A group of students and advocates rallied behind a proposal to construct a GreenStar grocery store at 307 College Ave. Tuesday, decrying arcane and obstructionist city parking requirements that they said were preventing the natural foods market from flourishing in the heart of Collegetown.
The reality, however, may be more complex.
City officials said at a meeting of the Planning and Development Board Tuesday that developer Josh Lower’s ’05 proposed GreenStar is not being held up by city regulations, as there is no parking requirement for new retail spaces located in apartment buildings in Collegetown.
Instead, they said, the GreenStar is being stalled because it is slated for the bottom floor of a bigger project — a proposed six-story building, called “Collegetown Crossing,” on College Avenue. This building will contain 103 bedrooms that do require parking spaces under the city’s zoning ordinance.
Per that ordinance, every two bedrooms built in central Collegetown must be matched by the creation of one parking spot. Lower needs a variance — or an exemption to the law, which would require him to provide 57 new parking spaces — for the city to approve the development.
Anchored by GreenStar, Lower’s development fulfills a long-standing Collegetown wish list of sorts: More quality housing, a resurgence of retail and ready access to organic produce.
His supporters, moreover, say that giving students and Collegetown residents a grocery shop within walking distance may eliminate the need for more parking spaces.
“I basically need something to drive to Wegmans with, and that’s kind of a terrible thing. I’m a young, impressionable mind you have for four years — there are thousands of us — and the city has started sending us a message that everyone goes everywhere in a car,” said Tom Moore ’14, a Sun columnist, at the meeting, noting that such a message is “suicidal on a planetary level.”
Echoing the sentiments of many other speakers, Moore added that the city should encourage developments that reduce car use and encourage pedestrians to walk.
“The city’s highest priority should be an infrastructure that promotes alternative transportation,” Moore said. “If there was a GreenStar in Collegetown, I wouldn’t have a car.”
But city officials said the debate over the GreenStar proposal may have been conflated with the parking requirement.
“My concern about the project is that the applicant is holding out the carrots of the GreenStar to tout as a public amenity,” Common Council member Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward) said. “The problem with this application is that everybody has [gotten] so enthusiastic over GreenStar, but we’re still not thinking of the land-use ramifications of the proposal.”
Additionally, John Schroeder ’74, a member of the planning board and The Sun’s Production Manager, said that some of the speakers supporting Lower’s proposal may not have fully understood the issues at hand.
“I think a lot of speakers had the impression that the 57 parking spaces needed were directly related to GreenStar store, as opposed to the housing for the building,” Schroeder said. “The 57 spaces are not required for GreenStar.”
McCollister and Schroeder both said that for the city to grant the variance, Lower should provide more specific guarantees of how he will discourage his tenants from bringing cars to Ithaca. Lower has suggested providing residents TCAT bus passes and access to Ithaca Carshare in exchange for waiving the parking requirement.
Additionally, like McCollister and Schroeder, Common Council member Graham Kerslick (D-4th Ward) said the debate over granting the variance should be part of a broader discussion of parking requirements.
“We need a comprehensive parking management plan, not just for Collegetown but for the entire city,” Kerslick said.
Still, many of the supporters of the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting — including local residents, a representative from TCAT and city business owners — also assailed the parking requirements’ hold on the GreenStar.
“This project will be advertised to people who don’t want a car or need a car or cannot afford to have a car … this project factors out the parking from unfairly putting it in the rent prices,” one attendee said in support of the project. “There’s oversupply of paid off-street parking … The parking lots are urban dead spaces; it’s unfair to put the burden on the developer.”
He added that this project was “very forward thinking.”
“City zoning mandates parking requirements … I really hope you can grant the variance for these spaces,” He said. He then asked the meeting’s attendees to express their support for the project through applause.
McCollister, however, emphasized that Lower’s personality should not be enough of a reason for the city to approve the project.
“Everyone was singing Josh Lower’s proposal — ‘Here’s a great guy; he’s got the right values’ — I said, ‘You have to think longer-term about what happens with that property,” McCollister said.
She added that, despite the fanfare of Tuesday’s meeting, the city should first ensure that the developer guarantees that “the business will stay there.”
“It was quite the theater tonight in City Hall,” she said.
Kaitlyn Kwan contributed reporting to this story.