October 16, 2012

Town of Ithaca Debates Plan to Build Townhouses for Cornell Employees

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A plan to build affordable housing for Cornell employees  is generating concerns from residents who live near the proposed site.

At a meeting Oct. 2, the Town of Ithaca’s Planning Board considered the project, which, if approved, would add 67 townhouses near the University off of Route 79. Cornell has agreed to sell the land on which the townhouses would be built — 10 acres between Strawberry Hill Road and Harwick Drive — to the project’s developers, according to the developer’s letter to the planning board.

Additionally, the developer, Greenways at Eastwood Commons, has agreed to let Cornell sell the townhouses to its employees before any of the units are made available for sale to the general public, according to the project’s sketch plan. Although prices for the project have not been set yet, each housing unit will likely be sold for about $200,000, according to Paul Mazzarella, executive director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services.

Although Andre Perez Jr., lead coordinator for housekeeping at the University, said providing housing for employees close to Cornell is “a damn good idea,” he said the housing units would likely be too expensive for employees to buy.

“They would sell off a house [for $200,00] to an employee? Not good. Who is going to pay 200 grand for a house?” he said, adding, “We don’t make that kind of money.”

Adding to criticism of the project, several residents of Belle Sherman — the neighborhood surrounding the proposed development — expressed several concerns about the project and its potential to exacerbate traffic in the area. Seventy-three of the area’s residents signed a letter addressed to Cornell saying that, although they think the project is “laudable,” they want to ensure that the project is designed to avoid hurting “the character of our adjacent city neighborhood.”

Residents believe that the effect of future residents driving “to and from Cornell, Collegetown and downtown, to and from work, shopping, recreation and children’s activities would amount to hundreds of daily trips through our neighborhood,” according to the letter.

The traffic would not be compatible with Eastwood Avenue, the road leading to Woodcrest Avenue servicing the neighborhood: a “narrow residential street” that often has cars parked on both sides of the streets at day and night, the letter said. Because there is sometimes only 11 feet of space between cars that are parked on either side of the street, residents said they believe the road would not be able to serve the additional traffic the development would attract.

As a compromise, the residents asked in the letter that the developers block off access from the housing project to Eastwood Avenue, suggesting developers instead connect the project to Honness Lane and Harwick Road.

“We only wish Cornell well, and ask in return only that Cornell accommodate our legitimate concerns,” the letter said.

At a planning board meeting in October, other residents, like Tom Reimers, expressed concerns that the project will harm the neighborhood’s natural life. It may eliminate the open space where deer currently roam about the neighborhood, he said.

Christa Bissell, who lives on Pine Tree Road — near the proposed site of the project — urged the planning board to require the developers to provide bus passes to future residents.

The housing project has been in development since Fall 2010, when the University issued a proposal to the board asking its members to develop plans for the project, according to a letter developers sent to the board. Cornell has agreed to sell the land to developers at a price significantly below market value, according to John Ciminelli, senior vice president of LP Ciminelli Construction, the group that would build the apartments.

Developers estimate that the project will take five years to complete, according to the letter they sent to the planning board.

To keep the cost of the units low without sacrificing the quality of housing, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services will give developers subsidies for construction costs, making a third of the housing units affordable. Additionally, the agency has agreed to offer low-cost financing to homeowners.

To help keep the housing units affordable in the long term, developers are discussing the possibility of capping the percentage by which the townhouses’ value can increase over time, developers said at an Oct 2. planning board meeting. This would help reduce the cost of housing for future tenants if the townhouses are resold, they said.

The housing project is expected to receive LEED certification — a rating of a how environmentally friendly a building’s design is — of gold or better, according to Scott Reynolds, director for real estate housing at Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services.

Original Author: Jonathan Dawson