ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s a COVID-19 world and we’re all still adjusting to it. Some big decisions were delayed last night at this month’s city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting, driven out of concern that the public still had yet to adapt to an environment of Zoom meetings and YouTube streaming. However, there was still much discussion to be had in those two hours, brief by PEDC standards.

For those who like to read along to the play-by-play, agenda link here.

A garage to one-bedroom apartment conversion at 201 West Clinton Street.

Special Permits vote delayed over accessory dwelling unit concerns

The special order of business for tonight was a public hearing and vote on Special Permits. This stems from the whole accessory dwelling unit and short-term rental debate; because those have been in the works for months, and likely will be for some time yet, the original laws are still in place.  That includes the controversial rule that allows multiple primary structures by right. Some projects have been well received, like the Aurora Street Pocket Neighborhood, and others, like the 607 South Aurora infill project, have not.

The proposed law is essentially a patch, making proposals for multiple primary structures (ex. two full-sized houses) on a single lot Special Permit only, which moves any and all future multiple primary structure applications to the Planning Board for review until the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) and Short-Term Rental (STR) legislation is eventually ironed out and approved by Common Council.

As is anything that substantively has impacts on the physical environment (in this case via zoning changes), it has to go through environmental review. Just as the citizen-led Planning Board does with any project, the Common Council’s Planning Committee declares itself Lead Agency for review, makes sure the forms are filled out correctly, and then if they’re satisfied, they accept the proposed changes with a negative declaration (environmental impacts are mitigated) before voting on the proposed regulatory changes and sending them to the full Common Council to enact into law.

A couple of comments were submitted via email for the PEDC Meeting, which were read by Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward) into the public record, from South Hill residents supporting the Special Permit approach.

Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd) asked for clarity on what zones were impacted and how this fits with the ADUs and Short-Term Rentals. City planner Jennifer Kusznir replied it affected R-1, R-2 and CR-1/CR-2 single-family and two-family residential zoning, and that it replaces accessory apartments in the code. ADUs of the basement buildout, in-law apartment and garage conversion varieties would become as-of-right (and easier to do, in a sense, since they’d be automatically allowed to obtain construction permits pending they meet existing zoning constraints).

Since the impact on accessory apartments wasn’t clear from the start, Murtagh, though supportive, was concerned about moving forward with something this consequential. No one realized the new law as proposed replaced all the existing ADU rules, including the owner-occupancy and size restriction requirements, and would effectively eliminate those constraints. “I liked it when I read it, but I guess I didn’t know it was entirely replacing accessory apartments…if I had read more deeply I would have seen that, but I didn’t catch that implication,” said Fleming.

“I think it’s clear that we need to bring our minds back to where we were a month ago,” said Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st). “I agree with Donna, I’m very cautious to move this forward while also relieving the ADU requirements. I like the rest of this very much, but…the accessory apartment eliminations, I’m very hesitant to do that without the other pieces in place.”

City Planning Director JoAnn Cornish said that a pause would be fine for a month if the committee wanted, as demand to build accessory apartments isn’t exactly high at the moment. “I would be okay with pushing pause on this,” said Murtagh. The gist seemed to be a push to try and meld ADU stuff into the code, which Cornish made clear would be more complicated than it looks, given the months of ADU debate that have already happened.

There was also some debate on the length of the pause itself; Murtagh wanted to wait until regular public meetings can happen again “when they could hear from more voices”, but Brock warned that may be well past June in a worst-case scenario, and councilors Steve Smith (D-4th) and Laura Lewis (D-5th) felt there was a real value in the Zoom and YouTube approached being deployed on the fly now, and that they would make it work after the initial adjustment period (I will note that the Planning Board also used a sealed-off room in City Hall for those who had to speak in-person last month, for instance, those without computers). With no formal vote, the pause is indefinite, but will hopefully give the public a thorough chance to comment and adjust to the new Internet-based, socially-distant approach.

