ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a lengthy and busy meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Committee last night. Along with the first official glimpse at the city’s unsanctioned encampments policy (which will be covered separately), a basketful of revised regulatory and zoning ordinances were up for discussion and vote, as well as grant funds for review and discussion on the future of the Ithaca Gun smokestack and the Ithaca Gun overlook.

As always, The Ithaca Voice is here to give you the summary, condensing four hours into a six-minute read so that you can be more efficient with your day while being informed.

For those who like to have the notes on-hand with these summaries, the 82-page agenda can be found here. The video of the meeting can be found here.

Included in this story:

PEDC member Tiffany Kumar (D-4th Ward) was absent from the meeting, while non-voting councilor George McGonigal (D-1st) were in attendance, as was Mayor Laura Lewis. Also, because things are funny this way, there are no 5th Ward members on the PEDC, but both 2nd Ward members are on the committee.

Private Tree Ordinance

First up in Wednesday night’s long agenda was a Special Order of Business for a presentation on a proposed Private Tree Ordinance. City Environmental and Landscape Planner Nikki Cerra and City Forester Jeanne Grace were on hand to discuss the proposal and answer any questions the PEDC had; this was not a voting item, though a positive reception could lead to a refined ordinance that would be a voting item in the near future.

This ordinance has actually been in discussions for several years, but was waylaid by the COVID pandemic. Now that some post-pandemic normal has taken hold and city business as usual has resumed, the tree ordinance proposal has returned from the back-burner to active discussion.

As currently written and enforced, the tree ordinance only applies to street and park trees. This draft amendment would expand that to impact all properties public and private. A tree removal permit for removal would be required for “Significant Tree” (8-23” diameter at typical adult human chest height) and any “Heritage Tree” (24” or greater diameter) within the City of Ithaca. The benefit is that it preserves the city’s tree canopy and enhances green space and environmental/beautification goals. The drawback is that private property and homeowners may not like being told they have to go through regulatory review and pay fees to remove larger trees on their properties. If a tree is severely damaged by a storm or otherwise comes down on its own, it is eligible for an “imminent hazard” exemption for removal.

Cornell University Landscape Architect David Cutter spoke in public comment to state the university’s support of the intent of the ordinance. “We understand the desire of the city to manage their urban tree canopy as a system […] I look at this coming discussion as an opportunity to strengthen our partnership between our institutions.”

Councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd) asked if there would be some sort of notification process for the wider community. Forester Grace noted that utility companies have to do clearings and don’t have to provide specifics about removal, as they may be fined if they don’t clear trees that are growing onto power lines. As for the city, they seek trees that won’t get tall enough to interfere with power lines, and trees to be pruned don’t usually get notices, but removals do. Grace surmised that the majority of permits would be for “good cause” and would have simple explanations for why they’re being sought.

Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) asked about fines and penalties, to which Planner Cerra noted that there is language for penalties for violations. “Will you be in any way holding the contractor responsible for moving forward without a permit?” Asked Brock. “As written, it would be the homeowner,” said Cerra.

Brock also asked about weather event impacts, to which Cerra stressed the imminent hazard/danger exemption, as long as they file within two weeks of the tree being removed.

Generally speaking, the PEDC was supportive of the proposal and encouraged the Planning Department to “flesh out the draft,” to quote Chair Rob Gearhart (D-3rd), so that it would be able to come back for a vote. Expect to see coverage of this again as a voting item at a future meeting.

The Future of the Ithaca Gun Smokestack

First up in reports was an update on the Ithaca Gun smokestack outreach efforts and next steps regarding historic preservation. For over a century, the Ithaca Gun smokestack has towered over the city, a symbol of Ithaca’s industrial past, and for some members of the PEDC, a symbol of culturally objectionable values (i.e. gun culture) and environmental contamination. Discussions on potential preservation of the smokestack conjured strong opposition from the PEDC back in February.

The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) has provided a memo to the PEDC asking for a joint commission by the city and Visum to find a qualified professional who can perform a “conditions assessment” of the smokestack and determine if preservation is viable; the ILPC has also made clear that they support preservation of the stack if its current structural integrity would allow rehabilitation work to safely occur. Historic Preservation and Neighborhood Planner Bryan McCracken has estimated the conditions assessment would cost between $15,000 and $30,000, of which the city would pay for half and Visum the other half.

