ITHACA, N.Y. — City planners are working on a long-term vision for the future of Ithaca called a “comprehensive plan.” An Ithaca-based firm of urban planners have been awarded a state grant to rewrite our zoning laws – an integral part of the city’s future plan.

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Can the two coexist in harmony?

“Form Ithaca,” a collaboration of local professionals founded in 2012, was awarded $175,000 by NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) in September 2014.

They presented their work to the City’s Planning and Economic Development Committee last week, and will run meetings in early June gathering input from community leaders.

City officials are concerned about this schedule.

“Right now, we are focusing on completing phase one of our comprehensive plan, so Form Ithaca’s timing is a bit off,” says JoAnn Cornish, Director of Planning and Development for Ithaca.

“While we are proposing acceptance of a land use plan, we have not yet begun to consider, in detail, what direction zoning will take to implement the plan.  That will come in phase two after phase one has been adopted, hopefully by the end of 2015.”

Building a comprehensive plan

It is no simple task to build a city’s comprehensive plan.  Ithaca’s has not been overhauled since 1971 and the plan should provide a vision that will serve Ithaca for decades, which is why it has taken the past seven years to draft.

“I think of it this way, Form Ithaca’s plan is more of an academic exercise while the City’s Comprehensive Plan will guide policy for the next 20 years,” says Cornish.

“Form Ithaca’s work is completely independent from that of the City’s Comprehensive Plan,” she adds. “It is not in conflict but neither is it sitting ‘hand in glove’.  It is unusual for a private firm to take on this type of initiative independent of the municipality for which it is planning. We are trying to keep the two plans separate to avoid confusion.”

Still, Cornish says, “The city very much appreciates the study being conducted by Form Ithaca. They are a group of very smart, talented planners doing work that the City may benefit from at some point in the future.”

Why is a zoning overhaul needed?

Under Ithaca’s current zoning laws, almost half the city’s buildings are deemed “illegal.”

The mixture of Greek Revival, Victorian and Arts and Crafts architecture – what makes our town so charming — could not be rebuilt in the event of a catastrophe. A rewrite of city zoning regulations is imperative, says David West, one half of Randall + West, a firm that specializes in “evidence-based” urban and regional planning.

West and his partner C.J. Randall, both 2011 graduates from Cornell’s Department of City and Regional Planning, are one part of Form Ithaca, along with STREAM Collaborative, an Ithaca based firm of architects, and Better Cities and Towns, a non-profit group that champions mixed use urban development.

“Our idea for the future of Ithaca is to ensure that what Ithacans love is preserved and repeated. This town could not be replaced as the zoning laws stand,” says West.

He and Randall have asked neighborhood groups and sustainability initiatives to take an active role in the re-write.  The plans promote walkability over car dependency and sustainable development that would, naturally, reduce carbon emissions.

When the car was king

It was this that attracted the attention of NYSERDA.

The pair say that the rules governing many cities in Upstate New York, including Ithaca, date back as far as the 1950s and 1960s. This was an era when the car was king and the urban landscape decentralized into strip malls and suburbs, segregated by use and income. Urban developers believed at the time — perhaps rightly — that the car was paramount to citizens’ lives.

The metrics that govern current building rules include distance from the sidewalk, rules on sufficient space for cars, a minimum space between buildings (again, to ensure car accessibility) and lot size. “The current metrics don’t add up to the character of our city,” says Randall.

Surely there is a place for the vehicle in today’s cities? Don’t city merchants still rely on suburban car traffic for customers?

Randall points out a 2012 study in Portland, Oregon, that showed both cyclists and pedestrians spend more per visit at bars, restaurants and stores.

“The hallmark of a great city is to get people out of their cars as swiftly as possible,” she says.

“These all happen to be major drivers (ahem) of walkability,” says Randall. “This is known as the green dividend.

“A city cannot be all things to all people. But a city that mollifies the suburbs does so at a cost (see: the City of Rochester); tearing down buildings to accommodate suburban commuters with surface parking lots erodes good urbanism quickly.” Randall notes that even dedicated drivers start each trip as a pedestrian.

“City living is hot again,” she says. “The flight to the suburbs has reversed and more and more people are looking for a walkable, livable urban lifestyle.”

Demolishing the arcane rules of the past

Ithaca already has the credentials to be that kind of town. Ithacans are an outdoorsy, social lot: there isn’t a month that goes by where there isn’t host an outdoor event, walking tour or street party.

The rewrite has to strike a balance between protecting Ithaca’s open spaces, while also maximizing the use of commercial areas. This takes input from local sustainability organizations, such as the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), Sustainable Tompkins, TCAT Bus, Ithaca Car Share and Way2Go, a Cornell sponsored public transportation cooperative.

While “the best urban planning happens organically,” says Randall, some rules do have to be in place. Or, rather, new rules that demolish the arcane rules of the past.

Randall says that as a student of urban planning, Copenhagen in Denmark is often looked to as an example of an anti-car, pro-pedestrian beacon of perfection: the kind of capital all cities aspire to be one day.  “The motto [for urban planners] in Copenhagen,” she says, “is ‘do the ducks feel safe?’”

Of any tension with the city, West says, “I’ll reiterate: our goal is to deliver a Form Based Code to the City and Town of Ithaca, with broad stakeholder support, that aligns development regulations with the community vision articulated in each municipality’s comprehensive plan.”

Seph Murtagh, member of the Common Council and Chair of the City’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, suggested a middle ground.

“There are lots of people in Ithaca who are interested in the subject of zoning: activists, academics, planning professionals, and ordinary citizens,” he says.

“These folks are free to form organizations, advocate for their causes, and apply for any grants they want. In the case of Form Ithaca, there is overlap with the city’s vision – – such as walkable neighborhoods and reducing greenhouse gases. I’ve found their work to be interesting and enlightening. I’m excited to see what they produce.”


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Melissa Whitworth

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at mwhitworth@ithacavoice.com or click on the icons in the top right for more.