A proposal to transform the middle of College Avenue hinges on developer Josh Lower’s ’05 controversial request for a Board of Zoning Appeals variance, which would exempt a building’s development from city parking laws.
Lower said his proposed development project at 307 College Avenue –– next to Jason’s Grocery & Deli –– would demolish the existing building and create more than 60 new apartment units. Lower also hopes to remake the area into a highly trafficked “pedestrian arcade,” filled with street-level storefronts that would connect College and Linden Avenues.
City officials are divided on whether the Board should grant Lower the variance. Under the city’s current parking ordinance, every two housing units built must be matched by the creation of one parking spot.
Lower said that building the parking spaces, which must be within 500 feet of the site, was “not practically or financially possible.”
“We’ve tried to meet the law but cannot,” Lower said. “There’s just not enough space.”
Ithaca Councilmember Ellen McCollister (D-3rd Ward) expressed concern that there would be a lot of “spillover” for surrounding neighborhoods if the variance was given.
McCollister also said the variance would establish a dangerous precedent: “If you grant a variance to one property owner, how do you not grant [it] to any other property owner?”
If one developer is granted an exception, “all hell breaks loose,” as other developers would expect the same treatment. “We need to treat every developer consistently and equally,” McCollister said.
Lower said his plan would compensate for the lack of new parking spaces by providing his residents with a car-share membership and free bus passes as part of the lease.
“We’ll create a building that fosters … sustainable modes of transportation and encourages people to bike more, walk more,” Lower said. In reference to a proposed pedestrian walkway, Lower said, “We’re making privately-owned space accessible and usable for all.”
McCollister was not convinced. She called Lower’s replacement for parking spaces a “very ill-defined, nebulous proposal,” saying it was “not a real plan for how he is going to do it, in perpetuity, for every resident.”
Partly because there is “more supply in retail than there is demand” for Collegetown, McCollister is “not convinced the pedestrian arcade is as valuable an amenity as it’s being portrayed.”
Board of Zoning Appeals member James Marshall shared McCollister’s skepticism about Lower’s replacement plan in exchange for a variance, calling the lack of parking spaces in his proposal a “significant deficiency.”
“He’s proposed some measures that might encourage people to use public transportation or bicycles, but no one knows how successful he’ll be,” Marshall said.
Stephen Beer, chair of the Board of Zoning Appeals, said he worried that there was no provision for enforcing Lower’s suggested replacement for the parking spaces.
Lower responded that “it would be a requirement written in the lease.”
Eddie Rooker ’10 (D-4th Ward) said he and Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward) both supported the project.
Rooker said the development is “going to be beneficial to students and the city,” naming studies that “point to the fact that we need more housing in the city” given “pretty high pricing all over the city.”
Rooker said the project would fix the need for a “well-lit pedestrian walkway connecting College and Linden Avenue,” where “people now have to go between people’s yards when they’re not well-lit.”
Rooker said the proposal could make the area in front of 307 College Avenue a new hub for TCAT, shifting the center of Collegetown further south. He said that TCAT wrote a letter to the city in support of the project.
Lower, who lives in the neighborhood, said that “we really looked at a lot of scenarios to try to do something else with the property,” but that nothing else was viable. He said that he is currently losing money on the property.
McCollister responded that one of the considerations for the Board of Zoning Appeals was that the variance request not be in response to a “self-imposed hardship.”
“I think he does have a financial hardship, but that’s because he paid too much for it … rather than some externality that created that financial hardship,” McCollister said.
McCollister added that the Board of Zoning Appeals should wait until a decision is made about an “in-lieu of parking fee” suggested in the 2009 Collegetown Urban Plan & Conceptual Design Guidelines. The proposal, which is currently being developed, would specify a fee below the cost of providing on-site parking that developers could pay the city in lieu of building parking spaces. The Collegetown plan says the fee could then be used to help the city fund alternative transportation modes.
“I can only base my plans on what is law today,” Lower responded.
Rooker agreed, saying, “We can’t constantly rely on what might be happening,” and that he “would rather see something like this than a one time donation to general fund” anyway.
Lower added that waiting for the law to pass could have a big impact on his finances, since “the building has to be done based on the academic year.” “If the building is not ready to have [residents in it] before classes start, it sits empty for the rest of the year.”
If approved, his plan is to start construction in June 2011 and have the building ready for residents in the Fall of 2012.