This week, in our “What Do You Think?” poll on the home page of our website Ithaca.com, we asked, “Do you think that Ithaca is getting “too urban?” Sadly, 43 percent of respondents answered, “Yes.” Only 20 people voted in the poll, so it’s hardly a scientific sample, but it does seem indicative of the current mood of the city.
In last week’s editorial we bemoaned the misinterpretation by the general public (as expressed by those who speak at public meetings and write guest opinions and letters to the editor) of aims of the density plan. This week the remarks of some members of Common Council show that they don’t understand planning policy either (“Unhappy Council,” p. 3).
Alderman George McGonigal (D-1st), who is usually wise, funny, and generally a breath of fresh air, does not have the right end of the stick this time. He believes that “densification can actually lead to sprawl,” because densification will cause it to be more expensive in the city. This makes no sense. In fact, landlords are now talking among themselves on their listserv to the effect that they are worried that all the new development is going to drive rents down. They are correct about that.
Right now Ithaca rents can be as high as New York City rents. Construction of more residential buildings will decrease demand for the old stock. In order to avoid sprawl, the city is urging developers to build upward and to do so in tightly concentrated areas—chiefly Collegetown and downtown—so that the character of the rest of the community can maintained.
McGonigal further argues that the city should focus on being a regional hub and rely on commuters to buy things. As if sales tax, rather than property tax, was going to balance the city budget! For many years this city has seen far less growth than the surrounding county. That means the expense side of the ledger has steadily increased, while the revenue side has increased much more slowly. The price of property here does increase. In that we are lucky compared to much of upstate New York, but it has not kept pace with the rise in the cost of pensions, health insurance, and materials (for example, water mains).
Cynthia Brock (D-1st) worries that the comprehensive plan promises to encourage housing that does “not change the character of the neighborhoods,” but she sees suggestions that would “impart change.” The neighborhoods of Ithaca are hardly perfect. By and large they are too purely residential to be healthy communities. There are square miles of this city without a single retail outlet, which makes it very difficult, for example, to take a walk to get a quart of milk or a cup of coffee. If you can’t do that, you don’t live in a real city.
Perhaps most disturbing are Donna Fleming’s (D-3rd) remarks that we don’t need growth because we have Cornell and so will always be a cultural hub.
She worries that people will seek out “less crowded cities with cultural appeal.” This is wrong-headed in at least two ways. First, it ignores the problem of affordability altogether. This is an alderperson for the most suburban part of the city—Belle Sherman—who is basically telling the rest of us to suck it up tax-wise and enjoy the theater and fine restaurants. Second, Cornell has been growing by leaps and bounds. We have never heard a single person say the campus is more attractive than it used to be. If any part of Ithaca is in danger of driving residents away because it is getting over crowded and less attractive, it would be the Cornell campus.
J.R. Clairborne (D-2nd), however, makes a point that is supported by evidence. There is good evidence that the residents who are both lower-income and African-American are tending to relocate outside the city. Clairborne paints it as a race issue, but it is most assuredly an economic issue. Lower-income people of all ethnicities are finding it difficult to afford the high property taxes and high rents demanded within the city limits. It will decrease diversity in the city, certainly economic diversity, but if lower income people are disproportionately people of color, then it will decrease ethnic diversity too.
Both the new and the former Cornell presidents have publicly stated their wish to help out the city economically. Garrett noted that the relationship is somewhat symbiotic: if the city thrives, the university thrives and vice versa. As no increase in the voluntary contribution seems to be forthcoming, it would seem wise for the city government to negotiate a finite number of categories of financial need where the university’s contribution would float both boats and go from there.
But having a portion of the city council that is actually against enlarging the tax base and helping the city pay for itself is a bad situation, one that ought to trouble both the city’s residents and the the university administration.