March 13, 2013

City of Ithaca Considers Changes to Zoning That Could Transform Collegetown

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City of Ithaca officials are considering sweeping changes to Collegetown zoning that some say will improve the quality of housing, encourage development and promote walkable neighborhoods.

At a Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting Wednesday, committee members expressed their support of enacting a form-based code:  zoning intended to foster the creation of desirable urban form that is attractive and appropriate for different areas of a community. City officials, however, said they must solicit feedback from the public before the Common Council — the legislative body of the city — will vote on the proposal.

Megan Wilson, a City of Ithaca planning department staff member who worked on the Collegetown form-based code, presented the plan at the meeting.

“The proposed zoning is intended to encourage exceptional urban design and high-quality construction, ensure a consistent transition between lower density and higher density zoning districts, concentrate additional development in the central areas of Collegetown, protect the character of the adjacent residential districts … and promote attractive walkable neighborhoods,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the form-based code will achieve these objectives through a number of methods appropriate to specific areas. These methods would include increasing the maximum allowable building height — or requiring a pitched roof for houses that are three stories tall, wider sidewalks or a minimum amount of green space — as is appropriate for various defined Collegetown areas.

According to Alderperson Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward), a form-based code proposal was passed by the Common Council in 2010, but the legislation was repealed following a challenge by a number of Collegetown property owners. The new code is a simplified and revised version of the original proposal — one that is less likely to be controversial — according to McCollister.

The committee also voted Wednesday to make the form-based code memo a public online document, but not to officially circulate it yet, because not all of the diagrams in the document — which describe the specific changes that would be required of buildings under the new code — have been finalized yet.

McCollister said that the proposed zoning changes would make Collegetown housing more appealing to live in and more competitively priced, improving the quality of life for students and permanent residents living in Collegetown.

“The purpose of a form-based code is to improve the environment: the architectural elements are better, the streetscapes are better … It really improves the public realm,” McCollister said. “The idea is to try to put things into effect that will very much enhance the urban environment of Collegetown: to make it more vibrant, more year-round, to improve the retail and commercial opportunities.”

The concept memo for the code will remain a public document in its current form for a month. According to McCollister, the document will subsequently be fine-tuned as public opinion on the code is gathered. McCollister said the earliest the code will be voted on by the entire Common Council will be June or July.

Original Author: Noah Rankin