In just a few days Common Council will be asked to vote on the re-zoning of the land in downtown Ithaca at the corner of Green and Aurora and the land under the Green Street parking garage. The request, submitted by the City's Planning Department, simply adds 25 more feet to the existing CBD 60 foot zone.
Usually such re-zoning decisions are sleepy affairs, generating little fanfare. This action, however, has gotten people thinking about larger questions: Is there a plan for downtown growth and development? What should that growth look like? how tall is too tall? How dense is appropriate? Great questions all, but not questions that should stop or further delay this decision.
It has been suggested that adding 25 feet at this location will change the character of our community, creating an environment out of sync with our heritage and our values. I believe just the opposite.
Today, the Green and Aurora corner is a depressed hole created by urban renewal and used for surface parking. It is a non-contributing part of our downtown, a stark reminder of the need for zoning and economic reality to have some relationship to one another.
The Green and Aurora parcel provides a great case example of the need to match zoning with economic reality.
In a 1992 Downtown Design Study, the location was suggested for a three-story in-fill movie theater complex. As we now know from our work to bring a major first-run movie theater complex to the Cayuga Green project, this use was not economically viable for this small location
Given the limited floor plate opportunities for this parcel, office is also not a particularly economically viable use. While retail could be a ground floor use of any project, an exclusively retail building is also unlikely due to the high costs of development. The most likely, highest and best use for the site is residential. However, housing works only if a project of sufficient size can be built.
The owner/developer of the site has expressed interest in a housing project for the site, but only if 85 feet of development space is available. Without the extra height, housing projects have failed to pencil out... they simply do not produce enough revenue to offset the costs of redeveloping the site.
It has also been suggested that downtown needs a plan for its orderly development and that this re-zoning should only be done in conjunction with some new overall plan.
Plans for downtown development currently exist and are being followed. The Ithaca Downtown Partnership and the City created and endorsed a 10-year development strategy for downtown that champions the need for more density and height to accommodate new office and housing uses. The City and County worked together to enact a "Downtown Density Policy" for tax abatement, creating incentives for projects that maximize height in the center of the city. The county's new Comprehensive Plan also duly notes the needs for urban density.
Downtown zoning already has a distinct plan and pattern. The Commons/State Street corridor has a lower height of 60 feet to match the height of many of its historic buildings. Along the Green and Seneca Street corridors, allowable heights are higher to provide for more building density. Adding 25 feet at Green & Aurora would make a building on this property the same height as the neighboring Mental Health building on Green Street or the nearby Bank of America building on the Commons.
The proposed change fits well with the surrounding uses and these existing zone patterns.
Community character can be defined in one of two ways: growing up or growing out. In a mature downtown like we have in Ithaca, there are no large open blocks of redevelopment land. There are small in-fill locations. In certain instances, it makes sense for these locations to build upward, to add the space needed to provide for the offices and housing we want to fuel our downtown revitalization. If we cannot build up, odds are we will inevitably build out.
Demand for housing will be met, if not downtown, then on the periphery of the community in places like West or South Hills in the Town of Ithaca or in Lansing. If office or commercial growth cannot happen downtown, it too will flow to the cheapest and easiest to develop locations on the edge of the City.
Height and density alone are not enough to ensure a strong, healthy and attractive downtown. The pedestrian character and scale needs to be maintained and enhanced. Projects need to have active commercial ground floors and need to interconnect with other downtown facilities and amenities. The street level needs to be pedestrian friendly, regardless of height or density. We can have both density and pedestrian scale.
Housing development is a key to downtown success. The downtowns we all consider success stories, such as Boulder, Ann Arbor, Madison, and Burlington, have all relied on downtown housing to help fuel their stability and growth. The Green & Aurora corner was once a vital active part of our community. Today it is nothing, a detriment to our landscape.
Adding 25 feet to its zoning envelope can bring it back to life, can make it a contributing part of our community landscape. Adding 25 feet to bring development to this site is a smart growth decision that is consistent with our planning and complementary to our belief in a healthy, pedestrian friendly downtown.
Ferguson is the executive director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership.