ITHACA, N.Y. –– After a hiatus last month, the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee convened to discuss some potential new traffic patterns, some changes to the city’s tax abatement policy, and some spiffy new digs in Cass Park. As always, the Voice is along for the ride, to give you that play-by-play you’ve come to expect.

As usual, for those who like the meeting agendas to go with their play-by-play, you can find a copy of that here. Side note, bravo to councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st), who took time out of her wedding anniversary/vacation to tune in to the Zoom call.

NYSDOT West End Traffic Reroute Proposal

First on the list of voting items this evening is something that anyone who travels through Ithaca West End will want to pay attention to. The New York State Department of Transportation is seeking a plan to alter traffic patterns, with the intent to reduce congestion and increase safety.

As proposed, the 600 Block of West Buffalo Street would change from a two-way street to a one-way eastbound between Fulton and Meadow Streets. One block south, the 700 Block of West Court Street would either be converted to a one-way westbound route, or otherwise expanded to increase westbound traffic capacity. Collectively, the proposed West Buffalo and West Court Street changes are referred to as a “one-way pair”, also called a “couplet” – two one-way streets whose traffic flows combine on both ends.

The DOT has been interested in a traffic re-routing plan for a while. But by requiring it as a mitigation to allow the City Harbor and the Carpenter Park projects to be built, and by not allowing any other pedestrian improvements to state-owned Route 13 without the new traffic plan, they can get the city of Ithaca to go along with it. Theoretically, if the city did not play along, it could make the planned auction of the DOT’s waterfront property next month a veritable disaster, but it’s in the best interest of everyone to play nice.

However, as with anything that impacts something as sensitive as commuters, a traffic study still needs to be be carried to determine the potential feasibility and impacts of the DOT proposal. No one wants a reconfirmation that pushes traffic into Northside, delays emergency vehicles or harms long-term city planning goals for the West End.  But as city planners note, “DOT is enthusiastic about the proposal and believes it will address long term existing deficiencies and safety issues within the network”. Discussions for who (state or city) pay for what portion have yet to occur, though if all goes well with the study, the project would be scheduled alongside state road reconstruction in the West End planned for Spring 2023.

Common Council’s role in this is issuing a resolution of support for the project concept – not necessarily the project, but support for the study, which would allow the study to happen, and allow the DOT to review pedestrian improvements and the new break-in access for Carpenter Park. A vote on the traffic reconfiguration would come in early 2021, with final designs and funding approvals later next year.

Two letters were received in opposition. One was from West Hill resident Dave Nutter, who said in a letter that West Court Street was a good, quiet street for bikers, and the one-way would take that away, and that the proposal would only exacerbate traffic congestion and risk pedestrian safety. An Enfield lawmaker also spoke against the project, saying it would snarl traffic in the outbound commute, and instead recommended additional bridges.

“As you know, the two waterfront projects still in the approval process had improvements proposed to Route 13, all of which DOT has jurisdiction over permitting,” said city planner Lisa Nicholas. “There was somewhat of a disagreement, but DOT really felt like these added too much vehicular traffic to Route 13. The city was fine with the additional pedestrian traffic amenities, but DOT wasn’t, so they proposed this as required mitigation. That’s why we’re bringing this to you now, to see if the city is interested and determine what you think about it and the direction we should go.”

“I do have some issue with this not having been shared with residents at this point,” said councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th). Her colleague Brock expressed similar concerns. “I’d allow this to be circulated for review by residents, neighboring municipalities to provide their feedback and input, so I’d like to see us take some time before voting on this….also, this resolution as written talks about us giving approval for the concept of the couplet, I would like to see the resolved modified so that Council can decide whether to give approval on the concept of this couplet.”

“My sense is that if you pass the resolution as written, it wouldn’t have to come to council,” said city traffic engineer Tim Logue. “But that could be refined.”

“Not only do I not agree with the (couplet) concept, I think it would be horrible to send this on without further approval from Council,” replied councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd). “They’re arguing for this change because traffic will flow more smoothly from West Hill east along Buffalo Street, and that will help traffic along. Is that the theory?”

“They came up with this idea that removing all the westbound Buffalo Street traffic would allow for two traffic movements, simplify the signals and process more traffic,” said Logue. “They also think there would be enhanced safety by the simplified movement….the important thing for us as a city right now is for us to make a list of concerns and questions that you want answered so that we don’t overlook important issues, and that it could potentially be approved in concept.”

It quickly became apparent that no one wanted to move forward with the proposal for a study just yet. Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) asked to table the resolution for a month so that public outreach could be conducted, which passed unanimously.

With the vote, Brock, who has never been a fan of the waterfront projects currently on the boards, asked if shrinking the projects would avoid mitigation. Planning Director JoAnn Cornish and planner Nicholas said that it was likely that there is a specific number, but that the DOT was also seeing this as a chance to address existing problems caused by intra-city traffic and development in the neighboring towns full of commuters. Brock expressed concerns that DOT’s own development site on the end of Third Street could be a “Pandora’s Box” requiring further mitigation, to which Nicholas said she would ask for that property included in the DOT’s analysis, as well as development underway outside the city, to demonstrate whether DOT’s proposed traffic plan would do what they say it will do.

With that, the proposal was tabled, and Northside, West Hill and other neighborhood groups can expect emails about the project in the coming weeks, if they haven’t already been sent before this article posts.

CIITAP Revisions

The proposed revisions to the City of Ithaca Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program (CIITAP) were two-pronged. The first had to do with procedure. Typically, the city does its review, holds a public hearing and decides whether or not to endorse an application, and then the applicant begins to review process with the Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority (IDA). The city’s vote is non-binding; the IDA can decide what they please, but the city’s endorsement is usually a big factor in whether or not a project gets their abatement, especially since two of the IDA’s seven votes are the mayor and a city councilor.

