Eight Views on Ithaca’s Development

5 05 2016

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The Ithaca Times, in partnership with Sustainable Tompkins, ran an op-ed series about development issues in Ithaca. Seven writers, plus the Times’ commentary for a total of eight. I have my reactions below, separate from the links in Italics; so one can read the article and jump back with limited interference from yours truly. Please feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments section.

1. Opinion piece one, also the intro, came from Gay Nicholson, the President of Sustainable Tompkins.

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I have profound concerns with Nicholson’s commentary, for a couple reasons. For one, it implies there will never be enough supply. That’s not true. The problems today stem from year after year, for well over a decade, of failing to meet the needs of the community’s economic and overall population growth, creating a deep, sustained deficit. It’s now at the point where it’s creating major hardship for thousands of people – adopting the attitude that they just can’t be helped is wrong.

Issue number two is the “carrying capacity” argument. That might work in ecology, but here, the argument’s a potential minefield because it carries the implication of “this area’s full, move somewhere else” – fine enough if you’ve lived in the area for a couple decades, you’re retirement age and with substantial assets, not so much if you don’t check those boxes. If one looks at it in the context of the area’s evolving socioeconomic and racial composition, it becomes an even more perilous statement. I think that, as an area with 3.3% growth so far this decade, in a region with decreasing populations otherwise, that’s it not a strong argument at this point in time, especially when there are real opportunities for improvement.

In an attempt to put into context, Nicholson does live in Lansing, the only community with large-scale development with limited planning and regulation, contributing to a major partisan divide. She ran for its town board in 2013, but lost. Lansing’s relatively laissez-faire approach may stem from the town’s fear of property taxes skyrocketing once the power plant closes, but whatever the reasoning, it improving some issues while exacerbating others, and consequently has its proponents and opponents.

2. Opinion two is written by Frost Travis, the developer leading Travis Hyde Properties.

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Travis Hyde is behind the Carey Building project, or the Old Library site, both of which are THP’s work. One thing I like about the piece is that it sheds some light on the real estate development, and that a lot of time, money and effort go into plans. No one wants their efforts wasted.

That being said, some plans are good, and some are bad. Some deserve a negative reaction, some don’t. I’d argue State Street Triangle is an example of the former, and 130 East Clinton is an example of the latter. 130 East Clinton was fine as a project, and probably would have received the tax abatement and been built, if it had been proposed by anyone but Jason Fane. The Times acknowledged this, and the whole thing ended up being a political mess. Not saying Fane’s a sterling citizen, but the county is fortunate Fane never pursued an Article 78 lawsuit, because he would have a strong case.

State Street Triangle…well, one comment I’ve heard a lot was that their initial approach was pretty awful. They tried to make up for it, but that’s hard to do when so many controversial aspects (big, tall, students, tax abatement) are rolled into one project. The rumor on the new incarnation is that it’s not student-oriented (and not Campus Advantage), so that could make enough of a difference.

Although it might be scorned in some corners, it’s crucial that public groups and private developers work together – government studies have shown that there are lower levels of displacement when more market-rate housing is built as a complement to affordable housing efforts.

3. The third installment comes from county legislator Anna Kelles.

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I didn’t take a whole lot away from Anna Kelles’ submission. Her county district, which contains Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, is the epicenter of gentrification. Historically, Fall Creek was a lower-middle class, blue-collar neighborhood, but given housing valuations increasing 5%, 10%, even 15% a year, very few long-time residents are able to keep up with the corresponding increase in property tax amounts. For homeowners who plan on moving elsewhere in the next couple of years, this has been nothing short of a windfall because the sales prices continue to skyrocket. For anyone who planned on being in Fall Creek long-term, and especially those of modest means, it’s a much more uncomfortable situation.

As a result, two different views come out – one, limit affordability efforts as much as possible for maximum benefit to those selling; and two, those who would prefer the market to moderate in some form. Anna Kelles was deeply involved in the condo effort for the Old Library project. Although that wasn’t the affordable housing proposal, it was the one most similar to Fall Creek’s older, increasingly upper-middle class constituents, who are increasingly at odds with their neighbors.

Fall Creek has mixed views on its rapid gentrification. Maybe that’s why I don’t pick up any strong opinions from its legislator.

4. The fourth piece was written by Kirby Edmonds, Coordinator of Building Bridges, on addressing and combating displacement.

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This is a thoughful piece, it’s just a shame some of the suggested solutions aren’t as easy as they sound. For instance, the land trusts, assuming its something like INHS’s Community Housing Trust, run into an issue at the state level – they’re not recognized, and the state, via the county assessor, taxes at the full amount. Until someone changes the rules in Albany, an odyssey in itself, there’s not a whole lot that can be done. Also, I’m not 100% confident in a county legislature that turned a $583,000 windfall from the state into a free-for-all for pet projects; there would need to be some extremely strong safeguards to ensure the county’s not going to plead hardship if the state were to recognize a trust program.

