ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a busy meeting for the city of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) last night. City councilors moved forward with approving a clean energy bulk buying plan, historic landmarking for a Downtown building, and zoning tweaks. However, officials continued to dither over ways to establish a sanctioned encampment for unhoused individuals.

As always, the Voice is here to give you the summary. Read on below. For those who wants to take a peek at the agenda, you can find that here, or you can watch the full video here.

Restore NY Grants

First up on the PEDC’s agenda last night were a pair of grants to be submitted to the Restore NY program, which is being revived for a sixth and seventh round following a five-year hiatus. The public hearing for round six was held last night, and you can read more about Restore NY in the writeup from earlier this week here.

The submission selected for round six is a $9 million renovation plan for a pair of majority-vacant Downtown Ithaca commercial buildings, 115-121 South Cayuga Street and 123 South Cayuga Street, into ground-floor retail/restaurant space with 16 apartments on the upper floors. As it’s due by October 12th and the state issues the call for application on short notice, it’s been something of a rush for the city of Ithaca to get something submitted within time. The successful applicant will be rewarded up to $2 million, at the state’s discretion.

Along with the Public Hearing on the submission last night, the PEDC was scheduled to vote on whether to send the application on to the full Common Council for endorsement at their early October meeting.

Public Comment came and went without speaking. This is not a shock. For one, it’s just an application, and for two, renovations of underutilized spaces don’t tend to stir negative passions (and let’s be honest, most people only come out to PEDC when they’re mad about something).

Councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd Ward) asked for a clarification about how the buildings fit the grant stipulations, to which Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency director Nels Bohn noted the requirement is 51% vacancy or more, so both structures qualify. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) asked why this project was more attractive than others. In response, Bohn said that in their scoring test run, this project scored the highest – as Ithaca’s not an “economically distressed” community by NYS definition, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to get an award. It also takes a year to be disbursed, which tends to scare off most developers used to dealing with shorter timelines.

The vote to endorse passed unanimously 4-0 and will head forward to council for full endorsement next month, in time for the October submission.

Zoning Tweaks to Definitions of “Story” and “Basement”

The other topic up for both a Public Hearing and vote to send on to Common Council is a technical tweak to zoning definition that previously came up at the July meeting. The city has made efforts in recent years to align its zoning definitions with those of New York State Building Code. This involved the establishment in city zoning of a definition of “grade plane” and a revised definition for “height of building.”

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 six feet from the building or the property line, whichever is closer. 

Currently, there is a problem. There are times where a building may be a 4-story building under zoning and a 5-story building under Building Code or vice versa. This is because a basement may be considered a story under one code but not the other. The proposed zoning amendment will revise the definitions of “story” and “basement” to provide a consistent determination of whether a building’s basement is considered a story under both the City’s Zoning Ordinance and NYS Building Code.

Long story short, the city is matching their code to the state’s. The effects on allowed building heights are expected to be minimal. This is just an effort to provide consistency and clarity in zoning and building code laws.

The Public Hearing came and went without comment, and the city hasn’t got much feedback about this in general. Why would they – this is a technical detail that has very minor impacts, more for good municipal housekeeping than anything else. With four yes votes, the amendment will go to council next month.

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Community Choice Aggregation (CCA)

The City of Ithaca recently began the process of exploring a program known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) as a part of the Ithaca Green New Deal (IGND). A CCA allows local governments to go out onto the open market and purchase power directly from energy service providers other than the one that dominates its retail region, which in the case of Ithaca is New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG). The power is being purchased on behalf of the residents of a town, village, or city, and can include multiple municipalities. In New York State, residents of a municipality can be automatically enrolled into the CCA, but they have the right to opt out of CCA agreements.

Municipalities don’t get to choose where their power comes from when buying from NYSEG. A CCA can be crafted in order for a community to find cheaper energy, regardless of whether it’s generated from solar farms or natural gas. In the case of Ithaca, the CCA that is being explored would be crafted for the City to purchase 100% renewable electricity. Though, the transmission infrastructure that would bring the electricity to people’s homes is owned by NYSEG, so the utility company would still have a transmission fee included in people’s electric bills.

While the concept of a CCA is fairly straightforward, and much of the work is out of the hands of the general public, for a municipality to enter into a CCA a complex legal structure needs to be formed between a municipality and the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), which will take some negotiating. CCA implementation overall will involve some time, paperwork and manpower in the form of a CCA Administrator. The City’s 2022 budget allocated $100,000 to pay for the implementation and cost study, which is being done by consultant Local Power LLC.

According to city Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres, the CCA could lead to as much as a 50% reduction in the city’s carbon emissions, 200,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and comparable to the annual use of about 45,000 vehicles. It would also result in a 10-15% cost savings to city power customers because it’s large-scale purchasing, basically buying in bulk directly from the supplier with only a transmission fee going to NYSEG for use of their lines.

