ITHACA, N.Y. — Most years, we present this topic after doing a review of the previous year’s Planning Report. But since the city Planning Department is presenting their 2020 goals before the 2019 Report, we’ll take a look at goals before last year’s accomplishments come out in a few weeks.

For those who like to follow along, a copy of the “2020 Planning Division Work Program/Goals and Milestones” memo is here.

Downtown A Focus in 2020

Continuing the neighborhood-specific Comprehensive Plans as recently completed with the Waterfront and Southside, city planners will be working on a plan for the Downtown, West State Street Corridor and West End neighborhoods during 2020. These plans aren’t prescriptive, they don’t say “put a five-story building here” —the goal is to provide guidelines on what is desirable where in terms of use, physical form, identification of existing issues and ways to address them.

If the work proceeds smoothly, the plan would be ready for review and formal adoption by the end of the year. Actual zoning updates would come sometime later. For example, the new Waterfront zoning is in place, but Southside’s zoning update is not. It is scheduled to head for council between July and September.

Speaking of the Comprehensive Plan, it will be receiving for a modest update this year, seeing as it’s now five years old. The review will take place in the first half of the year, a revised strategy to accommodate any changes in goals will take place in the third quarter, and Common Council will likely vote on proposed revisions before the end of the year. Don’t expect anything major to change, and think of this like the regular-scheduled maintenance on your car.

More site-specific, the Planning Department will be busy conducting the environmental review of the rather large and complex Green Street Garage Rebuild. Not only is there the 218-unit Asteri Ithaca affordable housing component, but there’s also the proposed conference center on the lower levels, the garage rebuild itself, and the rebuild on the eastern third of the garage. Developer Jeff Rimland, who owns the ground lease on that part of the garage (technically the eastern third is part of the Rothschild Building), is proposing to redevelop the garage wing and Rothschild Building into a 13-story, 260-unit apartment tower, which was submitted as a sketch plan to the city Planning Board last month. The review for these projects will take the better part of a year, with construction not likely to start until sometime in 2021.

The Aurora Street Pocket neighborhood, back when it was under construction in 2013. Photo by Brian Crandall.

Pocket Neighborhoods and Short-Term Rentals

Not as neighborhood-specific will be the work on Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) legislation, currently underway and set to undergo revisions at the Common Council’s Planning Committee meeting this week, and shortly thereafter the department will review ways to incorporate pocket neighborhoods like the Aurora Street Pocket Neighborhood. The issue is that they’re multiple primary structures which is an issue in ADUs, but there may be circumstances in which multiple primary structures make sense – the department is trying to find some way to allow them, but allow them sparingly.

Also up for research and likely legislation this year are rules on short-term rentals, like AirBnb. Namely, seeing how other communities manage them in terms of the number of days owners are allowed to rent them out and how often, and then ways to make sure property owners comply. It’s a tricky balance for the department and city officials by extension. Reports have surfaced of homes being used for non-stop short-term rentals in some neighborhoods, with reports of over one hundred homes in the housing-strapped city being used for this purpose. On the other hand, a lot of local homeowners do use the occasional short-term rental to supplement their incomes, especially for lucrative Graduation Weekends and summer tourists. This year, the goal is to find the middle ground — you could call it a pursuit of the happy medium, but in practice, it’s more like balancing out the angry responses from either end of the spectrum.

Several other citywide initiatives will also be ongoing through 2020. Among them, working with Tompkins County planners to come up with a permanent location for an intercity bus depot, providing information and guidance to the Homeless Housing Task Force, and provide support to the Cascadilla Creek and Inlet Dredging, including the sediment management facility to be placed behind Wal-Mart in Southwest Park.

Historic Designations and the Green New Deal

The Planning Department has identified four goals for historic preservation this year. One involves the designation of three new properties in the Ithaca Downtown Historic District, though the document doesn’t say which. The department will also be applying for grants so that it can conduct surveys of more recent buildings suitable for historic designation (most existing districts are limited to the 1940s and older), the city will seek to place the University Hill local district on the National Register of Historic Places, and surveys will be made on the Waterfront and in Southside to determine what buildings there would be suitable for individual landmarking.

Looking into the sustainable future, the tasks in 2020 will be many. The new Energy Code Supplement for New Construction will be adopted and implemented in the first half of the year. As new staff are hired on over the next few months, work on a Climate Action Plan, greenhouse gas inventory update, and Green New Deal action plan will begin in earnest. An Energy Code Supplement to retrofit existing building will enter a study phase this year with assistance from Cornell, outside consultants and hopefully some grant money.

Several major projects expected to move forward

It looks like this will be the year that the city decides the fate of the Collegetown/East Hill Fire Station and the Ithaca Police Headquarters. Readers with good memories may recall that the city has been examining the possibility of a combined fire-police-City Hall facility on the site of the Central Fire Station on West Green Street. The city is seeking a re-appraisal of the value of the facilities, and if it’s worth their effort, they will make a decision on whether to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for redevelopment, or sealed bids for purchase later this year. Meanwhile, a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI), essentially an RFP for RFPs and a way to gauge interest, would be issued for the Seneca Garage by the end of the summer.

On the private side of development, several major are underway or expected to get underway in 2020, though the data seems incorrect at points. For instance, 130 Cherry Street is Arthaus, a 124-unit apartment building. There are also no current indications that the mixed-use proposal at 312 East Seneca Street will be moving forward this year, especially since it has never presented more than a concept sketch plan to the city Planning Board. Lastly, Cornell’s North Campus build will finish its 800-bed first phase in 2021, but the project won’t be complete until 1,200-bed phase two opens in August 2022.

However, the document also notes some major projects likely to come forward in 2020 – the Collegetown plan, rumored for over a year now, is likely to begin review this year for a proposed PUD to facilitate its development. Grandview and the Ithaca Housing Authority Properties are unknowns, though presumably projects planned for Grandview Avenue and IHA land respectively. The Voice noted the Aeroplane Factory’s purchase with an eye towards development last year, the Taughannock housing likely refers to Lincoln Morse’s WaterWorks project, and Agora likely has to do with “Agora of Ithaca” an LLC used by the Lambrou Family for the $2.3 million purchase of waterfront land last year.

With these projects, and all of the plans, studies and public meetings planned for this year, it will be a very busy 2020 for the Ithaca Planning Department. But if it seems like a lot to keep in track of, don’t worry. The Voice will be keeping tabs.

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