ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s not much to look at when passing through – a mix of small box stores and services, some motels, and tucked away from the road, one has Ithaca Beer’s brewery and restaurant. For many drivers, Inlet Valley and Route 13 are also the entrance to the town of Ithaca. With that thought in mind, the town is trying to find ways to spruce up the valley so that they’re putting their best foot forward.
According to Ithaca town’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan, the goal is to turn Inlet Valley from an auto-centric hodge-podge with no overarching character, to a semi-rural neighborhood with an agribusiness, “artisanal industrial”, and tourism focus, capitalizing on Ithaca Beer and existing lodging. When the Sleep Inn hotel was presented to the planning board back in 2016, the plan was revised at board request to create a more rustic feel, with board members already thinking ahead to the type of aesthetic they wanted for Inlet Valley.
Last spring, the town decided it was time to formally draft out a guideline for the corridor. Using $30,000 of its funds as well as $30,000 from a state grant, the town put out a request for bids, and after reviewing six proposals, selected ConsultEcon, Inc. of Cambridge, in partnership with Behan Planning and Design of Saratoga. It wasn’t their first time in Tompkins County; Behan won an award for their work on the 2012 Varna Master Plan over in Dryden.
Over the next several months, the firms crafted their planning report. The town allocated an additional $5,400 for additional field work and granted two extensions, which pushed the finish date from the end of October 2017, to the end of February 2018. Finally, the first draft was shared with the town late last month.
Glancing through the 156-page report, the plan notes that Inlet Valley presents a number of economic development opportunities, as well as challenges and risks. It’s on one of the main commuter roads for a prosperous and growing urban area, and on top of that, the colleges draw in plenty of affluent visitors. The area is nestled between Buttermilk Falls and Robert Treman State Parks, and there are opportunities to encourage outdoor recreation and promote scenic views. Eddydale Farm Stand and Ithaca Beer serve as both commercial anchors and local attractions.
But casting an eye on risks, many of the undeveloped parcels down there, including active farmland, is actively or passively for sale. With no cohesive vision, it would be possible to develop Inlet Valley into something the town doesn’t like, like when the Maguires proposed “artisanal car dealerships” a few years ago. The zoning is a patchwork of conservation areas, low-density residential, commercial, and industrial lots; it’s not really clear what the town is comfortable with, and where. With no clear instructions or guidance from the town on what is and isn’t a good idea, and with the zoning itself in flux, it ends up being a headache for everyone.
What ConsultEcon and Behan recommend is a collective branding for the businesses that capitalizes on the parks and agriculture, attract compatible food, hospitality and retail businesses, promote them with local events and gatherings, and update the zoning to encourage new development that fits the town’s vision. The plan also recommends working with NYS DOT to create “complete streets”, with trail connections and infrastructure for bikers (bike lanes), pedestrians (sidewalks) and buses.
To promote a country and outdoorsy feel, the recommended businesses for recruitment read a bit like those you’d find in Adirondack or Pocono towns: Country general stores, outdoor outfitters, and restaurants. In a nod to the agricultural component, it also promotes plant nurseries and garden supply stores. The zoning would be revised to encourage building shapes and designs that aren’t standard suburban boxes – the general messages are rural/rustic, closer to the road, not too big, and flexibility in overall use and design.
The name of the game is to capitalize on what’s there – the commuters, the tourists, the parks and the farms and businesses – and avoid being just another suburban strip. However, to do this, the town needs to put forth the time, on the scale of years, and to work with new and potential enterprises; the plan states that, after talking with business owners, “compared to other municipalities in Tompkins County, the town of Ithaca was perceived by some to be more restrictive, inflexible, and not as easy to work with“.
So, will thise whole “rural-recreational-agricultural” theme work? That’s for the town to decide; they can vote on accepting the plan and directing planning staff to revise codes, while meeting with local business owners to get their thoughts and establish a clear path forward. There’s a place for skepticism, and a place for optimism. The key to prove the doubters or the dreamers will be if the town actually puts in an effort, and if Inlet Valley becomes a more popular place to be.