The PEDC has been on board with the proposal, though not without some reservations that the costs and savings may be too rosy. Last night’s vote was a vote to circulate for comment among staff and the public, coming back to PEDC next month for a potential vote of approval by Common Council in November. If council approves and the process doesn’t get hung up, a Request for Proposals to supply the CCA could be issued in early spring 2023.

Councilor Brock asked a rather technical question about distributed energy resources, how energy produced is allocated. According to city of Ithaca Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres, energy produced locally is used locally; if you want those warm fuzzies, the solar on your roof could be used to provide renewable energy to a lower-income family that could otherwise not afford it.

With little further discussion, the vote to circulate the CCA passed unanimously.

One of several encampments that could be impacted by potential new homelessness policies from the City of Ithaca. Credit: Casey Martin / Ithaca Voice

Unhoused Proposals – RFEI vs RFP

The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) proposal has been in the works for several months, with previous coverage hereTo quote my colleague Zoë Freer-Hessler, “the TIDES proposal would construct 25 or so cottages and a common bathroom and community space, currently proposed for where the actual Jungle is now, a largely unsanctioned homeless encampment in or near the woods around Southwest Park in Ithaca, behind the big box retail stores like Wal-Mart, Bed, Bath & Beyond and others. Its aim is to provide better, safer housing to the unhoused population, though it would also introduce more serious ramifications for those that are unhoused in Ithaca but not living in the TIDES development.”

The whole intent is that this serve as transitional supportive housing as part of the extended but concerted effort to help unhoused individuals make their way to permanent housing. As it is currently proposed and unlike homeless shelters, the TIDES program is lower-barrier to entry; it would not require sobriety from those who live there, for example, while a normal shelter would have such a requirement. The requirement is basically, “can you peacefully cohabitate in a communal living setup.” It’s sanctioned, monitored, and an effort to provide some degree of management to the chronic, long-term issue of homelessness in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

The TIDES working group’s requests to the city include urging the Planning and Economic Development Committee to declare that a sanctioned encampment site “serves an essential government function,” undergo a process to select a city site, allocate city support, and select a contractor to manage the site and a request for proposals (RFP) while providing a sample budget. When these are determined, ideally by late fall, a Request for Proposals or Request for Expressions of Interest may be issued.

Parallel to development of TIDES, the working group asks for the city to write up a formal policy for dealing with unsanctioned homeless encampments, managing sites that have been frequent targets for unsanctioned encampments and, should it be necessary, developing a protocol for their safe closure.

The core tension with the TIDES proposal has been that some city councilors want to move forward sooner, while the mayor and other members want to go slower in order to make sure the proposal is fully-fleshed out, robust and able to withstand legal scrutiny. Last night’s discussion focused on whether to do a Request for Proposals (RFP), or a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI), a sort of pre-application to gauge the interest of third-parties in submitting RFPs. As I like to call it, an RFEI is an RFP for RFPs.

During public comment, local businessman Jerry Dietz stated that a deceased individual was recovered from the Jungle homeless encampment earlier this week, and reiterated the need for action as soon as possible, as Dietz had said at an earlier HHS meeting this week. “(TIDES) is not a silver bullet. But I have to believe it will move our individuals and out community in a better, more humane direction. […] Please, do something.”

The IURA’s Bohn noted the primary difference was about seeking input in the case of an RFEI, vs. serious interest as shown in a response to an RFP. RFEIs are exploratory. They are used to identify potential solutions but aren’t firm commitments, and can be used to narrow down options. They also draw out the process on a proposal, and are not great for pressing issues. RFPs are quicker, and better for a proposal where the community already knows what it wants. Neither option would likely be ready by the Spring of 2023, though.

“Could an RFP be done by October 2023, vs. an RFEI?” Asked councilor Patrick Mehler (D-4th). “It is a feasible timeline for either an RFP of for a project that leads to an RFP,” replied Bohn. The long story short was, if councilors felt they had enough data already, an RFP would be faster. But if they felt they were still lacking information and building a lot of risk, an RFEI would be preferable.

Councilor Gearhart suggested doing both, and Brock, who serves on a volunteer committee to address the issue, preferred the quicker approach. Mehler asked if an RFEI could be selected as a proposal if attractive enough, to which Bohn said they’d have to check with legal, as a sanctioned encampment would likely involve city property, which comes with additional legal considerations.

Mayor Laura Lewis noted it would be helpful to have partners and that the city had no interest in criminalizing homelessness. “Those individuals who are currently unhoused and living in an unsanctioned encampment, they need services, they need protection. […] It is a very challenging and complex issue to address. I do believe we have forward momentum at this point.”

“This is a community-wide problem, this is not just a city issue. If the flood plain is a barrier, perhaps we need to consider a location outside the city. The reason we are having this discussion at all is if it’s an appropriate use of city land. It could be done without using land. I think this is another aspect of why a partnership with the county is important, and to think of this as a countywide issue,” noted Brock.

