ITHACA,N.Y. — Rarely do a couple of projects test what is and isn’t allowed in a just-approved section of zoning code. However, that seems to be the situation at the moment, and that happens to be rather convenient for writing an explainer on how the new South Hill Overlay plays a role in these two proposals. This article is going to look at the two projects as a quick little case study for the Voice’s friends on South Hill.
Flashback: at the last Common Council meeting, the South Hill Overlay, a zoning law intended to be a temporary fix for issues related to infill student housing, was approved 9-1. Instantly, it went into effect for the city of Ithaca’s South Hill neighborhood.
Now for a quick recap of what the law does – as explained last month, what the overlay changes is that it eliminates multiple primary structures on R-1 and R-2 residential properties within the boundaries of the overlay. R-1s and R-2s are generally one-family and two-family, lower-density home lots, so something that’s not in those classes, like the Emerson Power property, isn’t affected. Should someone want to do infill housing in an R-1 or R-2 zone, their options are either to subdivide the lot if they can make the subdivision conform to city size and dimension requirements, they can do a small accessory apartment, or they can go pound sand.
However, while it is an additional restriction that eliminates a common method for development on South Hill, it is not a moratorium. That matters because it meets that new housing can still be added, as long as it meets the old zoning requirements, and those enacted with the overlay.
Case 1: 601 South Aurora Street
Let’s start with 601 South Aurora Street. Currently, the property is a gravel parking lot on South Hill, at the corner of South Aurora and Hillview Place. The lot has been owned since 2003 by David and Kathleen Putnam, a Cayuga Heights couple who own a few properties around the area, but county records suggest this is their only parcel on South Hill. The lot is an R-2a property, which means that the overlay is in effect here.
Putnam would like to redevelop the corner parking lot into a pair of townhouses. Two units separated by a party wall, two-bedrooms each, with associated lawn, sidewalks, and two parking spaces, one for each unit. Not pertinent to the analysis but worth a mention, the kitchen and living areas are separate (rather than the eat-in kitchen one often sees with student apartments), and about 1,000 SF each – not that big, and geared more towards the general renters’ market than most recent builds. However, they would still be modulars, built by local homebuilder Carina Construction, and with Groton’s SPEC Consulting serving as a project consultant.
From a zoning perspective, since there are no other structures that exist on the property, and no others planned, the townhouse pair would be the primary structure. All other zoning requirements – setbacks from the street and neighboring lots, intended use, total lot coverage, and height – appear to be within R-2a guidelines. There won’t be any trips to the Board of Zoning Appeals, because it meets both regular zoning and overlay regulations. That portends smooth sailing, barring unforeseen circumstances. It could be approved by the Planning Board as soon as the end of this month, and since modulars can be put together quickly, it could be finished by the end of next May.
So that’s a case where a project is still allowed even with the new overlay. Now let’s look at a case were the future is a bit more uncertain.
Case 2: 209 Hudson Street
209 Hudson Street is a little further down South Hill, a rather oddly-shaped lot between Pleasant and Prospect Streets. Currently, the lot hosts a tudor-style two-family home built in the early 1900s. Like 601 South Aurora, the property is an R-2a zone impacted by the new overlay.
In June of this year, the property was purchased by the Stavropoulos family, West Hill landlords who have been on a development kick as of late. Most of their projects, like 514 Linn Street and 318-320 Pleasant Street, have been small even by Ithaca standards, although their most recent ones, like 1001 North Aurora Street and 107 South Albany Street, have been a little bigger. Nothing enormous, but rental housing infill not unlike the kind that’s proliferated on South Hill.
In a sketch plan late last month, which is when an applicant informally proposes a project to the city planning board to get initial feedback, the Stavropouloses expressed desire to build at least two additional rental duplexes on the property. Before the zoning overlay, this would have been perfectly legal so long as they met all the usual zoning lot coverage, setback and height/parking requirements.
With the zoning overlay, however, this becomes a non-starter. A primary structure means a structure that is mostly used for the primary property use, residential here. Building new rental units would create multiple primary structures – and that’s where the buck stops. The overlay says that’s illegal for the time being, and will continue to be illegal until the Common Council votes otherwise. That’s probably a couple of years out, after a new South Hill neighborhood master plan has been written and approved.
Are there ways around this? Maybe. If the owners can subdivide the lot so that the divided parts meet lot requirements set forth by the city, then in theory they could build a new duplex on a new lot. The current lot is oddly-shaped, but large by city standards, and the existing house is on the south side of the property. However, even if they make a building lot out of the north side or the rear east side, then comes the task of designing a building that meets lot requirements. So, the gist of this is, it’s not impossible to build more housing next to 209 Hudson Street, but it does become considerably more complicated and difficult.
In that sense, the city has found what it feels is a fair middle-ground. It’s not stopping development and some new builds can still take place, whether they be a pair of townhouses or the Chain Works District; but for those who felt student housing infill was running amok, the overlay creates a fairly big hurdle for developers to jump, and will deter many from pursuing plans.