ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a fairly short but busy meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC). Plans for a new fire station moved forward and tensions arose about the time frame for providing a sanctioned homeless encampment in the city. All that and more below.
Quick technical note, Community Choice Aggregation (Clean Energy Bulk-Buying) was initially on the agenda, but it was pulled at the last minute for additional work. It will be before the PEDC next month. For those who like to look at the agenda alongside their summaries, that can be found here.
East Hill Fire Station
First up last night were Special Orders of Business, leading off with a Public Hearing on the proposed East Hill Fire Station. The city of Ithaca is considering plans to sell the existing 54 year-old Collegetown No. 2 Fire Station at 309 College Avenue for $5.1 million plus land donated by the buyers, developers Phil Proujansky and John Novarr, for the construction of a new $9 million fire station on the 400 Block of Dryden Road.
Technically speaking, there were two agenda items related to the proposal. One was the Public Hearing, the second was to approve the deal, called a Disposition and Development Agreement (DDA), at the committee level so that the full Common Council can vote on it at their meeting next month.
Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency Executive Director Nels Bohn spoke about the plan and how the IURA weighed bids from Novarr-Proujansky and Visum Development Group and negotiated the proposed deal with Novarr-Proujansky. A Payment in Lieu of Taxes would be in place for 20 years on 309 College Avenue. Should they seek to make that property tax-exempt, the developers would be legally obligated to pay the calculated remaining taxes over the 20-year PILOT period (the period starts when the new fire station is ready in 18 months).
It’s not a fun conversation, but a valid consideration. Novarr and Proujansky have been involved in a number of projects where Cornell, a tax-exempt eligible entity, has been the primary tenant or occupant — for example, the Breazzano Center a few blocks away, which is also under a PILOT agreement.
Discussion overall, however, was fairly brief. The IURA is tasked with the negotiations and the PEDC seemed comfortable with the general terms. The vote to send the DDA on to the full council passed unanimously.
Zero Emissions Transportation and Next Steps
The other Special Hearing last night was an informational presentation regarding transportation emissions and the installation and adoption of Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs) in Ithaca, courtesy of Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre-Torres and Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans.
According to Aguirre-Torres, local transportation releases 119,000 tons of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) every year, from nearly 65 million trips and 275 million miles travelled. That’s about 39% of the city’s carbon footprint. Only about 1,000 electric vehicles are on the road in Tompkins County, and one of the barriers to adoption is a lack of charging infrastructure – there about 46 in the city. Tompkins has an outsized adoption-rate of EVs per capita, but a charger station location on par with many conservative rural counties. Few people would guess Montgomery and Warren Counties are better served than Tompkins, but they are.
One aspect the city can control is municipal transportation, which releases about 4,800 tons of CO2 annually. It would likely be a 5-7 year process, starting on the light-duty vehicle side (<8,500 pounds). Some divisions, like the police and fire departments, have special vehicle considerations, and there are no feasible options in certain medium-duty and heavy-duty truck segments. Municipal EV adoption would likely start with administrative and general-use city vehicles first.
This adoption would occur in tandem with reducing the overall public and private vehicle miles travelled in Ithaca. More charging infrastructure and improvements to the local electrical grid would also be necessary. Electrification of the municipal fleet and deployment of additional public and municipal EV charging infrastructure would likely occur through the issuance and award of a Request for Proposals for suppliers and installers.
The PEDC was receptive. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) asked if the in-commuter and out-commuter aspect was considered in the CO2 calculations, to which Aguirre-Torres noted they do have modeling that allows them to include that in their totals. Brock also expressed concerns with charger station maintenance, to which Aguirre-Torres they could go the third-party route by charging for licenses to operate stations as well as operate their own chargers.
The next steps would be hashing out what to exactly include in an RFP and how to write it up so that it’s legally and ethically sound. Look for something to come back before the PEDC in the coming months.
Drinking Water Source Protection Program
Let’s do a recap. Six Mile Creek and its tributaries are the primary source of the city’s water supply. Ithaca is fortunate to live in an area with typically abundant fresh water, and has regulations in place to protect its water supply. Despite these measures, there are a number of risks to availability and quality; for instance, potential impacts of land use, climate change, and invasive species. The city of Ithaca became infamous in the early 1900s for a typhoid epidemic driven by its contaminated water supply, and it was just a few years ago during a summer drought that water supplies dropped precariously low. Long-term protection of Six Mile Creek and its watershed has to be a top priority for the city to ensure adequate quantity and good quality. The current plan dates back to 1936, and talks about the need to keep privies and animal carcasses away from streams.
Recently, New York State launched the Drinking Water Source Protection Program (DWSP2) and offered technical support with identifying strategies to prevent water quality degradation. The City of Ithaca was selected to participate in the DWSP2 and the PEDC was treated to an overview and proposed implementation plan at their meeting last month, and has been receptive to the proposal.
