ITHACA, N.Y. — Twenty-one years ago, Phoebe Brown moved to Ithaca from Harlem in New York City.

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She was able to live in a location near Ithaca’s Falls — a significant upgrade in housing, she said, from where she lived in Harlem.

“To come from some place where you think you’ll never be able to get somewhere decent to live, it means a whole lot,” Brown said. “I can go home and not feel bad about myself … I feel good about my home.”

Opinion: There’s lots to like in design of new Ithaca housing development

Brown joined a large group of speakers at Ithaca’s City Hall on Tuesday night who backed the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Service’s proposed affordable housing project in the city’s Northside.

About 30 people attended the meeting, and most — though not all — appeared at the Ithaca planning board meeting to voice their support of the INHS project.

So, what’s the project?

INHS is converting a vacant lot that once housed a grocery store at 210 Hancock Street into an affordable housing development, and it looks like the project — if approved — would be completed in 2020.

Proposed rendering of the INHS project.

As Brian Crandall reported in February: The apartments call for about 50 1 and 2-bedroom units, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 for-sale townhouses.

It’s also envisioned to be a mixed-use site, and would therefore include about 8,200 sq feet or rentable commercial space in three spaces (proposed at 1,800, 2,500 and 3,900 sq ft, for a total of 8,200 sq ft).

The apartment buildings will be 65,000 sq ft, 4 stories and 48′ tall (zoning max 4 stories/50′). The demolition of a one-story office building (built 1975) and a vacant grocery store (built 1957) will be required.

Total construction cost is anticipated to be about $13.8 million.

Speakers at City Hall back project

A series of speakers supporting the project, including Brown, talked Tuesday night about the well-documented crisis in high rents in Ithaca.

Brown called gentrification the “elephant in the room” and said that the proposal would represent a step toward ensuring that low-income residents can afford to live in Ithaca.

Related: New report shows just how hard poor must work to live in Ithaca

Common Council member Seph Murtagh — who represents the 2nd Ward, where the project would go — said that he was a “strong supporter” of the project.

“It can be extremely challenging to find affordable housing in Ithaca,” Murtagh said. “This shouldn’t be a community that’s only for the wealthy.”

Similar endorsements were given Tuesday by speakers like Ithaca Pastor Ronald Benson, whose church is right by the proposed site.

“I think building affordable housing for people who want to live in Ithaca is a wonderful idea,” Benson said. “I’d like to see affordable housing across the street from where I pastor, and I think it’s a great project.”

Criticism of project

But at least two residents spoke out against the project.

Trevor McDonald, who lives across the street from the proposed site, said that the project was opposed by the neighbors.

“Nobody I’ve talked to is excited about a 4-story building,” McDonald said, while stressing that he also supports low-income housing. “I think this project is an opportunity, but I don’t think this design is the best we can do.”

Ithaca resident Bob Sherman, who also noted he thinks high rents are a serious problem in Ithaca, expressed stronger opposition to the project.

“The real problem is that wages are stagnant here,” he said. “It’s an untenable situation that lowering rents will not address.”

Sherman said the project was “over the zoning limit and totally out of character” with the neighborhood.

He also said the renderings released by INHS suggested a false image of what the finished project would look like — and criticized the non-profit for, he said, misrepresenting parts of the project to him.

“INHS has not been dealing in good faith with the community,” Sherman said about the “abomination” of a project.

INHS, planning board respond

After the public hearing, both INHS staff and planning board members discussed the project.

“I don’t think INHS has acted in anything but the best possible faith,” said Scott Reynolds, director of real estate development for INHS.

While acknowledging that even INHS rents remain too high for some residents, he defended the non-profit’s work and thanked those who supported the project.

John Schroeder, a member of the Ithaca planning board, said he agreed with those who spoke about the importance of creating affordable housing — and also said he liked much of the design of the project itself, particularly its proposed extension of Conley Park on the city’s Northside.

“It’s finally beginning to use Cascadilla Creek as a resource,” Schroeder said. “It’s starting to use that potential. It’s an extraordinary element.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.