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Statement of Walter Hang, Owner of 218 Wait Avenue, Before the City of Ithaca Planning & Economic Development Committee, April 9, 2014.

Greetings. My name is Walter Hang. I am the owner of 218 Wait Avenue in the City of Ithaca. I have lived in the Cornell Heights Historic District for more than 20 years. Thank you for allowing residents of that lovely neighborhood to speak to you about their historic preservation concerns.

I would like to review the coalition letter with a total of 984 signatories which respectfully requests that the Ithaca Common Council impose a moratorium on new housing developments in the Cornell Heights Historic District pending completion of comprehensive city-wide as well as local land-use management plans.

The coalition letter also requests that a series of specific historic preservation safeguards and zoning requirements be adopted.


First, I would like to note that the coalition letter signatories include hundreds of residents of Cornell Heights and at least 36 residential homeowners in the Ithaca portion of the Historic District. Those homes occupy more than 40% of the residential properties in the Historic District, including, but not limited to:
216 Dearborn Place
202 Fall Creek Drive
212 Fall Creek Drive
218 Fall Creek Drive
310 Fall Creek Drive
326 Fall Creek Drive
114 Heights Court
116 Heights Court
120 Heights Court
121 Heights Court
123 Heights Court
125 Heights Court
110 Highland Avenue
111 Kelvin Place
115 Kelvin Place
116 Kelvin Place
121 Kelvin Place
125 Kelvin Place
212 Kelvin Place
5 Lodge Way
8 Lodge Way
127 Roberts Place
201 Thurston Avenue
102 Triphammer Road
118 Wait Avenue
120 Wait Avenue
122 Wait Avenue
208 Wait Avenue
209 Wait Avenue
216 Wait Avenue
218 Wait Avenue
116 Westbourne Lane
110 Westbourne Lane
201 1/2 Wyckoff Avenue
205 Wyckoff Road
303 Wyckoff Road
305 Wyckoff Road
419 Wyckoff Road

Cornell Heights Historic District
As the coalition letter documents, the Cornell Heights Historic District was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 in response to development activities that would have dramatically altered its architectural and historical significance:

“The Cornell Heights Historic District is architecturally and historically significant as an exceptional intact example of a turn-of-the-century planned residential suburban development placed in an outstanding natural setting along the northern rim of Fall Creek Gorge overlooking the City of Ithaca and the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. The district’s curvilinear street plan, lavish landscape features, dramatic geographical setting, strictly residential character (developed on large private lots) and its historical pattern of development place it within the romantic tradition of the ‘ideal’ residence park developed in the second half of the nineteenth century and popularized by Frederick Law Olmsted after the Civil War.”

New Developments Highlight Dramatic Need for Improved Historic Preservation Safeguards
Despite its Historic District designation, new developments in Cornell Heights either under construction or seeking approval would irreparably alter its architectural and historic significance in contravention of requirements adopted to preserve the character of the area as a whole.

In short, the Cornell Heights Historic District is rapidly transitioning from its original turn-of-the-20th century “residential park” to a densely developed area that bears little resemblance to the community that warranted special historic district protection 25 years ago. I believe that my neighborhood is now at the point of no return.

For example, the apartment complex under construction at 312 Thurston is out-of-scale with the Historic District. It was granted a “certificate of appropriateness” by the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) even though it is much larger than almost all of the structures in Cornell Heights. Moreover, it abuts Highland Avenue Apartments, the giant building that originally helped catalyze historic preservation concerns due to its massively inappropriate size.

That structure is the biggest in Cornell Heights, but is considered “non-contributing” regarding historic preservation. As you can see from the attached map, there are four non-contributing structures in the immediate vicinity of 312 Thurston.

After the 312 Thurston project was approved, City authorities reportedly concluded that additional institutional safeguards were required to protect Cornell Heights from inappropriate large-scale development.

An effort was made to change local zoning from RU to R-3aa, but that revision would have dramatically intensified housing density in Cornell Heights. Due to an outpouring of local concerns, that proposal was withdrawn. Thank you.

Common Council representatives promised to work with Cornell Heights residents to address our historic preservation concerns, but no formal proceeding has been initiated. In the meantime, the largest apartment housing project ever proposed in the Historic District is seeking approval.

Proposed 120% New Construction Limit
The coalition letter requests that existing RU zoning be amended to incorporate the R-3aa 120% limitation on new construction, but there reportedly is no agreement among City officials regarding how to apply that limitation in Cornell Heights due to the lack of uniform “block fronts” and many irregular, curvilinear streets. This is but one example of the complex zoning matters that must be sorted out.

