ITHACA, N.Y.—There are few city staff who have left such a visible mark on the city of Ithaca as JoAnn Cornish. The city’s Planning Director wrapped up nearly 25 years of service to the community with her retirement at the end of 2021.

We invited her to sit down for an interview, and the normally low-profile Cornish opened up about her experiences in extensive detail. Some interviews have a more back-and-forth format, but as Cornish thought about the changes that have happened since she started as an environmental planner with the city in 1997, and as Planning Director in 2009, we decided it was best to not interrupt and let her thoughts flow.

The way that this interview is structured is such that this first part is the more standard Q&A that interviews tend to be. Part two, coming Friday, contains Cornish’s reflections of the past 25 years as they relate to certain neighborhoods and development debates that she’s been involved with over the years.

Arguably, one of Cornish’s undersold qualities is that she’s more “Ithacan” than most people who visit City Hall or show up at various Planning Board and Common Council Planning Committee meetings. Cornish is practically woven into the cloth of the local fabric. She grew up in the city’s Northside neighborhood, one of five children, and later moved to South Hill. Her uncle, Ray Bordoni, was mayor in the early 1980s, and Cornish credits him with giving her an understanding of the city’s politics.

The pragmatic effect of this upbringing is that she knows many of the longtime families that have made their mark in local history and continue to be a presence in the city and county’s affairs today. It helped Cornish navigate the community’s often turbulent movers and shakers to get her job done, and many of them have known her long enough that they’re comfortable approaching her and trust her ability to make decisions, even if they don’t always agree with the decisions she makes.

“I was always very interested in the environment and parks,” she said. “When I was in high school I took a trip cross country and visited all the National Parks. When I came back, I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in. Having grown up in Ithaca, not a lot had really changed. But I have deep roots here. My grandparents immigrated here from Hungary, and my other set from Italy, my uncle was the mayor.”

Despite those deep roots, Cornish moved away for college and lived outside the area for a number of years. She worked for the Parks Department of New York City in the 1980s, and met her husband Jon Epps while living downstate. They married, started to raise a family, and Cornish really wanted to give her children the positive childhood experience she had growing up, so she left New York City government in 1989 and they relocated back to the Ithaca area. They lived in Fall Creek and then West Hill, and Cornish was president of the Fall Creek Elementary PTA for a number of years. Cornish’s children have chosen to make Ithaca their homes as well; her son Sam is co-owner of the Gola Osteria restaurant, and her daughter Paula works at Cornell.

“I just had such a deep love for the community, and when I came back to Ithaca (from New York), one of the most startling things I saw was Deer Run. When I was in middle school we moved to South Hill, and we used to ride our neighbor’s houses all throughout that countryside. I came back and I saw Deer Run,” said Cornish.

“I was so shocked that so much development had happened on this incredible property that we used to ride horses on. It just jolted me; I said, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’ So I started really volunteering and I was on the original Parks Commission and the Conservation Advisory Council, just things that I was interested in when my kids were small.”

“That led me into this career,” she continued. “I started working with the town of Ithaca. The town was what jarred me into realizing that development was happening and we really needed to control it, and because of my education and background, it kinda was a natural succession into planning, and then into urban planning.”

Cornish has had a major role in developing the framework that has shaped the city over much of the past quarter-century. The arrival of box stores to Southwest Ithaca, the re-development of major portions of Downtown and Collegetown, the newfound interest in Ithaca’s waterfront (and we go into detail on her thoughts on those activities in part two). Projects are developed individually, but the zoning and neighborhood plans set the guidelines to allow for those developments. Represented on all the committees that helped formulate those recommendations and suggestions for zoning and what uses should be allowed where, is Cornish as Planning Director.

Cornish acknowledges that when she began her career with the town, she was not particularly pro-development. Working on Southwest Ithaca in the late 1990s and early 2000s was difficult because she was not a fan of big-box retail projects, and yet the city’s precarious financial state was pushing them to scout out retailers who might be interested in building just those kinds of developments in Ithaca, against the wishes of a sizable chunk of the community.

“Certainly, I would hear from everybody. Most people knew my mom or my dad or my sisters or my brother or me. People feel free to call me and say ‘Oh my God, what are you doing?’ They’d also call and ask why the city didn’t pick up their garbage or why they didn’t salt the sidewalk,” Cornish said. “People always felt comfortable reaching out to me and telling me things were terrible. But when I would explain things like tax base and getting people who were driving in from other counties not being able to afford to live here, when you explain it to people, a lot of them kinda get it.”

It doesn’t take long to find some strong opinions about development in Ithaca in recent years; and certainly, Cornish has her share of detractors, given how hotly-debated different plans and projects have been: the arrival of Wal-Mart, the rebuild of the Commons, the rezonings, the focus on density and walkability. Cornish described the arrival of Wal-Mart as the biggest controversy she faced in her years working in the planning department.

