After months of planning and discussion, the City of Ithaca Common Council voted 6-3 to downzone the 300, 400, and 500 blocks of W. MLK St. at their Oct. 2 meeting. The new zoning ordinance will make five stories the maximum heights for buildings on those blocks of West State Street. Since it was first proposed, the resolution has been a source of great debate amongst the councilors and other agencies, with some unsure the resolution would have passed last night.
Many members of the public spoke to this issue during the public privilege of the floor, addressing how such a move would work against the city’s goals outlined in the Green New Deal which was passed in July. Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles spoke against the move, saying that allowing buildings up to six stories high could create additional character in the neighborhood, as well as opening up more room for downtown housing.
Other members of the public echoed Kelles’ sentiments, emphasizing that downzoning runs counter to achieving Ithaca’s climate goals. Local activist Theresa Alt said that allowing taller buildings could create affordable housing that would decrease the homeless population of Ithaca. After this, Common Council began a lengthy discussion about the new zoning.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock opened up the discussion by addressing some of the misconceptions surrounding the resolution. She said since developers have only been allowed to build up to five stories for the last seven years, developing a building that was six stories tall would require a zoning variance prior to the institution of the new zoning ordinance. Brock went on to note how developing on the West End works in favor of developers since it’s in the CIITAP (Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program) development zone.
Brock also pointed out that the West End is part of an “opportunity zone,” established under new federal tax laws, is an economically-distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for tax incentives. Aside from the West End, the only other opportunity zone in the City of Ithaca is South Hill. Overall, Brock said she wants to ensure the neighborhood still has character and remains a place that continues to have a vibrant and dynamic architectural history, while not discouraging all development.
Alderperson George McGonigal doubled Brock’s comments, saying he also wanted to see the neighborhood’s character preserved. He also argued that this allows for plenty of development and growth. Some councilors and outside agencies like the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) made the argument that design guidelines and historical preservation is the proper way to go about saving an area’s character. Mayor Svante Myrick said he’s heard from several small businesses in that area who were not in favor of the downzoning.
Meanwhile, Alderperson Stephen Smith wasn’t completely on board with adopting the new zoning variance and found that some parts of the West End should be looked at as a place for things to remain the same as the rest of the city evolves around it.
Smith said he was sure there are developers who can add to the area’s vibranc and build something with long-term sustainability, even at larger sizes. Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, who stood firmly against the resolution, spoke on how the new zoning could prove to be detrimental to the future prosperity of Ithaca’s downtown core.
“Progressive cities all over the country are going up while we're going down,” Nguyen said. “Downzoning by one story doesn't seem like a big deal, but it's a regressive move out of touch with our needs for housing and sustainability. It associates height with neighborhood character rather than the people who live and work there. This downzoning doesn't prevent the demolition of the buildings my colleagues are worried about, which only historic designation would protect, and ignores that W. MLK St. is a part of the urban core.”
Nguyen was disappointed in how the vote turned out, as was Smith. Smith echoed Nguyen’s comments as he remarked that the vote discouraged growth in the city’s downtown center.
“Smart growth along central corridors provides the density needed for a vibrant community,” Smith said. “By welcoming more people into our city, we're giving our restaurants, shops and bars the base they need to thrive. If we want more quirky and cool establishments, we need people.”