ITHACA, N.Y. — There was much discussion and debate at the Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting, when a rehashing of sore spots occupied much of the meeting’s length.

The Common Council’s 5-5 split on the historic designation of the Chacona Block at 411-415 College Avenue (and subsequent tie vote break by the mayor to swat down the designation) percolated through the discussion as the PEDC discussed revised submitted guidelines for historic designation on behalf of the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council (ILPC).

“It is a taking of rights away from the property owner, a taking of rights to do as they choose. That is a bigger responsibility than just meeting criteria,” said councilwoman Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward).

“I reject to saying its taking,” said Bryan McCracken, the city’s historic preservation planner.

“If they had a right before, and they don’t after, technically it’s a taking, a taking of rights,” Brock responded.

The ILPC had reviewed their guidelines after the council’s recent Collegetown votes, and offered amendments and additions to broaden the reasons for which landmarking may be pursued. An additional stipulation, saying that there must be sufficient existing historic integrity, was also proposed to try and limit eligibility and hold applicants to a high standard.

The crux of the debate hinged on what the ILPC looks at, and what the council considers in its vote. The ILPC and McCracken felt it was inappropriate to take current ownership and economics into consideration. The Common Council felt differently.

“My problem is that we only have these binary decisions to make,” said Donna Fleming (D-3rd). “There needs to be a protection for an in-between…what we have now puts us in a terrible bind.” Fleming offered a rough guideline of “unprotected, little protected, and highly protected/don’t touch it”. It would have options like saving the façade but not a building, or interior preservation with or without exterior protections.

City planning director JoAnn Cornish mused over the designation of the Larkin Building at 403 College Avenue, and the failure of Chacona a month later. “It felt like with Student Agencies [owners of the Chacona Block] that there was a lot of political pressure – they were calling council members, they had a lot of money…Avramis [owner of the Larkin Building] didn’t have that. It felt unbalanced.”

“I think it was really political, it was a really divided vote. I don’t remember our other votes being that contentious,” said Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd).

“The first project (the Larkin Building) shouldn’t have made it out of committee…I think they faced the same thoughts and concerns that Student Agencies did, and I think it’s unfair to say that there were different considerations,” said Brock.

“We have the bigger picture. We see the loss to the property owner and the value to another developer. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to look at other things,” Fleming added.

A comment that seemed to draw a rare rebuke came from McCracken shortly thereafter. “The ILPC would like to make sure that when they bring forth a recommendation, it’s consistently weighed. The ILPC is a group of trained professionals who know preservation. The Planning board is trained professionals. When it comes to council,” McCracken’s cadence slowed, “there isn’t any framework.”

The implication of a less than knowledgeable council drew stern words. “I just want to remind you we are all elected officials representing our constituencies,” said Brock.

“In my mind, framework includes economics and rights issues,” said Fleming. “There’s a lot of potential value to the city that could be lost if it’s landmarked.”

“There’s a very narrow purview to ILPC, the economics aren’t a part of that…maybe the Planning Board could do that,” responded McCracken. “I think that a designation should be on the merits of a property. Property owners change rather quickly.”

As the discussion carried on, the committee seemed open to changes to ILPC guidelines, but not fans of codifying Common Council’s considerations.

“I’m hesitant to do anything that would change the ordinance with regard to council. Council may put together guidelines that would be considered for future designations, but they go both ways. Property owners could use the guidelines to argue why the designation isn’t appropriate. There’s a power to that tool once it’s codified,” said Brock.

“We will likely make or propose these decisions whether council agrees or not…including the piece about integrity, I think is important because it limits the number of properties eligible,” concluded McCracken. In other words, expect this debate to continue as the ILPC reviews and considers its new guidelines.

Creative Housing and Flexible Zoning

The other agenda items were not as contentious. Earlier, the PEDC received a brief update on the Chain Works District zoning from planner Lisa Nicholas, which would be ready for review next month. Planner Megan Wilson gave an update on the Parks Master Plan, noting that it was being rewritten and expanded to address the contentious issue of underutilized park land sales, and add supplemental information. They would also expound on neighborhood Adopt-A-Park and other potential options for those less popular green spaces. Councilwoman Laura Lewis helped lead a meeting for Fall Creekers about potential dredging for the inlet and Cascadilla Creek later this year.

The committee unanimously approved sending to council a request from TCAction for a $90,690 low-interest loan to cover unexpected moving costs to accommodate the Amici House construction, and to apply for a historic resource survey grant that could lead to a potential new historic district along the 300 block of East Court Street. A vote to circulate for comment was taken and passed for moving the approval of special permits from the Board of Zoning Appeals to the Planning Board.

While reviewing the planning department’s goals for 2018, on the topic of housing affordability there was some debate over what should and shouldn’t be considered to help the city meet its housing needs and increase its affordability.

“We want diversity of housing alternatives, but there’s also something to be said when you have a neighborhood and a mobile home goes in next door, it can be a shocking thing,” said Brock. Brock had noted she had received comments from constituents about a new West Hill home that looked similar to a trailer.

“I’d rather live in a trailer than a container,” quipped her ward counterpart, councilman George McGonigal (D-1st). Brock further said she would like to see encouragement of accessory dwelling units, like in-law units, in appropriate areas, noting that the new duplexes being built were 100% rentals, while in-law units could support an owner occupant in the primary unit.

“I think it’s beneficial to have programs like INHS’s mini-repair program to help families remain in their homes. We often talk about housing, but it should also be safe, quality housing,” added Laura Lewis (D-5th).

Cornish stated that the planning department would be finishing up its Southside and Waterfront neighborhood plans this year, and asked for ideas for the next neighborhoods. The committee strongly urged the department to tackle South Hill next, given its recent pressure from student-oriented infill housing. Other suggestions included West Hill, and the West End/Washington Park area.

“It’s very clear South Hill is in play right now, and the other element that is important is West Hill, I see West Hill as an area we don’t want to be caught unprepared. If something were to happen there, it would happen very quickly and have a huge impact,” said Brock, noting the large vacant land parcels on the hill.

On a final note, the PEDC  reviewed the proposed Planned Unit Development Overlay District (PUD-OD) that would allow developers to propose projects beyond what zoning allows, with the Common Council having its vote on any plan that relies on the PUD-OD. There were a couple boundary lines to the PUD-OD that were still debating, normally a trio of properties on the 300 Block of Dryden Road, and a slice of land in the Southwest part of West Hill next to the inlet.

Overall, the sentiment was positive. Murtagh praised the idea, and Lewis called it “our outside the box kinda thinking.” However, Fleming expressed reservations with moving forward until it could read through and revised if need be, so the committee put off its vote to send it to council until next month.

March should be a very busy meeting for the PEDC. Not only will the Nines, PUD-OD Chain Works be on the agenda, so will the Parks Master Plan, Green Building Policy and possible adjustments to CIITAP with consideration to inclusionary zoning for affordable housing.

Brian Crandall

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