Editor’s Note: The following guest column was submitted by Julee Johnson, president of the board of directors for Historic Ithaca.

Johnson is writing about a controversial 11-story building proposal for the Trebloc site, a block away from the Ithaca Commons. Read additional coverage on that issue here.

Submit guest columns anytime to jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — In response to Gary Ferguson’s opinion piece on October 7, “Downtown Ithaca: The Role of Urban Density,” Historic Ithaca would like to offer a deeper examination of this critical issue, especially as it pertains to the redevelopment of the Trebloc site.

All advocates of smart growth are in agreement that urban sprawl must be curtailed and energy must be directed to creating walkable, sustainable, and equitable cities. But as writers like Kaid Benfield have pointed out, “not all urban density is created equal.” This is the point that Mr. Ferguson glosses over when discussing the proposed Campus Advantage proposal for the Trebloc site.

There are obvious benefits to urban density, but it’s important to understand that density as a tool cannot be applied in an identical fashion to any given site without due consideration of several important elements, chief among them being a site’s existing context and scale. Simply put, the crucial design issue is appropriate density for each particular urban site. When we consider the issue of appropriate density, this is precisely why the proposed 11-story project is too large for its site.

The large majority of buildings across the street in the Downtown Commons and on the immediate block of Aurora and East State Streets all stand between three and six stories. In December 2010, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the very organization for which Mr. Ferguson serves as executive director, presented their Downtown Ithaca 2020 Strategic Plan. On page 29 of this document, an image of a 6-story building is shown on the same site under discussion—the Trebloc site. This proposition was reasonable, with a building of appropriate size and scale to its neighbors. Why now would Mr. Ferguson not see this six-story building as “appropriate density” and instead advocate for 11 stories?

Seattle developer and urban policy consultant Liz Dunn (Hon. AIA) has written that reductions in vehicle miles traveled are “achieved at densities of 50 units per acre and above,” and our urban sites with existing two-and three-story buildings “already have the capacity for 50-100 units per acre if converted to housing above the street.” Given these numbers, it is possible for a six-story building on the Trebloc site to address concerns about sprawl and promote reasonable urban density.

Let’s have a more thoughtful and considered discussion of what urban density is and how it can be best achieved for Ithaca at the Trebloc site and elsewhere downtown. To be clear, we support the appropriate redevelopment of this site and believe it is possible with a six-story building or a mixed-height, six- and seven-story building. We also support the addition of new and affordable housing units in Ithaca. This prominent triangular site demands a well-designed building that fits with the urban context and fabric of the city.

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Jeff Stein

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