The Times complained that Edmonds had a negative view of 210 Hancock, but I don’t quite get that, it sounds more neutral, about maintaining clear, frank communication. But given the multiple community meetings during the planning stage, it’s not clear how much more open and transparent the process can be before one to break out those “frank conversations about privilege”.

5. Article number five, focusing on affordable housing, came courtesy of Paul Mazzarella, Executive director of INHS.

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It was great that Paul touched on the income aspect to the housing issue – Tompkins County’s average income isn’t much higher than surrounding counties, but the cost of housing is much greater. Students are the obvious part of that because they pool incomes on units, but they only make up about one-third of the housing deficit. Also playing a role are incoming retirees who’ve made their dollars elsewhere, and the growing economy draws in those advancing their careers and already have some assets to their name. Add it all together, and it’s quite difficult for supply to try and keep up with demand.

The title also touches on the “missing middle” of housing – luxury/premium housing is easier to build, because as long as the market is demonstrated to exist, the return on investment is higher, and therefore more likely gain financing from the regional banks and credit unions that loan money to build new housing. Lower income units have the opportunity to obtain government grants, even if they are highly competitive. But for the middle market, where grants are virtually non-existent and the desired profit margins aren’t there, it becomes a tough situation. Political bodies are faced with either making an environment conducive for new middle-market housing, or expecting to ride on the depreciation of premium units – which may not be feasible with prices are rising as they are.

6. Next up was City Councilman Seph Murtagh, and “Development and its Discontents”.

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My reaction to Seph’s was fairly positive, though he’s more optimistic about the incentive zoning than I am. The initial reaction is that people on both sides of the debate don’t like it, but until it goes into play, no one knows if it will be of any benefit. There don’t appear to be many options on the table that don’t piss people off, so, well, it seems worth a try, even if incentive zoning has its flaws. At least the city has taken and continues to take steps to identify where development can be promoted, the lynchpin is making it attractive for private entities to actually do so.

7. Planner Krys Cail was the seventh contributor, focusing on how development and especially density should be focused in the city and town, where infrastructure is in place and transportation expenses are lower, and can contribute to a more affordable setup even if housing costs a little more.

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I don’t always agree with Krys, but I thought this was fairly accurate and on the mark (excluding the off-the-cuff on the golf courses – Newman floods, the others would probably see intense opposition. But the town has recommendations if the Ithaca Country Club ever closes). For the record, when it comes to things like affordability, it’s not usually the case that affordable housing developers want to be in rural areas, it’s just that land is cheaper and the neighborhood opposition is not nearly so fierce. The key is overcoming those challenges.

8. And the last one, from the Ithaca Times’ Bill Chaisson.

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I kinda feel like form-based zoning is being presented as a panacea here. It would be helpful, definitely. Fewer plans would have to head to the the Board of Zoning Appeals, thus removing a layer of government and the uncertainty it throws in the financing process for all projects, and planners have pointed out that the city’s code has decades of numerous add-ons and revisions, yet still has substantial issues. But it’s just one part of the overall problem to address. The city has to push developers to get on board with plans and approaches, but given the expense and time it takes to create proposals, the city also has to make it worth the effort. Residents can stake claims to protecting neighborhood character, but also have to recognize that no significant change to address current affordability and supply/demand problems will result in a far worse situation as rapid price growth and displacement continue. Different decisions impact constituents in different ways – one person’s physical character preservation is another’s pricing out, damaging social-cultural preservation.

Here’s an example of how the bigger issues get lost on the individual level. In response to the Maplewood article I did for the Voice this week, I received an email from a nearby resident that said, “I would like there to be as few students on that property as possible.” That’s a “me-first” approach that does more harm than good – letting the overall affordability and supply issues worsen so this individual can avoid having grad students nearby. Saying “This is what Cornell wants to do, here’s what I’m concerned about, could X, Y, and Z ideas help mitigate” would be much more valuable to the conversation.

It’s a complex issue, and there is no silver bullet. Every action will have positive and negative reactions, and because someone will be upset every step of the way, there won’t be a fairy-tale happy ending. Local governments struggle to address development issues; just look at the post-fracking fight over large-scale solar and wind renewables in the towns, and opposition to nearly every affordable housing plan in the past several years.

People are much better at opposing than proposing. It’s time for a re-calibration.


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One response

6 05 2016
Bill Chaisson

Brian: Thanks for this round up of your reactions to all the opinions. I wrote my reaction largely to try to get more people to revisit the essays because I think they topic is important. I agree with most of your commentary. I should clarify that I didn’t mean for form-based zoning to be presented as a panacea. Rather, I was upset that none of the contributors chose to explore it and that several of them seemed to either be unaware of its implications or oppose its tenets.
Bill Chaisson

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