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October 28, 2015

Phi Mu Fraternity Fails to Secure House in Cayuga Heights

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The Cayuga Heights Planning Board unanimously rejected a request from Cornell’s chapter of the Phi Mu fraternity to purchase property to house their local chapter after significant opposition from community members.

Prior to Monday night’s meeting, which was the third in relation to the issue, community members had drafted and circulated a petition to exclude the female fraternal organization from the residential neighborhood, claiming that a chapter house would be “inappropriate usage for the lot and the location” on Wyckoff Road.

While Phi Mu has been in talks with the board since August, community members have only been involved for about a month, according to Ellen Zaslaw, a neighborhood resident. At the end of September, the board invited homeowners who live within 200 feet of the 520 Wyckoff Rd. property Phi Mu had planned to purchase to offer public comment on the fraternity’s request.

“Every one of the neighbors in that circuit became involved in opposing the Cornell group,” Zaslaw said. Their reasons addressed both proximate concerns, such as noise and traffic disturbances, as well as the potential for more far-reaching consequences.

Contrary to what local news has reported, Zaslaw emphasized that this was not a zoning issue, as the governing zoning laws permit sororities and fraternities in the area. In fact, Zaslaw, who has lived in Cornell Heights since 1979, mentioned that her neighbors, the Sigma Chi Fraternity, were there before she moved in.

While she acknowledged that “back in the bad old days,” Sigma Chi had a reputation for raucous disturbances — ”it was kind of a madhouse,” she said — Zaslaw maintained “that was a long time ago” and things seem to have calmed down.

However, after driving around to assess the positioning of other Greek houses, Zaslaw found that most mixed neighborhoods with local residences and fraternity and sorority houses had significantly more distance between Greek houses and family homes than non-mixed neighborhoods.

“This proposed sorority chapter home would lie closer to private residences than any other of the dozens of Greek houses at Cornell,” Ellen Zaslaw and her husband Prof. Neal Zaslaw, musicology, said in an email distributing the petition.

“It’s not that anyone expected Phi Mu women to be unruly or excessively loud,” Zaslaw explained. “It’s that at such close quarters just the sounds of ordinary life, the conversations and comings and goings of up to 16 residents and over 100 potential visitors, would be quite a disturbance in such a quiet area.”

However, Zaslaw said that more than potential noise disturbance, she feared the presence of a sorority house would bring about change in the historic Cornell Heights, one of the oldest districts in the village. Neighbors feared that Phi Mu’s arrival would have triggered “irretrievable disfiguring of Village historicity and character,” according to the petition.

Aside from the inconvenience of noise, traffic and density issues, residents said they believe that these problems would lessen the desirability of the neighborhood, particularly for family buyers.

The petition also noted that, as families moved out, absentee landlords would buy vacant properties to provide rental options, as has been seen in other Ithaca neighborhoods. This, in turn, would drive up prices and further dampen family homeowner interest.

“This street retains its historic charm and maintains the quality of life for its residents if the homes remain occupied primarily by families that own them,” Zaslaw said.

Throughout the review process required to issue a certificate of occupancy, which would change the property usage from a single-family home to a sorority or fraternity, the Planning Board evaluated many different factors.

Although there were many points on which the fraternity posed no problem, the Board ultimately validated the neighbors’ consensus that it posed “serious concerns” on these other matters, such as noise, traffic and the potential change of neighborhood character, according to Zaslaw.

“While we are disappointed at the decision, the Planning Board was great to work with throughout this process. We are now actively pursuing other housing opportunities near campus for the Phi Xi Chapter,” Darlene Reyes, Phi Mu executive director, said in a statement released on Wednesday.

The Phi Xi Chapter, which colonized at Cornell last fall, now has 118 active members, according to their website. Members live both on and off campus while the national fraternity works to find them a house, the statement said.

  • Old Townies

    What a surprise that old townies are curmudgeons. Why would you choose to live near a college campus in a collegetown if you think college kids disturb “ordinary life”? Move to a real town and get a job that doesn’t involve 20 year olds and this won’t be a problem.

    • Old Cornell Townie

      Cornell students are visitors to Ithaca. “Townies” have built their lives here. Show a little respect for others you spoiled little brat.

      • Old Townies

        > Asks me to respect others
        > Disrepects me and calls me a spoiled brat.

        How about you leave the little artificial bubble that is financed by students and enter the real world where your fragile ego won’t be supported. But, I doubt you could even find a job in a real town. How about you show some respect to students who are financing your lifestyle?

  • Are you kidding me?

    They complain about possible noise and “community character” disturbance yet 520 Wycoff is easily a 3-5 minute walk to 3 different sororities and a few fraternities. They make the ladies of Phi Mu sound like wild animals who cannot control themselves. This is ridiculous.

  • Sororities can barely do anything in their houses- would a chapter meeting be a huge disturbance to this neighborhood? Back in the old days- we had all our socials at our house and even after hours parties.

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  • Good Neighbor

    Ladies, if the Rotary Club had wanted to set up headquarters there the neighbors’ response would have been the same. It isn’t about students or their behavior, it’s about the normal activities of so many people only 30-odd feet away from family homes, and about the fate of nearby properties given the way potential buyers would likely view the spot. Also we don’t know to what extent neighbors’ input figured in the Planning Board’s decision. The parking available to the group was not legal–it was more than 500 feet away when zoning regulations require it no farther–and even that was guaranteed only for a year. Community residents expressed high opinions of students frequently in the process, even students in their neighborhood.

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