ITHACA, N.Y. — In the two centuries of Tompkins County’s existence, there have been many periods of relatively slow change interrupted by spurts of rapid change. 150 years ago, that was the opening of Cornell. A century ago, Morse Chain and Ithaca Gun took a mostly agricultural economy and gave it a new industrial base. Almost 50 years ago, it was the Commons, the mall, and the urban renewal of Ithaca. As another year comes to a close, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Tompkins is once again transitioning to its next chapter.

It can be a bit hard to keep in track of everything going on, but taking a moment to reflect on the past year, here are five major stories that help to define where the development and economy of Ithaca and Tompkins County are now, and where they’re going.

The Arthaus affordable housing development in Ithaca city. The 124-unit project is just getting underway, with a mid-2021 opening planned.

Ithaca and Tompkins make some headway on affordable housing

It’s not just a 2019 phenomenon, but this year was really when the city and county finally started to make some substantial progress on the affordable housing front. With Cornell building new student housing at Maplewood and on their North Campus, some of the pressure on the local housing market began to come off, and a number of larger affordable housing developments were proposed, approved, or broke ground. These range from the 124-unit Arthaus at 130 Cherry Street, to the Immaculate Conception School redevelopment, to Lakeview and INHS’s 60-unit West End Heights project at 709 West Court Street. A number of smaller projects also moved forward, including Visum’s 12-unit affordable project, “Liv”, at 327 West Seneca Street, and the rebuild of 203-209 Elm Street by INHS, part of their citywide renovation and reconstruction project.

The activity was not just limited to the city of Ithaca either. Milton Meadows brought 72 units of affordable housing with veteran’s preference to the town of Lansing, and the 73-unit Crescent Way / Village Grove Apartments mixed-income project (formerly Hamilton Square) in Trumansburg.

The pipeline is likely to grow significantly in the next few years, thanks to a growing economy and increased support from municipalities. The Community Housing Development Fund, which is used to help finance affordable housing development, saw significant boosts thanks to the city of Ithaca, Tompkins County, Cornell, and now town of Dryden.

$7.5 million in state grants will fund Ithaca affordable housing plansNew York State will award about $2.2 million to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services as part of the second phase for its scattered site preservation project, and $5.3 million to Lakeview Health Services for the construction of its West End Heights mixed-use project. The Ithaca Voice
A closer look at the redevelopment plan for former Immaculate Conception School Documents filed with the City of Ithaca this week are providing the first detailed look at the plans for the redevelopment of the former Immaculate Conception School on the 300 Block of West Buffalo Street. The Ithaca Voice
Affordable housing, net-zero apartments pitched for Ithaca – The City of Ithaca’s planning board got a closer look Wednesday at a pair of residential infill project pitched to join the city’s housing stock. The first of those is a net-zero energy project proposed for a vacant lot in the city’s South Side neighborhood, and the second is a large affordable proposal with amenities for artists planned for the Waterfront. The Ithaca Voice
Habitat for Humanity tries something new in Dryden – Tompkins County Habitat for Humanity (TCHFH) is pursuing another project, this one in more familiar territory at 1932 Slaterville Road in Dryden. However, it comes with one big twist. Instead of building new, the project seeks to rehab a worn-out 1860s farmhouse, the first “gut” renovation TCHFH has ever performed. The Ithaca Voice

The City Harbor development proposed for Pier Road.

A new start for Ithaca’s West End and Waterfront

Long neglected (and largely destroyed by the creation of the flood control channel in the 1960s), Ithaca’s waterfront and greater West End saw growing interest from both local and regional developers during the past year. Of particular note were several purchases connected to the project team responsible for the City Harbor mixed-use project planned for Pier Road, some of which are now hosts for new proposals designed to complement Ithaca’s resurgent waterfront properties. With an expanded GreenStar Co-Op, the Carpenter Park mixed-use project, new homes and further plans brewing, the neighborhood may well be the focal point for local real estate development heading into the 2020s.

Carpenter Park developers seek zoning overlay with updated site planThe developers of the Carpenter Park mixed-use project submitted their application for a Planned Unit Development zoning overlay late last week, which is critical to their plans moving forward. The Ithaca Voice
Major waterfront sale portends growth in Ithaca’s West End – One of the waterfront’s higher profile properties changed hands last week as part of a multi-million deal, one that could result in further development in the increasingly-popular West End. The Ithaca Voice
City Harbor project gets new investor and design – It’s been fairly quiet lately with the City Harbor project proposed for Ithaca’s waterfront on Pier Road but now the project appears to be seeking a refresh, with a new investor on board and a new design to send forward to the city’s planning board. The Ithaca Voice
Homes rise on Ithaca’s Waterfront – Ithaca’s Waterfront is a source of a thousand real estate wonders, good and bad. It’s a classic case of a favorite quote of mine, from Tompkins County assessor Jay Franklin: “(N)othing is as great as it seems to be, and nothing is as bad as it seems to be.The Ithaca Voice

A year of ups and downs for developer Dave Lubin

Another developer once described Dave Lubin to me as “a dreamer, for better or worse”. Certainly, his eventful 2019 has been filled with its share of dreams and nightmares. His Harold’s Square project with McGuire Development of Buffalo has struggled in the past year, with a change in construction managers, a construction schedule delayed multiple times, and angry locals, upset about the closure of the Commons playground and the impacts his project has had on neighboring businesses.

