ITHACA, N.Y. – File this under “Things my editor prodded me into writing.”
The “Ithacating” blog turned ten years old last week. Long before The Voice was a thing, and back when the Ithaca Journal still had a major presence in Ithaca, the blog existed as a hobby and a “labor of love” — it started mostly as history pieces, which evolved over a few years into construction and real estate, the bridge between them being the way a community evolves with time from local and large-scale changes.
A few months before The Voice launched, founder Jeff Stein reached out asking if I’d be willing to help him out with a news website — and the first thing I said to him, point-blank, was, “Do you really think you can compete with the Ithaca Times and Journal?” But I liked Jeff’s work at The Cornell Daily Sun, and thought The Voice had potential, and…well, the Voice is still here, and I’m still here. Anyway, ten years blogging is a long time. Looking back on a decade of work, here are some observations and thoughts.
1. Construction workers can be friendly.
More often than not, if I have a question about work that’s underway at a construction site, all I have to do is find someone near the perimeter whose hands aren’t full and, as long as I’m polite, they are happy to tell me the ins and outs of what they’re doing that day, what kind of work has been done already, and what’s to follow. Most of them are pretty amused by someone taking interest in their work, and as long as they don’t feel like they’re being confronted, they’re perfectly happy talking a little bit about it. If you have a question, and someone’s standing near the fence and doesn’t look busy, don’t be afraid to ask.
In ten years of taking photos in and around Ithaca and Tompkins County, I’ve only been accosted twice – once in 2010, when I was taking photos near Cornell and someone came out of a fraternity house waving a baseball bat; the other was last year, when a South Hill resident thought my walking around a construction site meant I was peddling drugs in their neighborhood.
On a related note, on this day and age, the sheer amount of information available online is incredible, much better than ten years ago when physical paper was still more common than PDF. The drawback is that it’s also like drinking from a fire hose. A lot of the business and real estate news on The Voice actually comes from municipal online document dumps (Thursdays are the busy day), and then comes sifting through it all and figuring out what’s newsworthy. For instance, I never thought the park alienation proposal from the city’s Parks Master Plan would become a hot debate topic – it caught my eye during a read-through, and I thought it was worth a mention on the blog. My Voice colleague Kelsey O’Connor thought it would be an interesting topic for her write-up and things took off from there.
2. Development to politics, is like apples to oranges.
Anyone who tells you that a project will succeed or fail because of local politics is a fraud. Local development issues don’t tend to fit neatly into a partisan framework. I’ve had tiedyed-in-the-wool progressives tell me affordable housing will cause crime or that they wished West Village were wiped off the map. I’ve watched self-described conservatives who are otherwise “build baby build” types suddenly have a meltdown when they find out someone wants to develop the abandoned farm field down the road for a solar array.
The thing is, development is far more nuanced than that. Every project has its pros and cons – typical pros being tax revenue, creation of renewable energy infrastructure, needed housing (senior, for-sale, affordable), job growth, redevelopment of a blighted property, and so on. Typical cons include traffic, controversial housing (student, some affordable), stormwater, aesthetics, loss of green space and so on.
People place priorities on different components – the person who likes a project because it brings senior housing to allow safe aging in place, may be arguing against someone upset that because it’s a suburban location, those seniors will likely have cars and create more traffic. The solar panels that create renewable energy, are a visual blight to others. Some folks might think EcoVillage is great, with its emphasis on solar-powered housing and green space, but others are not fans because of its isolated location and not limited sustainability on larger scales.
With all these competing priorities, this is why planning boards exist – standardized review as instructed by state and local authorities, identifying potential issues developers may be able to mitigate, and trying to get a project that not just pleases the proponents, but that the naysayers can tolerate (doesn’t always work, but planning board members make an effort).
3. Age, however, does seem to play a role.
There is one superficial factor that I would say that there is a modest correlation – younger households tend to be more supportive of affordable housing and development in general. I think the logic behind that was explained well by an anonymous local planner on Reddit (of all places) a few years back. The urban renewal of the 1960s and 1970s left a bad impression on a lot of folks, and those who were moving in at that time tended to be financially well-off counterculture types, leaving the crime and grime of decaying big cities for smaller college towns that they perceived as safe and idyllic. Things that remind them of bigger cities – be it large buildings, density or affordable housing for people who “don’t fit the neighborhood’s character”, tend to get a negative reaction.
In contrast, younger households have generally have more student debt and face more expensive housing overall, so they are more worried about housing affordability. They also tend to be less enamored with cars then their parents’ generation, and more inclined towards walkable urban areas. Will opinions and desires change as more of them are able to buy homes, and settle down with spouses and kids? I dunno.
4. Two arguments planning boards don’t want to hear.
Here are two statements that, if speaking in opposition to a project, whether it be housing or solar panels or anything else development related.
One: “This will be a detriment to neighborhood character.” Planning boards don’t like subjective comments. Too often, neighborhood character is an euphemism to refer to class, race, age or any number of other things that may or may not be implied. A speaker can make a statement about traffic, or drainage, or it’s too tall compared to the rest of the block, or whatever that can be backed up or refuted by evidence and analysis. But talk of “neighborhood character”, and the speaker might as well be peeing into the wind.
Two: “I’ve lived here since 19-something and I can tell you from living here, I know this is a bad fit for the area.” Going back to the subjectivity thing. Just because someone has lived in an area for a while, doesn’t make them more correct.
5. Future predictions
In the past ten years, development has shifted from being mostly in the suburban areas and Cornell/Ithaca College, to a plurality with urban areas in the city. Part of that is by policy (the city’s Comprehensive Plan, CIITAP tax abatements), and part of that is because of consumer preferences. Overall, I think the city and county have become more receptive to both affordable housing and general housing development, as the housing issues have become more acute and widely-known.
I think that in the next several years, development will continue to shift. When it comes to potential locations, much of downtown Ithaca’s low-hanging fruit has been picked — there are still opportunities but not as many. As for Collegetown, that ebbs and flows with the student populations, and most developers there are holding off on plans until Maplewood and Cornell’s new North Campus dorms have been absorbed by the market — there may be a couple projects in the meanwhile, but nothing like the boom of the past four years.
The city has made it clear that it would like to guide development down State Street and into the West End / Waterfront areas, and the town of Ithaca sees East Hill Plaza (East Hill Village) as its primary development site. Those and the Chain Works District (if approved and financed) will probably be the major development areas in Ithaca proper. Dryden and Lansing will continue to get their fair share of more suburban projects, especially along the major commuter roads (Triphammer Road, Warren Road, Dryden Road).
As for building enough housing, I’m not making a wager. When I write up background “case files” for projects, it’s clear that most take several years to go from proposal to reality. A lot can happen in several years, both local factors (economic changes, changes in attitudes towards development) and national ones (affordable housing funding, tariffs may drive up cost of building materials). With funding as scarce as it is, affordable housing will continue to be an issue, though if enough housing comes into the overall market, it may moderate the rapid price appreciation seen in the city over the past few years.
But, only time will tell if those predictions bear out. Dunno if the blog will be around another ten years, but with any luck, there will be plenty of interesting things to write about.