ITHACA, N.Y. — At its first meeting of the year, the Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee discussed more flexible, controllable zoning, green building standards, and got an earful over controversial parts of the draft Parks Master Plan.

It was one of the lower-profile meetings for the five-member committee, which has one representative from each ward. The regular public comment period had but one comment from Theresa Alt regarding dissatisfaction with the IDA’s issuance of a tax abatement earlier today for the 16-unit 323 Taughannock townhouse project. During public hearings for agenda material, a few commenters from the Belle Sherman area expressed concerns with the parks plan’s suggestion to consider selling Maple Grove Park, and for the zoning segment, Alt was at the microphone to say that the 915-unit, 15-year-long Chain Works District should be workforce housing for those making $30,000 or less, while residents Tessa Rudan and Sheryl Swink expressed caution with Collegetown and the Waterfront development respectively.

Green Building Policy

Early in the meeting, council and high schoolers completing a class requirement were treated to a presentation about proposed sustainable building standards put together by city Sustainability Coordinator Nick Goldsmith, assisted in discussion by STREAM Collaborative architect Noah Demarest.

For the past year and half, an advisory committee had been putting together standards for building policy in the city and town of Ithaca, since buildings make up 75% of the local carbon footprint. While some work focuses on existing buildings, this component is all about new and renovated structures.

According to Goldsmith and Demarest, the goals are to be “affordable, flexible, impactful and achievable”. The draft plan started by comparing incentives vs. mandates – mandates get better compliance, but the intent is not to be an additional burden and drive up costs.

What was proposed was a sort of points system, where in the example provided, five points would be needed for building permit approval. That included heat pumps (+3), location (+1 for high walkability, +1 for near mass transit), encouraging smaller houses, more efficient utilities, and influencing building design. The draft plan is expected to be completed and ready for city review next month. For those interested in learning more, the committee has a meeting planned for 10:30 AM January 19th at City Hall, and more info can be found at

Proof is in the PUDOD

So this is an interesting idea, if perhaps a bit vague. PUDOD stands for “Planned Unit Development Overlay District”. Right now, the only PUDs are in the few industrial zones the city has left. The point of a PUD is to allow flexibility in design – say you want to do a mixed-use project, with a blend of building shapes and sizes. A proposal like Chain Works, though it doesn’t have to be nearly that big. Most of the city’s zoning is outdated and not very flexible, so those projects are legally difficult. But, a PUD opens up the possibility of approval beyond what zoning allows, if a developer feels their project offers real benefits. Holding their feet to the fire, not only does the Planning Board vote on it, but the Common Council does as well. If they like it, cool. If they don’t, well, ask the Maguires how that worked out.

What the PUDOD does is expand where a PUD is an option, with Collegetown, Downtown, the Waterfront and Southwest Ithaca in the plans. Now, if someone wants to build something that fits zoning, they don’t need to go through the PUD and Common Council. Nor do they if they need a minor zoning variance, like a yard setback or sign variance. But if a developer wants to do a major deviation, like seven-story building on a lot permitted for five stories on the edge of downtown? That would be a PUD situation.

As city Planning Director JoAnn Cornish described it, “{w}e don’t have incentive zoning for affordable housing, but this may allow it. We need to make sure that we have provisions for green space. This gives Common Council an opportunity to weigh in on what would be a community benefit, for a project that may not fit the existing zoning envelope. It also brings Council into the process – if a project is okay by zoning, only Planning Board comments matter – Common Council can’t stop it. This is a flexible tool meant to achieve goals we want to get at as the city densifies.”

“I didn’t think about it that way,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Brock (D-1st). “When I think about zoning, I think about land use. But a PUD may compel affordable housing…Chain Works is in front of us now. This PUD may be an opportunity to leverage Chain Works for a certain amount of affordable housing….which would need to be defined.”

“This is a negotiating tool,” replied Cornish.

During discussions, on the suggestion of Brock, two areas were selected to be removed from the PUDOD, one near Beverly J. Martin Elementary and one on East Hill, which for clarity are shaded green in the map above. It was noted that even if a future Council changes the PUDOD bounds, an approved project would be grandfathered in. However, a proposal still going through the process would not, which means developers may be watching the political calendar if they’re concerned about having the votes needed. It’s not clear if developers would see the PUDOD as being worth the effort, but the council wants to give it a try.

“This is really a negotiating tool so that Council can get some of the community benefits it wants. I think this will be a great tool, and we could see positive results, but I worry about the workload for the planning department and Council. It does reassure me that the council does have conceptual approval,” said Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd). Common Council would tentatively okay or deny a concept plan moving forward before the paper blitz of Site Plan Review is prepared.

Donna Fleming (D-3rd) did express some hesitancy with the PUDOD. “This seems like yet another layer of confusion. I want some reassurance about that. I am just concerned there’s too much happening all at once.” Still, the board voted unanimously to circulate the PUDOD and modified map for comment.

The Parks Master Plan

According to Cornish, the city received over 200 comments regarding the half-page suggestion that some pocket parks may be de-classified and sold as a possible program revenue generator. Virtually all were the same message. “We heard you,” Cornish succinctly said aloud.

“It’s clearly something the community really values,” Murtagh added.

“There was a lot more that went into it than what was reflected in the plan,” said city planner Megan Wilson. The idea of selling parks was not being eliminated, but a planned revision is expected to provide much for information about why the city came to the conclusions it did. The city would also look at adding park space closer to existing population clusters. Plans for volunteer maintenance and adopt-a-park would also be expanded.

In news tidbits, plans were put in motion to move special use permits from the Board of Zoning Appeals to the Planning Board, and Cornish noted that a workplan for neighborhood plans would be drawn up over the next month. Councilwoman Brock stated the DEC would be doing soil tests down by Nate’s Floral Estates as part of groundwater monitoring (the land south of Nate’s was once the city dump).

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