ITHACA, N.Y. — It was a busy night for the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee. A rezoning of West State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street will be ready to the full council for round two after some tweaks, regulations for AirBnB were discussed — and it looks like there may be some progress toward revised laws regarding backyard infill housing and accessory dwelling units.
Here’s a rundown of the major topics discussed at Wednesday night’s PEDC meeting. (For those of you who like to read along to the story, agenda link here.)
Revised West State/MLK Jr. Rezoning Moves Forward to Council
The special order of business for the night was the ongoing discussion of the downzoning for the 300, 400 and 500 Blocks of West State Street, which was sent back to the PEDC by the full Common Council in July to explore proposed amendments by councilor and 2nd Ward/State Street/MLK Jr. Corridor representative Ducson Nguyen. Readers may recall this was triggered by a 76-unit affordable housing proposal under consideration for the 500 Block from Visum Development, which drew a backlash over physical form and aesthetics.
Among the proposed changes is a drop in zoning from six floors (62 feet) to five floors (52 feet), a minimum height of 12 feet for the ground floor and 10 feet for each floor above (which will apply to all Central Business Districts, which are budged up in height two feet (ex. 60 feet to 62 feet) to accommodate the new ground floor rule), a stepback of 15 feet for buildings taller than four floors, and a maximum footprint of 7,200 square feet, which had been the subject of criticism from some affected businesses on those blocks.
The six speakers at Wednesday’s public hearing, in contrast to previous months, were nearly all opposed to the downzoning, citing environmental concerns, financial implications, and a belief that design guidelines would do a better job than zoning.
“Our footprint is about 33,000 square feet. If the footprint is enacted, a developer would have to build four entirely separate structures where there is one,” said David Moreland, who owns Mama Goose with his wife Kelly. “I understand the council wants to avoid monolithic buildings, but I think that can be done through breaking up the facade.”
As part of the procedure, Common Council had to declare itself Lead Agency for environmental review of the zoning, which carried 4-1 with Councilor Steve Smith (D-4th), as he has opposed the zoning change from the start.
“I don’t think this is a zoning issue, I think this is a design issue,” he said.
Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd) opened by saying she supports the height reduction and step back, and was ambivalent about the maximum footprint. Councilor George McGonigal (D-1st), in attendance as a non-committee member, said he had had a conversation with Visum Development’s Todd Fox, who said he could work with a five-floor maximum, but that the maximum footprint was too stringent. To this, McGonigal offered that it could benefit from revision to allow larger footprints. Nguyen, who had first proposed the maximum footprint idea, agreed.
“I would love to get rid of CIITAP and downzone the entire city, so that (building) height would have to be negotiated for public benefits,” said Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st). “I feel with the upzoning several years ago, we gave too much away, we made millionaires out of property owners.” However, she also said she was not wedded to the maximum footprint either.
The general consensus from councilors in attendance was in favor of the one-floor reduction, split on the stepback, and the maximum building footprint had an ambivalent to negative reception. Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) had noted that even when the area was upzoned in 2013, there were disagreements about the suitable height back then.
“I realize this has been a messy process. I’ve had a lot of conversations about this…we need our zoning to reflect our environment,” said Murtagh.
The maximum footprint stipulation was removed unanimously, while the fourth-floor stepback for five-story buildings was kept 3-2, with councilors Murtagh and Smith opposed. Several councilors mentioned a desire to try and make the process more streamlined for smaller developers, and potentially hiring a consultant to review the city’s building permits process to see where improvements could be made. But that’s for a future day. The downzoning, without the maximum footprint, was voted to be sent to the full Common Council 3-2, with Smith and Murtagh opposed.
The Pros and Cons of Airbnb, and Paving Historic Streets
Short-term rentals have been a heated topic of discussion in the city and town of Ithaca in recent years. With an estimated 500 short-term rentals in the city, regulations could have a big impact. PEDC got an update on the issue Wednesday.
As noted by the Times last week, short-term rentals, spearheaded by businesses like Airbnb, have become a lightning rod for controversy, and ask a hundred people in town what they think of it and how it should regulated, and you’ll get just about a hundred different opinions — from no regulation to banning them entirely (ostensibly, most people fall somewhere between those extremes).
“We estimate that of the 500-plus short-term rentals in the city, about 150 (homes, apartments, private rooms) are in full-time use, and about 100 are single-family homes in full-time use as short-term rentals. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but given we only approve about five single-family homes per year, it’s 20 years’ supply of new single-family homes,” said Tom Knipe, Deputy Director for Economic Development.
Knipe said the issue is complex. While short-term renting can have positive impacts for local residents, like renting out a room or their home for graduation weekend, he said there are also negative impacts to consider like speculative investment and hosts not living at the property.
“Unchecked, this could transform neighborhoods into communities of transience. We’re looking to understand council’s level of support for continuing to look into this issue,” Knipe said. “We do believe it would be possible to craft regulation to create a balance and develop enforcement mechanisms to maximize benefits for the community.”
Council explored questions regarding “best practices” like a permanent on-site residency requirement for hosts and a maximum number of permitted days for short-term occupancy. Council was strongly in favor of continuing review into best practices and hosting “community conversations”; while practically all who spoke saw value in Airbnb, concerns were raised over the loss of housing in the city’s tight market.
“I guess I’m kind of a hypocrite, as someone who uses Airbnb as a traveler, and sees it as a great value … I would like us to regulate this for the sake of the housing market, but I completely understand why people like it,” said Fleming.
“The number of 100 seems low to me,” added Brock. She asked why Airbnbs are not considered Bed & Breakfasts by zoning. Knipe replied that the code (parts of which date to the 1920s) was for what B&Bs used to be, and “now there’s a new game in town.”
