Stock photo of the city of Ithaca's neighborhoods

ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca’s Common Council unanimously approved Wednesday its first “Comprehensive Plan” since 1971. The document has no formal regulatory impact, but instead codifies a blueprint for growth in the city — setting out the priorities for development for years to come.

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What are those priorities? The Comprehensive Plan is filled with sentences that may sound vague or obvious; one policy recommendation, for instance, says Ithaca “must pursue more opportunities for dialogue.”

But embedded throughout the document are choices (and, in a way, arguments) about what the city of Ithaca should and should not become.

And on the fundamental question posed in the headline about Ithaca’s essential nature, the document has much to say: It calls for more density in downtown buildings, expanded cultural and retail offerings in the city’s urban core, and significant growth of the city’s population. Some may view that as moving Ithaca too close to resemble a big city.

See related: Ithaca’s ‘comprehensive plan:’ More bureaucracy, or a stab at fixing genuine problems?

But Common Council member Seph Murtagh, who represents the city’s Second Ward, said the perception is unfair — that the city is not building too big, too fast. And the Comprehensive Plan, he said, reflects smart growth that protects the uniqueness of Ithaca’s smaller neighborhoods.

“A concern I’ve heard repeatedly … is that we’re growing too quickly and densifying too quickly,” said Common Council member Seph Murtagh, who represents the city’s Second Ward, about a perception about Ithaca’s recent building spurt.

“I think it’s (part of) … This existential question of, ‘What is Ithaca? Is it a big city or a sleepy college town in upstate New York?’”

Rendering from the Comp Plan

But Murtagh said he did not agree with the criticism that the Common Council and Mayor Svante Myrick have open the floodgates to too much growth in the city.

“I really don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of what is happening or an accurate reflection of this plan,” Murtagh said of this line of criticism. “It does seem balanced to me; I think it’s trying to grow responsibly.”

See related: Women, minorities crucial to new blueprint for Ithaca’s future

But other Council members sounded a different note, expressing a far greater degree of concern that the desire for densification of the city was somehow altering its essential small-town character.

“I like living in a small, uncrowded city,” said Common Council member Donna Fleming, who represents the city’s Third Ward. “The city of Ithaca will always be a cultural hub; adding more people will not make it so.”

Fleming called the Comprehensive Plan a “great outline of all aspects of planning” and said it’s “an important and valuable and very clear document.”

“I was disturbed, however, by the frequent reference for the need for growth,” she said. “…We should be careful to think of what kind of growth we seek and why.”

Similarly, Common Council member Cynthia Brock had some doubts about the plan — she said it had been cited as a justification for the Stone Quarry Apartment project, which she opposed as too big and dense for a residential neighborhood.

“It spoke to me of the dangers of it,” she said of the Comprehensive Plan.

Common Council member George McGonigal also raised doubts about whether the emphasis on growing and building in the city would actually drive out low- and middle-income residents. (Mayor Svante Myrick and others have said that more housing units will drive down prices by increasing the overall housing stock, and the discussion over the Comprehensive Plan represents something of a repetition from this discussion.)

“I would argue that this densification can actually lead to sprawl, because people can’t afford to live here anymore and then they move out to the country,” he said.

“As you become more densified, property values go up; every piece of property is worth more money, and that makes it more difficult for working people to pay their taxes on these much more valuable properties.”

But if McGonigal, Brock and Fleming worried about the impacts of expanded density, it did not stop them from voting the plan.

Mayor Svante Myrick, who supported the plan, said he thinks the “magic” of Ithaca — the reason people live here — could be maintained even with adding a few thousand housing units in the city.

“I think you could have a magical city of 32,000 people,” he said.

“You’re not just putting up bricks; you’re creating more community. You’re not just adding more people … you’re adding more Ithacans.”

And Common Council member Steve Smith, who represents Ithaca’s Fourth Ward, agreed that growth could be done in a smart way that does not undermine Ithaca’s nature.

“We need to find the places we will tolerate growth … and put it there, so it’s not changing the fabric of our neighborhoods,” Smith said, “or undermining the cultural mix that makes it such a vibrant place.”

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Jeff Stein

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