In order to resolve that concern, the coalition letter proposes to:

“Amend existing RU zoning for the Cornell Heights Historic District by incorporating improved R-3aa restrictions including, but not necessarily limited to: 1) 120% “maximum bldg. Footprint,”excluding non-contributing buildings, for new development, 2) maximum three-story-35 foot height; and 3), no dormitories;


No new construction of a primary structure in the Cornell Heights Historic District shall contain a footprint that is larger than 120% of the average footprint of the existing buildings within a one-eighth mile radius of the entire block in which the building is located. If one or more such surrounding buildings have been demolished, then the calculation for maximum building footprint shall use the footprint of the primary structure that most recently stood on any lot where a demolition had occurred.

‘In locally designated historic districts, any non-contributing buildings shall be excluded from this calculation.’”

Proposed 120% New Construction Limit Versus Approved 312 Thurston Building Footprints

It is instructive to compare the coalition letter’s proposed 120% new construction limit with the three main buildings currently under construction at 312 Thurston which will occupy: 2,770 square feet, 2,812 square feet and 2,752 square feet, respectively.

The average building footprint within one-eighth of a mile of the 312 Thurston Avenue block is 1,627 square feet.

As a result, the three buildings are all approximately 170% larger than the average building footprint within one-eight of a mile of the block where the complex is being built.

When one also takes into consideration the immediate proximity of multiple non-contributing structures that are even larger and more inappropriate than the three building under construction, it is clear that a new means of safeguarding Cornell Heights Historic District is imperative.

1 Ridgewood Road AKA 7 Ridgewood Road Proposed Project

An even larger apartment complex is proposed just a stone’s throw from 312 Thurston at 1 Ridgewood Road, AKA 7 Ridgewood Road. At least three buildings would be built on the largest undeveloped property in Cornell Heights, a spectacular forested setting enjoyed by hundreds of local residents who walk along and through it each day. I urge the committee to visit that site.

The three proposed buildings would occupy 5,578 square feet, 5,710 square feet and 6,662 square feet, respectively.

Those proposed buildings would dwarf nearby structures. Figure One illustrates that the buildings would be 300% larger than the adjoining structure on Highland Avenue and at least 200% larger than the immediately surrounding structures.

The average building footprint within one-eighth of a mile of the Ridgewood Road block is 1,831 square feet.

As a result, the proposed buildings are up to 260% larger than the average building footprint within one-eighth of a mile of the block where the apartment complex is proposed.

Out of a total of more than 200 structures in the Cornell Heights Historic District, only six are bigger than all three proposed buildings. All six were built before the Historic District designation.

Proposed New Housing Project Moratorium
The coalition letter supports the City of Ithaca’s Historic District policy: “Protection of the historic, aesthetic, and cultural heritage of the city of Ithaca is considered essential to the promotion of the
educational, cultural, economic, and general welfare of our citizens.”

Given that policy, Cornell Heights warrants urgent protection from further inappropriate development. That is why the signatories to the collation letter believe the City of Ithaca must stop approving new development projects that could exist for decades until it adopts a comprehensive city-wide land use plan, a specific Cornell Heights plan and new historic preservation safeguards.

The City of Ithaca is in the process of updating its comprehensive land-use plan for the first time in decades. It is not clear when that effort will be completed.

Moreover, there is no proceeding underway to adopt a specific land-use plan for Cornell Heights that can resolve inadequate historic preservation problems widely acknowledged by local elected officials, City staff and hundreds of residents of Cornell Heights. Until that has been achieved, no new housing developments must be permitted.

For all these reasons, the coalition letter signatories believe that a moratorium on new housing projects in Cornell Heights makes irrefutable good public policy sense.

Land Use Moratoria Guide

As I will explain, New York State law and long-established land use planning policies specifically recommend a land use moratorium for precisely the circumstances facing Cornell Heights. I am pleased to refer you to the introduction of the James A. Coon Local Government Technical Series “Land Use Moratoria” guide published in 2010 by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Department of State:

A land use moratorium is a local enactment which temporarily suspends a landowner’s
right to obtain development approvals while the community considers and potentially
adopts changes to its comprehensive plan and/or its land use regulations to address new
circumstances not addressed by its current laws.
A moratorium on development therefore preserves the status quo while the municipality
updates its comprehensive plan. A moratorium is designed to halt development
temporarily, pending the completion and possible adoption of more permanent,
comprehensive regulation.
The objective of municipal land use controls is to promote community planning values by
properly regulating land development. It follows that land use controls work best when
built upon a carefully considered comprehensive plan. It takes time to put together
or to update a good community plan. During this time, demand for a particular use
of land may arise for which there are inadequate or nonexistent controls. If the
community allows development during that time, the ultimate worth of the eventual
plan could be undermined. For these reasons, moratoria and other forms of interim
zoning controls are often needed to “freeze” development until a satisfactory final
plan or regulations are adopted
(emphasis added).

