H. Matthys Van Cort is the Director of Planning and Development for the City of Ithaca, as well as the Executive Director of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. Van Cort recently sat down with the Ithaca Times and talked about the past, present and future of development in downtown.
IT: Where is downtown now, and where is it going?
Van Cort: "We've had a period of exceptional growth and an exceptional amount of grown in the past five years. First with the hotel, and the Seneca Place on The Commons, which includes the Hilton Garden Inn, and Cornell's office building: that's a huge boost to the downtown and brings a lot of new people to downtown. As Gary Ferguson [of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership] never tires of telling us, 'It's all about foot traffic.' The strategy of putting the new garage [at one end] and the hotel at the other end of downtown so folks would have to walk through downtown to their cars was a good idea, and it forces people to see what's in downtown; they can't just go straight from their office job to their car and never look at what's down here and what the choices are.
The second major development is Mack Travis's Gateway housing project, although Mack's other Gateway is also an important project - that was a warehouse, just a storage facility, and now it's offices and retail; that brought a lot of people right into downtown as well.
The last piece that's on the books and expected to start soon is Cayuga Green, and the first phase of it was the garage, and the next phase, which is to start in the next couple of months, is the mixed-use building that will be between the mental health building and library - it will have apartments, and retail on the ground floor."
IT: What are some of the unique challenges present in developing in an urban area?
Van Cort: "In downtown, almost invariably, you're working on a site that's been used for something else before. It's often contaminated, so you often have to deal with getting rid of an old fuel tank or something else like that, the contamination often isn't very serious, just an old tank that leaked a little bit, it's not the worst thing in the world.
But urban sites are often more difficult than other sites to develop after clean up: they're smaller, and there are site assembly issues when you put together a site - that was a real problem for the hotel. The approval process is daunting: if you compare the approvals for Cayuga Green with the approvals for the Regal [Cinemas] expansion at Pyramid [Mall], they're just so different that they're like day and night. This project must have gone through two dozen critical meetings, where any one of the meetings could have killed it, where Pyramid, seemed to me, to fly under the radar entirely - it's just the way it is. People focus all of their energy and all of their attention on downtown projects, and people get very, very excited about it. They love their city, and they think that the project isn't the right idea and so they spend a lot of energy trying to kill it. There are many people among those who have fought this project who consider themselves to be Urbanists, and consider themselves to be opposed to suburbanization, and yet, I hear nothing but silence when Pyramid expands, always. I mean, you don't hear a ripple of protest. Maybe because they know it would be ineffectual, but whatever the case, downtown projects face much tougher scrutiny than anything that's done in the suburbs.
Now, a project outside of the city is a greenfield project, and a greenfield project is typically, you go into a field, into a proverbial cornfield, and you grate it off, and you put in a shopping center - that's a greenfield. The site usually is one owner, and it's usually not contaminated, and the process is usually easy, parking is kind of all taken care of - you just pave more green space. In downtown, you usually have to work out parking with the City or with someone else, so it's very complicated."
IT: How long does it take for a project to get developed in downtown?
Van Cort: "A perfect example is that the pipeline for urban development in Ithaca recently has been about 6 years. When I left New York [City] in 1973, the pipeline for projects there was considered to be 8 years. But that's New York - this is a little town upstate. It's a very long pipeline and a very arduous process, and it takes developers with a real commitment to see a project through to completion."
IT: Something that has come up in conversations I've had about development are the luxury, or high-end, apartments in downtown.
Van Cort: "I'm delighted to see high-end apartments in downtown. I think you need every income level to be served in downtown. I think you need to have housing opportunities at the top of the market and the bottom of the market - you need places to house people at all levels.
Cayuga Green's final phase, which they want to start this year as well, is condominiums that will be right behind the garage on that blank wall that people comment on as being ugly - that's going to be hidden by these condos. They've told us that everything is going very well as far as financing that, and they're very confident its going to go ahead shortly."
IT: Are there any other large plans for the development of downtown?
Van Cort: "Well, those earlier projects I mentioned are all going to be major additions to downtown. The other project that's still in the inchoate, "think" stages is the project that Jeff Rimland, who is the owner of the Rothschild's building, wants to develop. The first thing that the project needed was a zoning change, which has happened. Now he's got to see if he can make the numbers work.... It's on the site that's just between Aurora Street and the end of the garage. It's a little triangular site, and it's a very tough site and a very small site - so to get enough units in there for it to work is going to be quite a challenge, but he's quite an experienced developer. He's done a lot of housing on Long Island, and he owns urban real estate as well. He's got financial strength to make something like this happen, so it's not underfinanced, which is very important - you need somebody who is both technically capable of doing something and financially capable, too. That project is something that I hope will happen.