But, all those issues and concerns noted, it is progressing. The latest timeline calls for an opening of both the commercial and residential tenant spaces by August of 2020.

On a brighter note, the massive Chain Works project, Lubin’s magnum opus, as it were, was approved in 2019 after 5 years navigating the approval process. The first phase calls for the renovation of four existing buildings, two minor renovations for industrial tenants, the other two for residential and commercial office uses. The hope is that the former Morse Chain / Emerson Power can begin a new life as a new neighborhood, once again returning the long-vacant factory to an active part of the city’s urban fabric.

Citing issues, Harold’s Square changes up project team – In a statement received late Wednesday, the general contractors in charge of the Harold’s Square mixed-use project on the Commons gave notice that they’d be leaving the project after a decade-plus of involvement. The Ithaca Voice
After delays, Harold’s Square project on Ithaca Commons will resume construction – After being paused for nearly a month, construction of Harold’s Square on the Ithaca Commons is set to resume again this week, McGuire Development says. The Ithaca Voice
Chain Works District nears project approval after five yearsThe Chain Works District has been in planning for over five years and going through the project approvals process for over three years. But the approvals process may be in the home stretch. The Ithaca Voice

West State Street. Photo courtesy of Brian Crandall.

A question of what zoning is the “right” zoning

Generally, much of the last decade has seen something of a loosening of zoning guidelines, whether it be the Downtown rezoning in 2013, the Collegetown Form Districts in 2014, the Varna Plan of 2012 or the Waterfront rezoning in 2017.

In the past year, however, we’ve started to see a trend in the other direction, to make things more stringent. Members of the town of Dryden’s Planning Board have pushed a plan to downzone Varna to limit its population, especially among renters. The city, alarmed by the design of an affordable housing proposal at 510 West State Street, pushed for a downzoning of the West State Street Corridor. A plan to try and accommodate Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in the city of Ithaca became a bureaucratic nightmare as residents of different neighborhoods came before the Common Council with very different goals and expectations for the new ADU code. Just when some sort of compromised seemed feasible, the county’s late letter objecting to some of the core proposals threw the entire plan into disarray, with its future unknown.

As the ADU debate demonstrated, there is no one simple answer to what is the “right” zoning, or if there ever was a “right” zoning. Planners are trying to accommodate the stresses of economic growth, population growth and rising property values after decades of modest or no growth, and the balance of physical character vs. socioeconomic and cultural character. One person’s “protection of neighborhood character” is another’s “chasing the poor and working-class out of the city.” That debate is unlikely to subside as we head into the next decade.

City approves zoning amendment for West State Street Corridor – Common Council has approved adjusting the zoning of three blocks of West State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Downtown Ithaca. The Ithaca Voice
Unfulfilling infill? City committee debates in-law units and accessory dwellingsWednesday night’s City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting was long and thorough, but if you came in looking for a conclusive debate, you went home with little to show for it. The Ithaca Voice
Dryden considers downzoning in Varna – It’s the magical question of zoning – what is the right zoning for the “right” amount of development? The truth is, there is no one single answer because it changes with place and time. In Dryden’s case, some planning board members think it’s time to rein it in within the hamlet of Varna. The Ithaca Voice

The William Henry Miller Inn. Photo courtesy of Jacob Mroczek.

New faces, old staples

There’s a lot of change around Ithaca and Tompkins County right now. That includes at some places that folks feel offer an intangible but positive impact on the community – “what makes Ithaca, Ithaca”. Some beloved organizations got new leases on life. The William Henry Miller Inn welcomed a new owner, the Ithaca College Presidential Mansion became a B&B of its own, and Finger Lakes ReUse finished out a tumultuous year with the wind at its back.

Perhaps these are the stories that remind us that Ithaca is more than just buildings and streets and gorges. What makes this community what it is isn’t the structures. It’s the people who inhabit them, imparting their own goals, concerns and quirks on the community and helping to create that local flavor. While the stories are unique to 2019, and while those who show up and speak out may change, the Ithaca and greater Tompkins community is timeless.

With sale, Ithaca College’s former presidential mansion will have new purpose – Ithaca College has officially sold its venerable East Hill presidential mansion at 2 Fountain Place to new owners, who are alumni of Ithaca College and Cornell University. With the purchase of their “dream house,” the couple plans to turn the historic property into a bed and breakfast. The Ithaca Voice
The next chapter begins for the William Henry Miller Inn – After nine months on the market, the beloved William Henry Miller Inn has sold to a pair of local buyers. The Ithaca Voice
GrassRoots Festival’s vision for future grows – In an area that loves its festivals, the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance is one of the most iconic. It’s become such a staple and success, it’s hard to imagine it any different. But as the scope of the music has expanded and attendance has consistently risen, come challenges and opportunities. The Ithaca Voice
At Finger Lakes ReUse, Every Day is Thanks (for) Giving – When we last checked in on Finger Lakes ReUse, things weren’t looking too good. The larger store on Elmira Road was facing foreclosure and possible layoffs of its staff, many of whom were trained and brought back into the workforce by the non-profit. It’s the kind of scenario no director or manager wants to be staring down. But they got through it. Finger Lakes ReUse is still here. The Ithaca Voice

Brian Crandall

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