Recently, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance hosted the third annual Downtown Living Tour and Expo, where the community had the opportunity to tour through a variety of apartments on and around the Ithaca Commons and preview renderings of residential developments still under construction.
Ranging from charming exposed-brick studios overlooking Aurora Street’s Restaurant Row to sleek LEED-certified residences with views of the hills and Six Mile Creek, the featured apartments attested to the diversity of living options in downtown Ithaca. Within the 22-block Ithaca Downtown Business Improvement District, there are over 500 residential units, some within large contemporary complexes like Center Ithaca and Gateway Commons and others on the upper floors of historic properties like Schooley’s and Bool’s.
Interest in these urban apartments, however, continues to outpace supply. Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, reported that a recent study conducted by the Danter Company showed “an occupancy rate of 99.5 percent — far above the national average — and sustained demand for apartments at all price points. Downtown developers are working to meet this demand with projects like Seneca Way, Breckenridge Place, the Lofts at Six Mile Creek, Harold’s Square, and a number of smaller buildings.” These projects include nearly 200 new rental units, but they represent just a beginning: the Danter study projects demand for over 900 additional rental units within walking distance of the Ithaca Commons over the next three years.
Some of this demand may be ascribed to recent national trends. Census data shows that from 1950 to 2005, the size of the average U.S. home grew from 1,000 square feet to nearly 2,500 square feet. In the last several years, however, this trend has gradually reversed, with more Americans opting for more manageable rented homes. According to a recent report by the Demand Institute, the share and volume of rented homes increased from 31 percent to 35 percent between 2005 and 2012. Spearheading this trend are young professionals and young retirees: home ownership among twentysomethings dropped 18 percent during that period while over half of the sixtysomethings planning a move were seeking out a smaller dwelling.
The enthusiasm for downtown living in Ithaca, however, far exceeds all nationwide benchmarks, suggesting that there is a singular appeal to the community’s small but vibrant urban core for people from all walks of life. Recent college graduate Augusta Christensen reports, “I grew up in the middle of four major cities and was nervous about moving to a place as remote as Ithaca. But living downtown makes it so easy to be a part of the action.” Her boyfriend Erick Ball, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, adds that “downtown has a great atmosphere that is refreshing to come home to after working on campus — and I can ride my bike back and forth every day.”
Municipal employee CJ Kilgore has resided in the Ithaca area for many years but is a relative newcomer to downtown. For Kilgore, ease of transportation was a major selling point.
“I could get rid of my car and conveniently get by with biking and bus service,” said Kilgore. “And as someone who sees a lot of shows at the State Theatre, it’s great to walk out of my apartment ten minutes before show time and not stress about parking.”
The abundance of cultural amenities and experiences “all in a step or two from the door” is what keeps retired academics Keith and Martha Bryant excited about their downtown apartment. “We like good theatre, good cinema, good restaurants, good bookstores, street musicians, Lou the Hot Dog Man, the lovers, the talkers, the skateboarding kids…Active retirees who like the arts and traveling and who dislike shoveling snow and mowing lawns would love living downtown.”
“We are positioning downtown Ithaca to be a place for new residential development,” noted Ferguson. “Through new zoning, tax incentives, and a streamlined process, we want downtown Ithaca to become the region’s most desirable district for urban housing.”