Murtagh said he is generally supportive of looking more into the issue, adding, “I know there are some bad players on the market, but there are also a lot of benefits to Airbnb. This is an opportunity for people to cover their housing costs. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would move to a draconian crackdown that could force people to sell their homes.”
Stewart Avenue Paving
The Stewart Avenue paving was up for discussion because it turned out that about a year ago, the city’s Public Works Department paved a section of Stewart Avenue and Ferris Place that didn’t follow proper procedure, much to Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken’s consternation. He noted that emergency paving is allowed, but Ferris Place had been in that condition for 20 years.
“So Ferris Place is in the first ward,” said Brock. “And boy, I’m gonna get it for this one … it’s been in that condition for 20 years. It’s been in deplorable condition for 20 years. Maintaining infrastructure is a concern. We have other streets, Meadow and Buffalo, we have asphalt covering a yellow brick road, like the Emerald City … but I think it might be time to reconsider this ordinance and see if it’s really feasible in this growing, densifying, attractive city, to continue having these situations with Stewart, and State Street, and Ferris, which are difficult to obtain and difficult to blend in seamlessly. It’s so expensive and onerous and difficult. It just feels like it might be something to consider.”
“I’m not condoning the lack of communication,” said McGonigal. “The mayor has apologized for that. But the base of Stewart Avenue has failed. College Avenue is closed, so Stewart Avenue is getting a lot more traffic, and I think this is why this happened … but the proper channels should have been stuck to.”
While the recent issue was noted to be an error on the city’s part, councilors were split on whether the city sticking to the historic landmarking ordinance for municipal assets was financially prudent, but the discussion didn’t lean either way and wrapped up with few conclusions and a future debate likely at a later time.
Brief but important item: Waterfront Plan
Also up for a vote Wednesday, in this case to circulate for public and staff comments, were updates to the city’s Waterfront Plan. After two years of meetings by a 17-member community committee, and two recent open houses at the Farmer’s Market, a Phase II Comprehensive Plan draft regarding Waterfront-focused development issues and goals is ready for discussion. Fleming expressed concerns with the emphasis on tourism, and Brock asked about potential changes to the Waterfront Trail, to which JoAnn Cornish, director of planning and development, said rerouting would be undertaken as needed in the future.
“It’s exciting, seeing how the waterfront is going to change in the future,” said Murtagh. “Thank you for putting forth all this effort.” The vote to circulate passed unanimously.
Backyard Infill…Makes Some Headway?
The topic of “backyard infill” housing was once again a very thorough, if at times confusing, discussion. For clarity’s sake – backyard infill here includes detached new construction, garage conversions, basement conversions, and interior accessory dwelling units. Places where an existing home already exists. A vacant lot on Seneca Street where someone wants to build townhomes isn’t a part of this conversation.
Based on a city-led community meeting held at the library late last month (and relayed in Councilman Nguyen’s Twitter feed), most people’s feelings about infill vary depending on the size and type of infill. Basically, the smaller and less obvious it was, the more support it had. Basement conversions into apartments had virtually unanimous support, while garage conversions, new builds, and home additions were progressively more controversial as they grew bigger.
Overall, a modest majority of attendees were in favor of encouraging infill (56%), but a similar majority were opposed to multiple primary structures on a lot, and two-thirds advocated for backyard infill restrictions to owner-occupied properties on R-1 and R-2 (less dense) home lots. They also favored not requiring a special permit or a parking requirement, but two-thirds favored a green space requirement. The only unanimous answer from meeting attendees was that accessory units should have a maximum size limit and/or design guidelines. Basically, if someone wants to do a one-story detached dwelling or carve an apartment out of their home, people were OK with that. Anything much bigger than that was not as well received.
Murtagh cited good examples like the Aurora Pocket Neighborhood, but also said he was aware of multiple bad examples.
“At the very least, it seems to need to be heavily regulated. … We should talk about coming up with a permanent solution, maybe a ‘pocket neighborhood’ ordinance.”
Brock countered that she believed Aurora Street was a cluster development, and outside of the backyard infill discussion.
“In my mind, if someone is seeking to put four primary structures on one parcel, they should be steered to a cluster subdivision.” There was some debate as to whether it was a cluster subdivision or multiple primary (this writer’s recollection was that it was multiple primaries, but the city’s 2012-era documentation went offline ages ago).
Murtagh was opposed to the owner-occupancy requirement, while Fleming and Brock spoke in favor, citing concern over developers building accessory units that would place the whole property out of homeowners’ financial reach.
“We know the housing pressures in Ithaca are huge, and it’s becoming more and more unaffordable. This is to add incentive to allow people to buy their own homes,” said Kerslick. “The amount of support it has gotten has been surprising to me. It’s really important we get this right and build on that support.”
Was anything clear after tonight’s discussion? In that there are potential backyard infills the public supports and doesn’t support, yes. In terms of explicit regulations? No.
“This is such a complex issue and it affects different neighborhoods differently,” said McGonigal. “I agree with Donna that what we have needs tweaking, particularly this every three years thing, and you have to live in the big unit (as the owner). We have to figure out what we agree on.”
As a token show of hands for staff, the eight members of council in attendance (Mohlenoff (D-5th) and Gearhart (D-3rd) being the only ones not at the meeting) were split 4-4 on an owner-occupancy requirement – in effect, clearly inconclusive. After further discussion, there was support for size limits, but that wasn’t quite clear either. The planning staff took away that multiple primaries and cluster subdivisions will be compared and contrasted, height limits for garage conversions should be considered, green space requirements and bump out requirements for new construction, and maximum occupancy, and to cross-check with what’s on the books right now. A potential ordinance may come forward next month.