ITHACA, N.Y. — At the turn of the 20th century, Sylvester and Lucy Suzey lived in a two-story clapboard house across from the St. James AME Zion Church on Ithaca’s Wheat Street, now Cleveland Avenue. Sylvester worked as a barber and hotel porter, and the veteran of the U.S. Colored Troops led parades through Ithaca’s Southside, while Lucy styled women’s hair. The Suzeys owned their home, and when Sylvester left Lucy a widow, her sister moved in and she stayed put. Later the home changed hands, housing three renters in 1920 and an aging couple alongside a young family of five a decade later. The modest home provided adaptive housing for working people as the economy ebbed and flowed in Ithaca’s only predominantly black community.
The Suzey house is featured as a stop on a historic walking tour of Southside curated by Ithaca Heritage, but like other historic houses in the district, it is not a relic. The city’s Greater Southside Neighborhood Plan, adopted unanimously by Common Council on Wednesday, April 3, recognizes that longstanding features of Southside – from workforce housing to parks and community centers – should be preserved and updated so the neighborhood can continue to be a livable and welcoming space for people of color and low-income households.
The greater Southside area covered by the plan is bounded by Green Street to the north, Cayuga Street to the east, Spencer Street and Wood Street Park to the south and Meadow Street to the west. The effort to “preserve and enhance” the neighborhood, as the plan phrases it, comes against a backdrop of gentrification and displacement.
Over two decades, the average sale price of a single family Southside home has increased 265%, while the number of black residents decreased by about 50%, according to the planning document.
To help families stay in place while improving local quality of life, the plan recommends minor changes to zoning to encourage accessory rental units in the neighborhood’s core and modest commercial uses at the neighborhood’s edges, along with investment in parks, transportation and infrastructure.
Seph Murtagh, who represents the neighborhood on Common Council, said the working group of alderpersons, city staff and community volunteers who developed the plan over more than two years approached the project with sensitivity to the neighborhood’s history and character.
“We put a lot of focus on trying to preserve what people like about the neighborhood – the feel of the residential streets, the size of the buildings, single-family homes,” he said.
While Murtagh said he was reluctant to call the plan conservative, he contrasted it to more proactive plans to boost development downtown and along the waterfront. “There definitely was a sense that we want to preserve that character and that neighborhood feel that residents value,” he said.
The plan paints in broad strokes, localizing the principles established in the comprehensive Plan Ithaca but stopping short of specific zoning rule changes or design standards.
Megan Wilson, who led the planning and development department’s work on the project, said input from residents shaped the priorities that went into the document. At community outreach meetings and via a neighborhood survey, residents raised concerns about flooding from Six Mile Creek and stormwater drains, traffic issues along Green Street and near Route 13, and rising housing costs.
Still, Wilson said community input largely reinforced the city’s commitment to preserving the neighborhood’s existing qualities.
“People love the residential neighborhood as it is,” Wilson said. “People know each other, they feel safe having their families out playing along the sidewalks or walking. The character and feel of the neighborhood was something that we immediately knew we needed to protect and preserve,” she said.
Formalizing trails along the creek, adding streetlights, installing lights in Titus Triangle and Baker Park, extending bike lanes, and calming traffic are all mentioned in the plan as relatively simple projects that could improve the ease and safety of navigating the neighborhood’s blocks.
To help keep longtime residents in place, the plan suggests encouraging accessory housing units, sometimes called “in-law units” or “granny flats,” in the neighborhood core while allowing larger residential buildings only on the area’s more commercial boundaries. It proposes eases building regulations that can make accessory units costly, arguing these units can be “a creative way to offer more housing while providing home owners with some additional income, particularly in some of the neighborhood’s large homes and underutilized carriage houses and garages.”
Susan Holland, who participated in developing the plan as executive director of Historic Ithaca, said the planning department will need to regulate accessory units over time to ensure they serve the purpose of keeping homeowners in place, rather than incentivizing developers to buy up properties.
“Over time, we want to continue to have a neighborhood of residential housing that supports affordability,” she said.
Holland pointed out that increasing density carefully in the district does not have to be at odds with historic precedent. During downturns in the past, owners of modest homes took in lodgers while grander homes became temporary boarding houses depending on people’s circumstances, she said.
The plan takes the history of Southside as its starting point and, by including residents’ input throughout, attempts to make gradual improvements. Preserving the neighborhood’s historic character, the plan suggests, does not mean preventing material improvements or changes to the use of space; it means allowing the neighborhood to evolve within limits that keep it recognizable to residents and livable for generations to come.