Department of Transportation might allow a cell tower on its property near the Farmers' Market.

The law was already in place by then, JoAnn Cornish told a February committee meeting. But the motivation was more aesthetic than safety-oriented.

“There was a lot of talk about telecommunications equipment being colocated with buildings,” Cornish said, “and we didn't want one going on the top of the Holiday Inn [now Hotel Ithaca]. There were not a lot of templates to follow with telecommunications ordinances and that's how we thought we could best protect the city.”


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