ITHACA, N.Y. — Southside residents, take note; the city has released the draft long-term comprehensive plan for your neighborhood.

For residents of the Southside neighborhood, this plan has been a longtime coming. An earlier attempt at a Southside community development plan, the “Southside Flowering Plan”, was undertaken during the Peterson administration in the mid 2000s, but was never completed. This current study coming out now has been a work in progress for at least two years.

Uniquely among Ithaca’s neighborhoods, Southside has long been the epicenter of Ithaca’s African-American community. The St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Cleveland Avenue is one of the oldest of that denomination in the world. Among its tidy lawns and modest century-old Victorian and Foursquare houses, many families were been able to put down roots, and in some cases multiple generations of the same family have called the neighborhood home.

However, Southside has faced its share of challenges. Early in its history, widespread flooding, a lack of sanitation and the fear of debilitating disease were major issues; by the 1960s and 1970s, a dilapidated housing stock and a rise in crime threatened the neighborhood’s quality of life. The inability of homeowners to be able to afford to fix their homes and issues with redlining by banks (denying home loans because an area, often majority-minority, was perceived to be a high financial risk) helped lead to the creation of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS). In the 1990s, encroaching suburban-style retail resulted in protracted battles between residents, the city, and developers; one of the products of that was the rather unusual “cul-de-sac” dead-end where Cleveland Avenue once met Route 13/South Meadow Street.

Just as in days past, the days ahead also have their risks and challenges. With the lack of affordable for-sale housing and renewed interest in urban living over the past 15 years, and with the Southside neighborhood’s walkable street and proximity to Downtown shops and major employers, the specter of gentrification looms around its leafy corners. Concerns that Southside will end up as gentrified as Fall Creek are not only real, but widespread as home prices continue to rise rapidly — the average increase for Southside home sale prices is 265 percent over the past 20 years.

It’s in this context that the neighborhood comprehensive plan came to be; an older neighborhood with a significant cultural heritage, that had been through hard times, and was now facing concerns about physical and social changes to its environs. Unlike the Waterfront neighborhood plan that was concurrent to the work here, there’s a strong community history and character in Southside, it’s not the relatively blank slate that the city’s shorelines are.

A look at the Greater Southside Neighborhood Plan

Ostensibly, the city wanted to take the time to do this right. A plan committee was formed that consisted of neighborhood residents, elected officials, and professional planners, the planning and development board was consulted, and the city planning department staff helped guide the process. It takes time to speak with residents, get feedback, and formulate ideas, hence the two-year timeframe to go from the start of meetings to this first public draft.

The 48-page plan breaks down into six major sections — land use, economic vitality, community livability, mobility and transportation, natural and cultural resources, and sustainable energy, water and food systems. A plan like this isn’t going to say “a four-story affordable apartment building with solar panels on the roof should be built on the 300 Block of West Green Street”. It’s designed to speak in generalities and serve more as a guideline rather than a specific set of items, a “living document” that can be revised as different needs and issues arise. The goal of the Southside Plan is to promote community sustainability, social and economic equity, and collaboration between the city, residents, and community groups.

One quick final note before delving in – the phrase “Greater Southside” means that the plan covers both the traditional Southside neighborhood north of Six Mile Creek, and the flats to the south. Sometimes the two are considered separately, but the plan takes a look at both areas.

Reading through, the plan does promote additional housing, in certain areas or in subtle ways. It makes clear that existing housing should be prioritized and preserved, and that the suburban strip retail of the 1990s is not okay. However, it suggests that small-scale accessory housing units in place of garages or in deep back yards could be a gentle way of providing new affordable housing – say, an apartment over a garage, that not only offers a modest home to its occupant, but also supplements the homeowner’s income. On parking lots and the few vacant lots in the neighborhood, appropriately-sized infill housing is encouraged.

Meanwhile, in the less-loved parts of the neighborhood, like the suburban box retail along Meadow Street, the plan supports redevelopment – walkable, urban, with design and scale deferential to the neighborhood. It doesn’t promote more Titus Towers, but along these denser stretches, something like 210 Hancock along Route 13, or a project like 327 West Seneca for West Green Street would be considered appropriate. In the long-term, the plan supports form-based zoning to guide new project design.

A spark notes version would look like this – generally, the light yellow “Traditional Residential” area is and should remain one and two-family homes. The dark yellow “Residential Transition” is for both homes and smaller multi-family buildings, like townhomes, rowhouses and small apartment or condo buildings. The pink “Medium-Density Mixed Use” would support some small shops or offices mixed in with housing, with a density of 15-25 housing units/acre (the neighborhood overall is 9-14 units/acre).  The maroon “Urban Mixed Use” adds hotels and restaurants to the mix of what’s allowed, but housing is still the emphasis and the plan encourages context-sensitive design.

On the economic side, businesses are encouraged to make arrangements more friendly to walkers and bikers, and the encouragement of living wage and economically sustainable work is strongly pushed. The plan suggests increased workforce training opportunities for residents, and a greater accommodation for those who wish to have home offices or run a business from their homes (Ithaca’s current residential zoning is not very accommodating for home-based businesses).

There’s a big push in the plan for greater accommodation of alternative modes of transportation – not necessarily the Cleveland Avenue dead-end, but better sidewalks, bike facilities, traffic calming and better lighting for visibility and safety. The plan suggests a fee-based permit system for on-street parking. Infrastructure investments should be made (water, sewer, trail paths on the creek, bridge replacement), and Six Mile Creek should be protected and dredged to limit flooding risks. The Southside Community Center should be actively and wholly supported in its endeavors as a community center, and an additional police presence in Southside with the input and feedback of its residents is a measure that the plan supports.

The Southside Plan firmly states the importance of the neighborhood’s parks (seeming to recall the potential sale of parks controversy over the past year), and encourages not just their maintenance but improved lighting and accessibility so that all may enjoy them.

For food sustainability, the city should work with the owners of the Tops Plaza to build a sidewalk to the store from Wood Street, and a community garden somewhere in the neighborhood (the plan suggests near South Street between South Meadow and Fair Street) is also on the want list. From the energy side of sustainability, new construction should be energy efficient and grants pursued to allow existing homes and the Southside Community Center to upgrade their energy systems.

Here’s the long story short. The city wants to preserve existing homes, replace vacant lots and suburban retail with new housing to regain affordability, support a modest amount of new business to complement existing commerce, promote sustainability and preservation of natural areas, protect parks, keep the neighborhood safe, and discourage drivers in favor of walkers and bikers. There are a lot of items on that to-do list, and many of which involved, sustained long-term efforts in terms of money and community support. It might seem lofty or unattainable at times, but it’s a guideline for the long haul, and it’s up to Southside residents to keep pushing the city and each other to help maintain and grow their quality of life.

As for the Greater Neighborhood Southside Plan itself, this is a draft and the goals and recommendations may be revised with further community input before the plan is formally adopted. Comments regarding the draft plan can be emailed to the city planning department here.

The full draft plan is available here.

Brian Crandall

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