ITHACA, N.Y. — It was a fairly brief meeting for the City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee this month. There were two votes on how to spend regular and emergency federal funds that sailed through the committee, while the topic of waterfront zoning, much debated over the past decade, proved to be a more thorny topic. For those who like to read along to the play-by-play, the agenda is here.

There were two public hearings on the agenda last night, one for the finalized Action Plan for the federal grant funds the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) received, and the other for amendments to the waterfront zoning. Both of these items were also up for a vote by the PEDC to send to Council, where a vote of approval would make the proposed motions the newest laws of the land. Also up for a vote to send to Council tonight was an Emergency Rental Assistance Program, presented by the IURA’s Community Development Planner, Anisa Mendizabal.

IURA Funding

We’ll start with the IURA Action Plan item. These are funds from the regular annual grant application and award process from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and have nothing to do with COVID-19. Unfortunately, only a handful or very large cities (population 500,000+) and counties qualify for large-scale COVID relief funds, and the prospect of more emergency relief funding for smaller cities and counties is looking increasingly grim. There’s about $1.18 million in regular HUD funding expected to be available, and the allocations are detailed in the list below.

This year, 16 of the 23 applications received to the IURA were at least partially funded. Nine were fully funded at their requested amount. This includes the four “Founder’s Way” affordable for-sale townhomes Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services will build on the former Immaculate Conception School property, as well as INHS’s Small Repair program for lower-income households, the 2-1-1 phone service, and Catholic Charities’ Immigrant Services Program. Several others received partial funds. For instance, the Northside Apartments redevelopment will receive about $90,878 of the $300,000 requested, and Project Growing Hope (the Ithaca Community Gardens) will get $25,150 of the $54,950 they requested for new sheds, gates and sound barriers.

Rather unusual, but a sign of the times, a couple of requests were overfunded in an attempt to stem the economic damage caused by COVID-19. This includes the Economic Development Loan Fund for local businesses ($120,000 requested, $255,918 being made available) and Catholic Charities’ Security Deposit Assistance program for lower-income households ($61,500 requested, $76,416 awarded).

The Public Hearing was quick and painless (the real debate on Action Plan funds happens earlier at the IURA Meetings). Apart from a couple of quick questions about the Northside project and the Ithaca Community Gardens proposals, the topic invoked little discussion, and the funding plan was approved unanimously to head to Council for approval next month.

Emergency Rental Assistance Program

This is pretty much as it sounds. In the first COVID relief bill (the CARES Act), the county was allocated $590,000 of emergency relief funds for use outside Ithaca, and the city of Ithaca itself received $321,299. The city and county will tap INHS as a “Project Sponsor” for the administration of these funds in an emergency rental assistance program, with the city allocated $190,000 of its funds towards the effort (another $100,000 of COVID relief funding has been made available and the Request for Proposals was put up yesterday). Households would apply for rent assistance to INHS, who would pay their rent for them. Many renters work in the lower-paying local service industries, and are therefore disproportionately impacted by the economic disruptions caused by the shutdown in response to COVID-19.

Priority will be given to those making 60% of area median income or less (about $36,000/year or less), who pay more than 30% of their monthly income towards rent, and who have less than $5,000 in assets, not including their stimulus check. The applicant must provide proof that they were adversely impacted by COVID-19. The applicant’s landlord must agree as part of receipt of emergency fund payment not to charge any late fees, not allow the property to fall into disrepair, and not force the tenant to pay part of the rent – the whole purpose of this is to give tenants financial breathing room during a time of crisis. As part of agreeing to accept the payments, the landlord must not attempt to evict the tenant just for being in the rental assistance program.

Public comments regarding the proposal show a few grumblings that the city and county selected INHS over other agencies, but INHS has a track record of managing grant funds efficiently and transparently, and the staff capacity to manage what’s likely to be hundreds of applications in the City of Ithaca alone.

On the Council’s end, this was once again a topic of only modest debate. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) noted the concerns about INHS, and asked if another organization could be enrolled to administer the emergency rental assistance. Mendizabal responded that the county was already reprogramming money to INHS, and that while the city gave other organizations initial consideration and met with other providers, they opted to work with the county to make the emergency rental assistance application process as seamless as possible, they didn’t want people running around to different organizations based on location. Brock stressed the IURA make sure INHS treats its tenants and other tenants equally, and INHS Executive Director Johanna Anderson, who had been invited to the Zoom video call, assured they would not favor their own residents and would work to provide online and non-online options.

Brock also had two more inquiries, one about a maximum contribution cap, and one about whether late fees would only be prohibited for three months, or for the duration of the landlord-tenant relationship. IURA Director Nels Bohn said late fees were waived for the three-month period, and that the cap is 150% the value of HUD-defined fair market rent (FMR), which means the emergency assistance cap is a little less than $1,500 for a one-bedroom unit, and a little over $1,700 per month for a two-bedroom unit.

Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) asked if students would qualify. Mendizabal said that all household members would need to be on the same lease, so if each student has their own lease like in the usual Collegetown apartment house, they would not. However, some graduate students living alone or some graduate students with families could potentially access it.

In response to one last question from Brock, federal rules are such that the funds are only legally allowed for three months, and if another round comes through, it’ll have to either be a new program or a different group of recipients. If a new wave of funding comes along, it will also likely go to states rather than communities directly, and that’s a big “if” for that funding being approved by Congress. If the community is still struggling three months from now, it could mean an even greater economic crisis than right now, because there may not be more federal support forthcoming.

The vote to send to Council for approval passed unanimously.

