Final vote pending for Collegetown rezoning amid community concerns

The proposed Collegetown rezoning is on to the City of Ithaca Common Council for a final vote after unanimously passing the Planning and Economic Development Committee.

The measure – a drawn out and still contentious plan for some – seeks to rezone Ithaca’s most dense neighborhood using form districts that will regulate features such as roof pitch, glazing, porches, and size of plain exteriors.

The plan calls for a total of six districts: two Mixed Use (MU) districts, which includes both residential and commercial spaces, and four Collegetown Residential (CR) districts. Much of the concern lies with the transitional CR-4 district with the closest proximity to the MU districts.

Draft: Collegetown Area Form Districts

Under the rezoning proposal, Collegetown will have six newly formed districts: two for a mix of commercial and residential uses in the center, and four surrounding residential districts.

Tom Hanna, one of Collegetown’s long-time residents, has voiced concern over the potential for consolidation by big developers under the law.

“We specified to the city [a concern for consolidation] in the CR-4 zones,” said Hanna, a ’64 graduate of Cornell University and Collegetown homeowner since 1970. Hanna also serves as a member of the East Hill Civic Association.

“If you look at the way we’ve written this law…this is clearly going to end up encouraging individual property owners like myself and others to consider selling out to major developers, rather than try to go through and develop the property ourselves.”

Hanna cites the low vacancy rate as a factor that keeps rent prices higher and worries the new policy will further increase the cost of living with a “gentrification” effect. The Cornell Daily Sun published his editorial on the issue in its Guest Room column last week.

“Everybody wants to be in Collegetown,” said Galal Cancer, a Junior Applied Economics and Management student at Cornell. He agrees that the city should make it a priority to keep Collegetown within the range of students’ budgets.”

“While the plan does not specifically address the goal of affordability, it does clearly address the goal of supplying quality, safe housing,” said Seph Murtaugh, the Chairman of the Planning and Economic Development Committee.

Parking at a Premium

The rezoning measure also eliminates parking requirements for the multi-use districts and, if parking-management plans are approved, the CR-4 district.

Factoring in space for parking can be costly for developers and, according to Murtaugh, is not as necessary with increasing use of alternative transportation.

“The parking requirements can really inhibit growth and density,” he said. “I think we feel comfortable eliminating it in the center of Collegetown.”

Murtaugh also pointed to other available parking nearby, including the Dryden Avenue garage that has been operating on average at only 50 percent capacity. A citywide Parking Director was recently hired to address policies as well.

Seven Years In the Making

In 2007 the City and Cornell University commissioned Good Clancy Associates of Boston, Mass. and two sub-consultant firms for a total of $180,000 to evaluate Collegetown and make recommendations for future development. After some additional modification by the Planning Committee, “The 2009 Collegetown Urban Plan & Conceptual Design Guidelines” was published.

In 2011, owners of affected property halted the plan’s implementation after challenging the parking exemption.

“There have definitely been criticisms of the plan,” Murtaugh said. “I think that the city staff will continue to monitor it…if we find that the plan requires tweaking in some way, if we have to change it to respond to local realities, I think the Planning staff and Common Council will make those changes as necessary.”


Alliance breathes new life into Collegetown

By John Vogan & Robert Rivera

Marty Johnson greets his friend and fellow alliance founder Annie Quach in his store, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, and soon they begin talking about the designs for the logo of their newly formed group: the Collegetown Small Business Alliance (CSBA).

The Alliance was founded this summer between Johnson, Quach — who is the general manager for Hai Hong a local Chinese restaurant — and Natalie Sweeney, owner of Natalia’s Boutique with the purpose of promoting more business in Collegetown.  Johnson says the three are good friends and wanted to form the alliance to help each other’s small businesses.

Unlike the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, which has about 100 shops and serves over 50,000 residents, the CSBA is still in its early stages and has not expanded outside of its three founding members. The DIA has been a part of Downtown Ithaca since 1997, and has helped small businesses in the area thrive through special events such as Apple Fest and Chili Fest.

A map of Collegetown, alliance businesses, and parking.

A map of Collegetown, alliance businesses, and parking.

The new group’s goal is to create events in Collegetown to promote more business in the area, through street fairs and greeting college students during orientation to show them what Collegetown has to offer, says Johnson. These future events are meant to help all businesses, whether they are part of the alliance or not, he adds.

Johnson says that the trio has reached out to other local businesses, such as Big Red Barber Shop, Proper Puss, Stella’s Rulloff’s Restaurant and Nail Candy. “It’s really grass-roots right now.  We’re just bringing up the discussion before a formal invitation goes out, but everyone we’ve talked to are very much excited and say it can only be positive for the area,” says Johnson.

