ITHACA, NY – A little piece of creek-side property at 401 Lake Street became one of the more contentious issues facing Ithaca’s Common Council in recent months, leading to over an hour of discussion and multiple votes on Wednesday.

Council ultimately voted 8-1 to demolish the house on the property and turn the property into a natural area, with Cynthia Brock dissenting.

Here’s some background: the property is located near the north rim of Ithaca Falls. The City of Ithaca purchased the property from Tompkins County for around $25,000. The county had foreclosed on the property after the previous owners stopped paying their taxes.

The city made the purchase with the idea of maintaining its natural areas by preventing development so close to Ithaca Falls. The property contains an 808 square foot home which stood abandoned for several years.

The city then had to decide between two options for what to do with the property:

1 – Destroy the home and zone the area as park land. The demolition would cost up to $25,000, would eliminate the property from the city’s tax rolls and another unit of housing unit from the city’s limited supply.

2 – Sell the home. This would keep the housing unit and taxable property for the city, but would open the possibility of additional development, albeit subject to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

For a more in-depth overview, see our earlier coverage of the issue.

http://ithacavoice.wpengine.com/2016/06/competing-ideas-future-401-lake-street/

Indecision

While the vote was ultimately relatively clear-cut, almost every member of the Common Council expressed that they were torn over the issue.

“To be completely honest, my thoughts on this parcel changes pretty much with every passing ten minutes or so,” said Alderperson Cynthia Brock. Several other echoed her sentiment, saying they had changed their minds multiple times while deliberating on the issue.

Alderperson Seph Murtagh said he’d initially been in favor of demolition, but leaned toward keeping it after visiting the house and seeing that it was salvageable. Murtagh ultimately settled into the demolish camp, because he felt that it was unlikely that if the house were renovated, that it would be creating affordable housing.

Alderpersons Josephine Martell and Graham Kerslick shared the concern that if the house stayed around, it would end up being market-rate housing.

“The sale price might be good, but I see this as a potentially something that’s going to take a lot of investment, to the point that it’ll end up not being affordable house for somebody but actually somebody’s weekend home. I mean, it’s a very attractive site,” said Kerslick.

Alderperson George McGonigal was one of the few who seemed to firmly in one camp, arguing to keep the house intact and put the land for sale. McGonigal noted that the house’s value was estimated at $125,000, and it would cost roughly $25,000 to demolish — added to the loss of taxable property it added up to a not insignificant loss to the city.

It was also pointed out that the plot of land was so small and would require so many zoning variances that a developer tearing down the structure and trying to build something new would be impractical, at best.

Ultimately, more members found themselves taking the “long-term vision” on the issue, and the Council decided that demolishing was the right call.

As Martell put it: “I certainly support long-term vision on this one. I think it’s an investment in the city to take down this house … to right a wrong, I don’t think the house should ever have been there in the first place.”

Demolishing priority

Brock also initially leaned toward keeping the house, saying she was loathe to tax property off the tax rolls.

Later in the discussion, however, she began to oppose the resolution for a different reason.

Clauses that would provide for funding the demolition of the 401 Lake Street house had been added at the last minute. Brock said that since the house wasn’t a safety concern, there were other buildings in the city that should take priority for demolition.

Brock said that there was an old building near the Giles Street that posed an immediately safety risk, as people would jump from the building into the creek below.

Murtagh argued that it was a matter of principle: the city has been pushing property owners to not let their buildings fall into disrepair or go unused. Thus leaving the Lake Street house would be setting a bad example.

The measure ultimately passed 8-1, though it may take some time before the building is actually demolished.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.