October 18, 2010

Free to Fee

Print More

The future of the development project at 307 College Avenue — which would potentially replace the current building with 60 apartment units and a pedestrian arcade connecting College Avenue with Linden Avenue — awaits the Common Council’s decision to enact a parking-in-lieu-fee that would allow the developer to pay a fee instead of creating one parking spot for every two housing units created, as a current zoning regulation demands. The passage of this new fee would prove beneficial for the Collegetown community in a number of ways, as the development project would provide much-needed Collegetown housing and eliminate the seedy backyard passageways between College and Linden Avenues that many students traverse on weekend nights. In addition, removing the mandate to create new parking spots is a progressive step in curbing the perpetuation of an unsustainable, environmentally-harmful mass automobile infrastructure.

This is not the first time Ithaca has wrestled with the convenience of transportation infrastructure and the ideal of environmental progress. Though few current students would be aware of it, not so long ago, the University owned 176 fewer parking spots and one more historically-significant grove of Redbud trees. In 2005, Cornell sued the City of Ithaca for permission to construct a parking lot in the wooded area known as “Redbud Woods” on West Campus. Then-interim President Hunter Rawlings signed an agreement with protesters that led to free bus passes for students, among other commitments, and allowed the University to begin construction of the parking lot.

Rawlings’ decision to provide free bus passes to students cannot regrow the redbud trees on West Campus, but it was an admission of the need to encourage alternative modes of transportation. The City of Ithaca’s passage of this fee would send a similar message, but without bulldozing a historical green space.

While some argue that allowing the developer to pay a fee instead of creating parking spots undercuts the need to regulate traffic flow and prevent spillover, a look at the proposed design indicates that this fee is warranted. Many traditional zoning regulations for mixed use developments require more parking than their single use counterparts. This is because of a need to prevent spillover. With new commercial development as well as residential apartments comes an increase in population and commercial activity. These two factors when combined, according to typical zoning regulations throughout the United States, demand more parking. For this reason it is not uncommon that mixed use developments face stricter zoning regulations. Usually this makes mixed use structures undesirable for real estate developers. On the other hand, it is not unprecedented for exemptions to be granted when the develop project would significantly benefit the community. This project would undoubtedly benefit the community, and if the developer is willing to pay the fee, we should be willing to give up our unnecessary need for additional parking.

To be clear, we understand the importance of avoiding parking spillover. However, we encourage developers and planners to look past the status quo to the potential benefits their projects could bring to the community and the environment. As governments in developed nations dither over enacting monumental climate legislation like the Kyoto Protocol, Collegetown developers and Ithaca City planners can do their part, too. Mandating additional infrastructure to support automobiles running on fossil fuels may increase short-term transportation efficiency, but it does not address the big-picture problems that require action from individuals and governments alike.