ITHACA, NY – As one of the biggest development projects Ithaca has seen in decades, the proposed Chain Works district will be under a lot of scrutiny from city planners and residents.

All the usual issues associated with major developments have been touched on, such as impacts on traffic, the environment and public services. The Chain Works project team has also been asked to provide answers on a topic that comes up less frequently, but is still important to many in Ithaca: gentrification.

On Tuesday, the Chain Works project team and Ithaca Planning Board reviewed the comments on the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS), a document that examines the potential impacts of a project.

A series of comments in the DGEIS asked the Chain Works team to address the potential gentrification that could be caused by adding more than nine hundred new market rate residential units.

The Chain Works team’s initial response argued that the project would actually help combat gentrification, as it would be adding so many new units to the housing supply. It also stated that, by the traditional definition of gentrification — current residents being displaced by new, wealthier residents — did not apply, since no one currently lives in the area.

The Chain Works team also compared other properties for sale in Ithaca and concluded that property values on South Hill near Chain Works were generally higher than in other places in the city. Since gentrification generally refers to lower-value properties being renovated to draw wealthier tenants, they concluded that the area did not “lend itself to gentrification.”

This prompted a discussion of what gentrification actually means. Planning Board member Mark Darling pointed out that on South Hill, it was becoming increasingly common for landlords to buy single-family or duplex homes and convert them into student rental properties. It’s not exactly gentrification by the classic definition, but it does mean the displacement of owner-occupied homes in Ithaca.

“You’re going to create another alternative for students, which means it may, in fact, reduce gentrification if you want to call it that,” Darling said. “I’m seeing this project and some of the larger projects as presenting the opportunity for a shift in focus in South Hill.”

Assuming that the Chain Works project is approved, the full build-out will take at least a decade to complete, which means we may be waiting a long time to see its real impact.

The theory seems sound, at least. According to the Washington Post, the basic economics of supply and demand still work in a housing crisis. Even if affordable housing isn’t being built, a large influx of new market-rate residential units like Chain Works may encourage competition and help bring rents down, or at least keep them stable.

(Featured photo: Chain Works District concept artwork courtesy of Unchained Properties LLC)

Michael Smith

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