However, at least three of the PEDC’s five members were opposed to paying for half of the $15,000-$30,000 study last month, which would have sunk any preservation effort had it been up for a vote. Councilor Brown opposed preservation because of the smokestack’s association with guns, Councilor Brock opposed preservation because of its association with environmental contamination, and Councilor Kumar opposed it for both of those reasons.

Since that time, local neighborhood groups and council members have distributed a survey to garner feedback on whether people felt the smokestack was worth keeping. Out of about 1,200 respondents over the course of a month, of which 341 were in the city of Ithaca and about 900 were in Tompkins County, 93% favored preservation, including 81% of city of Ithaca respondents. People most often cited the factory’s labor/union history and visual appeal as reasons for support. Of respondents in favor, 86% of all respondents and 87% of city respondents favored allocation of funds to perform the conditions assessment. In short, pretty large majorities are in favor of preservation and exploring if preservation is feasible, putting Brown, Kumar and Brock at odds with the general voting population.

This isn’t a voting item at this point; planning staff want to know if they even have permission to find a qualified consultant to do the assessment before putting a resolution together for the PEDC and greater Common Council to vote on.

Councilor Brown called the results “disheartening.” “We still have a mindset of honoring some things that have been very painful for some communities.”

Councilor Brock stated she felt the same way.

“I’m trying to think very rationally about this…we tore the factory down,” she said. “I don’t recall any outreach at the time. I don’t recall any effort by the city to preserve that. This is kind of unusual to me.”

Brock also stated that she felt the long-term maintenance of the stack would be “incredibly burdensome.”

“I don’t really feel compelled to support (the study) in light of all the other obligations we have,” she said.

Her ward colleague McGonigal staunchly disagreed. “The stack was saved specifically as a symbol of Ithaca Gun, the fact that Ithaca was a factory town. The primary gun Ithaca Gun made was a shotgun. It was a valuable tool for farms and hunters all over the country, it was a status symbol. Yes, they made guns. But they made guns that were tools for rural people.”

McGonigal insisted the smokestack is solid and that, unless the structure is severely compromised, he wanted it preserved. “I hope we learn a little more about our history before we make this decision,” he said.

Gearhart agreed with McGonigal, and was supportive of paying for the study. Councilor Nguyen said he wasn’t a fan of spending the money, but was open to support a study.

As an observation, I’ll note that this is a case where “tenure” as a city resident may be an influencing factor. Ithaca Gun shut down its city operations in 1986. Residents who were around back when it was a still a major local employer, such as McGonigal, have a sentiment that people who arrived from the 1990s onward, such as Brock, Brown and Kumar, do not. Older residents know it as a facet of local life in a way more recent transplants don’t—for them, the stack likely seems more of an abstract object, lacking the nostalgia it holds older community members.

The vote on paying for the “conditions assessment” will come forward next month. It was clear that, majority or not and despite her ward colleague’s strenuous support, Brock was not supportive of voting to pay for a study to see if preservation was possible, and Brown was not a fan either. If Kumar, who was absent, is still opposed, it’s unlikely that preservation will even be entertained, even if a large portion of the community supports it. We’ll find that out at next month’s PEDC meeting.

FEMA Open House

As readers may recall, a significant portion of the city of Ithaca will fall into flood zones under the revised flood maps. Without significant mitigations, over 800 more property owners in the city’s valley areas will be on the hook for costly flood insurance they didn’t previously need.

As part of the lengthy review and implementation process, FEMA representatives will be in Ithaca to answer questions about flood risk and flood insurance at Ithaca High School on Wednesday April 26 from 4:30-8:30 p.m., and at the Tompkins County Public Health Building at 55 Brown Road on Thursday April 27th from 4:30-8:30 p.m. Visitors are encouraged to bring their flood insurance declaration page if they have one.

Breeze Overlook Design Update

Also up for discussion during last night’s lengthy meeting was revised plans for the Ithaca Falls / Fall Creek overlook as part of the Breeze development on the Ithaca Gun site. As planned through the original 2007 Development Agreement with the City and reapproved last year, Visum would provide a prefabricated bridge from the parking area to a new Ithaca Falls Overlook with seating, historic signage, viewing pad and protective railings and fencing. 

Reception to the overlook was chilly during earlier PEDC meetings. Councilor Brock has described it as an “attractive nuisance” and a “can of worms.” The summary of that discussion is that the council was generally reluctant to support a new public overlook out of fear it would become a magnet for risk-takers and lawsuits. While some ideas were floated for other ways to use the money Visum intended for the overlook, there were no firm alternatives, though Visum has stated a willingness to donate the $300,000 construction cost to related endeavors as a last resort. This issue there is that it require time and money from both the developer and city to rewrite the Development Agreement.

