ITHACA, N.Y. — At the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Committee last Wednesday, the city’s Planning Department gave all in attendance a sampling of the crockpot of planning work currently stewing in their office.

Since the completion of Phase I of the Comprehensive Plan last year, the department has turned their focus to three core topics to start off the neighborhood-specific parts of the plan, known as Phase II. The two neighborhood plans judged most important to get underway were for the Southside and Waterfront neighborhoods, and the third core topic focuses on housing strategy and the state of the housing market in the city.

Southside and Waterfront Plans

The plans are important because they’re supposed to figure out what a neighborhood is doing well, what a neighborhood is lacking, and setting forth a plan that helps to fill in some of the deficiencies while preserving or enhancing the good aspects of the neighborhood. This could include areas where streets should be widened or reduced, areas with redevelopment potential to help alleviate housing issues, or identifying a neighborhood’s historic buildings.

The Southside Plan has long been hanging in limbo. It began work in the mid 2000s during the Peterson administration as the “Southside Flowering Plan”, but it was never completed.  Director of Planning Joann Cornish was pleased to report that the Southside plan is once again coming along. The department worked with Cornell City and Regional Planning Professor Jen Minner and her class, who examined the 2006 draft and looked for where it was in alignment with Comprehensive Plan, determine where there were gaps in analysis, and fill in those missing sections. The Southside Plan was the number one priority for Phase II, and Cornish reported that the class has just submitted their draft, a review committee is being put together, and the city hopes to kick off the public review process in the next month or so. Quoting Cornish, “Thanks to Cornell CRP, we appreciate all the work that was done.”

Also underway, but not as far along is the Waterfront Plan. The department has been putting together a summary what needs to be done, the area of analysis has been demarcated, and the department is going through previous plans to try and figure out what’s relevant to today’s economic and real estate climate. “We’ve spent a lot of money studying the waterfront the years, we don’t want plans to just sit on a desk, we would love to pull together a plan written in house, and have a plan to recommend for rezoning by the end of the year,” said Cornish.

The city of Ithaca’s Housing Strategy

By far the most debated topic of the three was the housing strategy. There are two housing studies currently underway – the county’s, which is due out in late July, and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) has just launched a more specific housing study for downtown. Both are working with the Danter Company, who completed a previous housing study for the DIA in 2012. Cornish remarked the county’s study received over 4,500 responses in its community survey, which was “unbelievable” since the county expected to receive a fraction of that.

It has only been a few years since the previous downtown study, but according to Cornish, “we are seeing some shift in supply and demand that we haven’t seen in a long time, due to new projects coming online. Some of the things’ the city would be interested in knowing is how many accessory units or carriage houses have been created, what exists, projected trends…how the city can influence growth of the housing market in the more affordable range.”

Councilwoman Cynthia Brock (D-1st) asked if there was an effort to count existing and new bedrooms, expressing concerns that existing housing could add 1,000 bedrooms without changing the total number of housing units. Cornish replied that it might be possible, but she would question its accuracy because over the years, many conversions of living spaces to bedrooms have occurred without building permits.

Brock also gave what was perhaps the most provocative comment. “I’ve often speculated to myself that our zoning changes have contributed to the unaffordability of the city basically, by increasing heights, we increase market value of properties and make them worth more. Is there a way we can look at parcel values whose zoning height has been increased?”

Cornish says it could be looked at. “Part of the hope is that by offering more housing types, it frees up other housing stock, increasing the vacancy rate and forcing the market to respond by lowering prices, or renovating.”

Other councilmen also explored questions related to Brock’s speculation. Councilman Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) asked “[i]f it’s true there are more vacancies and the market is changing, will that ultimately translate into a change of the [tax] assessments?” Councilman Graham Kerslick (D-4th) noted “part of the factor is, what is the market rate for that building, which is dependent on location”. Kerslick argued properties neighboring upzoned parcels could actually go down in value, if demand in a certain neighborhood is being met and the price a property can ask for drops. Murtagh, specifically regarding downtown, added that part of the perception is that downtown is a nice place to be – being lively and vibrant drives desire to live there, and that could create more competition for housing. When Brock once again asked if zoning changes are making Ithaca unaffordable, Cornish replied that “we could discuss this all night, there’s a counter to that”.

The body of academic work looking at the zoning and affordability topic backs Cornish up – although there are many factors to consider when determining how zoning impacts affordability, if everything is kept equal, more stringent, lower-density zoning does tend towards less affordability.

As the update wrapped up, Cornish quipped to the committee, “We have a lot going on, but it’s all good.”

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.