ITHACA, N.Y. — On the one hand, the work of a city planner might look simple – represent city interests and tell builders and developers what they can build and where. However, like most things in life, rarely is it actually that simple. In this case, the issue is with infill housing.

No one’s going to argue that the city hasn’t had affordability issues over the past few years, exacerbated by a lack of housing. To its credit, the city has been working to figure out where developers should be allowed to build bigger, denser projects (see the 2015 Comprehensive Plan), and revising the existing zoning to encourage developers to move into those neighborhoods. However, the city also needs to protect certain existing assets as well, as a matter of quality of life and as an attempt at retaining affordability.

Both of those concerns have been made loud and clear with recent attempts to produce what’s technically defined as “multiple primary structures” on a piece of land, which is rather obliquely defined in the city zoning code as “(a) single structure (located on a parcel) containing a use permitted in the zoning district in which it is located.”

Let’s make this a little easier with an illustration. I have a house on a lot. That’s a primary structure. I also have a garage. That’s an accessory structure, because its use is “incidental,” accompanying but not a major part of something.  A garage isn’t necessary for someone to live in the house.

A rendering of a now-canceled multiple primary structure infill project at 207-209 First Street in Ithaca.

The problem with multiple primary structures lies with the city zoning code. The city’s least dense residential zones, R-1 and R-2, allow multiple primary structures, i.e. multiple houses. Think of R-1 as “1-family homes only” and R-2 as “1-family and 2-family homes only”. These are the zones that are predominant in most of the city’s outer neighborhoods — Cornell Heights, West Hill, and Belle Sherman have most of the R-1, and Fall Creek, Southside, and South Hill have much of the R-2.

Sometimes, the multiple primary structure allowance has worked out nicely – the Aurora Street Pocket Neighborhood, for example. But increasingly, it’s been getting abused. Owner-occupied structures are getting purchased, and with the addition of additional houses on site, they increase in property value significantly – often beyond what’s affordable to an owner-occupier, and permanently into the hands of landlords. Worse yet, the student-heavy neighborhoods like South Hill have been primary targets for this practice. This makes neighborhoods more rental-heavy, and more student rental-heavy, things the city would much rather avoid in R-1 and R-2 zones.

Really, that’s where much of this stems from. Last year’s debate about the proliferation of multiple primary structures for students led to the “South Hill Overlay District” (SHOD) in November 2017, which banned multiple primary structures. It didn’t stop development completely, but it did add a new obstacle for those building housing.

“Since that time we are seeing the same problem emerging in other traditional neighborhoods throughout the city, largely in R-1 and R-2 zoning districts. The pressure to increase housing in the city has resulted in rapid in-fill developments, primarily duplexes that are having a drastic impact on both the aesthetic qualities and the character of neighborhoods,” wrote Economic Development Planner Jennifer Kusznir in a memo to Common Council.
“The R-1 and R-2 districts are intended to be lower density districts that are restricted to one and two-family houses with yards, driveways, and parking areas meant to serve a one or two-family home. These zones are usually located in areas where there are established owner-occupied neighborhoods. However, as long as all of the site requirements can be met, a property owner is allowed, by zoning, to construct multiple primary structures on one lot. This has the potential to significantly change the character of these neighborhoods.”

Basically, what this proposed zoning change is a city-wide version of the SHOD. All R-1 and R-2 zones would be overlaid with a Single Primary Structure Overlay Zone (SPSOZ), which does the exact same thing as the SHOD (which presumably becomes obsolete) – it eliminates multiple primary structures on R-1 and R-2 residential properties within the boundaries of the overlay. Should someone want to do infill housing in an R-1 or R-2 zone, their options are either to subdivide the lot if they can make the subdivision conform to city size and dimension requirements, they can do a small accessory apartment (just one, and two bedrooms or less), or they can take a hike.

A proposal for 815 North Aurora Street. The plan would place two primary structures in a R-2 zone.

However, while this would be an additional restriction that eliminates an increasingly common method for development in Ithaca’s less dense neighborhoods, it is not a moratorium. That matters because it means that new housing can still be added, as long as it meets the old zoning requirements, as well as those enacted with the overlay. If you have a house on West Hill and want to split off a second lot and build a rental house on it, you can do that if both the new and existing lots meet code requirements.

It’s in this sense Ithaca is trying to find some happy middle ground between encouraging new housing in certain areas to fight its affordability issues, and protecting the existing quality of life and “character” of city neighborhoods. This manifests as upzoning the waterfront to encourage development, but placing additional zoning restrictions on existing lower-density neighborhoods because the kind of development that has been happening isn’t what the city or residents want – not “sympathetic to the neighborhood,” to quote Planning Director JoAnn Cornish from a June debate about a Northside infill proposal (the project since canceled). It’s not stopping development and some new builds can still take place, but for those who felt student housing infill was running amok or that homeowners were getting priced out of certain neighborhoods, the overlay would create a fairly big hurdle for developers to jump, and deter many from pursuing plans.

A potential zoning revision will be discussed at the city Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) on Wednesday, Dec. 12, and members will issue a decision on whether or not to circulate the proposed law for discussion. If given the OK by reviewers (city staff, lawyers), the PEDC would vote on whether to accept or reject the zoning measure at a later meeting (likely January), with a full Common Council vote on whether or not to enact the overlay shortly thereafter.

Brian Crandall

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