March 10, 2016

Ithaca Planning Committee Promotes Low-Income Housing

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Ithaca Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee voted to circulate an incentive zoning for affordable housing ordinance at City Hall Wednesday.

The proposed ordinance provides developers with incentives such as the elimination of minimum parking requirements and exemption from site plan review to build affordable living units, according to the ordinance.

Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said the high cost of housing is “the largest problem in Ithaca” in a Facebook post on Wednesday.

He supported incentive zoning as a means of making city living more affordable, saying the most important effect is to increase the supply of housing and listing possible ways to do so.

“The first is that we can build more subsidized housing,” Myrick said. “The second is incentive zoning, so that we can encourage the private market to build subsidized housing.”

Myrick added that the proposal is a way for the community to increase the Ithaca housing situation without resorting to previously contested measures.

“This proposal is an opportunity for those of us who claim to care about affordable housing but oppose large-scale subsidized housing,” Myrick said.

Lynn Truame M.A. HPP ’91, community development planner of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Project, defended the efficacy of the proposed incentives.

Truame referred to the exemption from site plan review incentive, saying that the developers would like the city to do “anything … to streamline our project approval process.”

“The site plan review exemption incentive is probably the strongest one we have,” she added.

Alderperson Graham Kerslick (D – 4th Ward), executive director of the Atkinson Center for Sustainable Research at Cornell, was generally in favor of the ordinance, but he expressed reservations about some of its provisions.

He noted that the elimination of minimum parking and density bonus incentives were clear to understand but questioned the site plan review incentive.

“The site plan review process can often turn up many issues, in particular on large projects where there’s a lot of public interest,” Kerslick said. “I’m not sure I am as supportive of that incentive as I am for the other two that are listed, which are, to my mind, clearly better linked to the program.”

Alderperson Seph Murtagh Ph.D. ’09 (D – 2nd Ward), the committee chair, doubted that the incentives were strong enough to attract developers.

“It’s all carrot; there’s not really any stick in here,” Murtagh said. “I want to move forward with it, but I think it might be good to set a point in the future —18 months or two years — where we look at it again and see if any developers are taking advantage of it.”

Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D – 1st Ward), the committee’s sole dissenter, was not convinced of this tentative approach because of its potentially costly implementation with no guarantee of success.

“Because of length, labor and oversight required to maintain [the incentive zoning regulations], I am apprehensive to float something like this as a trial without a commitment of resources to a full understanding of how it would be done,” Brock said.

In spite of Brock’s opposition, the committee voted to circulate the ordinance, which provides “a starting point for discussion,” according to Truame.

The drafted ordinance will now be circulated to Common Council, the Tompkins County Planning Department, the Board of Public Works and various city boards and committees.

After circulation, the committee will vote on whether or not to recommend the revised ordinance for adoption by the full common council.