Waterfront Zoning Revisions

As previously reported, the city of Ithaca is revising some of its newish Waterfront Zoning three years after it was implemented. Part of this is an effort to clean up the language, and part of this is because a couple of city councilors and some staff were unhappy with the physical form, appearance and density of the Arthaus affordable housing project underway at 130 Cherry Street.

The proposed changes including changing out townhouses for the more flexible rowhouse definition, because as defined by zoning code, townhouses are only side-by-side units and don’t allow stacked dwellings where the first floor and second floor are separate units. They also wouldn’t have to have uniform setbacks, so the string of units doesn’t have to be a straight line setback, some can be set back more than others so long as the units closest to the property edges meet minimum yard requirements.

The stepback for upper floors would also be removed for the northern waterfront zones (Newman Zone and Market Zone), where the inlet is wider and there’s already a large building setback from the water’s edge. As discovered while staff were reviewing the City Harbor project, the upper floor stepbacks in those areas were rather pointless. The purpose of those setbacks was to prevent a “canyon” effect of tall buildings bunched up on the water, but the view in those areas is going to be wide open regardless of upper floor designs.

On the more stringent side, the revised code would put in a maximum building length (suggested initially at 100 feet), and a minimum 20-foot break between buildings, unless they’re a taller building, in which case the first 24 feet has to be broken and the top floors can be continuous. The whole point is to preserve water views from the street. The code also adds a 5-foot front yard setback where there was previous none, and reduces lot coverage from the existing 100% excluding setbacks, to 75% with a 10% green space requirement.

Providing fuel for the discussion was Visum Development’s two-building mixed-use project planned for Cherry Street. While it meets the new zoning code, the project team practically thrust the project forward, pandemic noted, to try and avoid having any further zoning changes jeopardize their months and tens of thousands of dollars of planning and design work.

“I believe just based on the team that we have, the progress that we’ve made so far, the design of these buildings is in line with what the city is looking for,” said Todd Fox, the CEO of Visum. “We’re just worried that some of these zoning changes, like building length, could make these projects not viable. I think we’ve been very responsive and considerate in the planning, and we’re just looking for consideration of time and to not rush this (rezoning) process and to let our process to take shape, and to work with JoAnn (Cornish, Planning Director) and Lisa (Nicholas, Senior Planner) and Council to put forward buildings that make the most sense.”

At the opening of the discussion, Councilor Brock made it clear that, while she appreciated Fox’s input, she didn’t want to accommodate any particular proposal. “I hope that we can have a conversation with regards to these changes to the waterfront in general, and not about specific projects….I don’t want to stall it for one particular project.” In response, Councilor Steve Smith (D-4th Ward) noted that the zoning revisions were being done in response to a project, the Arthaus plan.

Councilor Fleming said that after getting a tour of the Cherry Street area from Alderperson George McGonigal (D-1st Ward), she wanted more light industry in the area, and she didn’t want to discourage that with the expanded uses provided by the 2017 zoning. “I think we need to ease back on some of these.”

The board quickly began to break down on similar angles to previous discussions. More stringent zoning regulations and greater limitations/downzoning were favored by Brock and Fleming, and in contrast, encouragement of denser, mixed-use walkable development from Smith.

Councilor McGonigal, a non-voting member on the Zoom call, wanted an additional 10 feet on the rear yard setback and public amenities from private landowners. Alderperson Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd Ward), a non-voting member also on the call, questioned whether the building length limitation would have the desired visual effect.

Brock sought to have the lot coverage dropped from 75% with the 10% green space requirement to 70% with a 15% green space requirement. Putting a motion forward, Fleming expressed concern that dropping the lot coverage could hurt light industrial uses, but McGonigal and Planning Director Cornish spoke against it, suggesting it wasn’t necessary and the land could be used for stormwater retention. Planner Jennifer Kusznir added that exemptions could be granted – which is true perhaps, but most businesses would rather avoid the uncertainty and the whims of council members and would just locate elsewhere if that were an issue.

“I’m a little skeptical of this. I feel like we get in the situation where a project comes along and we rezone in response to it. I did reread the waterfront plan…it does recommend physical and visual access to the waterfront, and I do think that we have to make sure that we’re not doing rezoning changes with a project in mind…I will support this amendment,” said Alderperson Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward). The vote to drop the lot coverage, for 70% lot coverage with 15% green space with no exemptions for industrial uses passed 4-1, with Smith opposed.

A motion by Smith to remove the limitation on building length failed for lack of a second vote in the motion. Two further motions were made by Fleming to add an additional ten feet to the rear yard setback (from 25 to 25 feet) and additional five feet on each side (from 10 feet each to 15 feet each), per Alderperson McGonigal’s suggestion. The additional 10 foot rear setback on properties adjacent to the flood control channel passed 3-2, with Smith and Murtagh opposed.

As for the side yard setbacks, Lewis drew the line there, saying she couldn’t support it. “Much of what I wanted to see is achieved with the increased green space and decreased lot cover.” The motion to increase side yard setbacks failed 4-1, with Brock opposed, and the committee passed the overall package of changed zoning revisions 4-1 with Smith opposed. It will go to the June Common Council meeting for final approval.

In case you’re curious, looking at the changes, Visum would squeeze in under the lot coverage (the 25-foot wide DEC right-of-way on the water’s edge counts towards the lot size, which helps), but the maximum building length and increased rear yard setback will force a major redesign for both buildings if the projects are still feasible, which seems especially unlikely for 110 Cherry given the narrow lot on which it is proposed.

Brian Crandall

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