February 11, 2014

GUEST ROOM | Throw Collegetown To the Money Wolves?

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By TOM HANNA ’64

Believe it or not, five years ago the City and Cornell ponied up a six-figure pot of money to an outside consulting firm to re-think Collegetown. Our venerable stomping grounds are about to be re-zoned “Gentrified” and student renters will pay the price. Will we get a better Collegetown out of it? Some of us don’t think so.

Guidelines were endorsed by the city legislature in 2009, and now, after a major legislative mishap in 2011, a Collegetown working group has put their own final touches on new zoning laws. People who live and work inside the proposed new “Collegetown Area Form Districts” need to speak up.

So far, the 4,000 students living in Collegetown have not spoken out on the draft CAFD. They will have one last shot at it at 6:00 p.m. Wednesday in City Hall at 108 E. Green Street.

Walk through history: Collegetown in the 1940s and 50s. Almost every house on Linden and College Avenues was a family home. Some were boarding houses, and, yes, Cascadilla Hall was a dormitory, as was Sheldon Court. But most of the streets of Collegetown were lined with family homes. A diverse business district served every need of the neighborhood on a year-round basis. Students did not have cars. We had famous nightspots such as the Royal Palm and Joe’s Restaurant, and the drinking age was 18.

In the 1960s and 70s, Collegetown was crying out for revival. The housing stock was decaying. Suburban flight took faculty in Collegetown out of the city. Working class families were aging out; their children moving away. Landlords bought up much of the aging housing stock. Housing prices climbed. The remaining families struggled to get new families to buy homes to stem the tide of students.

In the 1980s and 90s, the age of the mega-apartment block transformed the core of Collegetown, a trend that continues to this day. Cornell increased its enrollment and the 400 block of College Ave was fully developed. More frame houses were converted into apartment buildings. Rents for students doubled despite the increase in the number of apartments.

Since 2000, we have seen 312 College Ave emerge as another mega-apartment complex. The project’s builder stated, “The owner wanted an elegant, technologically advanced building to take advantage of the high-end of the housing market.”

The builder says it all. Since the 1980s, Collegetown’s housing boom has catered to the high end of the market. Rents per bed increased from around $400 per month to over $1,000 per month. Some studio apartments are more than $1,500 a month.

What about Collegetown in 2035? If the plan that is now on the table is passed by the Common Council, the supply will marginally increase through consolidation of properties into more mega projects, but any new supply will be owned by the mega-builders. As the number of owners decreases, the competition in the marketplace will be reduced. With slightly more supply and fewer suppliers, the rents will climb higher and higher. Only the wealthy will afford to live in Collegetown.

But, wait: is that what the City has already approved for Collegetown’s future? No. Officially-approved guidelines call on the City to zone Collegetown with a goal of affordability. Yet affordability is not even mentioned in the plan.

Currently, there are 233 parcels on the new Collegetown map. Forty-five parcels are either already built out as mega-apartments or are planned to be. Sixty-eight parcels are undeveloped but are intended to be re-developed into “medium density” multi-unit housing. Unfortunately, the proposed zoning works against this goal. Many property owners will keep old housing in place or sell out to big developers who will consolidate properties for profitability. The remaining 125-plus parcels, almost two-thirds of the properties, are zoned to be “preserved” rather than re-developed. Many houses were built more than 95 years ago, and have been student apartments for more than a generation. Though some were built as multi-family housing, under the zoning code, once it is naturally destroyed it will have to be replaced with smaller structures that hold fewer people.

Clearly, the new law needs to be amended. Students did not write it. It does not reflect a future that students would choose for Collegetown. If the goal is to slightly increase the supply of high-cost housing and reduce the number of competitors in the marketplace, this plan will be successful. However, it will not ease the upward pressure on rents, and it will not improve the year-round viability of the businesses in Collegetown.

But it can succeed if students call for changes that are needed. For example, affordability, sustainability and technological innovation need to be built into the intent of the new law and then reflected in the zoning requirements. The 64 parcels intended for re-development in Collegetown Residential-4 need to be zoned to support 1,200 additional residents over the next 20 years. These parcels should be developed by current owners instead of being bought up for millions of dollars and consolidated by major developers and then put on the market at sky-high rents. Also, architectural and technological innovation need to replace overly-restrictive zoning requirements. More than 100 parcels with century-old frame houses should not be zoned out of redevelopment in the name of preservation. They should be re-built into safe new housing.

Collegetown will always be one of the most expensive areas for housing in Ithaca, but if we significantly increase the housing supply in the neighborhood and allow property owners to fill in their underutilized properties and replace obsolescent structures, we will get lower prices and better value. With more diverse owners and renters, future students will find a healthier and more varied business district as well. Maybe even a real grocery store. But not if students don’t tell the city what they want in Collegetown.

Tom Hanna ’64 graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences. Reactions can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.