Editor’s Note 8/21: This story was originally published in June 2015 and is being republished here to run with a series of stories on Zoning in Ithaca.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — An urban planning group, called Form Ithaca, recently held a series of meetings in Ithaca to devise ways for Ithaca to manage its growth, while maintaining a high quality of life.

To learn more, the Ithaca Voice decided to talk with Rob Steuteville of Better! Cities and Towns to get an idea of what’s being suggested, why they want to change the current laws and regulations, and how they are going about sharing their idea with the rest of us.

See related: State supports Ithaca planners’ zoning overhaul; City Hall responds

The interview will be published in two installments. This first installment is broken up into different sections:

1 — Why zoning is so crucial to a city’s future

2 — The key areas studied by Form Ithaca

3 — Major rethinking envisioned for South Hill, Route 13

1 — Why zoning is so crucial to a city’s future

Q: So, my observation of Form Ithaca is that it’s a citizens’ advocacy group for form based zoning and urban planning. Form Ithaca recently received a $175,000 grant from NYSERDA to develop a form-based code for Ithaca. A lot of our readers aren’t too familiar with zoning, so how is what Form Ithaca advocating from what’s currently in the books?

RS: We are citizens and advocate for zoning reform, but we also are professionals who can work and collaborate with others in the field. Zoning impacts on the town and the city have been somewhat different. The zoning really shaped development in the town, but much of the city was already developed when zoning went into place.

Image courtesy of Form Ithaca

The city created rudimentary zoning in the 1920s and it grew over time to become more elaborate. But it’s really still based upon separation of use, homes from apartments from offices from retail stores. That is what drives patterns of sprawl. This use-based approach is far, far different from how America built for hundreds of years, but current zoning makes it hard to do anything else.

Form-based code allows you to once again to create these walkable places. What people feel is the character of the community, is these older neighborhoods, and form-based code allows you to make those neighborhoods legal again, it goes back to the way settlements and civilization have been built for thousands of years. Current zoning also doesn’t produce what the markets are demanding, since many people and businesses want to be in walkable neighborhoods.

2 — Key areas studied by Form Ithaca

Q: So you guys just did some charrettes, which were multi-day meetings and discussions, looking at ideas for redevelopment of Ithaca city’s waterfront, and the Route 96/E. King Road intersection on South Hill. Any particular reason why you guys chose those two areas?

RS: Those were demonstration projects for form-based code. The town has three areas where they’re looking to have denser development, so we knew we had to focus on looking at one of those areas in the town and demonstrating how a form-based code would work.

In the city, there’s a hybrid code in Collegetown, and zoning downtown has been changed to a degree…we wanted an area where the city could grow and where it [the design concept] seems to address a number of issues that could apply to other neighborhoods in the city and town.

Q: So what were the results of those charrettes? What ideas did participants come up with for the Waterfront and for South Hill? (I’ll probably share some images from your website here)

RS: Oh gosh, where to start…

​(Photo courtesy of Kate Chesebrough)
​(Photo courtesy of Kate Chesebrough)

3 — Major rethinking envisioned for South Hill, Route 13

Q: How about where the biggest changes are, what would stand out the most to somewhat kinda familiar with those areas? I know you go into more detail in the articles you’ve written online, so I’ll include links to those for our readers (Part I of Rob’s Steuteville’s article series is here, Part II here, and Part III here).


RS: Okay, so looking at South Hill, one of the problems is that development is spread out and auto-oriented. We’re thinking of a more compact, more walkable neighborhood that brings in other housing types other than single-family, and configuring the commercial area there such that it creates a place.

That was one of the things we looked at with South Hill was how to take a small, emerging neighborhood and how to turn it into a walkable community. Route 96 has too much capacity, there’s no need for four lanes of traffic, and it has no facilities for walking. But it’s close to IC, students are walking up and down there, it’s not a good situation. Why not bring in bicycle, pedestrian facilities [to that area]? So we brought those in as well.

Looking at the waterfront, Route 13 is a barrier. How do you breach that, how do you change the character? How do you make it a place that you could cross, you could walk, rather than having it be highway just for cars?

If you can solve that problem, there’s a lot more possibility with the waterfront. We want to show public spaces along the water, mixed use, provide for housing, dining, places for people to do their business. That’s where form-based code comes in, to help coordinate development.

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.org.