As a long-time Cliff Street resident, and as an urban planner with over three decades of experience, domestic and international, I once again find my neighborhood under assault from Ithaca’s City Hall. Surprisingly, the assault is being led by none other than our West Hill alderwoman, Cynthia Brock, with the hearty support of alderman George McGonigal. The so-called “Cliff Street Retreat” development being proposed for the Incodema property at 407 Cliff Street has already passed Brock’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, and has received Conceptual Approval, with their votes, from Common Council.
Although described by Cynthia Brock and the developer as an “innovative” mixed-use residential and commercial project, the rezoning will in fact introduce large-scale residential development into the middle of the Cliff Street neighborhood: a 23,300 square foot commercial development the size of the building housing Chipotle and Firehouse Subs on Meadow Street.
Contrary to what the developers and Cynthia Brock want us to believe, there is no “residential” component to this development. It is a commercial Airbnb-type operation as is evident in the applicant’s project description, a “…short term rental akin to an Inn, and…retail and lounge/restaurant/coﬀee shop…” The notes on the proposed building plans submitted by the developer also utilize terms such as “hotel corridor,” and “hotel room.” This type of Airbnb operation is not “residential;” it is a HOTEL as defined in the Ithaca Zoning Code.
These types of commercial Airbnb operations — businesses where absentee investors buy up residential properties in established neighborhoods and rent them out for weekend or weekly rentals — have been disrupting neighborhoods in many lakefront communities in the Finger Lakes region, including my professional clients. The unregulated operations attract large groups of vacationers renting one unit, that overload local streets with excessive parking demand, and generate loud parties and littering in neighborhoods. “Cliff Street Retreat” will be a sorority and fraternity dream come true: short-term rental party palaces far from the eyes of CU and IC officials.
The proposed new zoning would have significant adverse impacts to the Cliff Street neighborhood, which is already under significant stress due to the 15,000 or so cars and trucks (almost 600 trucks per day according to New York State data) that severely disrupt quality of life for residents. “Cliff Street Retreat” has the potential to generate 500 to 1,000 new automobile trips per day on the narrow two-lane street and create a huge traffic bottleneck from cars turning left to enter or exit the site.
Think of all those Town of Ithaca and Town of Ulysses commuters stopping for that latte and muffin on their way to work, or takeout out on the way home in the evening at that “…retail space and maybe a small cafe, which is sorely missing from the West Hill community currently…” but which is not accessible to anybody on West Hill except for Town of Ulysses and Town of Ithaca residents.
The introduction of commercial zoning into a residential neighborhood such as the Cliff Street neighborhood is one of the most destabilizing land use actions a city can take. This type of re-zoning historically has been a successful form of “redlining:” the race- and class-based land use policies cities have utilized to destroy lower income and BIPOC communities throughout the USA.
I’ve worked in many such communities, including- post-Katrina Lower 9th Ward and Treme in New Orleans, in post-Katrina Vietnamese East Biloxi, MS; in the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky; in Baltimore’s Milton-Montford neighborhood. I’ve also worked in Roma communities in Italy and urban villages in China that have been subject to similar policies. Rezoning the parcel at 407 Cliff Street for large-scale commercial use sends the signal that the City of Ithaca, officially, does not view Cliff Street as a legitimate residential neighborhood worthy of zoning protection.
To conclude, the “innovative,” proposed “Cliff Street Retreat” development will result in long-term significant adverse impacts to the Cliff Street neighborhood, and generate even further deterioration of the quality of life for residents of Cliff Street. It may well be what ultimately sends the neighborhood into the spiral of decline suffered by similarly situated neighborhoods across New York, and across the USA.
The proposed development will not further the health and welfare of the Ithaca community. It is not in conformance with the City’s Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2015. Nor will not result in any long term significant community benefit for Ithaca.
So, why are our two Common Council representatives, Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal, supporting this proposal?
Intelligent, inquiring constituents are asking.