ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a busy but pithy meeting with a smaller Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) Wednesday night, as members of the Ithaca Common Council tackled zoning tweaks, historic preservation and management, environmental issues and a number of other topics last night. Frankly, given the 3.5+ hours allotted, the fact that it clocked in at just under two hours was quite the feat. If you wanted a summary of planning concerns with detail and nuance, you’ve come to the right place. Dive in below and feel free to have a look at the agenda here.

Quick note regarding last night’s meeting before jumping in—PEDC member Laura Lewis (D-5th) was out of town, and Steve Smith (D-4th) has resigned to move to New York City with his wife as she begins an advanced degree program. The three members in attendance, just enough for quorum, were council members Cynthia Brock (D-1st), Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) and Donna Fleming (D-3rd).

Landmarks Ordinance Revisions

Up for discussion last night was a plan to change the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission from a city-only commission to a joint commission of the city and town of Ithaca. The idea was first floated to the PEDC back in January and comes in response to concerns and potential threats to historic structures in the town of Ithaca, where there are no local protections.

As proposed, the board would grow from seven to nine members, two appointed by the city mayor, two by the town supervisor, and the other five being joint appointments. The ILPC will recommend historic landmarking in both communities, with city properties to be approved by the Common Council, and town properties by the Town Board.

The part that seemed most likely to stir debate was a new and much more broad landmarking scheme where alongside individual landmarks and historic districts, one could have “thematic districts”, say landmarking all 19th century Victorian homes or former fire stations in the city and town at once, “interior landmarks” for spaces customarily open to the public like schools and lobbies, and “scenic and natural landmarks”, which includes farm buildings, pastures, agricultural fields, and geologic formations.

Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken walked the PEDC through the proposal. McCracken noted that it was important the city and the town had the exact same landmarks ordinance with only locality-specific noun changes to prevent confusion.

Councilor Brock led off the discussion by saying that she appreciated the interior preservation component, but had concerns about the scenic and natural landmarks component, citing the possibility of agricultural and park impacts. Brock used the example that removing weeping willow trees at Stewart Park for safety might run afoul of the law if the park was landmarked.

“A proposed change, for example the willow trees, would be looking at the overall character of the property and how the removal would affect it. It isn’t necessarily the species of the trees, but the feeling of the trees,” said McCracken. He suggested a different species of tree would be planted in their place in that situation, and that the Planning Board would be a “control valve” if such landmarking proposed potential issues.

Planning Director JoAnn Cornish said city attorneys would review, the revised ILPC plan and its expanded landmarking provisions would be brought back for discussion, and then PEDC could vote to circulate. There was no vote on this last night, but keep an eye out for a return trip to PEDC.

Community Choice Aggregation

The next item up for discussion was Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), which is the act of bulk purchasing by groups of municipalities for energy supplies, either electric or natural gas. If you’ve looked at your utility bill, you know customers can choose any choice of electricity supply. As the local power company, NYSEG will always be responsible for energy delivery. Those who don’t bother to choose their energy, about 80% of us, let NYSEG choose it on their own, so it ends up being a mix of sources dependent on when NYSEG buys the latest power generated, which varies depending on hydroelectricity flows, coal and gas supplies, sunny and windy days (solar/wind), and so on.

When coded into local law, a CCA program allows municipalities to buy on behalf of their residents and small commercial accounts, so the municipality is choosing the electricity for the 80% of residential utility customers who don’t choose on their own. So if the city of Ithaca passes a CCA law, it can choose a cleaner energy supply than what NYSEG conventionally provides customers who don’t go out of their way to choose their electric source; NYSEG still delivers the electricity either way. About 61 communities in the state are currently operating under CCAs with 170,000 customers, and 38 of those are on 100% renewable energy supplies. The more municipalities that are involved locally as a coalition, the more buying power a CCA has because it’s a bigger customer base.

The tradeoff is that the inter-municipal power purchasing agreements underlying CCAs can be complicated, and on some days it can be more expensive per kilowatt than conventional NYSEG supplies, though on other days it may cost less. It’s a backdoor way to get everyone on 100% renewables without making them actively have to choose to do it. There is also an administrative cost, though it is intended to be largely self-supporting.

City Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres refreshed the PEDC’s memory on how CCAs work, and that the city and town of Ithaca, who’d be the first two communities in the local agreement, could give residents all-renewable energy sourcing unless utility customers actively choose to opt out. The state Public Service Commission would need to approve the purchasing agreement and it would take at least 90 days before it could take effect. If the CCA is approved by the city and town in the next few months, the agreement could be in operation by the end of 2022.

In response to a question from councilor Brock on what the price differential would be and how the administrative cost is handled among municipalities, Aguirre-Torres said savings with a municipal agreement would save 20-30% off retail price for renewables, as well as offer bargaining power on long-term contracts with competing suppliers. Administration cost is per kW and would be seamless, built into the utility bill. Brock did note that there is risk if enough people opt out that it no longer makes economic sense, to which Aguirre-Torres that technically it is possible, but that was why the city would need to negotiate with suppliers for the lowest possible price on renewables.

Though there was no vote on this item last night, expect it to make it back to PEDC in the near future.

Good Cause Eviction Legislation

The last item in the discussion-only part of the agenda was Good Cause Eviction Legislation. Good cause, also known as the “right to renew,” would bar most landlords from evicting tenants unless they can show a good cause,” such as failure to pay rent, harassment or assault of other tenants or neighbors, damage to property out of malice or negligence, or violation of other terms of the lease.

The legislation would require landlords to offer a renewal lease to tenants in good standing and prevent major, arbitrary rent hikes. Barring a violation, a landlord must give five months’ notice that a lease will not be renewed, and a tenant can use the following two months to choose whether to consent. Proponents tout the law as an effort to provide tenant protections in absence of rent control laws, while opponents have concerns the policy would place an excessive burden on small landlords, and as chair Murtagh noted in discussion, it may incentivize AirBnBs or make it harder for tenants with checkered pasts to be able to rent a unit in the first place.

During public comment, frequent visitor and local resident Theresa Alt spoke in favor of the legislation, and pushed the PEDC to move it on quickly for circulation and vote rather than talk it to death. Ithaca Tenant’s Union organizer Genevieve Rand also spoke in support of the legislation, and argued that additional provisions should be added to compensate tenants if the landlord sells the property for redevelopment.

Murtagh opened with a cautionary note that it was an item to vote to circulate because the initial idea was legislation very similar to the city of Albany’s, but the current proposal was considerably different and he wanted to discuss the provisions first, and that there would be some kind of draft circulated. Brock wanted to make sure city attorneys and other relevant staff had a chance to comment to limit any surprises heading to the full Common Council. The PEDC voted unanimously against circulating last night, but did vote to bring legislation similar to Albany’s before their committee next month, and requested someone who could speak about the state protections (The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act) passed in 2019.

“I wish that we would be a lot more careful about using the same language for eviction as not renewing leases, I think we’re getting a little bit sloppy on that. I would be willing to consider legislation similar to that passed in Albany, but I think even that has significant problems that need to be addressed in legislation,” said councilor Fleming.

“The important thing is giving tenants the right to the option to renew. Students cycling in and out wouldn’t exercise that option…but it’s still available to them. I think because we have such a student-focused market that we have an anomalous situation here where landlords are working to screen and keep quality tenants,” said councilor Brock. “When I first came on council in 2012, there was a series of violent incidents with a small group of tenants that be-bopped around West Hill, the landlords hadn’t screened their tenants, and when they had these problematic tenants, they did not reach out to the tenant to tell them to stop and change their behavior. [The landlord’s] response was to not do anything and decide not to renew. We ended up with a trail of neglect and neighbors feeling absolutely trapped due to the lack of active, responsible management on behalf of the landlord. There is onus on the landlord to be more selective in the screening, if you’re bringing in responsible tenants and engaging them to correct behavior. Having that level of interaction documented would make a world of improvement to tenants I’ve seen. I think this is a wonderful improvement, but there’s a lot to address, how it works with other laws in the books.”

“[Tenant protection] laws do exist, they’re not unusual,” said Murtagh. “Maybe they’re unusual for New York.” Brock added Ithaca’s proposal will need to build in a protection to fight back against “opt-out” clauses from protection laws found in some local rent contracts. Expect this to come back before the PEDC next month.

A map of the proposed East Hill Historic District expansion.