Matthew Taylor, general manager for Stella’s agrees that the alliance would be beneficial to his restaurant.  He says he is awaiting further news about the CSBA.

Quach, who was born and raised in Ithaca, and spent much of her childhood growing up in Collegetown says the area is declining in terms of business flow, which is why she felt there was a need for the Alliance.

One of the problems many stores in Collegetown are facing is foreclosure due to the high cost of rent.  Sweeney says she pays $2000 each month for her 1,010 square-foot store.  Local realtor Jeff Goodmark says that the average price of retail rental in Collegetown is three times as much as other area in Ithaca, placing a strain on revenue.

Johnson and the alliance have also talked briefly to Cornell University about planning events with the college for their summer program.  The CSBA hopes Cornell will consider housing students closer to Collegetown during summer sessions to make it easier for them to shop there. The move could potentially create new patronage during  the slow months when most students leave for summer break.

Gabrielle Cramer, a Cornell student who has lived in Collegetown for the past two years thinks the alliance would be a step in the right direction for students. She says it would be nice to have more options for students to do activities over the weekends, and the alliance would help.

“There are a few different bars that closed down. It’s not that Collegetown is not bumping, but its transitioning,” says Cramer, who adds that the alliance can help with this transitioning period.

Johnson also publishes a blog on his company website, where further updates for the alliance’s progress can be found.

Airbnb offers unique lodging experience for Ithaca visitors

By John Vogan & Justine Chun

When Lisa Carrier-Titti and her wife Nicole decided to open their spare room to guests, they were not expecting a cultural experience.

“We met women from Israel, who just heard about Ithaca in an article and they wanted to come,” Carrier-Titti said.  “One of the women was kosher and conservative…we made sure that we had all products here that were kosher, and she wasn’t allowed to use any electricity from sundown Friday to Saturday, so we were able to come in and turn the lights…and coffee pot on for her.  That’s not something I had ever experienced before.”

Carrier-Titti is not the only resident in Ithaca to open her home to visitors.  She began listing in June after a friend told her about Airbnb, a website that lets people find accommodations around the world. More than 150 properties are listed in the greater Ithaca area.

The website was founded in August 2008 and markets itself as a trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover and book unique accommodations. With over 8 million users, Airbnb has accommodations in more than 33 thousand cities and 192 countries worldwide. The site is a way for people to find a room, apartment, or even just a couch to sleep on while traveling.

Carrier-Titti believes some listings on Airbnb have qualities that traditional bed and breakfasts don’t always offer.

“There is a niche to be filled, where some people aren’t looking for the kitschy, lacey Victorian home,” she explained.  “The people that find us, they want something that’s downtown, they want something that’s walkable, on the bus route, they want something that’s a little bit private.”

Airbnb users can also review the places they stay following the reservation. Comforts of Home has a 5-star average rating across 25 reviews. One response from “Patricia” of Vermont said: “Lisa & Nicole have designed this space to absolutely maximize both elegance and functionality…with charm and verve.”

Airbnb Ithaca

Jennifer Dotson, an Airbnb enthusiast, has found the site to be very reliable. Dotson serves on the first board for the City of Ithaca common council and finds herself frequently traveling to other cities to attend conferences.

“I’d rather save a little money and stay at a place where I might get to know someone local,” Dotson said.

With Airbnb offering a range of price points for accommodations – as cheap as $30 per night for a room to $1079 for an entire 14-room house – the question of occupancy tax has come up. Tompkins County imposes a three percent county occupancy, or room, tax. Registered accommodations collect this and submit it to the county on a quarterly schedule. The county is now asking all unregistered accommodations to pay the tax.

Lynette Scofield, Innkeeper of the William Henry Miller Inn in Ithaca, believes that the unregistered Airbnb hosts should contribute through such a tax.

“The room tax does so much for this area as far as beautification, signage, new programs, that the tax dollars that our guests pay and write a check for makes such a difference in the community,” said Scofield.

But not everyone in Ithaca supports Airbnb. De Murphy, the president of Bed & Breakfast Association of Greater Ithaca (BBGI), who declined to speak with Ithaca Week, was quoted in the Ithaca Times saying that: “Travelers have no idea what they are getting into [when they book rooms using Airbnb].  I’ve heard horror stories from guests. They thought they were getting a room and they got a couch, or the place was just dirty.”

For people like Carrier-Titti and her wife, who do pay the three percent room tax, Airbnb is a way to offer guests a nice place to stay while also making a little extra money for retirement.

“Airbnb has been very accommodating to us as hosts,” Carrier-Titti said. “They helped us set up a site, they help us with payment systems…very easy to do.”