ITHACA, N.Y.—To close out the calendar year, it was a relatively short meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee. The board weighed endorsements for a state economic development grant, the formation of a new city advisory commission, and received an update about the city’s efforts to address unsanctioned encampments.

While a relatively short meeting as these PEDC shindigs go, The Ithaca Voice summary is shorter and more efficient way to spend your busy day. Dive in below, and for those who want to take a look at the agenda, that can be found here. The full meeting can be watched here.

Establishing a Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission

On the agenda Wednesday night for both a Public Hearing and a vote to send to the full Common Council was the establishment of a city Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission (SCJC). Technically, this is formally called a “Proposed Amendment to Chapter 8 of the City Code,” because Chapter 8 is the section of the City Charter code that manages Advisory Commissions.

Quick reminder, this has already been circulated for review by approved vote in a previous meeting. If the PEDC passes this, then the Common Council vote at their January 2023 meeting on whether or not to approve the change and allow the city to assemble the SCJC based on willing, knowledgeable applicants, and once they have members they can schedule meetings.

According to the memo from city Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, “(a) new Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission would serve a key role in supporting and advancing sustainability initiatives related to the City’s Green New Deal. In 2019, Common Council adopted specific climate and social justice goals, and subsequently funded two staff positions to promote, coordinate and lead the City’s sustainability work. New programs, plans and initiatives are being brought forward at a brisk pace and require the attention of a long-term dedicated advisory commission who can coordinate public outreach, advise Council and provide essential support.”

There has been some debate about the SCJC, not because of issues with the intent, but because members of the PEDC wanted to consider assigning the sustainability and climate justice duties and tasks to one of the city’s four existing commissions, rather than creating a brand new fifth commission.

As this has planning impacts, this also has to go through the rigmarole of State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR), with the PEDC as lead agency. They have to vote to Declare Lead Agency and determine that environmental impacts are properly mitigated (Negative Declaration), which in this case is basically a paperwork exercise.

No one wished to speak during the Public Hearing for the proposal, and the vote for Lead Agency and the Negative Declaration on SEQR passed unanimously without debate. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) asked if folding this into another committee was still in consideration. Planning Director Nicholas explained that in discussion among staff over the past few weeks, it was determined that, given the amounts of duties of other boards, they didn’t have enough time/room to merge this into an existing commission.

“We have identified some community members to recruit for it, and we’ve identified some ideas we can test out for it,” said Nicholas. There will be an interview process as candidates with sustainability/social justice backgrounds are identified and encouraged to apply, including those who’ve worked with former Director of Sustainability Dr. Luis Aguirre-Torres, who left in part because of disappointment with city leadership.

“I believe there’s nothing precluding us from a fifth commission, and deciding as we rebalance work that we don’t need five. I think a lot of this is driven by the urgency, the work around the Ithaca Green New Deal,” said new Board Chair Rob Gearhart (D-3rd).

In response to an audience question, Nicolas explained that, in this context, climate justice refers to assuring equitable treatment and opportunity for all in the Ithaca Green New Deal. City Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans popped over from the YouTube stream to explain how the IGND is also aiming to address historic inequities and that 50% of its benefits must be dedicated to climate justice communities as defined by the PEDC earlier this year, building community wealth, and addressing health and social impacts where climate change is a stress multiplier, such as housing vulnerability and air pollution impacts.

The vote to create the SJC passed unanimously 5-0, and will be discussed further and potentially voted into reality at the Common Council’s meeting next month.

RESTORE NY7 Grant Application

The City of Ithaca can apply for up to $2 million through the Restore NY7 state grant program to address vacant, condemned, and abandoned buildings within its boundaries. A mandatory intent-to-apply for Restore NY funding form was submitted in November for a project at the former Emerson Power
Transmission factory complex, now branded as Southworks after years known as “Chainworks.”

The PEDC and Common Council must approve the grant application following a public hearing to be eligible for Restore NY7 funding. As a result, the Public Hearing and a vote to send to the full Common Council for approval were both scheduled for last night.

If awarded, the $2 million would go towards covering the $2.93 million in costs of asbestos remediation in the 111,750 square-foot Building 24, select demolition of a skybridge and of Buildings 10A and 11 totaling 23,060 square feet, and 850 feet of recreational bike/pedestrian trail development on the Emerson property from South Aurora Street to Turner Place. In a letter to the city, SHIFT Capital’s Brian Murray states $10 million of private financing has already been secured for other acquisition and pre-construction site prep costs (additional lead paint removal and demolition). $260,000 has been secured from a NYSERDA grant and the project is applying for additional grants.

The first phase of Southworks includes the light renovation of two existing industrial buildings, 33 and 34, the conversion of Building 21 into a mixed-use building, and the conversion of Building 24 into a ground level café and co-working space, with office space on the upper floors.

In between munching on what I presume was a delicious pen, councilor Patrick Mehler (D-4th) introduced the proposal to the rest of the committee. SHIFT Capital’s Vicki Taylor Brous represented the project team before the board.

“We’re hoping this RESTORE NY grant will be the catalyst for moving this project forward, we picked a small portion of the project as a way to get started…a necessary part of the remediation,” stated Brous.

She added they were looking at ways to encourage workforce development through a “construction (business) accelerator,” which given the massive scale and sizable timeline for Southworks, there could be opportunities, especially for groups traditionally underrepresented in the construction trades.

Discussion was brief and the PEDC was supportive of the grant application. “I appreciate you looking at Building 24 and the buildings closest to residents on South Hill, and that all due care has been put into remediation of those properties,” said Brock, noting that one of her first discussions as a council member over a decade ago was about what to do with the Emerson site.

The vote to support the grant passed unanimously, and is heading for full endorsement at the Common Council next month. “I appreciate the support, thank you,” Brous quipped as the board continued on to the other agenda items.

Other News & Notes

Like clockwork, it’s that time of the year where the PEDC has to vote on “annual lead agency concurrence” with the City of Ithaca’s Planning Department. This is done at the start of every year and basically says that city planners will work on behalf of Common Council for projects in which Common Council is an involved agency in review—basically, every Planned Unit Development that comes up for review, like Southworks, Carpenter Circle, and the likely Inlet Island redevelopment in 2023. Council still has their discussions, but Planning Department staff do the paperwork and analysis for Council to read and inform those discussions. Unsurprisingly, the concurrence vote passed unanimously, and will go before the Common Council for likely final approval next month.

Director Nicholas explained that the Unsanctioned Encampment working group has continued to meet and hear from the county and federal groups with advice and guidance on potential proposals. A check by DPW personnel indicated that, with winter having set in, many of the encampments have emptied and clean up of the sites is being organized (though frankly, without alternatives, the sites will likely fill back up when milder weather returns). A policy proposal is expected to be put forward for consideration after the New Year’s holiday.

Brian Crandall

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