Infill

Architect John Barradas, standing in front of his bridged structures on his property on West Seneca Street. 

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.

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John Barradas

The City of Ithaca Planning Department’s zeal to preserve the character of a neighborhood can and often does eliminate design layers. Zoning is to curb nuisance from its inception -- not to stifle design. In essence, Planning’s role is to protect one neighbor from another neighbor's deleterious use of land. I’m of the opinion that over time, the built environment must evolve to accommodate new functions, including the development of appropriate spaces for individuals and groups to work, sleep, entertain, and celebrate. Some of Ithaca’s current guidelines actually diminish the Planning Department's role in that effort. Instead, the focus of the Department becomes one of assigning and assessing a neighborhood’s “character”. Whose opinion is it? What is being shared in meetings with design consultants such as Winter & Company? Design professionals soon understand this process as an edict to be championed by the members of the Common Council. This sort of procedure is both subjective and unsubstantiated. Design guidelines which, for example, require all main entrances to face one direction – the street – perpetuate existing standards and attitudes, while diminishing the possibilities of new or even current interpretations. What about the consideration of alternative cosmopolitan precedents? Is it really in everyone’s best civic interests to have such finite guidelines on Zoning? There are instances where a front door can face an alley, a roof can be a terrace, or a neighbor’s shared terrace can serve as a bridge. Might a fence serve a dual purpose of screen and a vertical garden? Off-Street parking areas can be designed to morph in function from weekday car storage to weekend yard space for recreational purposes. To do otherwise not only restricts design but may have a deleterious impact on a sense of community. We should remember that zoning in this country has a long history dating back and responding to times and events of public upheaval, natural hazards and disasters, political persuasions, and remarkable progressions in engineering. Let us not convolute to earlier eras by promoting edicts of pitched roof houses and silly unused porches. This is especially true when economic conditions are making it possible to “densify" on major street byways. If accessory buildings are meant to be storage sheds to primary use facilities as it is now suggested, why make it secondary if used as living unit to the original house? It is my belief that the City of Ithaca Planning Dept. should not pass judgment on a building’s character in regards to its aesthetic “fit” within a neighborhood. Zoning is and should be a tool to control density, parking, light, and ventilation. When planners become preoccupied with the minutia of the dimensions of porches within certain districts, the public is then limited to a narrow range of options in which to grow their communities. “Form base” planning is presented as the way in which all design problems will be resolved. This intentional committee procedure does not make allowances for genuinely responsive design or good architecture. Just as an outlandish design can scream too much attention so too does the restriction make us feel that our constitutional rights are being trampled. Unfortunately, committee approved guidelines merely project a banality of options to our next generation. The definition of “fitting in” remains subjective.