Anyone who has ever seen the Longest Night Solstice Towers, the property at 504 West Seneca Street, has certainly noticed their peculiar design. This isn’t to say the buildings are ugly, but rather the design is the result of technicalities, infill design and toying with the city’s zoning regulation.
It is the design of local architect John Barradas, who acquired the lot and saw the potential for unique housing. The idea started in his backyard studio at his residence, which is located elsewhere on Seneca Street and is similarly designed to the Longest Night Solstice Towers. The design of the towers, which are three stories high and connected by a wooden bridge, makes them stand out from most other buildings in the area. Barradas managed to use some technicalities in designing the buildings so they would fall within the range of what is considered a single-structure duplex, making his unique tower design legal though unconventional.
Since the two towers are built on one foundation, have a shared deck and the connecting bridge is unrestricted by a door or lock, the two towers are technically one singular structure. Barradas’ design may clash with the neighborhood’s aesthetic but he managed to find an interesting way to remain within the zoning, something that is emblematic of the control the city holds over development and the exceptions that may always exist.
JoAnn Cornish, head of the Planning Department, has been working on new infill guidelines with her department’s staff, trying to craft rules that foster density development while preserving neighborhood character; in other words, the age-old question in Ithaca. Cornish has found some infill questions that continue to deadlock city officials.
“I think the two biggest sticking points for infill development are owner occupancy and whether or not to allow two primary structures on one lot,” Cornish said. “Those are the things we seem to keep coming back to when we have these discussions. [...] The consensus is [Common Council wants infill development] but they want to see it done appropriately.”
Cornish has found that as a planning tool, infill housing is a positive idea and will have plenty of benefits for the city, many of which work toward the goals set out by the City of Ithaca’s comprehensive plan that deal with developing more densely. Within the new plans, the City of Ithaca is looking to close the two most significant loopholes: accessory dwelling units and the size of primary structures on properties. These go to the core of the infill question. Cornish said the city already has strict guidelines for accessory dwelling units, which are often used as same-property rental or guest structures. These rules have helped stem the spread of accessory dwelling units, which can only be one-third of the size of the property’s primary structure. The more pressing current issue, though, are those primary structures, which currently exist in a way that can be “gamed,” so to speak, as Barradas did.
“What we don’t have any control over is the primary structures,” Cornish said. “You can own a house in the city and you can build a house, larger, on the same lot, if the lot’s big enough, and that’s what we’ve been seeing on Aurora Street and the First Street projects on Monroe Street.”
In the Town of Ithaca, residents are only allowed one house per tax parcel, which is where problems lie for city infill guidelines. The city will be looking to change that guideline to allow an additional structure, which would not be as large as the primary structure. Along with the new infill housing guidelines, there will be an accompanying set of design guidelines, which will eliminate the idea of buildings designed like Barradas’ Longest Night Solstice Towers of being able to be built again, like rules about street-facing doors and roof slope.
Cornish is looking to have the new guidelines ready to circulate to the public by September, with Common Council being able to vote on something concrete by November.