ED_Guest Opinion_George Frantz.jpg

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.

(2) comments

John Barradas

I am in agreement with George Frantz. In my humble opinion, we seem to readily throw away sound planning efforts addressing noise, traffic congestion, vibrancy and other things with a particular place. Why not take a multi-layered approach to architecture? The current proposal becomes design solely for a developer’s idea of making a quick buck. It is the “let’s do it and sell it in a few years” approach. What other programs could be envisioned for this site and still allow for development? How is this hotel an opportunity to solve the neighborhood around Cliff Street? How do people get here? Walking seems out of the question in a narrow sidewalk next to occasional rails on route 96. Could we approach via the east parkland? Please allow West Hill alderwoman, Cynthia Brock, alderman George McGonigal to live right next to this development. Yes, they should live there happily for a decade.

Jason Evans

I feel George Frantz attempts to be demonizing and inciteful. It comes by to me as NIMBYism.

On the claim: “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…”

The building is currently a large-scale commercial metal fabrication facility, Incodema. What currently exists is omitted because adding context would detract from his argument. This is no “post-Katrina” style rezoning: It’s simply finding a new use for an existing commercial property that is unlikely to attract new commercial buyers. I don’t believe Cynthia Brock or others are trying to “…destroy lower income and BIPOC communities…” as George eludes to.

As one of those “Town of Ithaca and Town of Ulysses commuters” George scorns, I would enjoy a bakery, coffee shop, etc. convenient to my route home. I’d also enjoy having a place near my neighborhood that my family could gather and stay. Aside from the few hundred feet stretch to the bottom of the hill, it is a pedestrian friendly area. Connecting the larger West Hill community to the site may be difficult, possibly in part due to the 40% grades and shale cliffs that encompass the opposite side of Cliff Street.

Finally, the post portrays the neighborhood under significant stress from commuters. Being the only thoroughfare from Trumansburg to Ithaca, I think its appropriate that this stays a busy road. But why are the number of commuters increasing? Ithaca is too expensive for many. New housing developments take years of onerous planning through regulatory hurdles and committees. Taxes throughout Tompkins County are extremely high. Consider that these factors influence at least 20,000 cars to commute via Dryden Road and, as George mentions, 15,000 down Cliff Street. Some estimate that as much as a quarter of our workforce commutes from outside the county! These policies contribute to the tepid production of single-family homes in our neighborhoods, exactly the type of community I believe George is advocating for. This mixed-use development will have much less of a negative impact on our communities than the cost of taxes and regulations, which influence the conversion of homes to apartments.

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