October 28, 2015

Phi Mu Fraternity Fails to Secure House in Cayuga Heights

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The Cayuga Heights Planning Board unanimously rejected a request from Cornell’s chapter of the Phi Mu fraternity to purchase property to house their local chapter after significant opposition from community members.

Prior to Monday night’s meeting, which was the third in relation to the issue, community members had drafted and circulated a petition to exclude the female fraternal organization from the residential neighborhood, claiming that a chapter house would be “inappropriate usage for the lot and the location” on Wyckoff Road.

While Phi Mu has been in talks with the board since August, community members have only been involved for about a month, according to Ellen Zaslaw, a neighborhood resident. At the end of September, the board invited homeowners who live within 200 feet of the 520 Wyckoff Rd. property Phi Mu had planned to purchase to offer public comment on the fraternity’s request.

“Every one of the neighbors in that circuit became involved in opposing the Cornell group,” Zaslaw said. Their reasons addressed both proximate concerns, such as noise and traffic disturbances, as well as the potential for more far-reaching consequences.

Contrary to what local news has reported, Zaslaw emphasized that this was not a zoning issue, as the governing zoning laws permit sororities and fraternities in the area. In fact, Zaslaw, who has lived in Cornell Heights since 1979, mentioned that her neighbors, the Sigma Chi Fraternity, were there before she moved in.

While she acknowledged that “back in the bad old days,” Sigma Chi had a reputation for raucous disturbances — ”it was kind of a madhouse,” she said — Zaslaw maintained “that was a long time ago” and things seem to have calmed down.

However, after driving around to assess the positioning of other Greek houses, Zaslaw found that most mixed neighborhoods with local residences and fraternity and sorority houses had significantly more distance between Greek houses and family homes than non-mixed neighborhoods.

“This proposed sorority chapter home would lie closer to private residences than any other of the dozens of Greek houses at Cornell,” Ellen Zaslaw and her husband Prof. Neal Zaslaw, musicology, said in an email distributing the petition.

“It’s not that anyone expected Phi Mu women to be unruly or excessively loud,” Zaslaw explained. “It’s that at such close quarters just the sounds of ordinary life, the conversations and comings and goings of up to 16 residents and over 100 potential visitors, would be quite a disturbance in such a quiet area.”

However, Zaslaw said that more than potential noise disturbance, she feared the presence of a sorority house would bring about change in the historic Cornell Heights, one of the oldest districts in the village. Neighbors feared that Phi Mu’s arrival would have triggered “irretrievable disfiguring of Village historicity and character,” according to the petition.

Aside from the inconvenience of noise, traffic and density issues, residents said they believe that these problems would lessen the desirability of the neighborhood, particularly for family buyers.

The petition also noted that, as families moved out, absentee landlords would buy vacant properties to provide rental options, as has been seen in other Ithaca neighborhoods. This, in turn, would drive up prices and further dampen family homeowner interest.

“This street retains its historic charm and maintains the quality of life for its residents if the homes remain occupied primarily by families that own them,” Zaslaw said.

Throughout the review process required to issue a certificate of occupancy, which would change the property usage from a single-family home to a sorority or fraternity, the Planning Board evaluated many different factors.

Although there were many points on which the fraternity posed no problem, the Board ultimately validated the neighbors’ consensus that it posed “serious concerns” on these other matters, such as noise, traffic and the potential change of neighborhood character, according to Zaslaw.

“While we are disappointed at the decision, the Planning Board was great to work with throughout this process. We are now actively pursuing other housing opportunities near campus for the Phi Xi Chapter,” Darlene Reyes, Phi Mu executive director, said in a statement released on Wednesday.

The Phi Xi Chapter, which colonized at Cornell last fall, now has 118 active members, according to their website. Members live both on and off campus while the national fraternity works to find them a house, the statement said.