Downtown Construction

One major city initiative moved forward Wednesday night, while another momentarily stalled.

But the most important part, as always: everybody tried hard and had fun. Let's jump in. 

Green Building Policy

The city's (and town's, eventually) effort to institute building energy policies as the development boom continues took another step Wednesday, as the Green Building Policy report was unanimously approved to move onto Common Council. 

The policy report has been in the works for months (more in-depth look here, or read the whole thing here), and is expected to heavily inform the final writing of the Green Building Policy. It would require buildings to meet certain energy-friendly thresholds, via either a points system or a trusted third party grading system like LEED Certification. The "points" would be accumulated by hitting certain criteria: for instance, one point for using heat pumps, one point for employing a simple building structure, etc. The rules tighten in 2025 and 2030, when all new construction would have to be net-zero energy in order to gain city approval.

During the circulation period, around 200 comments were received from the public. Having read through them, many propose technical tweaks and the like, though certain environmental protection advocates stated repeatedly that the policy does not go far enough. This comment has long been lodged against the policy team, who have responded again and again that they feel the thresholds should not be too high so as to hinder achievement; Noah Demarest has said before that the point is for projects to be able to reach the goals so that tangible change can be made while avoiding undue burden on property owners.

Chairperson Seph Murtagh questioned the lack of developer feedback, which has been a bit of a curious theme as the GBP report has moved through the approval process. Town and City Sustainability Coordinator Nick Goldsmith, also one of the architects of the policy with Demarest, said he expected there to be more thorough inspection once the actual policy's language becomes clear, instead of just the report. 

Interestingly, in response to comments from Ithaca College and Cornell University, the policy writers did state that when the policy is made into law there will most likely be a separate institutional compliance path which will be formulated in conjunction with "large local institutions."

Their intent is still to have a resolution before the Common Council at May's meeting to adopt the final report, which will then lead to city staff developing the proper code language for a green building policy that can be implemented into law. 

Tax Abatement Requirements

The other major topic up for possible advancement to Common Council was the city's new suggestions for tweaks to the tax abatement policy. It was rejected for, in the succinct words of Murtagh, a desire for more data, so it will return for further consideration soon. 

There were two main portions of this bill: to expand the boundary of the Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program (CIITAP) eligible district to include the waterfront area, and to introduce an affordable housing requirement. The former is not particularly controversial and doesn't appear to have generated much opposition. The latter might not either, but the committee wasn't ready to continue without knowing more. 

The spirit of the affordability requirements appear to have at least some support from the committee, though the specifics are going to have to be ironed out. As it currently stands, the planning staff is proposing to require at least 10 percent of new housing units construction be set aside for affordable housing (defined as "units whose rents are affordable to those earning 75 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) and would be restricted to be occupied by households that earn no more than 80 percent of AMI") if a project wants to receive a tax abatement from the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency. 

In the wake of the Green Building Policy debate, Brock cited its intention to require green building practices to be approved for construction in Ithaca, and how she'd like to see the city take a similar approach to the affordable housing conundrum. 

"We are not providing tax abatements in the city for green building, we're requiring it," Brock said. "I think affordable housing should be looked at in that same way, that we're not incentivizing it, we're requiring it."

There's always the chance that whatever balance, or lack thereof some would argue, the city has struck between allowing development and incentivizing affordable housing could be permanently harmed if development becomes less profitable in the city. The problem with that is there's no way to tell: ever since Ithaca has had an affordable housing problem, tax abatements have existed as a bargaining chip. The potential impact of changing that is unknown, and while Brock said the city should take advantage of the attractive market it has cultivated, there is some risk. 

"There is some risk to this, because if we screw this up, they'll go and build in Lansing," Murtagh said. He also noted that Knipe has written to local developers to gather feedback about whether or not these numbers sound feasible or not (hopefully their reaction will be available by the next PEDC meeting.)

Something to watch soon: a certain incarnation of inclusionary zoning was mentioned last month at PEDC, which would essentially create a citywide affordable housing mandate for projects (presumably of a certain size). Murtagh said if they pass the CIITAP expansion the logical next step is to at least consider an affordable housing requirement for the entire city that would be a standalone policy, separate from the tax abatement program. 

That was the bulk of the meeting, but here are any other notes and news for your reading pleasure:

- The other large topic discussed was allowable uses for the Chainworks District project, though it was not up for a vote tonight and will certainly return to the PEDC table. Some of the residential limitations were under consideration, as well as the Department of Environmental Conservation's recent report detailing pollution at the former industrial site. 

- Neighborhood Improvement Incentive Fund for West Hill - An application by West Hill residents Regi Teasley and Pat Dutt was rejected mostly due to a technicality. There was some disagreement among committee members over whether the application's request, which was to receive $300 to finance the distribution of postcards to 944 households in the City and Town of Ithaca to inform residents about the IthacaWest listserv and website. The committee supported the intention of the request, but not for $300 or through that funding stream, so some form of it might be back soon. 

- Public comment notes: the topic of inclusionary zoning was once again broached as a preferable alternative to the CIITAP expansion, while others posited complaints that the city has already given away too much leverage to developers who have offered little help to the city's affordable housing stock. Others wanted to see the Green Building Policy advanced but also strengthened as it comes closer to becoming codified. There was also a comment by Tompkins County Legislator Deborah Dawson suggesting that if the Green Building Policy is implemented, and thus required, projects should probably not receive additional tax abatement consideration for including green infrastructure aspects. There was also concern about construction dust on the Commons. 

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