ITHACA, N.Y. — With a looming deadline to keep potential new developments in check, Common Council unanimously passed new zoning requirements for Ithaca’s waterfront Wednesday night, a move officials said will invite more people and people-centric development to the area.
The saga behind the waterfront rezoning has had many chapters, and reflects Ithaca’s history. In the city’s early days, the waterfront was considered dangerous due to fears of flooding and waterborne illness; actively avoided by Ithaca’s middle and upper-class, it became home to ramshackle housing and the city’s slums. Then came the era of urban renewal, when city planners thought they could bulldoze it all away and the social problems could be made to disappear like the homes. To prevent new low-income housing in the then-decaying city, the area was formally zoned for industrial uses, box store retail and warehouses.
Over the ensuing decades, these views have continued to evolve as the economy grew and the city enjoyed a renewed interest in walkable, urban neighborhoods. Seeing some early potential, a portion of the waterfront was rezoned in 2011, though not nearly to the extent or scale that Common Council approved this week.
Here’s a breakdown of what the new zoning means for the area and a few solid Waterfront 101 questions answered:
Why should I care about rezoning (I really need to know because I’m already falling asleep)?
The Waterfront area covers a pretty big swath of Ithaca. It is important if any of the following applies to you:
- You want to buy a house or other property in Ithaca.
- You want to open a business of any kind in Ithaca.
- You spend time on the lake boating, kayaking, swimming, paddle boarding, wind surfing, etc.
- You have a child who will be going to Ithaca High School.
- You shop at Wegmans, Tops or Walmart for your groceries.
- You like the Farmers Market and Stewart Park.
- You really like hitting up local trails.
- You commute into the city of Ithaca and have basically only ever seen the Commons.
If you literally never come into the city of Ithaca or live nowhere near it, this will not impact you at all (but you can feel free to stick around).
Since the new zoning is so widespread and will essentially change the landscape of Ithaca over a period of many years, basically everyone who lives, works, and studies in Ithaca is going to be impacted.
So I know that every time I write the word “rezoning” your eyes roll into the back of your head, but stick around — I understand that brevity is key here.
Where is the Waterfront area?
The Waterfront area essentially refers the area along the Cayuga Inlet. If you are inept with maps and can’t visualize this off the top of your head (like me) here’s an explanation:
The southern most part of the area starts at Cherry Street (behind Wegmans), goes north through Taughannock Boulevard (the octopus), continues north to the Ithaca Farmers Market and rounds off near the Stewart Park/Lake View Cemetery area.
Here’s a map:
What exactly is the city trying to do here?
To make a long story short, the city wants more people to access the waterfront and the lake for everything from housing to business; and they want to do it without trashing the environment.
If you want to get more specific about it, here are five goals for waterfront development, according to the city:
- Promoting mixed use development, including commercial and housing
- Emphasizing waterfront activities
- Reducing impacts of parking
- Providing for additional employment opportunities
- Promoting public access to the waterfront
- Enhancing and preserving any environmentally sensitive areas
What are the four districts in the map above?
The Waterfront is being divided into four districts and here is what they are and what’s likely to be built in these areas based on new zoning — all explained in a sentence or less:
- Cherry Street District (the Wegmans area): encourages light industry (food processing, workshops, studios) and infill housing such as live/work spaces
- West End/Waterfront District (the Octopus area): focuses on better connecting the waterfront to the city through bikes, buses and trails
- Market District (the Farmers Market area): encourages food-base industrial and commercial (food processing, boutique grocers, restaurants) nearby, as well as potential housing opportunities
- Newman District (the Stewart Park/Lake View Cemetery area): a potential water-focused condo and townhouse opportunity (like the cancelled Cascadilla Landing proposal from five years ago), especially if the city and TCAT move forward with relocating their facilities to Southwest Park.
Wasn’t the city under some kind of time crunch to officially rezone the area? What’s up with that?
Short answer, yes. The long answer is much more complicated. Back in March 2016, the city put a self-imposed deadline on itself to create new zoning for the waterfront area. The idea was that with this 18-month deadline, the city would be forced to keep plans for the waterfront at the forefront of their discussions and place pressure on them to create a plan in a timely manner. It was called the Temporary Mandatory Planned Unit Development, or TM-PUD.
Now, Common Council could have extended their time frame to continue discussion about zoning (after all, it’s a controversial topic), but there was a snag. The Maguire Family of Dealerships wanted to build a dealership on the Waterfront, which could have been legal under the decades-old zoning, but no longer in line with what the city wants the area used for, to bring housing and walkable, people-centric development to the area. The timing was about as bad as it could get, the Maguire proposal came forward right as the city had finished its new Comprehensive Plan and declared a change in development patterns. So the TM-PUD acted as a stopgap to keep Maguire from developing the site, while the city formalized the suggestion of the Comprehensive Plan.
If Common Council extended the TM-PUD, there is essentially a gap of time between when it would have ended and when it would have been in effect again. During that gap of time, Maguire would have been free and clear to make proposals and possibly build. It’s important to remember that without the TM-PUD, what Maguire proposed would have been perfectly legal. And even if Maguire wasn’t interested in doing that (they sold their land to Cayuga Medical Center and are now looking at Southwest Park), someone else could easily come along, propose something, and put the city in a legal bind.
Therefore, if Common Council wanted to stick to the Comprehensive Plan (again, bringing people to the waterfront), they had to pass some kind of rezoning measure at Wednesday night’s meeting.
But was the plan rushed?
Well, it’s been in the works since last September with input from the community and officials. Several open houses were hosted.
While not everyone is happy with every single aspect of the new zoning requirements, it did pass unanimously. The sentiment was, it was better to have something on the books that could be tweaked, than take the legal risk involved with needing more time.
Is there a place where I can look at this plan and really read the details? Is there anything else I should know?
Yes and yes.
Take this link to the city’s website and check out the Common Council agenda from Wednesday. Some minor changes were made to the draft during the meeting, but the plan remained, in essence, the same.
Of course there is more you should know about the zoning. The agenda for this meeting was more than 100 pages long, primarily focusing on Waterfront issues. But admittedly, some people are impacted by the rezoning more than others.
If you’ve been planning on starting a business, buying a home, or if your home is already in the rezoned area, it would behoove you to take the time to read through the plan and reach out to your Common Councilor (or us!) with questions.
Reporter Brian Crandall contributed to this article.