ITHACA, NY – In lieu of compiling our own list, we asked Ithaca’s Common Council (as well as the two outgoing alderpersons) to weigh in on what issues or stories had the most impact or held the most personal investment for them in 2015.
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The plan was to compile the responses into a top ten list like we’ve been doing for other parts of the site. However, asking 12 different people to provide a few ideas each doesn’t yield the even distribution you might think.
So instead, this article will include a somewhat loose top 6 list and then a slew of honorable mentions. Without further ado:
1 – Development in Ithaca
It should come as no surprise that development in Ithaca was a big issue for almost everyone on Common Council. Several different projects were named, with the controversial 210 Hancock Redevelopment getting the most mentions, followed by the the State Street Triangle project and the Old Library redevelopment.
Rather than summarizing all of those issues here, refer back to Brian Crandall’s Top 10 stories about Ithaca development in 2015, posted earlier this week, where he covers them all in detail.
The Council members took some different stances toward the developments, with the fourth ward’s Graham Kerslick and Stephen Smith expressing excitement about the recent zoning changes allowing development in Collegetown to finally get underway.
Kerslick said the development was a “long time coming,” due to zoning issues, adding: “We didn’t get it exactly right but based on the projects going ahead, people were clearly waiting for it and once we balanced needs of neighborhoods with needs for housing, they went ahead.”
Second ward Alderperson Seph Murtagh said that the year brought forth a lot of interesting discussions about the pace of development and questions of how dense the city and its populace want development to be.
First ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock took a reserved approach to the issue. Brock says she’s long been concerned that Ithaca gives consideration to its “industrial legacy,” taking time to ensure that housing and development are in areas that are safe and appropriate for people. Brock cited Nate’s Floral Estates as an example of why care must be taken.
2 – The Commons Redesign
The Commons redesign may technically fit in with the Development category above, but it got enough individual mentions that it warranted its own spot on the list.
Most who brought it up seemed at least relieved, if not excited, that it was completed.
Outgoing third ward Alderperson Ellen McCollister took a somewhat critical stance, saying, “There’s a lot to be proud of here but there were also some negatives, such as the impact of delays on merchants in the ever-changing retail environment. There was also the issue of the unintended visual impact of the traffic signal arms blocking the ‘Ithaca Commons’ signs at each of the entrances.”
McCollister also brought up that the recent additions of “ugly metal barricades and ‘No Vehicle Traffic’ signs at each entrance are also unfortunate. After all the City did to reopen the sight-lines through the Commons with the new design, these clumsy add-ons block the sight-lines and are very unwelcoming!”
3 – The Affordable Housing Crisis
Another that issue that could reasonably fit under the development umbrella, the affordable housing issue also bears special mention, with council members such as Kerslick looking forward to it as the big issue to dig deep into in 2016.
Rob Gearhart, who will be replacing McCollister in the third ward, said, “We need to consider smart ways to meet that demand, creating a small city environment that fits with the character of Ithaca, and also does so in ways that will alleviate the growing financial burden of housing for all residents.”
The other newcomer to the council, Ducson Nguyen, also expressed that housing was a huge priority for him, with the lack of housing being one of the most common complaints he heard while campaigning.
4 – Controversial and Contested Elections
With a couple of upset victories in the Tompkins County Legislature, the 2015 election season in Ithaca was unusually dramatic.
Nguyen said that, aside from the surprises from the legislature elections, this year’s elections were also notable due to the fact that some of the seats – including Mayor Svante Myrick’s – were contested at all.
5 – Police and Safety Issues
With issues of police misconduct making national headlines, the ongoing changes to the Ithaca Police Department were important to a number of Council members – particularly the decision requiring IPD to start using body cameras.
Nguyen offered some praise for how the city has been handling community-police relations, highlighting events like the Southside BBQ and the “coffee with the police chief and mayor” events that were held in 2015.
Nguyen, as well as fifth ward Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff, also mentioned the inquiries into consolidation of services between Ithaca Police Department and the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office.
First Ward Alderperson George McGonigal also specifically mentioned the West Hill district’s problems with drugs and crimes, saying that his top priority in 2015 and on into 2016 will be to improve quality of life for people in that area.
6 – The Cascadilla Boat Club
This one seemed to make the list based on how surprising controversial it ended up becoming.
Third ward Alderperson Donna Fleming said, “I suspect that very few people outside the club or Council even knew about this or felt one way or the other about it but it consumed a lot of Council’s time.”
However, it did dovetail into a broader issues. First ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who was a primary opponent of the boathouse licensing agreement, said that “ensuring that our public park resources are fully accessible to all members of the community,” became a big issue for her, based on this controversy.
Here are a few other stories that stood out to individual Council members:
New third ward Alderperson Rob Gearhart said that the backyard chicken issue caught his ear because it “got citizens engaged” – the sort of engagement he hopes to foster during his time on the Council.
“While I was canvassing for signatures this summer our Belle Sherman/Bryant Park listserv was abuzz with messages in response to coverage around this issue, so there was lots of opportunity to hear about it from the residents in our ward,” said Gearhart. “I’ll admit that most were against the idea – including me – but I’m happy to see that what seems like a well-designed pilot proposal is being contemplated.”
“The continuing debate over proposed changes to the little park at Ithaca Falls; such a lot of controversy for such a small site!,” said Donna Fleming. “I think I feel strongly about it because it symbolizes the tension between the Ithaca that is expanding and modernizing and trying to attract tourists and developers and the Ithaca that wants to remain a hidden treasure and just a little funky and rough around the edges.”
Brock also mentioned Ithaca Falls, although in a different context. For Brock, the main concern is ensuring that the falls continues to be evaluated and remediated following the lead contamination that was found there.
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