Cornell Heights Housing Kerfuffle

Resident Bill Demo

The debate over the Ridgewood Road high-density (114 bed) student rental development in the Cornell Heights Historic District reached a new level of distraction and absurdity as reflected in the June 4 Ithaca Times article entitled “’Balloon Test’ for Cornell Hgts. Project.” In its report on the May 27 meeting of the Ithaca Planning and Development Board, Adam Walters, the attorney for the CA Ventures Development Company was quoted as acknowledging concern about the “mass and scale of the building and the impact on the community as a result.”

To Walters, the issue is one of “screening,” under the theory I suppose that if you can’t see the enormous structures, then maybe they’re not really there. He proposed a balloon test, which committee member John Schroeder immediately embraced. The balloon test, as part of the environmental quality review, would apparently determine how the proposed massive construction would affect the view from Highland Avenue of the forested glen where the three large structures will be built. 

Lost in any discussion as reported was the fact that existing heavy tree foliage will at this time block the view of virtually anything sitting in or above the glen. But the problem for those living near the site is that for six months of the nine-month school year, there is no foliage and anything, including balloons or massive student dormitories (oops, I mean “housing”), would be manifestly visible. However, the view-shed from Highland Avenue—while a significant problem—is far from being the central issue confronting those of us who live in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, it appears that the Planning and Development Board’s purview is so technically narrow, that it’s not the appropriate body for dealing with the larger issues posed by this development. 

The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission has been attempting to deal with the issue and along with appropriate requests to scale back the development in terms of massing has expressed interest in the overall design, finding the “prairie style” design concept acceptable for the site. Given its location in a deep wooded glen of mostly native hardwoods, one wonders whether “Adirondack Great Camp” style would not have been more appropriate. The construction company could then have used some of the harvested trees from the site to make rustic bentwood furniture and balcony rails, which would seem to be more historically and regionally appropriate. Putting humor aside and having submitted my own request for a “certificate of appropriateness,” four times in the past four years for small changes to the house in which I live, I understand the challenges of the review process and appreciate that commission members work hard to preserve architectural heritage and character. What I question is whether they feel sufficiently empowered by the city code provisions under which they operate to address larger issues of neighborhood preservation.

Then there’s been a ceaseless wringing of hands about whether zoning should be changed from RU to R3aa, the finer points of which I’ll not get into here. Suffice it to say that the developer, as would any other developer worth its enterprising salt, is prepared to comply with either set of zoning regulations, the difference between which appears to have more to do with the potential proliferation of smaller developments on smaller lots than with such a massive development on a large lot. A related discussion about building footprints and relative lot coverage may be quite germane but seems to get bogged down in technical questions about measurement criteria and definitions of existing “contributing” structures. So where does that leave us?

Toward the end of the Times article there is a mention of the “tipping point” concept, which I think ultimately leads us to the real issue and concern. A number of cities dealing with the impact of student housing on neighborhood character and quality have recognized the “tipping point” concept as it applies to student housing. When a certain density of student housing is reached the character of a neighborhood is acknowledged to decline as rental properties are allowed to fall into disrepair and unavoidable student behaviors cause more and more owner-occupiers to give up the neighborhood and to sell their own properties to student housing management companies. This is most clearly embodied in a report issued in 2012 by the St. Paul (MN) Planning Commission as it wrestled with the issue of student conversions. 

I would ask Mr. Walters and others on the CA Ventures development team whether they would want to live in and be responsible for maintaining an historic home in a neighborhood with, say, a student population density of 75 to 80 percent. 

In a recent familiarization walk around the Cornell Heights neighborhood taken by some Common Council members and city officials, I think a number of those present were surprised by the diversity of housing, which includes several fraternities and sororities, the Bridges senior-assisted-living facility, student rental conversions, and a substantial number of owner-occupied homes, some quite modest, others rather more grand. What they saw is an area of diversity that has worked diligently to maintain its character as an historic district. The glaring exception is the new RABCO development at 312 Thurston Avenue, presenting overwhelming edifices still under construction, that sit directly across Highland Avenue from the proposed Ridgewood development. It is slated to house 57 students, half the number proposed for the Ridgewood development, and is a project that many of us felt should never, itself, have been approved.

Lest we in the Cornell Heights neighborhood be dismissed as NIMBYs, we are simply asking the city to fulfill its commitment to “Protect the value of historic properties and their owners’ investment in them, and stabilize historic neighborhoods.” That wording comes directly from the Landmarks Preservation section of the Municipal Code of Ithaca, and similar wording is embedded elsewhere in the city code. It’s hard to imagine how high-density student housing is compatible with maintaining neighborhood character and stability. Most of us see preservation of owner-occupied housing as the key to neighborhood stability.

There are specific measures that Common Council can pursue to reverse this downward trend in Cornell Heights. They could do as St. Paul has done and impose a distance separation requirement that would limit the proximity of high-density student rental developments in a defined area, i.e., an historic district. More simply, they could put a limit on the number of units or beds that are afforded by new developments, even taking into account that there are existing multiple unit dwellings such as fraternities and sororities in the district. 

Another outcome of such a code change is that it would disambiguate some of the regulatory environment in which developers are forced to operate. It would make the decision to build or not to build a binary one, thus avoiding the endless, torturous, and wasteful cycle of submission, review, modification, and resubmission as now exists, especially with the ILPC. 

I perceive that council members are under enormous pressure to support development in Ithaca. Certainly we need more housing for full-time residents of all socioeconomic levels. As an Ithaca taxpayer, I would welcome most additions to the inventory of taxable properties. But development should not come at any cost. I urge Common Council to think seriously about stabilizing its neighborhoods especially those in historic districts, to encourage home ownership and year-round housing, and to reject developments that are of the wrong nature and in the wrong place. As the city of St. Paul demonstrates, there are tools that can be adopted to accomplish this. If more time is needed to craft appropriate code revisions and additions, then a time-limited, narrowly focused moratorium on development could be put in place to allow that process to unfold. 



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