And I also hope that this current development establishes a kind of momentum; I'd like to see a new major project every couple of years. You can't flood the market because it's a small market and the absorption has to be there - if you put in too much, you'll get a lot of vacancies. What we need is a sustained level of growth."
IT: What kind of role do you think Ithaca will take in America's future development?
Van Cort: "There are these two competing theories about movement and growth. One is called "The World is Flat," and it's Globalism. Basically, it says that if you make something in one place, and you can't make it very cheaply, it's going to get made somewhere else for less. It is a way of believing that you have to be very, very competitive at what you're best at.
The other one is "The World is Spiky," which was developed by Richard Florida, and it says that the world isn't quite flat. It says that there are going to be places that make it and places that don't, and the places that can attract brainy, entrepreneurial people - and it's mostly young people, people in their 20s and 30s with a lot of energy and a lot of brains - are going to be the winners in this new economy; places that can attract people like that are going to be centers of excellence. It's hoped that we can be one of those little places that people move to for the quality of place. Ithaca certainly can't compete with Boston, New York or San Francisco on the scale of our enterprise. The way we compete is by quality of life, quality of place, and by being the kind of place where, if you're a nanotechnology expert, you can find a job and if you want to leave that job, there will be another job to go to. What we need to grow here is a bunch of these small industries, which is what I understand to be happening.
There are jobs coming to Ithaca, there are jobs being grown here in Ithaca - they're not big companies, they're mostly smallish places, 5 to 100 people - but there are a lot of new high-tech jobs that are starting here and forming companies here and are attractive the kind of entrepreneurial, super-smart young people that are typical of these areas of success. I'm hoping that we can encourage people like that to start here and stay here, and that we can attract some of them to downtown."
IT: How do you think cities are doing in dealing with sprawl?
Van Cort: "I think we're at the point nationally where downtowns are making a comeback against the suburbs."
IT: Was there an original vision of downtown and The Commons? And if so, do today's downtown and The Commons match that vision'
Van Cort: "I've gotta say that we've been kind of 'project focused' in downtown, and I would say that's as much my fault as anybody else's. You get so busy doing the things right before you at any given moment that you oftentimes don't take the time to step back and do planning. Although, having said that, there have been a series of plans done for downtown that have set the stage for everything that has happened here. We did a plan back in the 90s that identified lost space and underutilized sites. And all of the sites that have been developed since then have been identified as places that should be redeveloped."
IT: How do you make plans for the city, and what general guidelines, or even philosophies, do you follow?
Van Cort: "One thing that I've learned is 'Don't be too timid when you're planning.' Plans have to be a compromise between the doable and the idealistic, and I push more toward the doable, where some people push more toward the idealistic.
More recently, bids have started doing strategic plans, that say, much more specifically, 'We're going to do so this square feet of office,' or 'We're going to do this many apartments,' or 'We're going to do this many retail stores,' or 'We're going to concentrate on entertainment,' or 'We're going to concentrate on food.' They've been very valuable.
I did The Commons - that was my first big job here - and after I did that, I had the feeling that it was the public sector's job to set the stage, and that the private sector would then carry stuff out. I've thought very strongly that the public sector should not try to pick the winners and losers; for example, we shouldn't say that one shoe store should go in and the other one shouldn't because we've got too many shoe stores. We're notoriously bad at that; let the market make the calls and make the mistakes. But after seeing Gary Ferguson in action, I think that a cooperative effort between the public sector and an NGO like Gary's, a non-governmental organization, can actually try to identify gaps and try to fill them. They can't be Protectionist; they can try to bring businesses in, but they can't try to keep them out.
Right now, if you look at downtown, we need a shoe store. Why we don't already have one is beyond me - I don't understand that, and I don't understand specific retailing that well, it's not my field - but I know that when I came here, there were lots of shoe stores. I assume that the business has changed a great deal."
IT: What do you see for the future?
Van Cort: "The only thing that you can be absolutely sure of is that the future's not going to be the same as the present, and that 9 chances out of 10, you're not going to be able to predict it. For example, when I got here in 1973, there were five department stores downtown....two chain drug stores, two independent drug stores, a store that sold nothing but work clothes, and this just massive mix of different shops. People said that all we needed downtown was a grocery store and a hardware store. Well, we never got either, and we lost all of the other things, and it became more and more high-comparison shopping and high-end stuff, and expensive gift items. Also, used clothes, used books, and used records. I thought it was going in that direction from the beginning - there was no way it could out-Pyramid Pyramid Mall."