April 5, 2011

Collegetown Plans Provide New Development Guidelines

Print More

In an attempt to increase population density in the core of Collegetown while protecting the character and aesthetic quality of single-family homes in surrounding residential neighborhoods, the City of Ithaca has put forth four proposals for future development.

The initiatives, based on a vision described in the 2009 Collegetown Urban Plan & Conceptual Design Guidelines, will likely be voted on by Common Council May 4. Although varied, the proposals seek to set new building and density guidelines “to create a diverse, commercially viable, mix-use community,” as stated in the 2007 Collegetown Vision Statement.

According to Alderperson Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward), the proposed changes “will encourage good quality redevelopment options.”

The plan also has the potential to increase the amount of housing for students, while adding stability to the city as a whole, McCollister said.

“Collegetown used to be more single-family housing. When it became all students, it drove out neighborhood character,” McCollister said. “By focusing development more towards the core, [the proposals] will take pressure off places like Delaware Ave. and single-family housing in general.”

Collegetown Form-Based Codes

One proposal aims to implement the city’s first use of a “form-based code” to regulate development according to the physical form of new buildings.

Unlike conventional zoning, which is focused on controlling development through more abstract parameters such as height limits or dwellings per acre, under the form-based code, buildings within the core of Collegetown and in the peripheral neighborhoods will have to comply with certain requirements regarding the form of buildings, according to chairman of the Planning and Development Board John Schroeder ’74, who is also the production manager of The Sun.

“The form-based code means we will be more focused on what buildings are supposed to look like, in accordance with recommendations set forth in the 2009 plan,” he said.

According to comments sent to the Common Council from the board, when the city recently rezoned other areas throughout Ithaca to protect neighborhood character, the Collegetown area was deliberately excluded from this rezoning because planning for the form-based districts in Collegetown was already underway.

Board members said they believed these proposed form-based districts will achieve similar goals in nearby neighborhoods.

Under the proposal, new buildings in the peripheral neighborhoods will be required to have certain aesthetic qualities, such as a gabled roof and a front porch in the areas where this reflects the existing predominant architectural character.

“Right now, there are areas close to the single-family neighborhoods where you could demolish a traditional Ithaca single-family house, join a couple lots together and build a large box,” Schroeder said. “But under the new proposed zoning, there is less of an incentive to do this. If a building burns down, what’s built will look like it belongs there. At the same time, maximum allowable building heights will be increased in key areas on College [Avenue] and upper Linden Avenue to increase the development opportunities there.”

McCollister also emphasized the board members’ desire for more attractive buildings in both the core and the periphery of Collegetown.

“We want to encourage developments that look good architecturally, so that they harmoniously transition into neighborhood areas with single-family housing,” McCollister said.

Height Incentives for New Development

The city also aims to establish a “height incentive district” in the core of Collegetown. In exchange for including non-student uses on at least one story — such as hotel or office space — developers would be allowed to build to a maximum 84-feet — 24-feet higher than the current maximum, McCollister said.

The height incentive district will encourage redevelopment of residential buildings while diversifying their uses to provide year-round customers for College­town stores and restaurants, Schroeder said.

Both Schroeder and Mary Tomlan, a former Common Council member, said adding non-student housing would help the year-round vibrancy of Collegetown, which they said is often diminished when students are out of town.

“It would better for the city if Collegetown were more active when classes aren’t in session,” Schroeder said. “Right now, you can walk down College Avenue in January and every last store and restaurant is closed — it’s like a ghost town.”

Tomlan said incentives for mixed use development would particularly benefit the 200 block of Dryden Road, where most buildings are used primarily for student housing.

“I hope that [the proposal] will provide some necessary greater diversity of function, and I think we’ll have to see how that works,” she said.

Amendments to the Collegetown Parking Overlay Zone

The third proposal aims to reduce the need for cars and to create a more bike-friendly, public transportation-oriented environment, McCollister said.

To improve the transportation system, the board is proposing to establish a fund dedicated to transportation improvements. Developers would be able to pay into the fund in lieu of providing parking for their tenants.

The money put into the fund will go toward improvements such as widening sidewalks and creating off-site parking areas, Schroeder said.

“[This proposal] will encourage development on sites that are currently under-utilized, such as parking lots,” Schroeder said. “It’s another discrete way of encouraging more density in the center.”

Tomlan, however, said that she was skeptical of how well the new parking and transportation proposal will work.

“I’m not sure how the parking components will work in terms of how many property owners will choose to pay in to the fund rather than provide parking to their tenants and how many of the tenants will choose to go the route of carshare and bus passes,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll know until we have that in our experience.”

New Design Review Ordinance

Although there are currently no design standards for new buildings constructed in Collegetown, the fourth proposal aims to fold the current Design Review Board into the Planning Board in order to implement design standards to be written in the near future, Schroeder said.

A major development concern cited in the 2009 plan was the construction of “new structures that are dramatically non-contextual with the existing urban fabric … and damaging to the coherence and aesthetic character of individual neighborhoods.”

According to the Planning Board’s comments, a consultant will be preparing design standards for Collegetown in the upcoming months. The language of the proposed ordinance will then be reviewed by the board once the consultant’s work has been completed.

“The ultimate goal is to improve the aesthetic standard of Collegetown’s urban form,” McCollister said.

Schroeder noted that all four initiatives are tightly interrelated.

“We want to have a binding design review to make sure new buildings have higher quality of design, make it easier for developers to develop their sites, provide better transportation facilities, encourage increased development in the center, and discourage development on the periphery,” he said.

According to the Planning Board’s comments, it is recognized that it is unlikely that any of the proposals will be perfect, and that they will all need “attention, monitoring and potential revision over time.” However, board members also noted that these interrelated proposals set forth positive new ideas and are a major step forward for the city.

“I am hopeful that this increased density will relieve some of the pressure on the surrounding area,” Tomlan said. “I think it will be up to zoning enforcement to make sure that this indeed is the case.”

Original Author: Liz Camuti