This column was written by Brian Crandall, who runs “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.” See here for part I.

To write a response, contact me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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Ithaca, N.Y. — As covered previously, Ithaca’s growing inequality is in part a result of the rapidly rising cost of renting and buying a home in the city. Along with the area’s desirability, issues like zoning, Ithaca’s isolated location and relatively small market limit the number of new housing units that can be built.

But not all of those reasons are beyond the city’s control. For instance, zoning and targeted growth, which is being addressed by the Comprehensive Plan being developed right now (for a background on the Comprehensive Plan, here’s the Voice explainer). Although the Comprehensive Plan doesn’t make any laws or affect change overnight, it’s still extremely important for the guidance it provides.

The Comprehensive Plan is a blueprint that says what is okay and where – where new development should be dense, where the existing neighborhood fabric should be maintained, and so on. After years of work, the draft plan is scheduled to be shared starting around April of this year.

With a new plan firmly in place, a major problem gets reduced – residents and developers bickering over the location of proposed housing developments. The Comprehensive Plan will help save a lot of the time, money and headaches involved with dueling developers and advocacy groups by establishing general guidelines for the scale and type of development appropriate for a neighborhood. It helps ward off new student apartment complexes in Cornell Heights, and advocates development of properties along State Street and the West End, where there is significant potential for urban infill and new housing.

Consider the map above. With the plan in place, if someone is opposing a project for being too dense and it’s in one of the red areas on the map, it would be an uphill battle to thwart the development because it’s against the plan, and the city’s preference by extension. On the other hand, if a developer proposes a towering apartment building in Belle Sherman, he will only be wasting his money on drawings.

Long story short, the hope with the Comprehensive Plan is that some of the ambiguity will be gone, making things a little less contentious, and a quicker, simpler planning process.

The plan can also be used to help guide future changes in zoning, perhaps a form-based plan like the one put into effect for Collegetown last year. The new Collegetown plan and resulting construction boom in Collegetown is helping the inequality in two ways – one, higher tax revenues from new builds will help fill the city’s coffers and lessen the tax burden on full-tine resident John Q. Ithacan (in theory; whether the city decides to use that money provide more services or salary boosts is another discussion). Two, the nearly 600 new bedrooms coming into play means nearly 600 students who wouldn’t otherwise be looking to rent elsewhere and possibly competing with permanent Ithaca residents. Ithaca is still falling short of meeting the growth in demand for student housing, but the influx is welcome.

The new Comprehensive Plan is not a cure-all. The city can’t force anyone to build exactly what it wants in a specific location. It has to make sense from a financial standpoint, and nothing gets planned and built overnight. But the plan will help.

For comparison’s sake, the town of Ithaca just approved a new Comprehensive Plan in 2014, replacing a previous plan from 1993. With a new plan in place, the town was able to use it late last year in their consideration of a cluster of new car dealerships on Route 13. It wasn’t advocated by their plan, and that influenced the town’s decision to be cautious about the project. The car dealershipswere later tabled when the owner/developer requested a zoning change that the town was not amenable towards. This is a good example of how a Comprehensive Plan can exert influence on the decision-making process.

So, here’s the general setup at the start of 2015 – Ithaca is being squeezed by high demand and tight supply that isn’t increasing fast enough to meet demand. The tight housing supply is making the inequality problem worse. The city is taking steps to alleviate some of the problem with its newly-implemented Collegetown form-based zoning, and with a new Comprehensive Plan for the whole city. These don’t provide new housing directly, but they guide it. Ideally, the planning process will become less onerous, leading to new housing that would take some of the pressure off of the market, and allowing prices to stabilize.

On a smaller scale, individual building projects both in the city and the surrounding towns will potentially shake up the market in the next couple years, but that discussion will be saved for Part III.


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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.