East Hill Historic District Expansion

The only action item up for a vote to send to Common Council last night was the proposed East Hill Historic District expansion. The proposed expansion involves 19 properties on East Court Street, Linn Street and North Aurora Street, which were built from the 1830s to the early 1930s.

Now, this is not a decision process they take lightly, as it comes with pros and cons. The obvious pro is it helps maintain architectural integrity of a neighborhood deemed to be of significant cultural, architectural or aesthetic value. The con is that every bit of exterior work, or interior work readily visible from the outside, has to be approved by city staff—or if more substantial in scale, like a new porch or stair railing, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC). This means authentic or appropriate replica materials or designs worthy of their approval. These historically accurate materials and complementary designs are often more expensive than a regular renovation or home project, and have at times been described as tools for accelerating gentrification and displacement of lower-income homeowners. In short, you have increased labor costs, and the possible gentrification effect to consider.

The ILPC has stated its support for the expansion, and the Planning Board hasn’t identified any issues from its perspective, so its now it’s up to PEDC and Common Council to decide whether the expansion of the East Hill Historic District becomes reality.  With only 3 of 5 members, all three would have to vote in approval in order to sent it to council in September.

Fleming said she was initially hesitant but McCracken had explained it to her and had a look at the properties, and had become supportive—”on the balance, it could be a good thing,” she said. Brock asked about outreach and response, to which McCracken said a Public Information Session had been held, and 12 of the 19 property owners attended. On the balance per McCracken, and from what this reporter has seen and read, more property owners are supportive rather than non-supportive. One property owner has been strongly opposed (threatening a lawsuit) and one mildly opposed, with the others neutral to wholly supportive. Second Ward Representative Ducson Nguyen, whose ward includes the proposed expansion, also spoke in favor.

The vote to send to council passed 3-0, and the final vote to expand the historic district will take place at the full Common Council’s meeting next month.

Court Street Rezoning

Next up were items to vote to circulate, meaning they go out for comment to staff and public interests before coming back to PEDC for a vote to send to Common Council for approval and acceptance into law. First up in this section of the agenda was a proposed rezoning on Court Street, specifically the north side of the blocks between North Geneva and Linn Streets (100 Block West – 300 Block East).

Currently, the block has R-3a zoning, which used to do allow commercial business use but no longer does. For the small businesses in these buildings, that means any attempt to expand or renovate to allow handicap accessibility triggers a mountain of red tape because they’re non-conforming, even though many have been in their spaces for decades. After several instances of this issue recently, city planners are suggesting a rezoning to B-1a, which is physically similar but allows business uses. The south half of these blocks is already B-1a. The biggest change is 50% lot coverage allowed in B-1a vs. 35% in R-3a, but these blocks are in the DeWitt Park Historic District, so any expansions would still need to be approved by the ILPC.

Another part of the rezoning is the elimination of the Courthouse Special Use zone and changing that over to B-1a. Once again, the zoning constraints are physically similar between CSU and B-1a, but it will reduce red tape while maintaining consistency with the other blocks. It also helps Tompkins County when they figure out what they want to do with the 400 Block of North Tioga over the next few years.

City Planner Megan Wilson led the review of the proposal. “When the R-3 zone was originally established, it allowed small professional offices as of right, then only medical and dental practices, then nothing…we’re trying to look for a way to not alter the character of the neighborhood without necessitating the need for a use variance for small changes.”

“I support it, it seems reasonable,” said Chair Murtagh.

“A few of these properties are used for commercial uses…but they could still have residential uses in addition to commercial uses, right?” Asked Fleming.

“Yes, many of these have offices on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. It would still allow dwellings with this change,” said Wilson. The motion to circulate for comment passed unanimously 3-0, and will be back next month for a potential vote to send to council for final approval.

Minor Zoning Amendments

If these were any deeper in the weeds, I’d need to buy Roundup. The issue with building grades mainly deals with buildings on sloped sites. Building height is determined from the average grade of a property, called the grade plane, and the roof (or midpoint of roof, if it’s pitched). The grade plane is calculated by determining the lowest points between the building and 10 feet from the building or the property line, whichever is closer. The state uses 6 feet from the building or property line. Therefore, a building on a sloped site has a different height depending on if one uses the city’s definition, or the state’s definition. This amends the city code to align with the state code.

