We are seeing a steady stream of projects come before the county, town, and city officials that are being met with opposition by people who either say that they are not not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) protestors or simply say that there is nothing wrong with being a NIMBY protestor.

Student housing in Cornell Heights and affordable housing on Spencer Road and West Hill have all been decried as changes to the existing character of their neighborhoods. The planners and developers who have proposed and encouraged these projects do not really deny this claim. 

It is the planners, planning board members, and government officials who are really at the helm here, in spite of what protestors’ insistence that developers are running roughshod. Planning theory and practice has been changing quite a bit over the last thirty years and these changes have filtered down to regional practictioners and some local government officials, not to very many private citizens.

For most of the 20th century planners believed in single-use polygons of land arranged in blocks across a municipality. In many places this was formalized as zoning law. In places without zoning many uses can end up next to one another and they are not always appropriate. It is perhaps this “model” that people fear is taking over when a developer is being allowed to build a multi-tenant dwelling in their single-family home neighborhood.

But that is not the case. It is generally accepted that the most vibrant neighborhoods include a mixture of sizes and incomes when it comes to residences, plus retail development and even some clean light industry. 

Once upon a time this is how villages were laid out. The modern difference is that we would now like “light industry” (e.g., a computer design firm) instead of a leather tanning factory.

In order to see the ghost of this kind of community, just walk through Ithaca. In neighborhoods that are now entirely residential you can see buildings at the corners that were once retail establishments that have either been converted to dwellings, are used for storage, or are just boarded up. 

The recently demolished Markles Flats building was an example of dirty industry in the middle of a residential neighborhood and the vacant Emerson Power Transmission campus sits right above neighborhoods where many of its employees once lived and as recently as the 1980s walked to work from there.

Contemporary planning is trying to return the landscape of municipalities to this functional model. The thought is that is everything is nearby—walking distance—then people will drive less often. Now, this doesn’t mean that people will never drive at all. These planned neighborhoods are not meant to be hermetically sealed biospheres. They are simply more multi-use than the broad tracts of single-use zones that have grown up with the rise in automobile use.

It is painful to sit through a public meeting during which dozens of people are simply defending a status quo. They are used to their neighborhood being a certain way and they don’t want it changed.

Public officials could really do a better job of explaining the theory to these disgruntled people. There are plenty of theorists out there who would be willing to come to Ithaca and explain the relationship between form-based zoning and sustainability, for example.

The Town of Ithaca is adopting form-based zoning wholesale and the City of Ithaca is adopting it piecemeal, with Collegetown and the central business district being the intial testing grounds.

“Form-based” refers to the emphasis on the size or mass of a building rather than the uses that occur in it. It is understood that it is uncomfortable to have a 10-story building next to a two-story building, so planners will coax developers into building lower and lower buildings from a central concentration of tall buildings outward.

But the important change is what goes on in those buildings. Whereas once it was believed that buildings should be either all business uses or all residential, it is now acknowledged that it should be mixed. This is what is being proposed for the Harold’s Square complex that is due to be constructed between the Commons and Green Street and the new building that is going up where Kraftees is on Dryden Road will have retail at the street level and housing above it.

If you visit provincial cities like St. Louis and walk through their downtown business districts you will not find a single small business at street level. The office buildings extend right down to the sidewalk and you walk by sheets of smoked glass for block after block. In order to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper, you have to go inside a building and shop in a lobby that is primarily set up for the occupants of the building, not the general public.

If you visit an American suburb, you can drive for blocks and blocks ... well, OK, they don’t usually have blocks. You can drive down cul de sac after cul de sac and turn around and retrace your steps endlessly and get completely lost and pretty much not get anywhere for hours and never see anything other than residences.

There are no sidewalks, no stores, and no evidence that anything goes on there at all. Planners have decided that anything that even approximates this kind of sterility is now to be avoided.

Sadly, as many suburbanites have filtered back into urban settings and “rejuvenated” neighborhoods, they have not revived neighborhood businesses. Instead they shoehorn driveways into sideyards (or adopt draconian street parking regulations) and continue to live the car-oriented existences that they grew up with.

The bridge between the original “naturally occuring” neighborhoods and the planned neighborhoods of the immediate future is probably Jane Jacobs. The activist and writer opposed the destruction of Greenwich Village by Robert Moses, who was acting for the government, but had his own “modernizing” agenda. Jacobs successfully preserved the small-scale, mixed use streetscapes of the village that Moses wanted to level. 

Local protestors who don’t wish to see development different from what exists in their neighborhoods could do worse than to track down The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jacobs to get to the root of a movement that has swept the country and its influence is now being felt here in Ithaca, as local government officials and planning professionals try to convince its residents that they know how to make Ithaca more vibrant. •

(1) comment

Ken Deschere

I do not live in the Spencer Road area in which the Stone Quarry Apartments project has been proposed for development, so it's NOT in my backyard. It is proposing to build a large multi-family residential unit in an area in which there are already many residences. The proposed project is MUCH bigger than the existing homes, and is on land with toxin problems. INHS and PathStone have only grudgingly acknowledged these concerns and they have NOT promised to properly remediate them. The area does NOT have proper sidewalks which residents can easily use to access public transportation.
Your editorial tries to paint all protests with the same brush. Not all projects should have been proposed. Not all sites are appropriate for adding large numbers of people, with or without cars which need parking and access to roads. The protests about the Stone Quarry Apartments are from neighbors to whom INHS has refused to listen. Their complaints of improper scale, inadequate services, and sorely-lacking adherence to requirements for public notice and open hears are all valid - and completely apart from any NIMBY suggestions.
I look forward to "mixed uses" of the huge EPT site in "my backyard", as long as the environmental concerns are properly addressed and the neighbors continue to receive opportunities to learn and comment about the project's progress.

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