TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. – What will it take for Tompkins County to develop more attractive, walkable, affordable neighborhoods? Conducive zoning codes, clever financing and a good bit of elbow grease, according to a presentation from the Incremental Development Alliance hosted by the county Wednesday evening.
IncDev is a non-profit organization that works to train small-scale developers, from folks who decide to buy their first property to people who are already in the development game but are looking to make a positive community impact. The county invited IncDev to lead a series of workshops and review local regulatory processes to steer small-scale development across Tompkins municipalities, including new housing and mixed-use construction projects as well as rehabs of existing buildings.
“How can we bring new resources to the conversation, realizing that different municipalities and different neighborhoods have different experiences?” asked Megan McDonald, deputy commissioner of planning and sustainability for Tompkins County, in her introductory remarks Wednesday.
The Tompkins County Housing Strategy, completed in 2017, recognizes that the county has a housing shortage and needs a mix of housing types, including owner-occupied and rental, single and multi-family homes. Several large-scale projects catering to different income levels are in the works across the county, from Downtown Ithaca’s luxury City Centre to the waterfront’s affordable Arthaus project to Lansing’s mixed-income Milton Meadows. Wednesday’s presentation, however, focused on development in what IncDev faculty member Bernice Radle called “the missing middle” – options that fall between single-family houses and mid-rise apartment buildings, including duplexes, townhomes, apartments above commercial spaces and live/work lofts.
Radle, who falls in the midst of the 25 to 38-year-old millennial generation, owns Buffalove Development and Little Wheel Restoration Co. and serves as vice chair of the Buffalo Zoning Board of Appeals in addition to working with IncDev. She said she knows some people see “developer” as a dirty word, but said all over Tompkins County “there’s a really great opportunity for responsible development.”
In the IncDev philosophy, responsible development means projects that support local workers and entrepreneurs, build wealth in the community and are adaptable to changing needs over time. It also means projects that have the intangible qualities residents want– projects that are charming.
“It all boils down to this: we have a choice for how to meet demand,” Radle said. We can create neighborhoods built around parking lots and disposable buildings and corporate projects, or we can create neighborhoods “that people can wrap their hearts and minds and arms around.”
To do the latter, Radle said, small-scale developers need to leverage their resources, embrace community goals and roll up their sleeves. “Commit yourself to a place you love that needs you. It’s a really really simple concept,” she said.
Encouraging incremental development
Radle put a question to the audience gathered Wednesday at the Tompkins County Public Library: are you seeing the kinds of real estate projects you want to see?
The room gave a resounding “no.” In Buffalo, Radle felt the same way. But Radle said she didn’t leave or wait until the kind of home she wanted to live in came on the market. Instead, she became a developer.
She started with a small, rundown house, and soon began acquiring more buildings and lots – some for as little as a dollar in a city where vacancies and demolitions are rampant. She came into an underutilized brick building a mile from downtown and converted it into 11 apartment units and two retail spaces. Her own construction company handled the renovations, and she manages the building. She worked with local artists to install a mural on the front and side facades. She kept rents for residents in the $500 to $800 range.
Radle said she decided to start renovating buildings “because I love my community. Because I believe in affordable housing, and I believe we can pull ourselves up.”
Wherever residents aren’t seeing the kinds of neighborhood development they want, the incremental approach suggests taking small steps to realize their vision. Start by rehabbing a retail unit and then add an apartment above; start with a duplex, then make it a four-plex. “Focus on building a stronger neighborhood, one project at a time,” IncDev advises.
After a tour led by members of the county Planning Department, Radle said she could already see areas in Tompkins that are emblematic of small-scale development as well as places crying out for attention. The Gimme! Coffee location on Cayuga Street, with friendly street-facing windows and multiple units above, is a model of a lovable, adaptable building, she said. By contrast, she said the isolated Lansing Sub Shop, a drive away from the nearest market or brewery or coffee shop, is calling out for neighbors.
Developments that people like, she said, don’t need to be architecturally special or extravagant.
“What buildings do we really love? We love simple, rectangular buildings, that can be repurposed and used for all different things over 100 years.” Speaking at the Tompkins County Public Library, she could point to several out the windows along the Ithaca Commons.
Lovable, rectangular buildings are not limited to older, urban centers though. Radle showed photos from a project launched by one of IncDev’s founders in Texas. He began by building a doughnut shop for a local business owner, then added an attached apartment for the owner, then attached a second commercial space, then a third. Instead of freestanding buildings in a sea of cars, he created an approachable commercial strip suited for foot traffic.
Radle said demographic trends have heightened demand for walkable neighborhoods with small residential options alongside services and amenities. By 2012, only about a third of U.S. households had children living in them, yet available housing stock remained skewed toward detached single-family homes. At the same time, many middle-class millennials who, in previous generations, would have bought homes in their 20s or 30s, are locked out of financing by student loan debt.
The only way to relieve pressure on existing, desirable neighborhoods like Downtown Ithaca, Radle said, is to increase the supply of desirable neighborhoods elsewhere. Central Lansing will never look like the Ithaca Commons, but if there were subs and beer and groceries in the same strip, with housing and childcare and schools nearby, Radle suggested buyers and renters might be drawn to a new downtown.
Local challenges to thinking small
Radle said that in many communities, new developments are skewed toward projects that are bland or watered down. “Nothing really happens that’s great, that’s wonderful, that dazzles you … it’s a problem that everyone is feeling,” she said.
In part, that’s because of the way financing is structured. Financing tends to be most accessible for single-family homes or for large projects, rather than the mid-range where IncDev wants to focus community efforts. In addition, mortgage structures encourage buildings with short lifespans, and the consolidation of land ownership can make it difficult for would-be small-developers to get a toehold.
Zoning regulations can also be a barrier to mid-sized and mixed-use projects. “Zoning is the DNA of your city,” Radle said, so it is crucial that municipalities have zoning codes that reflect what residents want to see. Zoning codes designed to keep land uses separate can make buildings less adaptable, limiting opportunities for housing and desirable commercial spaces to be co-located. Likewise, zoning codes with minimum lot sizes or maximum densities that don’t align with existing uses can make it onerous to rehabilitate older buildings.
Tompkins County also presents challenges that rust belt cities like Buffalo do not face. Land prices are high, and a handful of landowners control vast swaths. Jim Kumon, executive director of IncDev, said Wednesday that developers will seek out the “highest and best use – whatever you can do the most of,” when prices are high and lots are large.
Tompkins residents are acquainted with that pattern. Commenters brought up Ithaca’s formerly industrial waterfront and the hamlet of Varna as examples of areas where large projects backed with Wall Street financing are making progress – the Vecino Group’s Arthaus and Trinitas Ventures’ Village at Varna – while smaller projects are slow to come.
Radle and Kumon agreed the economics of small-scale development are challenging in a hot market and acknowledged that large projects have a place in a county with high demand for housing. Still, Kumon said by leveraging local investors who will provide patient capital and by working to collect services people want in village and town centers outside the City of Ithaca, community members can get their small-scale projects off the ground and bring their neighborhood visions to fruition.
IncDev plans to continue working with the county over the coming months to educate residents, planners, developers and elected officials who are interested in supporting incremental, small-scale projects. They’ll host a half-day seminar on June 24, which will be open to the public and will provide information about financing small-scale, mixed-use projects and navigating zoning codes. In the fall they’ll conduct two workshops with planning staff and municipal planning board members and will offer suggestions for revising local regulations.
A video of Wednesday’s presentation is available courtesy of the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability.
Featured image: The Ithaca Commons (file photo)