January 25, 2011

Community Members Criticize Proposed Building Near Commons

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Developers behind a proposal to construct a mixed use building near Ithaca’s Commons made preliminary steps toward completion at a contentious Planning and Development Board meeting Tuesday.   The proposed building, at 140 Seneca Way, would create new commercial and residential space, replacing the vacant building formerly occupied by Challenge Industries, a nonprofit organization. The proposal drew heated opposition, however, from the neighbors of East Seneca Street whose backyards are adjacent to the back of the proposed development. The planned building will house a first floor reserved for commercial use, two parking lots, a fitness center and four floors for residential apartments. Last night, the building’s developers made progress by getting the Planning Board to declare its intent to be the lead agency of the proposal’s environmental review — but the developers still have many obstacles to overcome on their way to the project’s completion. To construct the building, the project team must first obtain several variances — or exemptions — from city zoning laws. One variance would allow the building to reach 58 feet, 18 feet more than the current maximum. Another would allow the development to be built 16 feet farther back than is currently allowed. The developers are also requesting variances for  parking and loading spaces.The variances are the parts of the plan that drew the ire of the E. Seneca Street residents.

“It is the wrong project for the wrong site,” said Virginia Augusta, who lives at 419 E. Seneca Street, less than a block away from the proposed development.

Another neighbor, Barbara Lance, voiced concerns on quality of life issues. She said she was worried about the safety and happiness of the families affected.  Specifically, Lance cited the shadow the new building would cast on their backyards and the loss of the tree line, which she said would be razed if the developer, Brian Warren of Warren Real Estate, is allowed to build deeper.  “I appreciate the developers talking to us, but they are not in the least bit receptive to our concerns,” she said. At Tuesday’s meeting, Planning Board Chairman John Schroeder ’74, who is also The Sun’s  Production Manager, read three letters from citizens concerned with the project who did not attend. “I cannot support the Seneca Way project in its current form since it is the wrong size and the wrong location,”  Matthew Clark, Augusta’s husband, stated in a letter.“We are doing everything we can to work with the neighbors, but it is not economical to make it smaller,” Warren said. Warren now owns the land, but he still has to close the deal with Challenge. The developers, including Warren, have met with the neighbors of E. Seneca Street twice, including once this past Sunday. Warren said any other plans for the building would be extremely difficult and may not even be possible due to the physical layout of the property: 140 Seneca Way is located at the bottom of a steep hill on which the Seneca Street properties sit.  “It is very important for me to communicate with the neighbors and keep open communication,” Warren said. The E. Seneca Street properties lie in the ward of Ithaca City Councilmember Eric Rosario ’91 (I – 2nd Ward).  “I’m willing to support some change but not as tall and not as far back,” Rosario said. “Go back to the property owner so it will be financially feasible to reduce the height and proximity to something that has less impact.” “We are taking an old beat up building, not refurbishable, to make it a significant, strong investment in downtown Ithaca … These market-rate apartments are exactly what is needed in this community,” Warren said.

Original Author: Hank Bao