This summer, downtown Ithaca is “Building It, Growing It, and Loving It.”

The main event has been the rebuilding of the Ithaca Commons, now entering its second of three construction phases. The Commons rebuild has also been a catalyst for a significant roster of private development and rehabilitation projects—new hotels, retail stores, apartments, and hotels, all within two walking blocks of the Commons.

This unprecedented wave of actual and planned downtown growth follows a long trend of suburban sprawl that came at the expense of urban diversity, walkability, and sustainability. Over the last decade, almost 1 million square feet of new retail space was built along the Route 13 corridor in Ithaca and Lansing. By contrast, less than 30,000 square feet of retail was built downtown. But that unsustainable development ratio is changing. Five projects are currently under construction and four major projects are expected to break ground by 2014—projects that will bring new retail, new office space, new hotel rooms, new housing, and a new community conference center. These initiatives represent nearly $138 million in private investment within two years—more than all of the downtown development between 2000 and 2010 combined.

This is a remarkable turnaround for a small Upstate New York city. Considered on a per-capita basis, what is happening in downtown Ithaca far outstrips the urban development underway throughout most of the state and indeed most of the nation. Downtown Syracuse, for example, is anticipating the construction of 400 new residential units and other projects totaling $265 million. This amounts to about $1,800 of downtown development per city resident compared to Ithaca’s $4,600, and the addition of one urban apartment for every 360 residents in Syracuse versus one for every 150 in Ithaca. The numbers are similar for Rochester, Albany, and Binghamton—downtown Ithaca’s amount of per capita investment and rate of growth is at least double that of our neighboring cities.

But why invest in the urban core? Why provide tax abatement and incentives for these projects?

The “real” marketplace has shown what happens when there is no civic commitment to the urban core. Nearly all growth occurs at the edges of the community, where it is easier and quicker to build. Big box retailers prefer the large expanses of land for large surface parking lots. Chain retailers choose to locate close to other chain retailers. Houses get build on the periphery, not in the core, shifting where people live and where their kids go to school. Hotels and restaurants get built on highway strips. Jobs shift from the center to the edges, where increasing numbers of people now live and where most of the development is occurring. The record, not just in Ithaca but nationally, is not pretty. Urban cores suffer when there is no tangible commitment to a strong urban center—no incentives, no accommodating zoning, no policies that place urban development as a community priority.

In Ithaca, we have civic leaders who have been committed to their urban core. They understand that urban projects have funding gaps and that the public sector can help close those gaps. They realize that downtown projects will be more expensive to build but will be landmark fixtures in our community for years to come. We have amended our zoning to provide for urban density. We have created a density driven tax abatement program that seeks to encourage projects to take root in the urban core, where they will be most sustainable and provide the maximum economic benefit to the community.

Urgo Hotels, the developer of the Marriott Hotel scheduled to break ground this fall, received such tax abatement. This project will generate over $14 million in annual spending, over $575,000 in annual local sales tax, $365,000 in annual room tax, and $3.4 million in property tax over the ten year abatement period. Putting such an economic generator in the heart of downtown helps to support and assist our many downtown shops and restaurants.

Similarly, the planned Hart Hotel expansion and renovation of the Holiday Inn and the construction of a new community conference center will provide similar economic benefit for the center city. The conference center will serve as a badly needed anchor-generating mid-week conference traffic that will benefit both downtown and the entire region.

Harold’s Square, a major mixed-use office, retail, and housing project located on the Ithaca Commons, needed this expanded zoning and will likewise seek tax incentives.

These new projects will prepare and propel downtown Ithaca into a brighter future. They locate major private investment in the urban core—where it will serve many more people, where its jobs are accessible to all, and where their economic spin-off will truly benefit many. These centrally located projects will help our community avoid the disastrous dis-investment that has occurred in many other city centers—as hotels, office buildings, and housing chose to locate on the edges of their communities—benefiting only a few and sentencing their urban cores to stagnation and worse.

At the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, we thank the investors who have chosen to work in our urban core. We thank our community leaders who have thoughtfully and boldly made a commitment to the urban core— tackling sprawl head-on and not waiting for the marketplace to negatively define and shape our community. We also thank the people of Ithaca- folks who have indicated they want a dynamic, vibrant, and sustainable downtown and understand that this vibrancy requires a community investment that will pay dividends over time. We look with keen expectation for a bright, sustainable future for our urban core and thank you for helping to make that future happen.

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This guest opinion was created by the staff of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

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