The near-term objective is to adopt the plan as a guiding document and engage in adaptive management to address sedimentation, runoff, climate change and development issues related to the water shed. This would involve dedicated personnel (which is being arranged with the county) and annual progress reports as the implementation and maintenance plan is developed and executed. The plan could be approved by council as soon as October, which would allow it to be considered for funding in the city’s next budget.
Roxy Johnston, the Watershed Coordinator for the Ithaca Water Treatment Plant, was on hand to speak about the program. She noted it’s not only about implementation, but identifying potential funding sources of grants to help pay for implementation and long-term maintenance.
“It is not only in the best interest of our drinking water supply, but really does a fantastic job building relationships with neighboring municipalities, and implementing best practices and providing oversight of our watershed,” said Councilor Brock. “By having these collaborations to reduce stormwater runoff, reduce runoff, contamination, monitor what’s going on in the watershed, it really does protect the city as well as the watershed and our drinking water. I’m grateful for Roxy’s leadership on this.”
The vote to circulate passed unanimously, putting the program on track for an October approval by Common Council.
Unhoused Proposals – Update on Next Steps
The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) proposal has been in the works for several months, with previous coverage here. To quote my colleague Zoë Freer-Hessler, “the TIDES proposal would construct 25 or so cottages and a common bathroom and community space, currently proposed for where the actual Jungle is now, a largely unsanctioned homeless encampment in or near the woods around Southwest Park in Ithaca, behind the big box retail stores like Wal-Mart, Bed, Bath & Beyond and others. Its aim is to provide better, safer housing to the unhoused population, though it would also introduce more serious ramifications for those that are unhoused in Ithaca but not living in the TIDES development.”
The whole intent is that this serve as transitional supportive housing as part of the extended but concerted effort to help unhoused individuals make their way to permanent housing. As it is currently proposed and unlike homeless shelters, the TIDES program is lower-barrier to entry; it would not require sobriety from those who live there, for example, while a normal shelter would have such a requirement. The requirement is basically, “can you peacefully cohabitate in a communal living setup.” It’s sanctioned, monitored, and an effort to provide some degree of management to the chronic, long-term issue of homelessness in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
The TIDES working group’s requests to the city include urging the Planning and Economic Development Committee to declare that a sanctioned encampment site “serves an essential government function,” undergo a process to select a city site, allocate city support, and select a contractor to manage the site and a request for proposal (RFP) while providing a sample budget. When these are determined, ideally by late fall, a Request for Proposals or Request for Expressions of Interest may be issued.
Parallel to development of TIDES, the working group asks for the city to write up a formal policy for dealing with unsanctioned homeless encampments, managing sites that have been frequent targets for unsanctioned encampments and, should it be necessary, developing a protocol for their safe closure.
During public comment, speaker Theresa Alt raised concerns about how it would comply with zoning. Republican mayoral candidate Zach Winn declared that immediate action is required to allow emergency access routes into the Jungle, and that TIDES will be ineffective from a health and safety standpoint. Brock noted that the property would be considered a municipally-owned camp site under zoning.
Last night’s update wasn’t intended to be a voting item or even a discussion. It was basically an explanation of what has happened already and what’s going to happen from here.
“There is more information we need to gather. As we focus on both short-term steps and on longer-range goals, what I’ll be doing is appointing a working group of common council to work in tandem with staff to work on the action steps as contained in this proposal. We have seen every year, the outdoor encampments grow… there’s an urgency to address it, but I think it’s important to be deliberative, realistic, and work with the county and other agencies on this plan,” said Mayor Laura Lewis.
Councilor Brock asked if a sanctioned encampment could be in place by Spring 2023, after winter ends and the homeless populations begins to populate outdoor encampment in greater numbers. Brock expressed concern that the window to rein in unsanctioned encampments would be missed for 2023 if the work plan and RFP is dragged out. But Mayor Lewis said that reviews of funding models and working with the city attorney would be necessary before an RFP goes out, and that that would take time.
Brock was not happy with the answer. “I appreciate the concept of hiring a homeless outreach coordinator, but… a lot of the housing options that are available that the coordinator will be able to steer them towards use DSS vouchers, a lot of the current unhoused individuals are not eligible for DSS services. I urge the city and staff to… aim for a sooner timeline than Spring 2024.”
“You’ve all been talking about for three years, what that says to me is, ‘Wow, what have you all been talking about?'” noted councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd). “If we’ve been talking for three years, I don’t want us talking for another three years and not seeing some progress here.”
“I agree there is concern with timing. But I want us to develop a policy and program going forward that will be successful. We need to partner with the continuum of care, with non-profits with expertise. We need more housing, more emergency shelters. That takes time. We do want to consider some actions now, that is what this plan seeks to do,” said Lewis.
The core tension seemed to be, some councilors wanted to move forward sooner, while the mayor wanted to go slower in order to make sure the proposal is fully-fleshed out, robust and able to withstand legal scrutiny. Expect discussions on the matter to continue in September.