However, there is a problem – the county and city’s applications are the same in most respects, but they don’t quite match on workforce housing policy. The county offers an opt-out payment to the Community Housing Development Fund that the city does not, and the percentages and area median income cutoff differ slightly (20% of units at 75% area median income in the city’s application, 20% of units at 80% are median income in the county’s). As city staff admit in the memo, “(t)his process is complicated and unnecessarily confusing and creates an opportunity for inconsistencies between the two reviewing bodies.”

To fix this, two options are being explored. Either the City tells the IDA that it endorses any projects that meet its criteria and eliminate the city’s application, therefore letting the IDA handle the review since they’re the decision-makers, or if the city wishes to maintain its own review process, that it be simplified to the base criteria of location, density, size and municipal compliance, while the IDA will tackle diversity, local labor and housing requirements in its portion.

The other proposed revision to CIITAP is to revise the geographic bounds of the CIITAP district to include the portion of Cherry Street north of Cecil Malone Drive where mixed-use development is allowed (residential uses are not allowed south of Cecil Malone Drive). Readers may remember that multiple projects have been proposed in that area in the past year, including an expansion at the Aeroplane Factory complex, and a two-building proposal from Visum Development Group (the Arthaus project under construction has a PILOT agreement for the affordable units, but it’s not a part of CIITAP). The logic is that CIITAP on the table would help balance out the high construction costs.

A couple letters received by the board, from residents Theresa Alt and Theresa Deschanes Halpert (a.k.a. “The Theresas”), expressed opposition to removing the city’s process, citing concerns that the IDA’s rules on inclusionary zoning were not as stringent and were too pro-developer.

“We get a lot of people and a lot of concerns from people saying they want to see different things in the policy, and we’ve worked with the IDA…I think at times pushed the IDA, to come to an agreement. Where we’ve been and where we’re at is trying to come up with a compromise that will work for them, work for us and work the public,” said Murtagh.

“But the IDA could still grant an abatement to a project without the city agreeing to it?” Asked councilor Fleming.

“Yes, it is possible that the IDA could go rogue,” replied Murtagh. “It’s probably better to think of our rules as recommendations, things we want them to work on….ultimately, they have the decision-making powers.”

Fleming stressed the need to include affordable housing in or near the development, noting that just giving cash to the community housing fund meant that someone still had to build the housing. She wanted a smooth process but also wanted the city’s portion of review maintained, even if it risked being overruled by IDA later on. Councilor Lewis, who sits on the IDA’s board, said she was sympathetic to the desire to streamline the process, but wanted to keep the city’s process for the additional opportunity for public input.

The primary concern seemed to be with keeping the city’s public hearing so that there was another avenue for public input. The secondary concern was that the city wanted to push the IDA to push their “more progressive” (in Murtagh’s words) or “more restrictive” (in Brock’s words) policies, even if the city’s vote was non-binding. “Are we content with dropping the city’s requirements in the hopes that the IDA would pick them up? I’m not sure I’d be comfortable doing that,” said councilor Brock.

Chair Murtagh expressed some support for the opt-out fee, saying it offered an avenue for developers inexperienced with affordable housing – he offered prolific local developer Todd Fox – to support developers who were experienced with affordable housing development, like INHS and the Vecino Group. His colleague Fleming praised the logic, though she wanted discussions on increasing the opt-out fee, and Brock added she wanted geographic restrictions. Councilor Lewis responded by saying there were some discussions already, but it was a delicate balance and that it would need to be reviewed further. The gist of it seemed to be that the city didn’t want to eliminate its role, but the councilors were either hesitant or uncertain on how to change the inconsistencies between the city and county applications, which now need to be hashed out with the IDA in an effort to come to some kind of mutual agreement.

At Lewis’s request, the process changes and geographic changes were separated out by unanimous vote. The process change received a unanimous vote for a delay so as to give a chance for that discussion with the IDA.

As for the geographic change to include the north end of Cherry Street in the CIITAP boundaries, Brock said she was “not at all convinced” it was needed, while Lewis said she’d vote in favor. “If we want to encourage affordable housing like Arthaus, and there are a couple other projects in the planning stages, then I think it makes sense to extend the density district.”

As what often happens when anything development is discussed, Fleming and Brock, backed up by her non-committee ward colleague George McGonigal (D-1st), expressed discontent with anything that appeared to make development easier, while Lewis and councilor Steve Smith (D-4th) were in favor. Noting that the county IDA could approve a project like Arthaus regardless of the city’s CIITAP district, Murtagh, often the swing vote in these matters, got to treat his vote as a guilt-free choice. With that in mind, Murtagh decided to vote against it, and the CIITAP density district boundary expansion failed 2-3.

Black Diamond Trail

Now onto the last on the voting items, and probably the one the public will like the most. New York State is planning a new trailhead on the southern end of the Black Diamond Trail, where the trail meets up with the Cayuga Waterfront Trail in Cass Park. While on city parkland, the state would be responsible for construction and maintenance. Approval has been granted for a 2021 construction, but the Common Council needs to sign off on the 25-year ownership and maintenance agreement with the state.

Quick aside, the new pavilion at the trailhead would be named in honor of the late Andrejs Ozolins, a West Hill resident who was a strong advocate for the trail and the local cycling community.

“I think it’s a wonderful little park being put together,” said Brock. “It’s a welcoming invitation for people outside the area.”

Being that it was a public amenity and it wasn’t the city’s money, the discussion was quick and painless. After two minutes of discussion, the vote was carried unanimously.

Brian Crandall

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