ITHACA, N.Y. — Wednesday night’s City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting was long and thorough, but if you came in looking for a conclusive debate, you went home with little to show for it.
The two primary discussion topics on the agenda involved the State Street Corridor rezoning along the 300 to 500 Blocks of West State Street and regulations for infill housing and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Here’s a rundown. (Agenda here, for those who want to follow along.)
West State Street Rezoning
The Common Council members that comprise the PEDC had another swing at revisions to the zoning for the 300 to 500 blocks of West State Street, also called the State Street Corridor. The debate has been going for months since a project proposed by Visum Development Group set off concerns about aesthetics and neighborhood character in the mostly low-slung urban connector between Downtown and the growing West End.
At the Common Council meeting last week, the council voted 8-2 to send the zoning proposal back to the PEDC to consider proposed changes by Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd Ward). Nguyen proposed retaining the stepback, but at four floors instead of the proposed three, and allowing a six-floor maximum height instead of five. However, his proposal called for a maximum building footprint of 7,200 square feet, and a maximum facade length of 60 feet.
Coming into the meeting, Nguyen was less than convinced what would work best idea-wise, but it would be the start of the conversation.
“It was pointed out to me that what we like about the buildings on the Commons is that they have simple shapes, they’re about 3 or 4 stories, and they don’t sprawl around the block like this Visum proposal does. This proposal embodies the basic characteristics that people associate with Downtown Ithaca and the Commons,” said Nguyen.
If anyone’s thinking Visum’s a fan of the proposal, they weren’t. Nguyen relayed that Visum CEO Todd Fox stated the 7,200 square-foot maximum footprint would hurt his project greatly (it would be tougher to keep costs in check if mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems have to be built for multiple buildings rather than just one), and the initial changes to height would have had less impact. Other councilors noted Visum could still pursue the PUD process if they wanted, though that tends to be a long and exhaustive process.
Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) noted that if there’s a rule to break up the facade every 60 feet, then the building footprint might be a moot point. Consider 210 Hancock for example. The main apartment building’s facade is broken up with materials and slight shifts in building footprint so that it looks like four separate buildings.
Board members seemed open to the facade rule, if not so much the building footprint maximum. George McGonigal (D-1st) said he wanted something that could keep someone from buying up the whole block for a project, but that’s very difficult to legally build into zoning.
Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) asked, “What people like about the north side of the Commons is that they’re connected but they’re small lots. So is there a way to preserve the feel of smaller buildings if it is a larger building planned?”
“It would be nice to get some more housing on that block for sure, but we don’t want to change things that we like. I think at the very least, the two things we’re trying to solve, (lot) consolidation and height being appropriate, are the two things we’re trying to address with this zoning.”
As Murtagh noted, there seemed to be no consensus yet, so the zoning was not voted out for circulation and review, and will come back next month, after it’s been reviewed by code enforcement officers for their opinions, and refined as more outreach and research is completed.
Infill and Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Guidelines
The infill guidelines proved to be a thorny topic yet again, as councilors fell across their spectrum with their views and goals for infill housing.
For the record, when we talk infill here, we’re generally talking about accessory dwelling units — the garage converted into an apartment, or a basement into an in-law apartment. Multiple primary units is a related but separate form of infill housing – a large lot that gets a new three-bedroom house next to the existing three-bedroom house, for example.
About a dozen local residents spoke during the public comment period Wednesday evening, and their opinions were mixed. While residents of Northside and Fall Creek spoke in support of encouraging infill as a subtle way of growing the housing stock and providing homeowners side income, in contrast, South Hill residents were opposed, citing the Modern Living Rentals complex at 607 S. Aurora St. as an example of infill gone wrong.
• Related: Ithaca moves to restrict infill housing
The city’s planning department staff prepared a presentation for the PEDC, providing an overview of ADUs and compared Ithaca’s zoning for them against Seattle and Portland, where they are more popular. Rather than present a code for consideration, the staff decided to ask the committee for what they wanted out of ADUs and ADU regulation. But, the responses were less than conclusive.
In concept, all thought that some form of accessory dwelling units was a good idea. That was about the only detail that they did all agree on. Owner occupancy of the primary unit was one sticking point – Councilor Brock was firm that she felt any ADU in an R-1 or R-2 zone have owner occupancy in the primary unit, while councilors Steve Smith (D-4th) and Laura Lewis (D-5th) were not as convinced.
Eventually, some consensus was hashed out that ADUs would be one primary and one smaller secondary structure, and the provision for multiple primary structures would be removed. Councilors were also open to the idea of the city having a catalog of approved ADU home kits as suggested by Murtagh. But with issues over owner-occupancy, whether to create regulations based on neighborhood or zoning type, and whether they could be used for AirBnBs, it was clear that there wasn’t much else in agreement.
“I don’t know why you would need an ADU in an R-2 zone,” said Brock.
“You have a duplex and if you have the lot size and green space … it’s okay to put a little something in the back. Are those little ADUs in Portland and Seattle used as AirBnb rentals?” Asked Donna Fleming (D-3rd).
City planner Alex Phillips fielded the question. “I’m glad you asked. Portland did look at that option. I can show you examples the next time we have this discussion. A majority of these units are being built by homeowners, and because of the financial input that goes into it, $100,000-$160,000 to build, there’s a risk that goes into it, so they tend to lean towards long-term rentals.” Or, as City Planning Director JoAnn Cornish succinctly put it, the “regular monthly payment”.
“This is a very tough issue because we’re divided and staff is looking for direction,” Murtagh said. “We’re trying to have a discussion tonight to give some direction.”
Planners will come with more information at the next meeting to provide more information on how ADUs are handled in other cities – looking at if it makes more sense to limit their size by either two bedrooms or overall building size. As Murtagh noted, “it doesn’t really sound like we’re close to a vote.”
A few items did at least clear the committee for their next steps. Now that the Common Council has approved the Immaculate Conception School redevelopment concept, INHS and its project team brought in their proposed zoning code – part of the rule of PUDs is that you can write your own zoning if your concept is approved, but you still have to go to the effort of writing that zoning and getting it approved. Apart from some minor questions and review of changes, the proposed zoning was unanimously approved for circulation and review. Also approved, with little discussion, was a proposed mural for the Columbia Street pedestrian bridge.
Also discussed was a proposal from city Zoning Administrator Gino Leonardi to revise the rule on alterations of non-conforming uses in neighborhoods. The code has some problems that have affected property owners’ abilities to bring larger apartment homes up to code.
Say for instance that you have an older two-family home out of compliance with its neighborhood, which is one-family homes only. You have a five-bedroom unit and an in-law one-bedroom apartment. You can renovate the five-bedroom or the in-law unit, but you can’t alter them to be two three-bedroom units, even though total legal occupancy would be the same. It only gets more complex from there. This has led to piecemeal renovations and discourages renovations since the building is grandfathered in with its non-compliance.
“We’re seeing more interest in renovations,” Cornish said. “If they can reconfigure the interior to make them more efficient and bring them up to code, we don’t want to prevent them from doing that.”
Changes to more suburban-type zoning in the 1970s to many non-conforming apartment homes in the city’s inner neighborhoods and this allows the owners of larger out-of-compliance and out-of-date homes and renovate them to code. It’s not allowing expansion of size, but more flexibility within the building to encourage owners to bring it up to code.
“This is a very complicated subject. It sounds like the end result of this is that a bunch of properties that are non-conforming but integral parts of their neighborhood, will be brought up to code,” Murtagh said. The vote to send to Common Council for approval next month passed unanimously.