February 19, 2009

Ithaca Residents Voice Concern Over Collegetown Urban Plan

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Ithaca residents sounded off on a proposed urban plan for Collegetown at a meeting yesterday of Ithaca Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, showing growing tensions between Collegetown’s permanent residents and the ever-changing flow of student residents.
The plan, formally called the Collegetown Urban Plan and Design Guidelines, is a sweeping initiative that many citizens criticize as a “notion in search of a plan.”
“What I don’t like is that all the pieces, and the answers to all those questions associated with those pieces, are not worked out,” said Martha Fromett, a Collegetown resident of 22 years. “I don’t want to adopt something that is a notion.”
The Collegetown initiative, which Common Council residents said was carefully constructed and thought out, attempts to “encourage new development … improve management of parking … [and] protect the quality of life in the mostly owner-occupied neighborhoods east of Collegetown.” Though certain aspects of the plan were lauded by Collegetown representatives, especially those seeking to increase the city’s conduciveness to pedestrians, many of the facets of the plan seek to urbanize a town that has already grown increasingly dense as the University has developed.
One of the main concerns of residents was a passage raising the maximum building height in the core areas to 90 feet, an increase of 30 feet from the current core area maximum Collegetown building height. A Collegetown resident of 32 years, Frances Weissman, said to the council that the 60-foot height limit had already “obliterated Collegetown’s charm,” and said a 90-foot limit would be shameful. The taller building heights would encourage increased development of apartments.
Though many upperclassmen may appreciate the potentially expanded living opportunities off campus, permanent Collegetown residents balk at the prospect.
“There’s been a change from Collegetown being a mixed residential neighborhood. It was much more diverse than it was now,” said Ed Weissman, husband of Frances. By “diversity” Weissman said he was referring to the healthy mix of students, faculty and Tompkins County workers in his neighborhood when he first moved to Ithaca in 1977. Ever since then, Weissman said the quality of living has decreased as the neighborhoods surrounding campus become more and more exclusively student-occupied.
“I think the community was a much more viable neighborhood,” Weissman added. “Once the bigger apartment buildings went up, that changed the nature of the neighborhood.”
Weissman, who works in the University libraries, also noted that many of his neighbors moved out as students moved in and referred to the current state of his Collegetown neighborhood as a “student ghetto.”
According to Weissman, zoning changes in the 1980s, including the increase of building height limits, encouraged greater population density in Collegetown as more and more students relied on off-campus housing.
The Collegetown Urban Plan and Design initiative would almost certainly increase the student population in Collegetown. Valuable green space between houses would be minimized as development increases, a topic that particularly consternated Fromett.
“I’m also concerned with the loss of green space for students,” Fromett said, noting an incident where several students were found relaxing in a friend’s backyard because they just wanted somewhere to sit. “Students have nowhere to go.”
Another issue, important to almost all permanent residents of Collegetown, was the increasing noise level as more and more students move off campus. Due to the close proximity of the houses, Fromett said she is able to hear her neighbor shut a door in the middle of the night. The housing proximity also exacerbates the notoriously cacophonous parties in Collegetown, which Fromett said could get out of control at times.
“To Cornell’s credit, they’ve worked hard on having a larger police presence,” Fromett said.
There will be a joint meeting of a subcommittee of the Planning and Economic Development Committee and the City’s Planning Board today to develop answers to the problems plaguing the current development plan. Voting on the environmental impact of the plan was put off until the committee’s March meeting.