Another proposed zoning regulation revision removes an occupancy limit for homes and apartments in R-3 zones because going over the limit simply changes the use from “one/two-family dwelling” to “multiple dwelling,” both of which are allowed in R-3 zones (the limit is intended for R-1 and R-2) and meaning the limit has no impact whatsoever in R-3 and is unnecessary.

The last revision is a change to the definition of “multiple dwelling” because it allowed group housing, boarding houses and self-proclaimed dormitories to skirt the parking requirements intended for multiple dwellings (row houses, townhouses, apartments, etc.). The proposed changes will close the loophole by standardizing parking requirements across all multiple dwelling categories and allowing only properties owned by schools to claim dormitory uses.

Brock asked if it would allow buildings to be taller, and Wilson said it really depends on the site, its slope and where the actual slope change is on the site. Some might get a little height, some will lose it, it won’t matter for flat sites, and this is more for consistency with state code. The vote to circulate the slope definition change passed unanimously. As for the multiple dwelling and occupancy definitions, after a little initial confusion and brief discussion, those two zoning code tweaks were also voted to circulate unanimously.

407 Cliff Street Planned Unit Development

So the PUD for the “Cliff Street Retreat” has already been approved in concept, now comes the part where the Common Council approves an actual site-specific zoning code (the PUD) and development plan for the property. Not much has changed since PEDC saw this last, with the addition of two standalone two-bedroom cottages on the north edge of the property, and the proposed trail to Cass Park becoming a raised boardwalk rather than surface paving (done for the sake of reducing weight on the slope). The PUD code is modeled on the city’s B-2 zoning permitted uses alongside more stringent regulations for R-3 building size and lot coverage, done to complement the surrounding R-3 residential-zoned properties.

Developer Linc Morse explained that six apartments would be long-term leases and six would be hotel/extended-stay hybrids. The two cottages would be long-term lease format, and the neighbors appreciated their presence to give the property a more residential feel. The inclusion of small-scale industrial/artisanal maker space came at councilor McGonigal’s (D-1st) persuasion, but would need a Special Permit to ensure compatibility with the neighborhood.

“I think this is a great project overall and I’m glad to support it,” said Chair Murtagh. “The zoning doesn’t appear to be that much of a deviation.” Brock asked about family-friendly features, to which Morse and STREAM Collaborative Architect Craig Modisher cited the trail access and potential tenants who could serve families. Brock also asked about visibility or a flashing light for the bus stop and for crossing the road. Modisher replied that a pedestrian-activated crosswalk was being considered. The vote to circulate passed unanimously.

West Hill PUD Overlay District Expansion

Here we are, last stop in this month’s writeup. This action item to circulate would expand the city’s Planned Unit Development Overlay District (PUDOD) to cover two properties on West Hill, the Army Reserve Center at 101 Sunrise Road and the Cayuga Park Apartments at 139-157 Chestnut Street.

Quick reminder, a PUDOD is a sort of “DIY Zoning,” with the concession that the Common Council gets to vote on a project, as well as host additional public hearings. A developer gets more flexibility to do mixed-use plans and it allows for some creativity in design, but it also gives the city more avenues to negotiate community benefit out of a proposal, and stop the plan completely if they think it’s a bad one.

The two aforementioned properties are both legally non-conforming parcels mixed in with West Hill’s single-family and two-family zoning. The Reserve Center is likely to be put up for sale next year by the U.S. Army. It would be offered first to the city, and if declined it will be put up in a private auction. City planners want to open the door for redevelopment options. Cayuga Park is 60 units of low-moderate income housing with no planned changes in use, but planning staff want to allow for potential future redevelopment if the desire arises.

This stretch of land happens to fall in councilor Brock’s ward, and so Murtagh deferred to her for guidance. “This is a very interesting block…we have these very large parcels. We have the armory there, and I believe municipalities have the right of first refusal when planning it for government use,” said Brock.

“The element of this that I’m thinking about is that this is an R-1 and R-2 (single-family/two-family home) neighborhood, and the PUDOD is an opportunity to exceed surrounding zoning, and I do have hesitation with regards to that. But I recognize it’s close to a school and Downtown and has immediate proximity to the inlet, it’s an opportunity to do something different. I’m in support of circulating this for discussion, but it should come with note that I want something in scale that’s supportive of the neighborhood.” The vote to circulate passed unanimously.

Brian Crandall

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