Editor’s Note 8/21: This story was originally published in August 2014 and is being republished here to run with a series of stories on Zoning in Ithaca.

The City of Ithaca continues to discuss the comprehensive plan and recently moved it out of committee. It is expected to be voted on soon by the Ithaca Common Council.

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Ithaca, N.Y. — Ithaca is now moving forward with its first “comprehensive plan” in more than 40 years.

What does this important-sounding title really mean? And what does it mean for growth in the city of Ithaca?


Here’s 5 questions and 5 answers about Ithaca’s plans for a comprehensive plan. Click on the question to find your answer.

1 – What is a comprehensive plan? Is it just more government bureaucracy?
2 – Why does the city need a new comprehensive plan?
3 – Just how do they plan on making this plan?
4 – Sum up the issues for me. I didn’t come here for long PDFs
5 – Okay, so what does the community want? What are the big changes?

(Did we miss your question? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.)

1 – What is a comprehensive plan? Is it just more government bureaucracy?

Kinda? A comprehensive plan is the overarching theme for a city and its neighborhoods.  It’s not as specific as zoning is, but it helps determine what zoning should be, given the city’s concerns, desires and goals.

So, yes, it is more documentation, but it’s also allowing the community to determine the “forest” to be created by its “trees.” The plan helps to decide whether a project is appropriate for an area because the planning board and zoning board will understand the desires for a given location. Used effectively, it may actually save time and mental energy in the long run by establishing a basic framework (e.g., developers will know that the chances of building a massive apartment building in Fall Creek are pretty low).


Back to the questions

2 – Why does the city need a new comprehensive plan?

The old one dates from 1971. A time when computers were the size of rooms, green was just a color and not a cute term for ecologically sensitive, and the Brady Bunch epitomized the way many wanted to live, in a posh contemporary in the suburbs with a Plymouth Satellite wagon in the garage.

Times, and Ithaca itself, have changed. The plan has been amended in bits and pieces, but given its age, it needs a big overhaul, such that a new plan would be the easier option at this point.

Back to the questions

3 – Just how do they plan on making this plan?

In two parts: Phase I involves the preparation of a city-wide plan that identifies a vision and future goals for the community, and Phase II will include the creation of individual neighborhood or thematic plans, based on Phase I’s results.

Committees, focus groups, surveys, meetings with community members, the whole years-long shebang. The current state of affairs can be found located here, and the current planning issues (using community input) is here. A 277-page PDF discussing environmental issues and goals for the plan is here. A draft of the plan, a mere 16 pages, can be viewed here.

Back to the questions

4 – Sum up the issues for me. I didn’t come here for PDFs

Parking’s a problem, and people want more walkable neighborhoods. Ithaca is expensive and only getting worse. Development pressures are threatening Ithaca’s historic structures, but the development process is too onerous for most folks to even bother with trying, vacant lot or otherwise. More jobs that aren’t colleges or retail. Protect the gorges and other local, natural amenities.

Back to the questions

5 – So what does the community want? What are the big changes?

Under consideration, we have a bunch of overarching themes. Here’s a map:

Ithaca loves itself some compact, mixed-use developments. If it fits that criterion and it also fits the area, the city wants it. Surface parking lots (231 acres) and vacant parcels (194) comprise just under 10% of the land in the city, and a number of these are what the city hopes to be appealing to developers (if the RFEI for the county library is any clue, the interest is there).

Many of the currently developed parcels should be protected – homes in Cornell Heights, Belle Sherman and Fall Creek, for examples. The red spans above are what the city sees as areas for new, dense development – underutilized parcels downtown and on West State, the large swath of big-box land in the southwest, and the frequently-flooding land to the west of big-box land (the city hopes to fix that with dredged soils to raise the land).  Some accommodation for local commercial spaces is created with the “Neighborhood Mixed-Use” land use option. The final plan linked above notes the challenges with each neighborhood, and the desired changes moving forward.

The asterisks denote focus areas, areas the city wants sees significant and unique development opprotunities. There are four – Emerson (which is now in the earliest stages of redevelopment),  the flood-prone/retail-heavy southwest part of the city, the large undeveloped swaths of West Hill, and the Waterfront/Inlet Island. All are seen as very underutilized – all present unique opportunities to significantly expand housing and commercial options, if a developer is willing to fight the adverse factors and work with the city.

Jeff Stein

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