ITHACA, N.Y. — There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this Wednesday’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting will be a long one, covering many important topics. Here’s a rundown of what to expect:
Historic Designation of “The Nines” Building at 311 College Avenue
This one has been covered in some detail already, but to recap real quick: the owners of the Nines are looking to retire after 38 years, and sell the former fire station-turned restaurant to a local developer who wants to build a new mixed-use building on the site. It’s been a rather odd situation because there was no concerted effort to designate the building before the proposal, but when Visum Development Group temporarily called off plans last fall, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) moved forward with their proposal to historically designate the building.
With the ILPC’s vote and the Planning Board’s discretionary vote of support, the PEDC now votes on whether or not to endorse the designation, and send it onto Common Council for a final vote. Most of the letters received are in favor of designation, though the owners and Nines staff have responded in strenuous opposition, both in writing and at meetings. Historic designation protects the building with additional restrictions and bureaucratic oversight, which the owners have said would make the property much less appealing in a sale, as well make business operations more onerous.
Planned Unit Development Overlay District (PUDOD)
Let’s say you’re a developer. You have a property downtown you want to redevelop. The site allows five floors, but you’d like to do seven. To justify that breach of zoning code, you propose one of the floors would have regulated affordable housing.
Under current law, too bad, so bad – the Board of Zoning Appeals would be highly unlikely to grant a variance given their rules and guidelines. However, that would be something that could be explored with PUDOD.
Described as “a negotiating tool”, it allows a developer in a PUDOD-designated area to potentially sidestep zoning regulations if they’re willing to go before Common Council and justify the request, whether it be for affordable housing, job creation, or something else the city likes and wants. Council would get to vote on whether or not the proposition sounds good enough to proceed.
Stretching this to a hypothetical limit, say Jason Fane decides to propose a 12-story building in Collegetown (as he did a few years ago) – that would be potentially feasible under PUDOD, but to build that tower, Fane would first have to go before the Common Council and provide a reason why the Council should let the project go through planning board review – it’s doubtful “more student housing” would win him any support, but an offer to make a very big payment into the city-county’s CHDF affordable housing fund might be something to start the discussion. Or maybe most city councilors would still reject it no matter what. That’s the risk one takes.
In an era of mixed-used projects of all shapes and sizes, from TCAction’s Amici House to the Chain Works District, the PUDOD overlay gives the developer more flexibility, if they can make a good case for it.
The overlay would apply to Inner Collegetown, Downtown, the State Street Corridor, Southwest Ithaca and the Waterfront – basically, areas the city is generally okay with bigger development proposals. A vote on Wednesday will send it to Common Council for possible approval into law next month.
Parks Master Plan
The last of the agenda items that will be up for approval to send for Common Council’s final vote is the Parks Master Plan. The plan focuses on operational and financial stability for the parks system, as well as improving access and recreational programming for kids and adults alike. Keep in mind, a Master Plan is general guidance for years ahead, a blueprint rather than a law.
The only major point of contention that has arisen during review of the plan is a controversial proposal to look at selling off some lesser-used small parks over the next decade or so. This has been vociferously opposed by neighborhoods surrounding the impacted parks, and while the city didn’t take the option completely off the table, they have highlighted alternatives such as the “Adopt-A-Park” program that would keep the city’s expenses down, and the parks in public possession. Barring any major hang-ups, that too will go the council for approval in April.
Green Building Policy
These next topics will be “voted to circulate”, which means they get sent around to the heads of all city departments and appointed citizen boards for review and comment – basically, it means a proposal is officially under consideration, and the committee is looking for feedback before taking any votes of approval or, if any glaring issues arise, dropping the idea from further discussion.
The Green Building Policy (copy here) is a joint proposal drafted by a local study group over the past several months that looks at ways to mandate sustainable building practices and the introduction of cleaner, greener technologies without severely hurting affordability or posing an impossible burden on developers or building department staff. The proposal is to be considered by both the city of Ithaca and the town of Ithaca.
The plan calls for a combination of energy efficiency requirements and financial incentives to reduce carbon emissions. This would affect all new structures, major additions (500 square feet or more) and gut renovations, with somewhat weaker restrictions on smaller renovations and additions, as well as exemptions for historic buildings. By 2030, it would move to a net-zero energy mandate, meaning all energy consumed would have to be produced from renewable sources on-site or off-site. The incentives would sunset in 2030 as well. The policy group recommends expanding the policy to cover all existing homes and businesses, and bringing them up to the same standards.
