Ed Marx

Tompkins County commissioner of planning

The Buffalo office of the NRP Group, a national development and management firm, is working with Better Housing for Tompkins County (BHTC) on a proposed affordable housing development on the Biggs property north of Cayuga Medical Center on West Hill in the town of Ithaca.

NRP and BHTC have responded to the county’s request for proposals for the land, but discussions with the town so far have been informal. “They’ve been to the planning committee, presented a few alternative proposals and that’s the last time they’ve come to a town board or committee,” said town Director of Planning Susan Ritter. 

Tompkins County Commissioner of Planning Edward Marx explained the project would be significantly different from other affordable housing projects in a number of ways. The sixty-unit townhouse project is planned to house a wide range of incomes, including those earning from 30 to 90 percent of the median income. “There’s been a pretty strong consensus about the need for more affordable housing, but that it’s best if we can mix incomes and rental prices in neighborhoods,” said Marx “It tends to create a more stable environment for everyone, more successful with fewer problems, and people are better able to age in place.”

With an external parking lot and extensive internal walkway system, the development is designed to create a pedestrian neighborhood. Unlike many affordable housing projects that feature rows of buildings, the townhomes are configured to create a sense of community.

The proposed project features a community garden, a common house or community center, shared-use facilities, recreation trails that might one day be connected to the Black Diamond Trail, and a protected open-use natural area. 

The units will have one to four bedrooms, some a single story and most two stories. The single-story units will be designed for accessibility and “aging in place.” All of the homes will have southern orientation for passive solar gain. The garden will be watered by harvested rain, and sidewalks will be made of porous pavement to minimize storm-water run-off. The developers have expressed a commitment to making the project at least 50 percent more efficient than code requires. According to Marx, “NRP has a very good record, they have won awards for being one of most successful affordable housing developers in the country.”

The project is part of a planning trend towards income-integrated communities that are developed as neighborhoods as opposed to sprawling housing projects. In 2011, Tompkins County was awarded an EPA Climate Showcase Communities grant to document the achievement of the Aurora Street Pocket, the Ecovillage TREE neighborhood, and this new proposed project. “We’re working with Ecovillage to translate some of the lessons they’ve learned, particularly with their TREE neighborhood,” said Marx.

Another notable feature of the project is that the units are designed to transfer to ownership in fifteen years at which time the occupants would have the option of buying their unit. Until then the apartments are expected to rent at 30 percent of the income of the resident, translating to a range of $300 to $1300 per month depending on unit size and the resident’s income.

When asked if NRP and BHT plan to use local labor for the project, Marx said, “the developer has expressed interest in utilizing local labor, but we’re not far enough in the process to know that for sure.”

The potential developers held a general info meeting for West Hill residents in July to explain the concept behind their proposed development. Some West Hill residents have expressed concern over a new affordable housing development in an area that already hosts the Overlook Apartments and, within city limits, West Village. 

Both Ritter and Marx explained that West Hill is attractive to developers because there is more undeveloped land there than elsewhere in the town, and there is access to in-place infrastructure. Another attractive feature of the property, according to Marx, is that “one of the largest employers—over 1000 employees—is just next door at Cayuga Medical Center, with not much affordable housing nearby. We know they work long shifts and overnight hours, so that would make it more attractive to live closer.” Ritter echoed the sentiment, suggesting the new development would be ideal for nurses, medical technicians, and administrative support staff.

Under the town’s current comprehensive plan (dating from 1993), the area is zoned for suburban or urban residential use, as well as for use by public institutions. “So what’s being proposed would be consistent with the 1993 plan,” said Ritter.

“The county is close to authorizing the agreement with the proposed developers after certain contingencies are met, meeting with the town and getting approval, and securing funding,” said Marx. “The project should be considered at the town level some time this fall.” If everything goes as planned, the project could break ground as soon as next year. 

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