This is an opinion piece written by Anna Kelles, a Cornell University Faculty member and 2nd District Tompkins County Legislator. It was not written by, nor is it endorsed by, The Ithaca Voice. To submit an opinion piece, contact us at tips@ithacavoice.com.

Last week the county presented the most recent housing study. Not only does it show that we have a very low vacancy rate but that we are lacking in many categories including affordable housing, 1 and 2-bedroom units, single-family homes, and owner-occupied options.

The study projects an increase in students, retirees, and young professionals expected to move to Tompkins County (to the City of Ithaca in particular). The concern here is that the rate of increase in demand far exceeds the rate of increase in housing stock that we can expect to see in the decades to come given current development trends (particularly of mixed income options).

Job opportunities in this city are expected to continue to rise steadily adding pressure to the existing pressure cooker of a housing shortage that we are already in.

There are few large open areas left in the city for substantial developments that are not infills. Carpenter Business Park is part of the Waterfront & Inlet Island neighborhood as outlined in the General Neighborhood Map (Figure 11.1) in the City of Ithaca’s comprehensive plan.

This neighborhood has been marked in the plan as a focus area for further analysis to determine its best use in the context of the goals of the comprehensive plan including increased quantity and diversity of housing options in a manner that increases walkability, promotes mixed-use development, and reduces the impact of parking.

The comprehensive plan states goals to emphasize waterfront activity, promote public access to the waterfront, and enhance and preserve any environmentally sensitive areas (e.g. the waterfront).

Blacktopping nearly 9 acres of land in the Waterfront and Inlet Island neighborhood completely counters these goals. People do not go to a car dealership to have lunch at a cafe. People do not go to a car dealership to relax and enjoy the scenery of the lake. People go to a car dealership to test cars, buy cars, and fix cars.

Converting this land — which has great potential as a mixed-use neighborhood where people can live, work, walk, and play in the same area and that fits with the comprehensive plan in every way — into a sea of cars will be a profound loss to our community.

It will permanently remove a large area in the city that could help solve one of our biggest crises — housing — and blacktop what could be a model green neighborhood we can be proud of.

To address some of the criticisms of a mixed-use neighborhood development on this land:

  • People say the NYSDOT depot is a barrier but we know the NYSDOT is actively exploring alternate locations within the county.
  • There are concerns that the train tracks are a large barrier to people wanting to live on this lot, yet all along east shore we have houses that are only feet from the tracks and these houses do not have any vacancy problems.
  • The soil in the Waterfront & Inlet Island neighborhood is poor and could not support real development. Previous studies on this site show that the land could support up to three-story developments. Even accounting for the NYSEG right of way and adjusting for the fact that zoning will only allow a percentage of the remaining land to be developed, a substantial amount of housing and small commercial development could be built on this land. Any housing given our current crisis is better than no housing, as per the Maguire proposal for a vast inventory of car storage. This is an opportunity for the City to use zoning to encourage the type of development the community wants to see.

Lastly the property tax, sales tax revenue, and job creation potential from a comprehensive mixed-use development with up to three-story buildings, including local commercial enterprises, offices, diverse housing, and walkable streets providing close access to the community gardens and farmer’s market in every way out-competes the statistics for a large car dealership. There is interest from the city for this to happen and there are alternate projects that have been discussed that align with the current comprehensive plan.

I respect the Maguire family and appreciate their contributions to the community, but I respectfully disagree that a car dealership — regardless of the green roofs, solar panels, cafes, money to the community gardens, and sidewalk construction — can be rendered net sustainable.

I applaud Maguire for their initiative with these ideas and hope that they and all dealerships make these steps to begin to counter their impact on the environment. However, this proposal does nothing to address the car-centric culture the comprehensive plan seeks to deemphasize and certainly does not create the inviting waterfront mixed-use neighborhood that we have one shot right now to create.

I hope that Common Council stays true to the comprehensive plan that the community has worked so hard to help our government create and rejects this proposal for the waterfront development. We can and will do better for our community. The southern entrance to our city via route 13 is already awash with big box stores. Let’s not lose our only other gateway to this community when it has so much potential to be the scenic inviting vision outlined and emphasized in the comprehensive plan.

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