The requirement for all projects is a water efficiency requirement. Developers can then choose from an “easy path” scoring system or a “whole building” path. The easy path requires six points to pass and be allowed for construction and occupancy. Heat pumps, smaller room size, simple building shapes, density and walkability are among the criteria. The number goes up to twelve points in 2025. The “whole building” path calls for either Passive House qualifications, or high LEED or National Green Building Standard scores.
The easy path may be the easier of the two options, but not be as easy as it sounds. For examples, EcoVillage’s newest homes would generally earn 6-7 points under this system, enough to pass the proposed short-term standards, but because of their remote location, similar houses would not pass under the upgraded standards that go into effect in 2025. On the other end, many newer buildings in dense areas would fail. The Belle Sherman Cottages wouldn’t pass, the new Marriott would not pass, and LEED Platinum Breckenridge Place would not pass. The Carey Building and 107 South Albany Street would pass without changes, because they are in dense, walkable areas and use/plan to use heat pumps. Basically, building or renovating in dense, walkable areas and including heat pumps are the big point-getters. For the record, Breckenridge’s heat pump system was disqualified, because the building has gas-fired ventilation.
A readthrough suggests there could be some challenges to be reviewed by the committee and later the town, especially for representatives of more suburban neighborhoods who would be hard-pressed by the policy (especially if it is ultimately expanded to affect older homes). Councilors will get their chance to comment and debate the pros and cons Wednesday.
CIITAP Boundary Expansion and Affordable Housing Requirement
Not too long ago, the city attempted to implement an inclusionary zoning component – the gist of it was that if you built or renovated market-rate housing, you had to set aside a percentage as affordable housing, or pay into a fund. The trade-off was a potential relaxing parts of the zoning code. It didn’t go over well with either developers or neighborhood groups, and the voluntary plan that was enacted has never been utilized.
What we’re seeing now could be described as another run at inclusionary zoning. CIITAP is proposed to be modified in two ways – one is to expand the eligible area along the waterfront, to encourage proposals such as the ongoing City Harbor development.
The other is the addition of an affordable housing requirement. As proposed, 10% of units would have to be set aside for affordable housing, which the city defines as no more than 75% Area Median Income (AMI), and could not be rented by anyone making over 80% AMI (about $42,400/year for a single adult with no kids at home). The 10% has to reflect the unit mix – so let’s say the plan is a 30-unit apartment building, ten one-bedrooms and twenty two-bedrooms. One one-bedroom and two two-bedrooms, 10% of each, would have to be set aside as affordable housing for a minimum period of twenty years.
If the code just went into effect like that, development would be further challenged in an already challenging area – making it more difficult to build new housing while existing home and rental prices continue their rapid climb isn’t a good situation. So the proposed tradeoff is a more generous tax abatement, a slower increase above the existing tax bill. Instead of a seven-year graduated increase from original assessment to the 100% assessment of the new build, an additional 10% would be applied for a 20-year period, as long as the affordable housing mandate.
The city says the goal of the revised abatement is to reduce the cost by $4,000-$5,000 per affordable unit per year, which from the table above, that works for studios and arguably most one-bedrooms (even in this market, $1700/month for a new one-bedroom is quite high). But two-bedrooms and three-bedrooms would lose thousands of dollars per year – the two-bedroom in the example above generates about $10k/year less in revenue than a market-rate unit, and the abatement would cover 50% at most. The other $5,000 would be shifted by developers onto the market-rate units (the math suggests an extra $50/month if applied evenly).
It should also be noted almost no developer has pursued the seven-year tax abatement because they couldn’t make the finances work – they’ve usually gone for the ten-year abatement, or proposed their own terms. So it’s not clear just how effective this proposal would be, especially in the greater context of things like the Green Building Policy and PUDOD, but it has pros and cons.
On that note, think of this in the grander scheme of “carrots and sticks“, combinations of rewards and challenges. Note that most of the area covered by CIITAP overlaps with PUDOD. PUDOD, as a “relaxing of code”, is a sort of carrot. The inclusionary zoning is a stick, in the form of an additional mandate. The Green Building Policy is another stick.
Perhaps the incremental costs of an additional floor or greater lot coverage above zoning balances out the lost revenue from the required affordable housing. Maybe the city gets greener building with affordable units. Maybe the plans are too difficult or too easy in places, and will need some tweaks along the way. Maybe none of it works out and nothing more gets built in the city while the affordable housing crisis gets worse. “Your mileage may vary,” as the saying goes.
Ultimately, the city would like to apply this inclusionary zoning requirement across the whole city regardless of CIITAP, and it could come with the option of paying into a fund for locations like inner Collegetown, where a lot of revenue is lost by setting aside units (and let’s be honest, not many non-students want to live in inner Collegetown, affordable unit or not).
So yes, there’s a lot to mull over at tomorrow night’s meeting. Stay tuned.