May 30, 2012

Attacking City’s ‘Backwards’ Parking Laws, Mayor Backs Collegetown Crossing Project

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Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 threw his support behind a controversial proposal to construct a new housing complex on College Avenue in a memo he sent to city officials last month, saying that the city’s current parking laws create “aesthetic blight,” drive up housing prices and need to be revised.

Developer Josh Lower ’05 is proposing to construct a six-story building at 307 College Ave. that would add 103 bedrooms to the area and a ground-level GreenStar grocery store in the heart of Collegetown. But Lower says to do so he must first obtain a variance — an exemption from the city’s parking laws — to avoid creating 57 parking spaces for the residents of the proposed building, a requirement Lower has said makes the development financially unfeasible.

Although Myrick urged city officials to grant Lower the variance and approve his “Collegetown Crossing” project, he took aim at a larger target as well. In the message, which was obtained by The Sun, the mayor says he plans to work with the Common Council in the coming months to overhaul the city’s parking laws.

“We know that mandating parking has helped make this city too expensive for working families by subsidizing the cost of vehicular ownership and increasing the cost of housing,” the mayor writes in the email, which was addressed to the members of the city’s Planning and Development Board. “We know that our current policy promotes sprawl, underwrites car use and makes housing more expensive.”

In an interview Thursday, Myrick explained that because the city’s laws force developers to construct a certain number of parking spaces when building new apartments, there is now an oversupply of available parking in Collegetown. Property owners can thus only charge at far lower rates than the cost incurred of having to build the parking spaces — a discrepancy that is then passed onto the resident through higher rent prices, he said.

“The parking prices, while high, are not as high as they would be in a free market system,” Myrick said.

Additionally, Myrick writes that he is convinced that Lower’s proposed mitigations — which include TCAT and carshare access for his residents — will “substantially alleviate any parking pressure created.” The mayor, who was until recently a Cornell student and still lives in Collegetown, also claims that students will walk to campus and forego car use.

“When parking is appropriately priced and appropriately restricted, the vast majority of people will not bring their cars at all,” Myrick writes. “This project will promote transit and pedestrian activity, and change the economics of land-use in Collegetown so radically that a full-service grocery store will finally be viable.”

Still, despite the mayor’s support, Lower’s project has been assailed by those who question whether failing to force Lower to build the parking spaces would have a “spillover” effect on the surrounding communities. These critics have maintained that it is the lack of available parking that drives housing prices up and have expressed doubts about Lower’s assurances that students will leave their cars at home.

In February, for instance, Common Council member Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward) said in response to a large public showing of support for the development that its impacts have not yet been fully understood.

“My concern about the project is that the applicant is holding out the carrots of the GreenStar to tout as a public amenity,” McCollister said. “The problem with this application is that everybody has [gotten] so enthusiastic over GreenStar, but we’re still not thinking of the land-use ramifications of the proposal.”

Additionally, a preliminary, unapproved draft review of the project from the city states that “by not providing on site parking, the existing parking shortage in Collegetown will be exacerbated” by the development.

“History has shown that inadequate/expensive parking in Collegetown encourages students, faculty and staff to park in surrounding neighborhoods,” the review, which was prepared in February, states. In April, the Planning and Development Board told the developer to provide the city with a detailed study about future residents’ projected car use to move the project forward.

In a written response to the board, however, Lower predicts that the development will have a different impact. “Or perhaps [the development] will set a trend … that stops the DESTRUCTION of the neighborhood,” he notes.

If Myrick had concerns about the project, they did not appear in his email. Instead, like Lower he expressed confidence that “our current policy is far worse for the environment than the proposed variance.”

“We know enough to know that our current policy is backwards and that this project is not just a departure from the zoning, but an improvement on it,” Myrick writes in the email.

Clarification: A previous version of this story inaccurately implied that a draft review of the Collegetown Crossing project represents the official views of the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board. In fact, that document was an unapproved staff draft and does not represent the official views of the board.

Original Author: Jeff Stein