News Tidbits 2/15/09: The Collegetown Zoning Proposal

15 02 2009

Collegetown Neighborhood Council Details Building Plans

It has been almost a year since consultants visited Collegetown to develop a vision for renewal and nearly six months since an entire book was compiled to lay out the plans that will bring make that vision a reality. Last night, the Collegetown Neighborhood Council devoted its bimonthly meeting to update the status of the Collegetown development plan.

The meeting had approximately 30 attendees. According to Mary Tomlan ’71 (D-3rd Ward), co-chair of the CNC, the meeting had a much larger turnout than usual, attesting to the interest on the development plan.

Tomlan introduced the meeting; she described the “wish to make Collegetown more lively, more diverse and more beautiful” and explained the complexity of the zoning plans. The proposed zoning includes requiring pitched roofs and side porches. Other proposed legislation includes reducing building heights from 40 ft to 35 ft, limiting the number of stories in a building from four to three and reducing the maximum percentage of lot coverage from 35 percent to 30 percent.

Leslie Chatterton, head of historic preservation and neighborhood planner, detailed the plan. She explained that a more diverse and a less cyclical population needed to be encouraged in order to attract more retailers. The plan is intended to significantly increase the density of central Collegetown while maintaining and restoring the residential feel of the outer Collegetown areas. It is also meant to improve the aesthetics of the area through the gradual lowering of buildings heights as one moves from central Collegetown towards the outer areas.

The building plan divides Collegetown into six areas. The center of Collegetown, which extends down to Catherine Street, is given the most attention. Building heights will be increased to 90 ft and there will now be a seven-story limit. It will also be mandatory that the ground floors of these buildings be used for retail, and it will be encouraged to make this central property and its rent the most expensive.

The second area in Collegetown discussed is called the Village Residential area. According to the plan, this area is supposed to adjoin townhouse styled homes with a four-story limit. Chatterton explained that this area is intended to attract graduate students, younger couples and new Cornell faculty, rather than undergraduate students.

The rest of Collegetown will be less dense and is meant to have a residential feel. Building heights will be limited to two-and-a-half stories and the structures of the houses are supposed to remain the same. However, Leslie Chatterton, historic preservation and neighborhood planner, also mentioned that many of these homes are rundown and need to be redeveloped for health and safety reasons.

Jennifer Dotson, a member of the neighborhood council and chair of the common council’s planning committee, spoke about the plan for the new transportation moratorium, which includes parking, busses and regular car traffic. The transportation subcommittee has not yet met, so few details are available.

Some developers at the meeting were unhappy with the plans. John Yengo, commercial manager of the Ithaca Renting Company, said that although he “support[s] growth and planning” he is frustrated by the length of time that the building rules are in limbo.

Sharon Marx, Property Manager of Ithaca Renting Company, agreed.

“It is very frustrating because developers can’t develop. The city has had a year and a half to do this and they still have not made their rules. In the meantime everyone’s hands are tied,” Marx said.

Yango explained that nobody wants to buy property because they are still waiting to see what the new rules will be.

Tessa Rudan ’89, a former Collegetown business owner who has lived in the area since 1967 said she did not trust the research of the hired consultants.

“It seems like they extrapolated a lot of data from all over the place and just applied it to Collegetown,” Rudan said.

Tomlan, however, seemed more optimistic.

“It has been a lot of work and I am hopeful that we will make Collegetown better than ever,” Tomlan said.


Well, considering the city and Cornell forked over $75,000 each, and Goody Clancy is a fairly reputable firm, I don’t think Ms. Rudan has to worry so much.

Now, for the sake if discussion, let’s consider the latest zoning guidelines derived from the plan (pulled from the city website [1]).