“Even if they’re on a limited income, people need to be able to buy shoes and clothes for their kids, and at that time you couldn’t do that with stores on the Commons…Wal-Mart gave an opportunity to buy goods and services at a reduced cost and send your kids to school in new clothes. That was important to me, because my dad was blue-collar, my mom worked in a bank. We didn’t lack for anything, but we were certainly not rich, and I have a deep sympathy for people in this community struggling on a daily basis,” she said. “In my eyes, Wal-Mart was one of the answers, because there were things that were affordable there. But not everyone has the same philosophy. People who haven’t had to struggle as much struggled to understand. Longtime locals better understood, but some of the more educated and better off were not happy. I did walk a fine line between my history with this community and its politics and its influences. But you give people the facts and show how it can help the community, and people may not like it, but on some level they understand.”

Cornish learned to take the controversy and debate in stride. She described working with Common Council as a learning experience. Some city councilors make up their mind before any discussion is had, and others are willing to hear the information and facts and impacts before coming to their decision. She also stressed that it was okay to say “I don’t know” to a question, describing that as one of the toughest lessons to learn as a planner.

She would not say if there was any one elected official that has particularly caught her ire over the years, but instead heaped praise on a couple of former or soon-to-be former mayors in her reflection, as well as her department staff. “Alan Cohen was very much supportive of development, it was really a pleasure working with him…Svante Myrick has been absolutely a joy to work with. So supportive, really interested in seeing all of these goals come to fruition. For staff who have worked for the city for so many years, it means so much to have that kind of support. Svante has been absolutely wonderful, he’s really quite amazing.”

“I’ve had wonderful staff all these years, everything is done as a team and we’ve all done this together. Having really good staff that provides really quality work has been all the difference in the things that we’ve been able to accomplish.”

On a related note, Cornish says she does not maintain a social media presence. Occasionally, her husband will relay something to her, but otherwise, she’s happy to avoid it. “It raises my blood pressure, so I don’t go on (social media).”

Looking back, Cornish isn’t just proud of the high-profile actions. In fact, one of her greatest joys was participating in the Public Art Commission and finding funding for artists to leave their mark around Ithaca. The murals, the painted utility boxes, those unique little character touches are something that gave Cornish great joy in helping to bring forth to the community.

For all the planning a Planning Director can do, Cornish readily acknowledges she never saw the kind of growth coming that has happened in recent years. Though, as she stressed in the interview, it’s not a bad thing.

“The explosive growth that has happened since I’ve started with the city, I never expected it to be as massive a change as it has been. Since I started, I hit the ground running and I always say to my staff, it’ll slow down. It has never slowed down. I could barely take a breath, we had so much development going on and so many changes in the city, housing being one of the shining lights, the amount that’s been built. But overall, the huge growth since I started in ’97, I knew we were growing but I had no idea it would be this crazy. So that’s been a very good thing. I was more an environmentalist early and carried that through that my career, but I moved a little bit more towards the other side and embracing development in an environmentally-sensitive way.

“When you grow up in Ithaca, you often don’t stay in Ithaca, so I have friends across the country. I hear from my old friends, they’re proud of me and the work I’ve done, they love coming back and seeing everything. If my high school self was looking at me right now, I like to think they’d look at the work I’d done and say it’s pretty cool.”

The city has begun the process of trying to fill Cornish’s shoes, with Deputy Director Lisa Nicholas serving as Interim Planning Director until the position is filled. Nicholas and Cornish still talk regularly for mentoring and guidance as Nicholas navigates Ithaca’s many stakeholders and concerns, and manages about 28 staff in the city’s building codes and planning offices. Cornish said she has no immediate plans in her retirement, but she looks forward to spending more time with her two grandchildren. “You know when you’re done. I was getting very tired, and I knew it was time. Of course, I didn’t realize Svante was leaving, I’m really happy for him. That could make it a little challenging.”

Whether it be Nicholas or someone else, Cornish has some succinct advice for whoever her successor may be.

“Get lots of sleep. You have all these responsibilities to the Common Council and the Mayor and the city. But you’re also working with a very diverse workforce and a lot of time is taken up with personnel issues and day-to-day minutiae. I can go in to work having all my plans outlined, and then some crisis happens. You just gotta go with it, and learn how to turn to staff to help, to delegate, to remove yourself from the stress. You can become so enmeshed in your work that everything else falls away, and that’s not healthy.

Development happens whether you go after it or not. So many people are interested in our community. Listen to the public and Common Council, and take a moment to process everything and keep going. It wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t change anything about it. It was a very fulfilling career. It’s been an incredible experience and I feel like I’m leaving it in good hands, it’s all good.”

Check back Friday for part two of our exit interview with Cornish.

Brian Crandall

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