When Varna Needed A New Plan

14 07 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote up a piece regarding new solar-powered townhomes proposed for 902 Dryden Road in the hamlet of Varna, located on the west side of Dryden town. There was a temptation to expand the piece quite a bit by looking at Varna’s 2012 development plan, but that would have been another article in itself. So here we are.

As with a lot of development plans and rezonings, the impetus for many participants was a large, politically divisive project. A lot of the details I’m featuring here come courtesy of blog posts or the links posted within the posts of the “Living in Dryden” blog written by Simon St. Laurent, though this retrospective comes without his vehement opposition.

varna_ii_2010

In February 2010, the Lucente family (locally large-scale developers who run Lifestyle Properties) began discussions for a new, very large project in the hamlet of Varna. Dubbed “Varna II”, the proposal called for 260 units of housing and 30,000 SF of commercial space off of Mount Pleasant Road and Route 366. The plan called for a build-out over ten years in three phases, and the residential units were mostly townhouses that would be sold in the $150k-$200k range. It wasn’t the first time the Lucentes had targeted Varna for a major project – a 170-unit project proposed in 2000 had previously been shelved. The zoning in Varna allowed projects of 2.5 units/acre, comparable to a lot of older suburban neighborhoods. The Varna II project, at about 16 units/acre, the project was much denser than what Varna was accustomed to – and permitted, for that matter, since the town zoning law had a maximum of about 14.5 units/acre. The project would be going forward as a Planned Unit Development.

Geographically, Varna is in an awkward position – it’s a hamlet of about 800 people just east of Cornell’s campus, which puts it in the figurative line of fire for development interests, one that greatly interferes with the bucolic lifestyle touted by some residents. On the other hand, Varna is not without need of major improvementsit’s a very auto-centric area, a lot of what is developed is underutilized, and some of the street-fronting properties have potential for redevelopment into a more walkable, cohesive community.

Timing-wise, the project was well-suited; Dryden was looking at revised zoning to reflect its 2005 comprehensive plan. The possibility of a large residential complex was definitely enough to draw more attention to the new zoning, especially its impacts on Varna. The old Varna zoning (R-C and R-D residential) wasn’t dense at 2.5 units/acre, but it also allowed for a whole range of uses from residential to commercial and farming; a proverbial grab-bag. The Lucente project made it clear that maybe it was time to give the future of Varna some real thought.

As with any divisive project, Varna II went through community meetings, hosting a meeting with the Varna Community Association during the summer. The VCA was a little more even-handed about the whole thing – they knew that development in Varna was inevitable, but they wanted a greater role in shaping it. The VCA stated that it was comfortable with doubling the density to 4-5 units/acre in some areas, as well as owner occupied homes, more walkable spaces, and smaller development sites.

The project never went through formal review – the initial PUD application appears to have been rejected, because Dryden’s PUD requires at least 100 acres – this project involved only 16.3 acres. The rejection was appealed to the town Zoning Board of Appeals in December 2010, issues with State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) and procedural issues delayed the meeting on the project, and by spring 2011, the town had an unofficial moratorium in place on large-scale development, at least until the new plan for Varna was drawn up and approved (expected to be about 9 months).

varna_plan

Fast forward some months and meetings later, and the plan, created by Behan Planning and Design, was adopted in December 2012. The conceptual plan calls for New Urbanist guidelines – sidewalks, garages on side-streets, pocket parks, and mixed-use. The conceptual build-out above adds about 450 bedrooms to the hamlet. Some of the short-term goals called for improving bus stops and finalizing the Varna Trail in the short term (identified as 2012-2014), reworking the 366/Freese Road intersection into a roundabout during the medium term (2015-2017), and incentives for projects to follow the plan. The plan also suggests implementing complete streets in the 2015-2017 timeframe. The revised Varna zoning allows for units 6-10 units per acre, with density bonuses for LEED and certain forms of redvelopment.

Well, we’re in 2015 now, let’s see where things are at. The town applied for grants in 2013 for the “complete streets” multi-modal corridor on 366. But apart from that, not much else on the town’s end, something that Varna residents have noted with some distress. The town responded that plans are underway, they’re just going slower than anticipated.

902_dryden_1 902_dryden_2

On the private end, Modern Living Rentals’ 15-unit, 42-bedroom project for 902 Dryden is the first major project to hit the dirt since the plan was adopted. The 902 Dryden parcel is about 2.42 acres, so the project comes about to about 6.2 units/acre (based off of the zoning, I think 13 units/acre were possible with the green bonus for being solar-powered). Being 2-story townhouses, it’s in scale with Varna, and is a sizable but not large project, the type that the VCA expressed preference for back in 2010. 902 Dryden includes proposed street-facing sidewalks for when the town gets to that phase. Since it’s been approved, I would guess that the town is satisfied with the project.

As for the Lucentes, they’ve focused on other endeavors, such as their Village Solars apartment project in Lansing. They still own the land that Varna II was proposed for. There’s no indication if anything will happen here or if they’ll eventually sell it off, but it’s something to keep an eye on in the long-term.


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13 02 2016
News Tidbits 2/13/16: A Week of Uncomfortable Prospects | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] SF to 11,000 SF, would be very unfortunate, and create an uncomfortable disconnect between the Varna Master Plan designed with community input, and what the board thinks Varna should […]

19 12 2016
902 Dryden Road Construction Update, 12/2016 | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] six projects proposed in Varna that never came to fruition – the latest and grandest being a massive 260-unit proposal by the Lucente family, which the town turned away from further consideration after concerns about quality of life, and […]

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