The zoning shown on the properties is for the maximum number of stories allowed on a proposed structure without having to request a zoning variance (which would give Mary Tomlan a heart attack cause a lot or red tape, possibly killing a project or dragging it out for years). The corresponding heights are given and explained in the red box below. Theoretically, the tallest building in Collegetown under the new guidelines would be either 7 stories OR 92 feet in gross height (this included any mechanical or decorative structures on the rooftop). This is relatively appropriate; commercial structures typically have 14/15 foot floor-to-ceiling heights per floor, and residential floors typically are around 10 feet (a 30-story condo tends to average around 290-320 feet, while a 30-story office building without decorative spires, etc. tends to be around 400-450 feet).

Approximately 24 properties fall into this highest category. Of these, roughly have are already developed into large structures. Since it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to replace a five-story from the 1980s building with a six-story building, those properties are unlikely to be redeveloped in the near future (example properties: Eddygate Park, 402 College Avenue [Starbuck’s], Sheldon Court, the east block of 400 College Ave, Collegetown Plaza). Only a few instances of financially sound redevelopment could be proposed under the highest category (possible properties would be 404 College [M&T Bank], the old Kraftee’s building, the new Kraftee’s building, the Green Café [currently under construction on the corner], the liquor store, and perhaps the Korean restaurant). Keep in mind that beyond the fifth floor, a 12-foot setback is required before the building can continue adding floors.

Collegetown “canyon”? For about a 1,000 feet down the road, if you call seven stories a canyon.

The surrounding ~35 properties to this central core have a max height of 5 stories or 68 feet. Keep in mind, this is on the assumption that the building will be mixed use, meaning retail at the bottom (technically, office space counts towards mixed use too, but it seems odd to imagine office buildings in Ctown).


Most of the surrounding zones fall into the other two categories under the current zoning proposal: Village Residential (VR) and Traditional Residential (TR). OS is for open space, which considering the proximity to the gorges, someone would have to be out of their mind to build there anyway. Traditional residential represents single-family detached houses (in other words, no change to the current structures in those areas). These strcutues are expected to have porches and hipped roofs (I think I can hear the modernist architects crying from Rand Hall). Village Residential refers to townhouses, rowhouses, apartment buildings of comparable mass to rowhouses, and very large detached houses.

Notably, under these zoning laws, Cornell’s parking at the corner of Stewart Avenue and Williams Street would have to be VR- rowhouses or a lowrise (apartment style maybe?) dorm.

One more note: parking is largely reduced. The parking garage on Dryden might be expanded, but otherwise, it’s an at your own risk kinda thing. With higher density and more prominent mass transit to a denser living area, the need for cars tends to diminish anyway.


So, enough analysis. Here’s my opinion.

Tomlan graduated from Cornell in 1971. And she’s stuck in a Collegtown mindframe from 1971. When it was still largely a student slum of crappy tenement houses (like the ones on Linden, Cook and any other street close to the College/Dryden intersection). Development came. Demand came for luxury housing, and developers obliged.

Do I want to see Collegetown become a series of highrises? No. That was actually proposed in the late 1960s (which I mention elsewhere on this blog). but 90 feet is not going to end the world. It’s not going to make a whole lot of difference in a small, centralized area that’s largely developed anyway. Trying to preserve a bunch of dated, inefficient student slums by limiting developers’ ability to redevelop is not the way to go. I think the proposed plan is largely successful in fulfilling the needs of the area. The argument about mixed-demographics is off base; Cornell Heights, Bryant Park and later Cayuga Heights all developed thanks in part to the fact that many professors and staff prefer to live away from students, especially those with families. One group tends to prefer to get wasted at a bar on a Friday night, the other prefers to go out to a family restaurant and catch a movie. Students and permanent residents are inherently different in terms of schedules and needs from the ambient environment (ex. good schools, variety of shopping). Mixing the two will be like trying to mix oil and water, and it strikes me as a wasted effort. Families are not going to shop in Collegetown, that’s why we have Target at the mall and Wal-Mart down on the flats. The only place to two might mix is Fontana’s.




One response

9 03 2014
Progress in Collegetown? | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] city and Cornell paid about $200k for an urban planning company (Goody Clancy) to design a plan, which came out in 2009. The  project freaked out some residents and local politicians, who saw it as too dense and too […]

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