Ithaca, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick approached the microphone slowly, with an understated nod to a roomful of people mostly furious about what he was about to do.
Much of the crowd had spent months trying to kill an affordable housing complex planned for the city. They’d written letters, parsed through arcane planning law, and spent hours mobilizing a concerted opposition — all to bring down one of the mayor’s key initiatives.
Now it was Myrick’s turn to make his case. The room grew quiet.
Myrick appeared to apologize at the planning board meeting — held last night — for initially mistaking disagreement with the project for veiled racism or classism.
Then he launched headlong into a defense of affordable housing in both personal terms and in terms of its necessity for Ithaca. The Stone Quarry project — slated for Ithaca’s Spencer Road — is expected to triple the number of residents in the area by adding more than 100 people.
Myrick said the beneficiaries of affordable housing too often have no say. When neighbors express their opposition to a new project, he said, government officials often take the politically safe route and quash new housing options.
“It’s easy for a politician to back affordable housing in principle,” then back away from a specific proposal when opposition emerges, Myrick said.
Myrick spoke about the role of homelessness in his life and the lives of his siblings. He said that affordable housing shouldn’t be thought of as a handout or a form of charity, but an investment in the lives of a city’s citizens.
Then he asked the planning board to do what it thought was right.
The proposal later passed unanimously over strenuous opposition.
‘This is maddening:’ 2 Common Council members fight for their constituents
Both Common Council members who represent the area that encompasses the development strongly opposed it.
Common Council member Cynthia Brock, of the first ward, said environmental concerns about the site had not been properly addressed.
Confusion over the site’s environmental cleanup plan emerged when The Ithaca Voice broke a story about toxins found there. (Those concerns were addressed by the city’s developers last night.)
Brock acknowledged that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation had approved a cleanup plan for the site. But she said the plan was unsatisfactory because some areas of the development will remain contaminated.
“The environmental management plan that was approved by DEC focuses only on the contamination which is under the buildings,” said Brock, who has been at odds with the mayor for months over the development. “It will allow the leaving of contamination in place underneath the playground…”
“This is maddening to me.”
Brock was joined in opposition by Common Council member George McGonigal, also of the first ward. McGonigal began by giving general praise for the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, which is spearheading the project.
“I have the utmost respect for INHS and its staff, many of whom I’ve known for the last 25 years,” McGonigal said.
But McGonigal, like his constituents, said the Stone Quarry Apartment complex was a mistake and a terrible fit for a quiet neighborhood.
“This project is ill-conceived. It is a project designed to meet the criteria of the grants that will fund it, rather than meet the needs of the people of this city and this neighborhood,” McGonigal said.
“The proposed project faces in on itself, not out into the neighborhood. It will be surrounded on three sides by a high fence…”
“…it leads out to an extremely unsafe intersection. If any members of the planning board have not visited this site, I strongly advise them to do so.”
‘INHS does not live in our neighborhood’
Benjamin Kirk lives at 351 Spencer Road, right near the proposed development at 400 Spencer Road.
He’s likely as anyone to be affected by the influx of traffic and people.
And he’s not happy about it.
“INHS does not live in our neighborhood; we do,” said Kirk, according to prepared comments he sent to The Voice. “Why does our opinion about the nature of our own neighborhood count for so little?
Kirk, like a big crowd of other residents of the area, ticked off a long list of reasons for opposing the project: environmental concerns, fear for pedestrian and vehicular safety, worries about high density and its impact on neighborhood character.
Those concerns were also channeled in a bitter speech by Bob Stundtner, who sparred with planning board members over whether he could go over the allotted time limit and implored them to follow their consciences.
“I have never been properly noticed for any of the preceding actions regarding this development,” said Stundtner, a former city official.
“But that isn’t surprising. There is a long history of faulty notice and poor communication for this development.”
“Why has INHS consistently withheld or mischaracterized important and critically relevant information about the development?”
Former Jungle resident speaks out
Unlike last planning board meeting, however, there were several people who spoke out in favor of the development.
One of them was Michael Cannon, a board member of INHS.
“I celebrate the diversity of my neighborhood, and I hope that we can all celebrate the diversity of this neighborhood,” Cannon said.
“…This is a tremendous success for Ithaca.”
Also giving an emotional appeal for the development’s passage was a man who identified himself as a former resident of the Jungle homeless encampment.
“There are so many homeless people” in Ithaca, the man said.
“I don’t think we have to live like that.”
The man said the planning board meeting was a revelation as an opportunity for him to use his experiences to inform the city’s decision-making process.
“I feel I’m bringing my voice here,” he said. “I wish there were a lot of people here who were homeless as well.”
‘We all live in the same city’
After the public comment period was closed, the planning board grappled with having to choose between two fiercely opposed constituencies.
Planning board member McKenzie Jones-Rounds lamented the divisive nature of the fight over the development.
“I stay awake sometimes at night thinking about how difficult this project has been…” Jones-Rounds said by way of introduction.
“We all live in the same city … honestly, it makes me a little bit sad that we’ve been connecting so much on all the negative things.”
Despite Brock’s opposition, the planning board appeared mostly to accept the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s approval of the site’s cleanup plan.
“I’m perfectly willing to challenge experts if I have personal knowledge or expertise … but in this case I don’t have expert knowledge so I’m going to have to trust the DEC and other officials and engineers,” said planning board member John Schroeder.
Another planning board member agreed, but was twice interrupted by shouts from the crowd. The member of the crowd was told he was out of order.
The planning board eventually moved for a series of votes. They carried unanimously.
The fight over Stone Quarry — discussed since at least January 2013 — was over. The vote marked its final approval. (Update: An alderperson has called in to say federal funding could still prove up in the air.)
Still, even some of those who voted for the project weren’t thrilled.
“I have to express and I would like the record to state I don’t believe (the development) fits the character of the neighborhood,” said Isabel Fernández, a planning board member.
After the vote was sealed, the room cleared out.
Some attendees let out disgusted sighs. Others hugged each other and smiled.