The Planning, Economic Development and Environmental Quality Committee of Ithaca’s Common Council held an open forum yesterday to discuss the city’s downtown density incentives, which have sparked public debate regarding their aesthetic, economic and environmental ramifications in recent years.
Prof. John Forester, city and regional planning, led the discussion, which was the first of three forums on the issue.
Business owners, longtime Ithaca residents and members of Common Council, the Planning and Development Board and the Ithaca Downtown Partnership debated on how to economically revitalize Ithaca, whether the city should continue increasing the density of its downtown area and the benefits and pitfalls of tax abatements as economic incentives.
Attendees devoted much of the meeting to Ithaca’s policy favoring tax abatements, which offer economic incentives to outside developers and are currently the crux of Ithaca’s density incentive program.
Distributed through the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), which seeks to promote development in Ithaca’s core, tax abatements allay taxes on the resulting increased property value of the project. The incentives begin as full abatements for the company and are ratcheted down gradually to normal tax rates after about 10 years.
This initiative has drawn both praise from those who hope it will encourage developers to build in dense areas, thereby reducing suburban sprawl and making Ithaca a more “walkable” city, as well as concern from residents who are wary of over-development and what they perceive as increasing financial burdens for the city.
Through the IDA, Ithaca has endorsed the policy for about five years.
“From 1985 to 2000 there was little new investment taking place [in downtown Ithaca] … this [density policy] is a tool to help … bring some of that investment back to the center,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership (IDP), an organization devoted since 1997 to revitalizing downtown.
Added Joe Wetmore, who owns Autumn Leaves Used Books on the Commons, “As a society, we’ve seen suburbanization isn’t working for us … it’s bankrupting cities and creating a car culture. We need to ‘re-densify’ the urban core” and invest in downtown.
Most members did not dispute the perceived benefits of economically invigorating the downtown area. Some did, however, voice concerns about financial feasibility, relevance for ordinary Ithacans and aesthetic issues.
David Gelinas ’07 (D-4th Ward) said it was important to evaluate “some humanistic aspects to these projects … we want some indication … [of] the broader impact on society in general.”
Shane Seger ’99 (D-1st Ward) said it would be “problematic” if density incentives brought in businesses that competed directly with established ones or did not aesthetically suit the community.
Some Ithaca residents felt that that encouraging a dense downtown was unavoidable, given the alternatives.
Jevon Garrett, who chairs the government relations committee of the IDP, said, “If the community needs development, it’s going to happen somewhere. Do we want it at Buttermilk Park or in the city, which already has development?”
He added, “We want to maintain the density of an area rather than spreading it all out.”
Ferguson cited three methods of municipal revenue generation: raising taxes, reducing spending and “finding new money … which typically comes from economic development.”
He felt that the public did not properly understand the benefits of tax abatements.
“If you make too many stringent requirements, you won’t be able to find a developer,” Gelinas said.
“Projects aren’t coming downtown on their own,” said Daniel Cogan (D-5th Ward). Some participants also voiced concerns about the clarity of the city’s internal review process and the extent to which it raises public awareness and knowledge of key issues.
Although attendees did not end the forum in agreement on how to best bolster Ithaca’s development, it was clear that for them to proceed, they would have to decide on values, long-term goals and a more distinct vision for the city.
As Ithaca has seen an influx of new businesses and some big-box stores in the last five years, debates over how to preserve Ithaca’s small-town atmosphere while maintaining economic growth have intensified.
Controversy has been long-standing but reached a hilt last year over the Cayuga Green project, which received a tax abatement. The Hilton Inn, Gateway I and II and Island Health and Fitness also received tax abatements.