Ithaca’s Big Plan

29 04 2014

1-2-2014 313

I realize that the city’s comprehensive plan might seem a bit abstract. So let’s break it down into Q and A.

1. What is a comprehensive plan? Is this just more government bureaucracy?

Kinda? A comprehensive plan is the overarching theme for a city and its neighborhoods.  It’s not as specific as zoning is, but it helps determine what zoning should be, given the city’s concerns, desires and goals. So yeah, it’s more documentation, but it’s also allowing the community to determine the “forest” to be created by its “trees”. The plan helps to decide whether a project is appropriate for an area, because the planning board and zoning board will understand the desires for a given location. Used effectively, it may actually save time and mental energy in the long run by establishing a basic framework (i.e. developers will know that the chances of building a massive apartment building in Fall Creek are pretty low).
2. Why does the city need a new comprehensive plan?

The old one dates from 1971. A time when computers were the size of rooms, green was just a color and not a cute term for ecologically sensitive, and the Brady Bunch epitomized the way many wanted to live, in a posh contemporary in the suburbs with a Plymouth Satellite wagon in the garage. Times, and Ithaca itself, have changed. The plan has been amended in bits and pieces, but given its age, it needs a big overhaul, such that a new plan would be the easier option at this point.

3. Just how do they plan on making this plan?

In two parts: Phase I involves the preparation of a city-wide plan that identifies a vision and future goals for the community, and Phase II will include the creation of individual neighborhood or thematic plans, based on Phase I’s results. Committees, focus groups, surveys, meetings with community members, the whole years-long shebang. The current state of affairs can be found located here, and the current planning issues (using community input) is here. A 277-page PDF discussing environmental issues and goals for the plan is here. A draft of the plan, a mere 16 pages, can be viewed here.

4. Sum up the issues for me. I didn’t come here for long PDFs.

Parking’s a b*tch, and people want more walkable neighborhoods. Ithaca is expensive and only getting worse. The Jungle. Development pressures are threatening Ithaca’s historic structures, but the development process is too onerous for most folks to even bother with trying, vacant lot or otherwise. More jobs that aren’t colleges or retail. Protect the gorges and other local, natural amenities.

5. Okay, so what does the community want? What are the big changes?

Under consideration, we have a bunch of overarching themes. Here’s a map:


Ithaca loves itself some compact, mixed-use developments. If it fits that criterion and it also fits the area, the city wants it. Surface parking lots (231 acres) and vacant parcels (194) comprise just under 10% of the land in the city, and a number of these are what the city hopes to be appealing to developers (if the RFEI for the county library is any clue, the interest is there). Many of the currently developed parcels should be protected – homes in Cornell Heights, Belle Sherman and Fall Creek, for examples. The red spans above are what the city sees as areas for new, dense development – underutilized parcels downtown and on West State, the large swath of big-box land in the southwest, and the frequently-flooding land to the west of big-box land (the city hopes to fix that with dredged soils to raise the land).  Some accommodation for local commercial spaces is created with the “Neighborhood Mixed-Use” land use option. The final plan linked above notes the challenges with each neighborhood, and the desired changes moving forward.

The asterisks denote focus areas, areas the city wants sees significant and unique development opprotunities. There are four – Emerson (which is now in the earliest stages of redevelopment),  the flood-prone/retail-heavy southwest part of the city, the large undeveloped swaths of West Hill, and the Waterfront/Inlet Island. All are seen as very underutilized – all present unique opportunities to significantly expand housing and commercial options, if a developer is willing to fight the adverse factors and work with the city.

6. So are we going to see anything develop out of this?

Explicitly, no. This doesn’t dictate massing of new structures, or curb cuts and sidewalk widths. But it says where Ithaca wants growth to be focused, and where it would be more amenable to playing nice with anyone who comes forward with a plan in those areas.

7. Can I have a say?

Well, the public workshops are this evening, as I write this. But if you can’t/couldn’t attend, feel free to answer the online survey, or email the city planner with your thoughts and concerns.



9 responses

1 05 2014

I wish I could’ve attended one of the meetings to espouse my generally pro-development opinions. Can anyone report on how they went?

2 05 2014
B. C.

I know Jason (Ithaca Builds) was supposed to attend. He might be able to say a thing or two about the meeting itself, and any comments made over the course of the evening.

5 05 2014
Cornell PhD

I get that the city isn’t about to encourage destruction of tons of wood frame houses in central Ithaca, but it’s a bit weird to think about the peripheral big-box area transforming into a high density neighborhood as opposed to more of the residential areas around downtown.

5 05 2014
B. C.

It does seem strange, but it’s not surprising. A lot of the construction down in the flats was approved during Alan Cohen’s administration in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, there were a few shopping plazas, a few other auto-centric businesses, and not a whole lot else in that area. But the city was feeling the financial pinch, and Cohen et al. didn’t want businesses to end up in Lansing when their property taxes could be used in Ithaca. At the time, it was hugely controversial:

So the existence of big-box land from an administrative standpoint is purely economic, and although it clashes with the local character, people begrudgingly accept their utility. Many in the community will jump at the opportunity to replace the big boxes, if a viable plan ever comes forth.

I’ve seen design exercises for the southwest Ithaca area, produced by Cornell students for a course and then displayed in the city meeting chambers (back in 2008ish). But my camera died before I had a chance to take photos, and I haven’t seen them since. Here’s a brief description of that work:

6 05 2014
Cornell PhD

It’s strange to imagine there was nothing down there before the 90s. Where did people in Ithaca go to do any shopping that wasn’t available at the mall? Did the Commons have more practical retail options then?

The proposals for an urban neighborhood in the southwest sound interesting; too bad there are no available images for this project. That said, do Cornell arch school visions for Ithaca ever come to fruition?

7 05 2014
B. C.

Well, some of the smaller shopping plazas did exist as early as the 1950s (token example, Triphammer Marketplace opened in 1966). The Commons, then still a thoroughfare, was already in decline by that time. I’d say the change from downtown to strip plazas began in earnest in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1960s. The Shops at Ithaca Mall (which will always be the Pyramid Mall to me) opened in 1974, the same year the Commons was introduced.

Lots of Cornell AAP visions are suggested as working exercises, which give guidance to the community; but offhand I’m not aware of any being recently carried out. I think the landscape architecture folks in CALS have been luckier though, if at least because some of their instructors/faculty are associated with local firms (ex. Peter Trowbridge of Trowbridge Wolf, and Daniel Krall, who does work with INHS).

13 05 2014
Jason Henderson

There was a land use meeting on the 29th, and the next one is on the 19th of this month. I missed the last one, but I’m planning to go to the next. The draft land use chapter is nice, and the people currently engaged in the process are very sharp and aware of the particulars, but I agree on the flats around downtown sentiment: there’s probably room for more dense mixed-use in the areas around the CBD, especially along Cayuga Street into Fall Creek, but it’s a tough prospect to develop. The current plan is for existing pockets of mixed-use/commercial and medium-density residential, which is defined as 10-20 dwelling units per acre, basically 3-story rowhouses at the maximum.

9 07 2014
News Tidbits 7/9/14: Look into the Crystal Ball | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] a large parcel with strong potential for the mixed-use development that the city wants (per the comprehensive plan). Who knows, there might actually be something to write about in five […]

4 04 2015
News Tidbits 4/4/15: And They Called It “PlanIthaca” | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] which from reading the plan appears to be an accident. Otherwise it’s the exact same map from last spring’s write-up.  There’s a couple of interesting concepts that will be explored as things move forward […]

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