It was a busy September meeting for the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC). While most of the public attention centered around Cornell’s massive new north campus project, zoning revisions to the Chain Works District proposal and discussion on future neighborhood-specific comprehensive plans also filled the three-and-a-half hour meeting.

Not everyone has the patience for a meeting of that length, so here’s the spark notes version for those interested.

Cornell’s North Campus Expansion

Cornell’s North Campus Expansion

One of the big topics at this month’s meeting was a presentation courtesy of Cornell University of their plans to expand their North Campus residence halls by 2,000 beds. The primary controversy with this 2,079 bed project has to do with ecological impacts – local environmental groups have spoken out with concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. Many newer projects use electric heat pumps that tie into the state electric grid, which is a mix of renewable and non-renewable sources. However, like most of Cornell’s Ithaca projects, the new North Campus dorms would utilize Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power plant, which is powered by natural gas, though Cornell has stated intent to continue to move toward renewable sources.

Several speakers pushed for a more extensive environmental review in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and at least one commenter, frequent speaker and former Ithaca High principal Joe Wilson, issued a thinly-veiled threat of a lawsuit if the city approves the Cornell dorm project as currently proposed, stating that the environmental review forms on file are misleading and incorrect. Others were less ominous, if still stressing the importance of Cornell being a good environmental steward.

“On the scale of what we’re talking about North Campus, that’s where the large impacts can be seen. When we talk about Cornell University, one of the world leaders on many fronts…these are things that Cornell University can tackle. Cornell should be held to a higher standard and should lead the way,” said Guillermo Metz, the Energy Team Leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Kathryn Wolf and Kim Michaels, landscape architects at project partner TWMLA and representatives of the project, defended Cornell’s approach.

“Cornell is completely committed to their Climate Action Plan and getting off of fossil fuels by 2035, and this project fits within their Climate Action Plan, and they are committed to that,” said Wolf. It was further explained that Cornell’s heating and power plant is highly energy efficient, recapturing energy from waste heat from the initial gas combustion for further electric generation (via steam) and for heating the campus. When renewable options become more efficient, she stated the university is committed and the buildings will be flexible enough to switch to a new system.

“The grid relies on natural gas, and other forms of energy. The state has a goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030, so presumably over time {the grid} will get greener, whereas Cornell’s plant will always be powered by natural gas. So what a lot of people are asking is, where is the analysis if the project was powered 100 percent from the grid?” Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward) asked.

“It will not be business as usual for the next 15 years … I think that there’s an assumption there that we should trust the grid more than Cornell, and Cornell’s taking proactive steps to get there,” replied Michaels. She added that Cornell will be undertaking energy reductions as the dorms are built and old dorms are taken offline for renovation, so that the gas use will remain at “status quo” rather than increase with the addition of the new buildings.

“I think that it would be good for an analysis that would show the difference between powering the dorms from the plant, vs. powering it with air source heat pumps 100% from the grid,” said Murtagh.

The project representatives agreed to provide that information in time for the public hearing, which will be held by the city planning board at their Sept. 27 meeting. The planning board will review and issue a declaration deciding whether or not an EIS is required.

Other Meeting Items: Zoning Tweaks and Neighborhood Comprehensive Plans

Also reviewed at the PEDC meeting were some waterfront zoning tweaks, previously approved by Common Council but discovered after the fact that the committee missed a pair of procedural steps (declaring lead agency for environmental review, and issuing a negative declaration to say any environmental impacts are effectively mitigated) and had to redo the vote, as will Council.

As one can imagine, the re-do, while legally necessary, only required about 45 seconds to pass and move on to Council next month.

Also heading to Council next month are some modifications to the City’s Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process used in project reviews. For a few decades, the city’s review process has mimicked and superseded the state’s (SEQR, pronounced “seeker”) process, with more stringent measures for triggering environmental review – for example, large parking lots >50 spaces are an unlisted action in the state, meaning minimal review, while the city does mandate their review. The CEQR also included impacts on local waterbodies and Unique Natural Areas (UNAs) as part of the review. Meanwhile, The state updated their forms in 2012 to ask applicants to provide a broader range of air quality impacts and energy use information than the city does, as well as links to handy dandy mapping tools and the room to address local issues without the need for the city to issue its own environmental forms. It’s basically a little more encompassing for addressing environmental impacts, and these newer forms give the city gets flexibility to add their locally-specific concerns and regulations. The board passed the resolution to adopt the state forms quickly and unanimously, sending it to council for what’s likely to be an uneventful approval.

On the discussion side, the Chain Works Project was back, reviewing area requirements. The conversation was technical but thorough, lasting over 45 minutes. Just take this as your casual reminder that, slowly and steadily, the UnChained Properties development team is addressing committee concerns and refining their lengthy zoning code for the site, if not on the schedule they originally hoped.

As for neighborhood-specific plans as part of Part II of the Comprehensive Plan, Southside’s will debut officially on Sunday at Streets Alive!, and the Waterfront study has been wrapping up, so the time has come to identify which neighborhoods are next on the list of city priorities.

According to City Planner Megan Wilson, the top choice will begin work in the first quarter of 2019, and the second will begin sometime later as time allows. South Hill, West End, West Hill and Southwest Ithaca emerged as strong contenders, and thematically, a citywide housing plan/strategy was also emphasized, with exploration of affordable owner-occupied housing and stricter regulation of AirBnBs. The citywide housing study quickly became the consensus as the first priority for Q1 2019, but the committee struggled to pick just one neighborhood as a secondary priority, eventually settling on a 4-1 recommendation for the West End, with Donna Fleming (D-3rd) sticking with South Hill in her dissent vote.

Brian Crandall

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