On March 15, the Village of Lansing Board of Trustees held a public hearing and discussed changing a vacant 25-acre property from medium density residential (MDR) zoning to high density residential (HDR) zoning.
The lot in question is located on Uptown Road, near Route 13 and University Park apartments. Changing the area to high-density zoning would allow for more buildings to be constructed on the lot then the medium-density zoning currently allows.
The idea was first brought to the trustees back in October, by Jeremey Thomas, head of real estate for Cornell University. At that point, Thomas was merely seeking informal feedback, but as of two weeks ago the Board of Trustees has been holding a public comment period on the matter.
At the meeting on March 8, two community members, Frank Towner, CEO of the YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County, and Jennifer Tavares, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, both expressed support for the proposed change.
At the March 15 meeting, there was opposition to high-density development from community members.
Heather Scott, Gayle Fagan, President and Vice President of the Ithaca Swim Club, were concerned about how the shift to HDR would impact privacy at the swim club, which is also located on Uptown Road.
“We don’t really see a benefit for us in having an apartment complex there, but we’re not fighting it terribly much either, but we would like to have our privacy preserved on the two sides that it’ll border,” Scott said.
“We’re talking high-density apartments and so how many stories is that,” Fagan asked. “We just don’t want our members to feel like people are looking at them from their bedroom window.”
Both also expressed concern about increased traffic and change of character in the neighborhood.
One community member, Sherri Koski, executive director of the non-profit Ithaca Community Childcare Center, was in favor of the changes given that it might bring more people to the childcare center, which is located on Warren Road, a road that intersects Uptown Road.
Lisa Schleelein, Chair of the Planning Board, said it is unclear what will be built on the vacant lot if it is upgraded to HDR. As a result, she questioned approving any changes to the density level.
“It’s like we’re backing into this as opposed to being proactive or reactive to our request to make a zoning change, but we don’t really know what is being proposed,” she said. Normally a zoning change comes in the reverse order where a review of parcels is conducted, and the question is asked, “Okay is this still appropriately zoned?”
“And it’s not that this is not appropriate for HDR, but it’s just what is being proposed is unknown,” Schleelein said.
At a recent planning board meeting, a similar set of concerns was brought up, but no official vote was taken, and it was declared that further discussion was required.
Overall, the trustees expressed similar ambivalence at approving the shift to HDR.
Trustee Randy Smith said at the moment there were too many unknowns to make a fully-educated decision.
“I understand the pros but I’m not sure I understand the cons and that’s what bothers me,” Smith said. “I can’t make a decision on behalf of the village until I know what the pros and cons are. I don’t know how big of a development this is going to be and what the impact is.”
Trustee Patricia O’Rourke echoed this statement.
“I really wouldn’t be comfortable tonight voting on that until I know a little more,” O’Rourke said. “I’m not opposed to changing the zoning, I just think we need to have a plan and look at the comprehensive plan and see where we should go from here.”
Thomas agreed with most of the board’s statements but explained why he thought changing the zoning was an important initial step.
“If we’re going to unlock the value of this … in terms of increasing potential, increasing revenue, supporting the economy ... we think there’s real value in being able to encourage development here, and a big part of that is this rezoning request that we made,” he said.
Trustee Simon Moll saw otherwise, saying they were going about it the wrong way.
“I’d rather see a plan come forward and work off of a plan to upzone, rather than upzone and hope for a plan that comes to us later on,” Moll said. “It’s not just putting housing there, it’s what type of housing we want to see.”
Trustee Ronny Hardaway added, “I agree with everyone that we really want to see a plan before we go forward with the upzoning, just because it seeks within the developers mind exactly what we’re looking for.”
Village Attorney Bill Troy warned that the board’s desires sounded like spot-zoning, an illegal form of rezoning where the rezoning is usually at odds with a municipality’s master plan and current zoning restrictions.
“Unless you own the land you can’t really control it the way some people seem to want to,” Troy said. “I get it, you don’t want some big monstrosity building, but it’s going to be no bigger than anything else that will be built there.”
He added, “I think everyone’s kicking themselves because they don’t really know what they want to compel the owner to put in the HDR, but you’re getting way ahead of yourself because you don’t really have that power.”
Thomas said he specifically brought the plan to the board this way, rather than finding a developer first, to avoid spot-zoning implications. Still, he acknowledged the board’s concern and proposed discussing the shift further before making a final decision.
The Board of Trustees agreed to have a joint meeting with the Planning Board to discuss these matters further, although no specific meeting date was scheduled.