If you were looking for clear guidance, last night didn’t have it. Mayor Lewis sought to stress that they were moving forward and that a working group would begin meeting this week with potential clarity in time for the October 19th PEDC meeting, but no strong guidance towards either an RFEI or RFP. The city usually moves slowly and deliberately; some might argue too slowly for its own good.

Image courtesy of the Tompkins County Public Library.

Other Voting Items

Also on the agenda last night was a proposal for individual landmark designation of a historic Downtown Ithaca building, the Andrus Block on the Commons.

Located at 143 East State Street and also known as the “Home Dairy Building” and the “Firebrand Books Building” for previous tenants, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Conservation (ILPC) held a public hearing last month for consideration of landmarking, which provides special protections to protect historic components of its exterior and prevent demolition.

On the one hand, it’s a way to protect Ithaca’s architectural heritage and historic structures; the Andrus Block dates back to 1872. On the other hand, landmarking can make redevelopment and rehabilitation/renovation much more difficult and expensive, which is why these decisions are approached carefully. The ILPC recommended landmarking after their August public hearing, and now the proposal goes through the PEDC. If approved on the committee level, the full Common Council will then need to give its approval for the landmarking designation to go into effect.

During public comment, Jeff Iovannone, a master’s student at Cornell who wrote the landmarking application and explanation, spoke about the building’s history and tis value as both a historic structure and as the home of Firebrand Books, a publisher that was prominent in the LGBTQ and second-wave feminist movements during the 1980s and 1990s.

Bryan McCracken, the city’s Historic Preservation Planner, represented the proposal before the PEDC. The board was strongly supportive of the proposal. “It’s a beautiful building. I’m glad to see this proposal come forward, I’m glad to support it,” said councilor Brock. The vote to send to council for approval was unanimous.

Lastly on the list of voting items, residents of Fall Creek’s Utica Street, led by community organizer Fernando de Aragon, are seeking reimbursement funds from the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Incentive Fund (NIIF) for hosting the neighborhood’s annual block party back on the 11th. The $250 covers food and non-alcoholic beverage costs, and residents donate their time for food prep and setup/cleanup. This is a regular community event, finally revived after being cancelled the past couple of years due to COVID. The vote was fairly quick and unanimous, and the amount is small enough (<$500) that it does not have to go on to council.

Announcements, Updates and Reports

Josephine Ennis, a Master’s of Regional Planning student at Cornell, gave a presentation about Short-Term Rentals, a topic that has been in and out of PEDC meetings for several years. Ennis explained the geographic distribution, profiles of smaller property owners and investors that utilize STRs, and the kinds of users who use these rentals, and the residents who can be frustrated by them.

STRs are a complex topic because they take rentals off the market, but they also allow homeowners to make side income. It’s a spectrum from “niche” operation to large-scale entity, private room to multiple properties. License/permit requirements (as Geneva does up the lake) with inspections and enforcement fees, limits on operating periods for time or unit size, whether to limit to owner-occupied residences, and the pros and cons of different regulatory approaches and ways to pay for itself. My colleague Zoë Freer-Hessler will cover AirBnBs in more detail in the coming days.

The presentation was useful and the PEDC appreciated the rundown and potential options. Having reported on this for years, I can say the council has a tendency to get bogged down and torn between different constituencies; it has never been an easy decision-making process. It’s back on the committee’s radar and expected to come forward for further debate at a later date. “It’s a good start, kind of a restart, but it’s important that we not lose sight of our goals,” said Mayor Lewis.

A second presentation given last night was courtesy of Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans, who gave a presentation of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventories. This was a requirement of a grant awarded by the DEC in 2019, and is intended to inform the city’s climate action plan.

The inventory includes everything from municipal operations (heating, electricity, street lights, traffic lights), the wastewater treatment plant, street trees and parks (which sequesters carbon and reduces emissions), community facilities, public transportation, commuting, and waste. The inventory is done using a standardized metric called “carbon dioxide equivalent”, or CO2e. Other emissions, like methane, are measured in CO2e units based on their GHG impacts.

The local emissions is about 308,000 tons of CO2e annually. Municipal emissions are 1.8%, waste products produce 1.8%, but transportation produces over 38% of municipal and overall local emissions. The rest is largely attributable to homes and businesses. Since 2010, overall emissions from city operations are down by 15% (mostly through LEDs and renewable energy sourcing), though the rise from the wastewater treatment plan has yet to be fully explained.

The Climate Action Plan will be coming in the next few months. The board appreciated the presentation as they often do when someone had to take the time out of their evening to keep them informed and provide them with information for discussion with constituents. Councilor Brock, who sits in the wastewater plant’s board, said the energy consumption at the plant is likely due to additional steps added to the treatment process since 2010. “This is terrific information and it keeps us moving forward,” quipped Mayor Lewis.

Brian Crandall

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