The Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) made a big mistake in turning down tax abatements for the residential building at 130 E. Clinton St. Some opponents at a public hearing on Dec. 3 were candid about their dislike and/or disdain for Jason Fane, the developer of this project and one of the largest rental property owners in the city. Fane is notorious for leaving storefronts empty, charging high rents, using difficult contracts, and generally not being very nice. 

The candor of these opponents should be respected, especially compared to those who tried to find other reasons to be against not just the abatements, but also the construction of the building itself. Several people described the site’s steepness as reason enough not to build there. The implications were that it would be difficult to attach a building to the site and that the landscape there is a delicate natural environment that deserved preservation. 

On the first score, one need only look at the slopes of East and South hills to see that building on steep sites are the stock and trade of architects and builders around here. There are buildings attached to bedrock, buildings cantilevered out over gorge walls, and buildings dug into glacial till.

To the second point, preservation of steep slopes is urged in this region for two reasons: to prevent erosion and to preserve plant communities that are often rare because they have been untouched for over a century. In this case, the plant inventory included in the paperwork generated during the discussion of this project at the city Planning and Development Board shows that the parcel is dominated by invasive, non-native species. The developer had agreed to put aside part of the parcel—the portion with in 50 feet of  the retaining wall of the creek—and to replant it with native species. This would have both restored some semblance of bona fide plant community and prevented erosion.

Another objection claimed that this project furthered the “canyonization” of the creek. We are talking about a creek that was confined to a concrete channel many decades ago in order to prevent flooding. These concrete walls have been neglected and are literally falling down in many places and the bed of the creek has been allowed to fill with gravel bars and consequently vegetation. This makes it picturesque in a Romantic after-the-fall sort of way, but it is still a channelized creek. The project is fronted on East Clinton Street and leaves the creekside more natural than it found it, so the charge is baseless. Furthermore, the rows of houses cantilevered over the creek walls on Spencer and Cayuga streets make the watercourse more attractive, not less.

And then there were the “technical” objections: this isn’t a multi-use project and it wasn’t green. It would certainly be a lousy place for a retail storefront. You might be able to make the case for putting commercial office space in there; you’d have a nice view of the creek from some windows. But insisting that every project be multi-use rather misses the point of form-based zoning. When someone tells you that tarragon is really good on salmon and chicken, that doesn’t mean you should start putting it on everything you eat. One solution isn’t the answer to all your planning decisions.

As for the lack of green engineering, apparently Fane and his team left this portion of their abatement application entirely blank. That was impolitic of them. They should have pointed out that constructing a building with no parking lot and within walking distance of downtown shopping are actually bona fide green feature, as is restoring a half-acre of the creekside to a native plant community.

IDA member and County Legislator Will Burbank stated that getting a tax abatement is a privilege. No, it isn’t. Having a driver’s license is a privilege; if you break the law, they take it away. They don’t take your driver’s license away because your car gets really bad mileage and burns a lot of oil.

Tax abatements are a strategy that municipalities use to get developers to build where it is expensive to do so, but good for the health of the community. We need housing downtown, and this project was going to add 36 units (12 studio, 12 one-bedroom, and 12 two-bedroom apartments). 

Downtown businesses need residents to survive. They can’t rely on tourists and visitors from outside the city who are fussy about paying for parking. When you have enough people living downtown, you will have people on the street all the time. That will make people want to visit downtown for the same reason that people walk into busy restaurants, not empty ones.

Nothing in the city’s tax abatement policy (Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program or CIITAP) requires green features on a building. Members of the planning board, however, urge the adoption of green measures for every project that goes past them. The IDA different six different types of projects that qualify, including CIITAP projects and “energy-related investment projects.” The board seems to have conflated these to in order to reject the 130 E. Clinton St. project.

Not only is this sort of embarrassing to watch, but it may even open up the IDA to an Article 78 proceeding. Fane seems so disgusted with the situation, he probably won’t bother. But if they end up in court it might be kind of interesting to hear the IDA’s defense against the claim that it didn’t follow its own rules, was artitrary and capricious, and that its decision wasn’t supported by substantial evidence.

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