ITHACA, N.Y. — Early in his career, for a number of reasons, Svante Myrick had trouble convincing people he was serious.
“When I first ran for office, I had to assure people that this wasn’t some sort of prank,” said Myrick in an interview Tuesday, one week before election day.
“I was 20 years old when I first ran for the Common Council,” Myrick said. ”Folks then questioned my commitment, whether or not I was going to stick around.”
The Democratic incumbent, now 32 and seeking his third term as mayor, feels he has grown into the position. He says he has pushed to make the city a better, more inclusive place to live, but he has no plans to rest on his accomplishments.
The challenges that have defined Myrick’s tenure as mayor, the redesign of The Commons, the replacement of a wastewater treatment facility long past it expiration date and significant rezoning to help bring to life Plan Ithaca, the Myrick regime’s guiding document for the overhaul of Ithaca and it’s neighborhoods, if you ask him, are the foundation that he hopes the city can continue to build on into the future.
According to Myrick, the city’s problems are threefold.
“I think the first problem is the lack of affordable housing,” said Myrick. “We’re very proud that in the last eight years we’ve approved more affordable housing projects than any other time in the city’s history. But, the rent is still too high and the taxes are still too high. We’ve got to do more.”
Myrick cites bringing more affordable housing to the city, like 210 Hancock Apartments on First Street and Breckenridge Place on West Seneca Street, among some of his proudest moments as mayor. And more affordable units are in the works since the city implemented a 20% affordable housing component to all projects seeking tax abatement. Despite some affordable housing coming online, rents remain high.
Housing and Urban Development, the federal housing agency, raised the fair market price of a one-bedroom apartment in Ithaca to $969 for 2020. That is up from $941 in 2019, but down from $978 in 2018. Prices are falling, but for some, relief isn’t coming fast enough.
Yet, the investments in affordable projects have been largely eclipsed by criticism of other development in the city. Public housing advocates claiming the city isn’t doing enough to invest in affordable housing and that abatements offered to projects that would ultimately have rents out of reach for most residents are a misuse of limited resources.
Investments in pedestrian and bike infrastructure, and the construction they bring, have been another catalyst for criticism of Myrick’s tenure, launching at least one toxically polemic facebook group to date.
Lime Bikes have been another source of criticism for Myrick, as the roll-out of the bikes was marked with problems with riders using sidewalks, bikes blocking curb cuts and sidewalks and the significant increase in e-bikes on the streets, which are not yet legal in New York.
Despite these issues serving as the most readily available ammunition for his detractors, Myrick plans to double-down in pedestrian and bike infrastructure.
“The second problem is we need more human scale infrastructure. The last eight years required us to do enormous infrastructure projects, make huge investments, the largest the city’s ever made,” said Myrick. “But now it’s time for a smaller scale, human level infrastructure. An investment in our intersections and our roads and our bike lanes and our sidewalks.”
Some of those investments have already begun, not without their issues, but even critics — like First Ward Alderperson George McGonigal, have come around. McGonigal, seeking reelection unopposed this year, told potential voters at Monday’s candidates’ forum that the intersection at Floral Avenue and State Street is “much improved,” after initially being skeptical of the project. A development that is sure to irk local traffic cranks.
“The third problem is actually a twin set of crises which is climate change and growing inequality,” said Myrick. “And I think the Green New Deal can help us address both of those by getting our community to net carbon neutrality by 2030 and making sure that historically oppressed and disenfranchised groups have the opportunity to benefit from that work.”
While securing funding to create another sustainability position in the city to help implement Myrick’s Green New Deal was a priority in this year’s budget. However, Myrick has been quick to point out that, without significant resources being allocated at the federal level in the long term to implement a Green New Deal, the municipal initiative is mostly aspirational.
“I’ll be very upfront with you, I would like as much money for the Green New Deal in my budget as possible,” said Myrick when asked if the position went far enough in addressing the threat of climate change. “But, I’m trying to strike a compromise with members of council who don’t agree.”
Now, 8 years in, those initial challenges are the victories that Myrick is campaigning on, trying to fend off a bid from Adam Levine, a challenger from the left.
“I’m proud of the large challenges we’ve tackled over the last eight years,” said Myrick. “And I think that they’ve given me a good perspective and the right experience to lead our 500- employees and our $80 million budget to address the largest problems facing us in the coming four years.”
Myrick saw off his last challenger, a late write-in campaign by local activist Phoebe Brown, with 89% of the vote back in 2015. And his challenger has been relatively quiet again this cycle, not starting to campaign in earnest until leaving his job to hit the trail full-time in mid-October. Despite Levine’s late start, Myrick is taking nothing for granted.
“I don’t think there is ever an easy election,” he said. “There’s something about knowing your name is going to be on the ballot, and as your name is on these yard signs, that will keep you up at night. I don’t care if it’s your 20th election, it’s very stressful.”
One thing that has changed from that slim, 20-year old kid that was knocking doors in 2011: not having to convince people that he is committed to this community. That he is serious.
“My political opponents said that I was a short-timer and now, 12 years later, I think my opponents are wishing that I was a short-timer,” said Myrick. “I think they’re wishing that I would move on — because they haven’t beat us yet.”
Early voting ends Sunday and the general election is Tuesday, Nov. 5 and polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.