City establishes “Small Business Resiliency Fund” to help businesses weather COVID crisis

On the announcement side, Deputy Planning Director Tom Knipe stated that the mayor has convened an “Economic Recovery Cabinet” of business and government leaders to collaborate on ways to help the city’s local business owners through the COVID-19 crisis. Knipe stated that a pair of surveys of business owners have been initiated to understand the extent of how they’re impacted, and among 122 respondents to the second survey, 57 have closed, three permanently. 62% have been negatively impacted and 40% have no reserve finances. Three-quarters have not received flexibility in payments from their lenders. Things are getting bad, folks: 1300 people applied for unemployment for Tompkins County last week alone.

The city is trying to assist with business owners on how to access the new Small Business Administration programs, other resources to help them and their workforce, and direct contact. The city is working to establish a “Small Business Resiliency Fund”, which now has $290,000 committed. These would be $5,000 micro-loans that will be forgivable if the business reopens, and is designed to give them the financial coverage they need to keep their business afloat through the crisis so that they can reopen when conditions allow. Knipe added that additional local resources for a revolving loan fund will likely be needed as the city looks towards recovery after the crisis abates. For those of you doing online purchases from local businesses, and gift card buys, Knipe wants you to know they’re helping, and could make all the difference in keeping some of our beloved local shops alive.

Councilor Brock encouraged Knipe to try and get a wide geographic swath of businesses to respond and be made aware of the possibility of financial assistance, particularly local businesses in her ward along the Route 13 Corridor. Councilor Lewis made the observation that the IDA and TCAD are working to support the emergency fund to support businesses during and when recovering from the crisis. Funding for the loan program will be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, and there’s hope that federal funds will soon arrive to support the effort as well. It is expected, though, that demand will outstrip the funding available, which is why the city and local business groups hope to make more funding available as soon as possible.

Cornish also provided an update on the Green New Deal team. The search for a Sustainability Director led to 22 strong candidates and four interviews just before the COVID-19 crisis blew up. However, with the economic health of the city uncertain, Cornish and Mayor Svante Myrick decided to put the hiring on pause for the time being. Cornish added she reached out to the candidates before the meeting and asked them to “please keep their interest intact and (the city) will be in touch”. Cornish indicated there’s still every intent to hire someone when the city’s situation stabilizes. “Climate change is still happening and we know we’ll have to start focusing on that again”.

“It’s become more clear than ever in the past month that a force of nature outside of our control can have a real detrimental impact on our way of life…if anything, I hope we take those lessons forward in the lessons to address climate change,” added Mayor Myrick. “As we take measure of our finances, we’ll figure out ways forward with our current Sustainability Coordinator”.

Three-way (left) and four-way (right) options for the Fifth Street – Route 13 intersection.

Vote on Fifth Street – Route 13 intersection postponed

On the agenda for a vote for approval to circulate was which plan was preferable for making Fifth Street connect with Route 13. With the Carpenter Park development connecting to Route 13 across the street, the debate is whether it should be a three-way intersection with Fifth Street only connected with lighted signals, crosswalk and non-vehicular paved path for bicyclists and pedestrians, or a fully-connected four-way intersection.

Northside residents made it clear they were opposed to the four-way option. Letters received to the Committee from nearby residents were generally amenable to the three-way with paved pedestrian path and bike lane, with gentle praise for the pedestrian refuge median planned for Route 13 (for the record, there is no way to cross Fifth Street to the other side of Route 13 unless you want to play the human version of Frogger by dodging traffic). City engineers, however, preferred the four-way intersection.

Councilor Fleming expressed a preference for the four-way. “There’s already cuts on other streets, I use Third Street to get to the Farmer’s Market. Maybe it would just even out the traffic. I’ve come to trust the judgment of our traffic engineers and the engineering department. But I think it’s also important (for the Carpenter Park developers) to have a demand management program, and reduce single-occupant vehicle use.”