The guide addresses the question of “Why adopt moratoria?”

Prevent rush to development
Prevent inefficient and ill-conceived growth
Address a new kind of use (ie- wind farms, solid waste facilities, big box stores) in comprehensive plans and land use laws
Prevent hasty decisions that would disadvantage landowners and the public
Prevent immediate construction that might be inconsistent with the provisions of a future plan

I believe that the problems documented in the coalition letter clearly fulfill those criteria.

The guide further notes:

“The moratorium may be general, imposing a ban on all development approvals throughout the
community, or specific to one land use or to a particular zoning district (emphasis added). For
example, a moratorium can halt: the review of projects currently before boards (emphasis
added); acceptance of new development applications (site plans, subdivision, special permit);
and/or issuance of water and sewer connection permits.”

I believe the proposed Cornell Heights moratorium meets those criteria as well.

The guide provides detailed legal reasoning for imposing moratoria:

“The New York zoning enabling laws do not contain any specific mention of “moratorium” or
“moratoria.” Early on in the history of zoning, however, the New York Court of Appeals gave
some indication that any zoning regulation could temporarily and lawfully limit an owner’s
ability to use land profitably, so long as the regulation furthers the community’s long-range
planning goals
(emphasis added).”

“In holding moratoria to be lawful, the cases have suggested that five (5) key elements are
requisite for a legally defensible moratorium. The land use moratorium should:
1) have a reasonable time frame (emphasis in the original) as measured by the action to be
accomplished during the term;
2) have a valid public purpose (emphasis in the original) justifying the moratoria or other
interim enactment;
3) address a situation where the burden imposed by a moratorium is being shared
substantially by the public at large;
4) strictly adhere to the procedure (emphasis in the original) for adoption laid down by the
enabling acts; and
5) have a time certain (emphasis in the original) when the moratorium will expire."

The guide goes into great detail specifying the legal requirements for each element. For that reason, I believe there can be no serious challenge to the legality of a properly drafted new housing development moratorium for Cornell Heights.

Elected officials, City staff and hundreds of local residents have stated on the public record that Cornell Heights requires improved historic preservation protection from improper development. This clearly documents the “valid public purpose” of the proposed moratorium.

For example, Ms. Mohlenhoff, the Common Council representatives for Cornell Heights was quoted in the 4/2/14 edition of the Ithaca Journal saying: “I think everyone thinks that the zoning needs to be changed up there,” Mohlenhoff said. “We just don’t know what is the best thing to change it to.”

In addition, the coalition letter requests that the moratorium be imposed for the entire Cornell Heights Historic District and for all new housing projects. This ensures that the “burden imposed by a moratorium would be shared substantially by the public at large.”


Given the lack of any governmental proceeding to adopt a comprehensive land use plan for Cornell Heights that would resolve the concerns spelled out in the coalition letter, historic preservation and zoning problems are almost certain to continue for years to come.

Given that reality, I believe that a properly drafted new housing development moratorium must be adopted by the Ithaca Common Council with a minimum duration of two years.

This eminently sensible public policy is required to prevent a “rush to development” as well as “hasty decisions” at 1/7 Ridgewood Road.

At a recent presentation by the development team to the City Planning and Economic Development Board, it was shockingly obvious that the apartment project’s final plans remain incomplete even as they pushed to gain project approval.

Consultants for the proposed project repeatedly stated that a final plan had not been finished because an array of critical questions had yet to be answered. Maps were in error.
Renderings were inaccurate.

I requested that the City Planning and Economic Development Board withhold declaration of “lead agency” status pending a resolution of zoning and historic preservation concerns.
Members of the board essentially stated that they lacked authority to do that. As a result, myrequest did not receive a favorable reply and “lead agency” status was declared.

It is important to understand that the rush to approve the proposed 1/7 Ridgewood Road project is underway even though the developer reportedly does not even own the subject property. As a result, the developer has not broken ground or committed to undertake the proposed project.

Against that background, a new housing project moratorium for Cornell Heights Historic District is clearly warranted. In order to survive possible legal challenge, it must fulfill the requirements specified in great detail by numerous citations in the Land Use Moratoria guide.

I would be happy work with members of this committee and city staff to draft a suitable resolution for consideration by the Common Council. Alternatively, a suitable attorney could be retained to draft a resolution.

In conclusion, permitting major projects to be approved without benefit of an updated city-wide comprehensive plan as well as specific neighborhood plans defeats the purpose of land use planning. With all respect, that is not good governing. That is why I request the City’s landmark moratorium in Collegetown be replicated in Cornell Heights.

Thank you for your consideration. I would be pleased to answer any questions that my comments might have raised.