ITHACA, N.Y.—Coming into the city and town of Ithaca from the south on Route 13 isn’t exactly a charming experience. Sure, there are the woods, and the falls tucked away from the road, but the buildings themselves are standard urban edge “ex-urban” fare — small box businesses, some small lodging options, and a few local establishments of interest like Ithaca Beer’s taproom and Eddydale Farms. The town of Ithaca would like to give the area a makeover, in use and appearance.

The town of Ithaca Planning Board had a look last night at the latest iteration of a proposed pair of overlay districts (collectively called the “overlay”) that would be coterminous with existing zoning on a number of properties in the area, formally referred to as “Inlet Valley,” though most folks just think of it as part of the Route 13 corridor. The Inlet Valley zoning overlay is the result of years of planning and research, building off of the 2014 Comprehensive Plan for the town, and a neighborhood plan developed by the town with consultants back in 2018.

These overlay districts, the denser “Inlet Valley Center” overlay zone and the less-dense and more limited-use “Inlet Valley Transitional” overlay zone, would apply a number of use and building size limitations to the affected properties, as well as establish architectural and site plan design standards. Think it of as a hybrid combination of form-based and use-based zoning components. The 26-page overview can be found here.

The long story short is that the town of Ithaca doesn’t want the Inlet Valley to look like the commercial and industrial corridors of Elmira Road, or Lansing, or Dryden, which they view as undesirable examples detracting from the character from the area. Warehouses, standalone solar arrays, and the usual rural strip retail of gas stations and stores with lots of parking out front—that’s all prohibited. Plumbers, HVAC and other building trades, mulch and soil sales, auto sales, those are out too. The town is aiming for charming farm-to-table restaurants, small artisanal stores, arts studios, and motels/small hotels, all designed to heightened architectural and lot standards.

“We wanted to encourage tourism, agriculture, recreation, maybe some artsy sorts of things to bring them in […] that was the vision we had,” said Susan Ritter, Director of Planning for the Town of Ithaca. The Planning Department brought the proposed zoning to the town Planning Board for discussion last night. Quick aside, Ritter will be retiring from her decades of service to the town at the end of the month.

“What the overlay zones do is allow some additional use, take away some additional uses, and add on some design standards for building site layout, height, setbacks, parking locations, and so on,” added her colleague, Senior Planner Dan Tasman.

Image courtesy of the Town of Ithaca.

“The Inlet Valley Center (zone), really we’re not looking at intensive development right now, but this is where Collegetown Cab, some of the industrial areas by Ithaca Beer…this is where we envision most of the commercial activity will take place,” Tasman explained. “The Inlet Valley Transition, this really allows really low-intensity commercial usage for certain designated uses, curated uses, that complement what the Comp Plan envisions for this area—ag tourism, outdoors-y oriented, agro-culinary and farm markets.”

As for architecture, it’s less thematic, as one might see in Adirondack towns, and more about materials, window layout, and avoiding “false fronts,” which is when you make a really nice front façade and cheap out on the sides. Cinder block, vinyl siding and industrial metal is out, fiber cement and brick is in. Also, no parking would be allowed out front unless the building already exists, or the business can obtain a Special Permit.

Members were generally supportive of the idea, though a number of concerns were raised—the Planning Board’s Bill Arms noted the laundry list of prohibited retail uses seemed to run counter to the intent of the overlay, which was manage the form properties take, not the use. Director Ritter stated the goal was to keep buildings small and prevent uses like drive-thrus, and that the list of prohibited uses was meant to target uses that tend to require large buildings or encourage undesired car-focused uses. Some concern was also raised that it would burden existing businesses such as Mancini-Ferrara, a paving company.

On the aesthetic/architectural aspect, the board’s Yvonne Fogarty was keen to avoid being so prescriptive that it made all the buildings look the same, to which the Planning Department explained that the goal was not a “pattern book,” but to encourage quality design. Her colleague Cindy Kaufman noted that Route 13 is not human scale, so attracting “quaint little businesses” becomes harder because they have to be sited in a way that would have to cope with that high-speed, state-controlled highway. “We will fail if we’re creating a beautiful little bed-and-breakfast right on the road, no one’s going to want to stay there…I love the idea, but I think we’ll need some urban planning to address this.”

One of the recurring tensions that came up in discussion was trying to make what they envisioned, which the planners were working hard to explain, and working with what’s already there, which members of the board kept pointing out. If Ithaca Beer has inappropriate metal cladding, businesses like Mancini-Ferrara, GreenTree and Ithaca Auto Service are undesirable, and there’s a push for a public laneway through existing properties, it might be more a burden than a benefit to the community. Trying to create an upscale, bohemian vibe and rural charm is easier said than done, especially on a busy highway that the town does not control. Some discussion was even had about creating a “laneway” through existing properties, though asking for land donations from property owners could be difficult (ask Dryden how long it took to get the rail trail together).

Although planners said there has been steady demand from developers in Inlet Valley, if you zone for something, it doesn’t necessarily come. A quick check shows the only major project in the works is a 70-room Comfort Inn (formerly Sleep Inn) at 635 Elmira Road, which hopes to start construction this spring if the developer, Pratik Ahir of Ahir Hotels, can get re-approval from the Planning Board. It’s a luck break for Ahir that the overlay isn’t already in effect — the hotel is too big per its guidelines, as the code only allows 60 rooms or less.

Everyone liked the overlay vision, but the question was whether that vision could ever happen with existing conditions. If those new businesses don’t come, but existing businesses feel hampered and pushed out of the town, then that’s its own undesirable result. Ithaca’s town board will have to sort out these concerns as they continue their review and discussion.

“I don’t think this will happen overnight, but we have to start somewhere. I think it deserves to move forward,” said the board’s Greg Lindquist. With Conner’s seconding of the vote, the board gave its recommendation that the Town Board adopt the overlay. As the agenda for their meeting on Jan. 23 is not yet available, all that can be said at this time is that the town board will take up the overlay proposal for further discussion at a later meeting.

Brian Crandall

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