Ithaca Natural Areas Commission Joe McMahon was opposed to the new overlook, noting that the existing overlook off of Willard Way was in a “horrendous” condition.

“If the city’s going to spend money on an overlook, it should be that one,” said McMahon, noting the existing graffiti and garbage strewn about the Willard Way site. “There’s no oversight of natural areas, or very little…there’s no reporting or observation of what’s happening in natural areas, unless someone like myself is notifying Jeanne [Grace, city forester].”

Visum Project Manager Julia Bucher shared the latest plans with the PEDC. The “island” site would be accessed by a pre-fabricated bridge and, in response to fencing being inadequate, it now be enclosed within an 8-foot tall chain link fence, with a 4-foot fence facing the gorge so that views would not be significantly obstructed. This plan was the result of a site visit with Planning staff and elected officials. The opening for down access is to accommodate the possibility of people walking up from the gorge.

Overall reception by the PEDC to the revised plans was lukewarm at best, but the board didn’t seem especially inclined to oppose the latest submission. Planning director Lisa Nicholas asked if the council members felt that some of their concerns had been addressed, and no one was willing to offer up an initial “yes” or “no,” before Councilor Brock gave an uncomfortable chuckle. “This project makes me uncomfortable. I kind of wish we had written this out of the [development] Agreement”.

“We want to have this reviewed by additional city staff, particularly staff in the city attorney’s office, to understand what concerns may be evident,” commented Mayor Lewis. Councilor McGonigal also suggested feedback from the fire department. With this reluctant go-ahead, a more detailed proposal with comments from city staff will be back before the PEDC at a later date.

Authorization for Funds from 2023 Restricted Contingency

Turning to voting items, the first item has a very vague and formal description, but essentially it’s a vote for distribution of contingency funds, $100,000 in money in the city’s budget that was explicitly set aside to address unforeseen financial circumstances. Planning staff are proposing that $73,700 be released from the city of Ithaca’s 2023 Budget contingency to provide fencing, basic hygiene facilities and a dumpster to those currently experiencing homelessness. This would go to Common Council in May if approved.

Discussion was brief, mostly focused on clarifications from Councilors Brown and Nguyen. The vote to approve passed 4-0, and the full Common Council will vote on final approval next month.

One of the submissions, by Karolina Piorko, Maya Kamaeva, and Ami Mehta.

Electrical Box Art

Studies have shown that artwork on public infrastructure is an effective city beautification tactic and decreases vandalism. With that in mind, since 2012 the city’s Public Art Commission reviews proposals for electrical utility boxes throughout the city and offers to offer the box to a local artist if they are willing to use the box as a canvas and the Public Art Commission (PAC) deems the submission appropriate. The art installations are budget-neutral, the artwork is done at no cost to taxpayers. The latest round of submissions, 15 total, can be reviewed starting on page 43 here. PAC Chair Caleb Thomas was on hand to talk about the submissions.

The PEDC was generally supportive. Councilor Brock said she hoped to see more love for the West End, which Thomas explained they’d like to, but Meadow and Fulton are harder because they’re state roads under state jurisdiction. Councilor Brown seemed more lukewarm to the artwork, asking how they inspire “conversation,” to which Thomas said they serve as a gateway to understand and appreciate art depending on what resonates with the viewer. The vote to send to council passed unanimously 4-0.

HOME-ARP Allocation Plan – HUD Entitlement Grant

The City of Ithaca has been awarded a one-time allocation of $1,211,000 in HOME-ARP funds from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) to reduce homelessness and increase housing stability. However, to access these funds, a community must submit a HOME-ARP Allocation Plan describing how funding will be distributed among eligible activities.

The Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) has adopted a HOME-ARP Allocation Plan for the City of Ithaca. HUD treats this one-time $1,211,000 in funding as an amendment to the 2021 HUD Entitlement Program, and Common Council approval is required for all substantial amendments to the HUD Entitlement Program. As a result, Common Council approval of the HOME-ARP Allocation Plan is requested. For those interested, a 61-page executive summary of the spending plan can be found here.

