ITHACA, N.Y. — Supporters of sustainability will be smiling today – the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) unanimously passed a measure designed to implement stricter, “greener” building codes.

The Green Building Policy report was passed by the PEDC unanimously. It now goes on toe Common Council’s May meeting, where it is expected to be accepted and become part of the city’s building codes once the guidelines are codified into regulations.

As previously written about here and here, the Green Building Policy uses a points system for all major building projects, with points based on location, design and building features. The point requirements become more stringent such that all structures must be net-zero energy, meaning all energy consumed is produced by on-site or off-site renewable sources dedicated to the building, by 2030. The town of Ithaca is expected to enact the same policy.

Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) noted that many of the couple hundred of so comments received on the policy (the comments can be read here) complained it wasn’t tough enough, though one could note that most of the private citizens in that comment section are active in sustainability or eco-advocacy groups, so it’s a bit of a self-selection bias. City Sustainability Coordinator Nick Goldsmith expressed surprise given that the policy has already been made tougher, but noted that if the city wants to be more stringent, that can be done after implementation “without too much extra work”. There had not been too much feedback from developers yet, though Goldsmith noted that was likely to change once the policy is translated into code and prepared to become a new law.

Councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th) summed up the tenor of the committee fairly well: “I’m very happy to be moving this forward.”

CIITAP and affordable housing

Far less resolved in last night’s meeting was the discussion on CIITAP and affordable housing. CIITAP is the city’s density policy that encourages urban development in designated areas through a graduated tax abatement. The plan is to expand it along the Waterfront, as well as add a mandatory 10% affordable housing component to all residential projects. The carrot to go along with this financial stick is an additional 10% tax abatement over a 20-year period.

The Waterfront expansion was not a concern, but there was much back-and-forth on the affordable housing mandate. Councilor Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) expressed disappointment that the housing requirement couldn’t apply to condos – owner-occupied housing can’t receive county IDA tax abatements under state law, so CIITAP can’t be used. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) was unhappy that it was map-based, and wanted every project weighed on its own merits, as well as making affordable housing mandatory on units throughout the city rather than just CIITAP’s density-focused areas, which she said unfairly benefited property owners within CIITAP’s confines by making their properties more valuable as a result of development potential. She said units need to be required to be fully integrated, and the tax abatement was too long.

Lewis shared her dismay that the 80% area median income threshold proposed for affordable units was too high, and Fleming was unhappy that any extra cost burden on the affordable units would likely get passed on to other renters if a project was built.

Councilor Steve Smith (D-4th) asked Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency Director Nels Bohn if the added tax abatement for affordable housing allowed developers to break even on the loss in revenue. Bohn tersely said “(i)t’s feasible” before planner Jennifer Kusznir added “(t)hey’re not breaking even”.

That appeared to be the theme of discussion – what greater amounts of affordable housing or lower income units could be asked for, without making development financially impossible. The city wants developers to do more to support its efforts, but is also aware that if no development happens, it creates an environment that encourages even greater gentrification of existing housing.

Discussion on the topic did not have a resolution, and will continue at the next meeting in May, after getting more feedback from staff, residents and developers. Keep an eye on this, as the affordable housing mandate is likely to expand citywide at some point. Murtagh, noting the city’s first attempt and subsequent flop with inclusionary zoning, said “(y)ou could call this our second dance.”

Chain Works and other matters

The committee had a look at the Chain Works District’s proposed uses, trying to do one topic at a time as they reviewed specialized zoning for the South Hill mega-redevelopment. The meat of the discussion stemmed from Cynthia Brock’s request to eliminate “noisy” uses next to smaller properties along Emerson/Chain Work’s north border. Her suggested 100-foot wide buffer would remove restaurants, bars, outdoor markets, daycares, veterinary offices and so on. Murtagh was less stringent, noting that special individual use permits were an option. Project planner C.J. Randall said they would consider adding language, while project manager Jamie Gensel noted the project team wasn’t planning to put loud uses right below housing units.

Much of the Chain Works review was in the weeds about food processing, proper outdoor screening of industrial uses in the few eligible areas, and parking regulations. However, the recent contamination tests did come up, which demonstrated the need for deep, extensive site cleaning due to toxic chemicals left behind from its time as a transmission chain factory.

Emerson, the NYS DEC, and UnChained Properties LLC each have their own environmental teams that are coordinating on the cleanup plan. Brock stated her opposition to housing on the first floor of affected buildings to be reused. The DEC has said they may be “restricted residential” after cleaning, though Gensel noted that housing on the first floor isn’t the plan for those structures with residential units, parking or storage is.

“DEC doesn’t have the best track record with declaring a site cleaned up,” Brock warned, citing Ithaca Falls as an example. “I’m very apprehensive to rely on the DEC, even if they are the experts and paid to be the experts, their batting record isn’t very good.”

In other matters, the board declined on a 1-4 vote to fund a postcard mailer proposed by West Hill residents to advertise the West Hill website, “Ithaca West”. Brock, the West Hill representative, was the sole member to vote in favor. The issue for the rest of the committee wasn’t the intent, but the method. The Neighborhood Improvement Incentive Fund the residents wanted to use is meant more for community events and block parties, and the city clerk has sent out these kinds of mailers on residents’ behalf in the past.

Lastly, a minor change to the new PUD overlay district (PUD-OD) on Linden Avenue was enacted. Fleming, while vocally opposed to the creation of PUD-OD, says she’ll “try to learn to love it”.

Brian Crandall

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