“I agree with Donna. It’s not really a break-in access that would cause a quicker trajectory into downtown, so it doesn’t really provide much benefit beyond taking Third Street. But I do hear the concerns of the residents….if it was built as three-way, would it be easy to turn into a four-way if the need was identified down the line?” Asked Councilor Brock. City senior planner Lisa Nicholas and transportation engineer said they’d have to go through the long and arduous review process with NYS DOT again, to which Brock said it might make more sense to ask for a four-way and go to a three-way if the city decided that was better later on. However, it’s not clear if the state would legally go after the city for reneging on an agreement.

Murtagh, who represents the Northside, said he was preferential to the three-way, mindful of his constituents’ concerns. His (PEDC non-voting) ward colleague, councilor Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd), preferred a connected grid personally, but would be okay with the three-way intersection based on his neighbors’ concerns and so long as it had good pedestrian and bike connections. Lewis was also sympathetic to the three-way option, while Smith leaned towards the four-way option.

As with the Special Permits debate, there was concern that the general public hadn’t had enough opportunity to comment, especially with the rapid adjustment to a COVID-driven world. Planner Nicholas said the decision on a four-way or three-way could be held a month, but that the negative environmental review declaration could still probably move forward this month, if both options had effective mitigations. But the board decided to table the vote for a month 4-1 (Smith opposed) and reach out to the neighborhood for more input.

A rendering of the Arthaus Ithaca project.

Updating the Waterfront Zoning, again

Also up for discussion with a vote to circulate were amendments to waterfront zoning. Along with some cleanup on language, it proposes a maximum building length of 100 feet, with a minimum gap between buildings of 20 feet if they’re 24 feet tall or higher and don’t allow public waterfront access (the reasoning being to protect sightlines of the water from the street), it adds a front yard setback requirement of 5 feet from the sidewalk, it reduces the allowed building footprint in the Cherry Street District to 60% of the lot (it was 100% excluding setbacks). The changes also remove the stepback requirement for upper floors in the Market and Newman zones because the original law wasn’t achieving the intended aesthetic goal (the setbacks from ground level seem to be achieving the same effect in areas where the waterway is wider).

To illustrate, city planners included how the maximum buildable space was reduced for two parcels – one of those being the Precision Filters site, the other being where the Arthaus affordable housing project is underway, which apparently the city did not like from a design perspective (it still feels a little icky to pick on an affordable housing project). This is what essentially happens whenever the city changes zoning; some project of variable municipal benefit happens or doesn’t happen as a result of zoning, and then they go back and tweak the zoning in response. It’s like adding spices to a soup and everyone has their own idea of what a great soup tastes like, the flavor changes with the simmering and people keep tweaking the recipe anyway.

Debate revolved around if the gaps were necessary (particularly for non-waterfront parcels in the zoning), and if they wanted to put a burden on industrial uses like warehouses south of Cecil Malone Drive, for whom the 100-foot maximum building length could prove burdensome. Visum Development came up, confirming plans of a long-rumored project in that neighborhood, but Cornish noted that the version she had seen a while back was likely not fitting with the city’s vision for that area.

Murtagh also expressed concern that the lower 60% lot limit would defeat some of the purpose of the fairly new zoning, which is to create an urban mixed-use neighborhood, which Smith agreed with and PEDC non-voting councilor George McGonigal did not, saying that no one was thinking of the hypothetical families and children by not having enough open space. Murtagh countered that open space didn’t necessarily mean green space. “The rest of the lot could be anything. It could be parking.”

Brock, pulling up the code on her computer, noting that the city’s Mixed-Use (MU) zoning is 70% lot coverage with a 10% green space minimum. Planning director Cornish added that the city does have design guidelines in place for waterfront properties. Councilor Smith suggested a more modest lot size reduction, to 75% lot coverage for the Cherry Street Corridor with a 10% green space requirement for the present time; it passed 3-2 with Brock and Fleming opposed (Brock felt 70% was her high limit). The vote to circulate the proposed zoning changes, with the adjusted lot coverage, passed unanimously.

Brian Crandall

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