The large majority of the funds go towards supportive services to serve the unhoused population. As IURA Community Development Planner Anisa Mendizabal explained, the funds are intended to provide funds for supportive housing for those who are homeless, and longer-term services to help those struggling with homelessness so that they don’t end up back on the streets. Unfortunately, much money is needed per new very low-income housing units for those vulnerable to homelessness that it was decided to focus on services. Mendizabal cited Onondaga County/Syracuse, where $2.3 million was only expect to pay for 4-5 duplexes (8-10 units).

In response to a question from Councilor Brown, Mendizabal noted that some of the funds would go towards salaries for the staff providing services. Brown discussed some discomfort that money didn’t go towards the formerly homeless individuals themselves, to make sure they are “thriving” and “empowered”. Mendizabal clarified that the people helping help the formerly unhoused to provide resources and help them execute plans to take those next steps and better their situations. After that brief discussion, the vote to send to the Common Council in May passed 4-0.

Zoning changes

Now, onto items that are up for vote to circulate. These votes circulate a proposed change for comment from city agencies and the public, and typically they come back for a vote at the next meeting when those comments received can be considered alongside the agenda item. First up last night, city planning staff are proposing that Common Council amend the zoning designation of four properties currently zoned B-2b to Mixed Use 2 (MU-2).

As explained by City Deputy Planning Director Megan Wilson to the EPDC, planning staff were reviewing the locations and existing conditions of the City’s business zones, and it was discovered that there are only four properties that are zoned B-2b. This is something of a relic; the majority of central Collegetown was zoned B-2b prior to the adoption of the Collegetown Area Form Districts in 2014. With the adoption of the form districts, these four properties on the west side of Eddy Street’s 400 Block became the only remaining B-2b district in the City. Technically, this could be called an upzoning, because a switch from B-2b to MU-2 removes the parking requirement, though little else changes. However, any project on this block would require ILPC approval because it’s in the East Hill Historic District. With that noted, this is more a form of regulatory housecleaning than anything else.

Chair Gearhart noted the proposal “seemed to make sense”, and with little further comment, the vote to circulate for comment passed 4-0. The zoning revision will likely come up for a vote with the PEDC next month.

B-zone off-street parking

City planning staff are proposing that certain business zones – B-1, B-4 and B-5 – no longer have parking requirements. The City has several business districts, commonly referred to as “B zones”, that allow commercial uses at a lower density than a Central Business District (CBD) or Mixed Use (MU) zones. The specific uses permitted vary by sub-district and range from quieter uses such as small-scale retail and professional offices, to higher-traffic uses such as theaters, gas stations, and some light industries. With the exception of B-1b, all of these zones currently have off-street parking requirements.

In recent years, business owners have either been unable to provide required parking
on-site, or have not had a demand for the required parking, and end up complaining that it’s a paved waste of space. As a result, they have approached city planners on the issue. While some have sought zoning variances, the frequency of requests spurred city planners to explore the need for parking requirements in these zones. After review, planners are suggesting that the city remove parking requirements for a subset of B-zones.

In the case of B-1, B-4 and B-5, all these districts are located near the downtown area or along a major road. They are walkable locations with access to on-street parking, shared off-street parking, and bus/alternative transit. Many of these properties already provide at least some off-street parking, and businesses and residential property owners may continue to provide parking at their own prerogative. B-2 is not included because it requires further study since some parcels are close to lower-density residential areas (not counting the four B-2b noted previously, though this is how they were discovered), while B-3 is obsolete and hasn’t been used in years.

The zoning change would affect about fifty properties, mostly on the fringes of Downtown Ithaca or along Old Elmira Road. On the one hand, it reduces parking requirements in areas where parking garages or mass transit is nearby, and may make properties more appealing for development, though all other zoning parameters like height and lot coverage remain the same. On the other hand, with parking becoming rather tight around Downtown Ithaca, it may be seen as an exacerbation of parking issues on some blocks.

Councilor Brock, who has shown some skepticism of denser development, was critical of the proposal as it could encourage conversion of commercial office space to residential units that would have no required parking. In response, Wilson noted that that could happen in theory, but with many of the lots reasonably filled out with existing structures and long-term occupants, the number of instances would be limited, a “couple of cases” by her estimate. Brock was willing to circulate for more comment, and at Gearhart’s suggestion, the vote to circulate commenced and passed 4-0.

Other News and Notes

  • Programming note, my colleague and editor Matt Butler will be tackling coverage of the Unsanctioned Encampments Draft Policy concept, so that will be covered in a separate article.

Brian Crandall

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