ITHACA, N.Y. — At the city of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development meeting last night, it became clear that no one is especially pleased with the final draft of the new waterfront zoning. But, with time running low, they’d rather have something that would be on-time and amendable, vs. something late but incorporates everything the first time around.

It’s a bit like the student who knows his essay could use more polish, but knows he has to turn it in later this afternoon. In this case, the rush is due to the expiring TM-PUD overlay zoning that controls the review process for waterfront projects, and was used to keep the Maguire plan from moving forward. The TM-PUD also led to the Maguire Article 78 lawsuit, which was dropped when Cayuga Medical Center bought the Carpenter property from the Maguires.

The council benefited from a correction that the TM-PUD will expire in September, and not August as initially thought. However, given the legal procedure for circulating zoning amendments and holding committee and full council votes, a change to the waterfront zoning now would have possibly delayed an approval vote on the new zoning to October. That would be after the TM-PUD expires, leaving a legal opening for projects that don’t fit the new zoning. Meanwhile, extending the TM-PUD could lead to a legal challenge.

“We’re only doing it this way because of the TM-PUD. If this were like the Southside plan, this would be at the very end,” said PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward).

However, a number of concerns were stated with the current draft. “I’m still concerned about Waterfront Zoning,” said resident Theresa Alt. “I see no inclusionary zoning, no incentive zoning. Nothing that would make housing more affordable…here in the West End, planners who tout the market elsewhere, throttle the market here, such as prohibiting housing with proximity to industry, and forbidding mobile homes adjacent to where there already are mobile homes. I want to see affirmative steps to put affordable housing there, especially when it isn’t being built in the central business district.”

Likewise, several emailed submissions had criticisms of the code as well – Form Ithaca suggested a number of urban-friendly street and building features, and the Tompkins County Planning Department expressed concerns that having developers build a waterfront walkway on the east edge of Inlet Island would result in a piecemeal approach. A letter from the Wastewater Treatment Plant’s oversight group called for a prohibition on all new housing and legal notices with the sale of any existing housing within 1200 feet of the plant, which would not only affect the Waterfront, but much of Northside and Fall Creek. Unlike the other comments and suggestions, the wastewater plant letter was only briefly noted by the committee, saying that research would be needed and that it would need to be considered in a separate ordinance.

Members of the citizen’s waterfront working group expressed concern that the amendments would be iterative and drag on well after the zoning is in place. In response, Planning Director JoAnn Cornish explained that zoning amendments take so long that they would likely be bundled together as needed. “If there are changes, we’re never gonna move on if we don’t get past this point, because we’re gonna keep revisiting those same issues. If Council wants to see changes, you react to those recommendations, because the committee cannot keep talking about this week after week, it’s not a productive use of time.”

It was also noted by Cornish that several large properties in the city have exchanged or are likely to exchange hands in the near future, so there may be more discussions on zoning as plans like Cayuga Medical’s move forward.

“We’re going into this with our eyes wide open, and there are some very important things we need to do quickly to get us to where we want to be,” said PEDC member Rob Gearhart (D-3rd Ward). Committee member Josephine Martell (D-5th Ward) said she was open to passing the zoning now, but would like a discussion afterwards.

At the end of discussion, the committee voted 3-0, with members Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) and Steve Smith (D-4th Ward) absent, to send the zoning code to the full council next month.

However, things could get dicey in August. The county’s letter forces the city to have a super-majority approval, seven of ten councilmembers would have to vote to approve the code. At least two council members expect to be absent from the meeting, meaning only eight will be present. There won’t be much room for disagreement without shooting down the code and letting the TM-PUD expire without a replacement ready.

Murals, active-use, and closing Ezra’s Tunnel

In other news, the PEDC committee discussed expanding the active-use ordinance that requires high-traffic enterprises on the first-floor of downtown buildings. After some discussion of the 200 Block of South Cayuga, and making sure to leave out historic homes in the adjacent Henry St. John neighborhood, the vote to send to Common Council passed unanimously. The committee also passed a unanimous vote approving a tweak to public oversight roles of HUD affordable housing funds (the city added a Fair Housing measure to ensure multicultural inclusion), and they approved a mural for the city-owned Dryden Road parking garage.

However, one proposal that has been held back for the time being is a plan for 13 new bike racks in the city core (Cornish said 79 designs were submitted, 23 made it to the second round, and the rack fabricator identified which would be easiest to do). During public comment, local activist Fay Gougakis angrily said that paint from the racks would get onto bikes, that the city wasn’t enforcing traffic laws to protect bikers, and after yelling that the councilors were liars and poor stewards of the city, stormed out of the meeting.

Council discussion mostly focused on making sure the Board of Public works and Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee have had their say on the racks before anything is approved. Hence, they held back to give those groups a chance to look at the designs and locations, and provide comment. “I think it’s a really cool idea, but I wanna make sure that other groups have had a chance to have input,” said Gearhart.

The committee also received an update on EPA plans for post-remediation soil sampling at Ithaca Falls to ensure safety and compliance with law, and notice of intent from Cornell to close off the historic and dangerously alluring Ezra’s Tunnel to public access. Ezra’s Tunnel, a two-century old plaster mill tunnel built by Ezra Cornell, leads into the Fall Creek Gorge and the old Ezra Cornell Dam that has been the site of a number of gorge-related casualties and rescues in recent years.

Brian Crandall

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