ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a relatively brief but very pithy agenda for the city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee this month. A pair of zoning amendments were discussed, as well as the city’s plans of action for the intermunicipal bulk electricity purchase program, and its intended response to unsanctioned encampment.
For those who like to take a glimpse at the agenda as they read along, this month’s PEDC agenda can be found here. Included in this story are the following topics, readers can click on the links to jump to that section:
Business Zone off-street parking
After voting to circulate for review back in April, plans to amend parking requirements for certain Business Zones within the City have come back for their Public Hearing and a vote on whether to send on to the full Common Council for final approval.
As previously discussed, 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 Business Zones or “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 50 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.
The owner speaker during the Public Hearing was Avi Smith, the owner of the Argos Inn hotel, who spoke in favor of the zoning change. He noted that 60% of the city’s B-4 zones was paved acreage, and believed it created an inefficient use of space and an uninviting environment.
“These areas are in core zones of Downtown Ithaca […] I believe that providing parking in these zones should be optional and not mandatory,” City Planner Megan Wilson said the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission was also supportive of the amendment, as it would reduce regulatory pressure to pave over existing greenspace.
Technically, the zoning change has to go through Declaration of Lead Agency and State Environmental Quality Review; those are routine exercises of regulatory paperwork and both votes passed unanimously.
Then came time to discuss sending the zoning amendment on to Common Council. Councilor Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd Ward) supported the amendment, stating that it gave property owners the flexibility to determine their own needs, rather than be forced to have parking on-site that they don’t need. His colleague Tiffany Kumar (D-4th) agreed, calling the current parking regulations “completely outdated.”
Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) said she understood the rationale for the change, but stated she believed parking requirements still have a use. But given that these parcels were closer to already densely developed areas of Ithaca’s urban core, she was willing to give it her approval. Meanwhile, Councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd) relayed that a constituent had theorized that the city could just build underground parking; Wilson noted that it would be extremely expensive (most of Ithaca’s ground is waterlogged mush, making that infeasible).
With that, the zoning amendment passed unanimously 5-0, and will go before the Common Council for potential final approval next month.
Collegetown B-Zone rezoning
The other zoning item up for public hearing is a proposal from planning staff that Common Council amend the zoning designation of four Collegetown properties currently zoned B-2b to Mixed Use 2 (MU-2).
As previously explained by City Deputy Planning Director Megan Wilson to the PEDC, 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. Like with the parking amendment, given an affirmative vote, this would go on to Common Council for full approval in July.
As before, the PEDC had to vote on a Declaration of Lead Agency and State Environmental Quality Review per regulatory law, and did so unanimously. Discussion was brief and focused on clarifications; the vote to send to council passed unanimously. The B-2b zone could be confined to Ithaca’s history after next month’s Common Council meeting.
Community Choice Aggregation (or T-GEN) overview and schedule
Also up for discussion at the PEDC Wednesday night was an update on the Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) plan approved by the Common Council last September.
Quick refresher, a CCA allows local governments to go out onto the open market and purchase power directly from energy service providers other than the one that dominates its retail region, which in the case of Ithaca is New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG). The power is being purchased on behalf of the residents of a town, village, or city, and can include multiple municipalities. In New York State, residents of a municipality can be automatically enrolled into the CCA, but they have the right to opt out of CCA agreements.
Municipalities don’t get to choose where their power comes from when buying from NYSEG. A CCA can be crafted in order for a community to find cheaper energy, regardless of whether it’s generated from solar farms or natural gas. In the case of Ithaca, the CCA that is being explored would be crafted for the City to purchase 100% renewable electricity. However, the transmission infrastructure that would bring the electricity to people’s homes is owned by NYSEG, so the utility company would still have a transmission fee included in people’s electric bills.
While the concept of a CCA is fairly straightforward, much of the work is out of the hands of the general public. For a municipality to enter into a CCA, a complex legal structure needs to be formed between a municipality and the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC). The city allocated $100,000 in last year’s budget to the negotiating effort and developing the implementation plan, which required several months of meetings and stakeholder back-and-forth. As of about two weeks ago, negotiations have wrapped up and an implementation plan is ready for discussion.
First, a note on nomenclature. In collaboration with the Town of Ithaca, the CCA program has been named Tompkins Green Energy Network, or “T-GEN,” in an effort to better describe the program in title and serve as its public-facing component. Moving forward, city and other local government staff plan to solely use the Tompkins Green
Energy Network name and T-GEN acronym in replacement of CCA to reference the local program.
According to city Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans, T-GEN aims to procure 100% renewable electricity, in addition to natural gas as needed, on behalf of residents on an opt-out basis. This means residents will not have to do anything to be a customer in the program, but still have the option to disenroll if they choose.
The T-GEN model then takes traditional CCA one step further by offering customers the opportunity to voluntarily invest in the development of local renewable energy projects by directly owning shares of a project. For example, you could buy into a community solar array, paying for the property, its construction and maintenance as it supplies T-GEN (and that pays you a modest monthly “dividend” for your investment), or you could just buy the energy produced, as most of us typically do with NYSEG now, which pays no “dividend.” The details on that aspect of the plan are still being hashed out, and will tentatively be shared with the PEDC in August.
As for a timeline, it will take a little time as a CCA Administrator is hired and an energy supplier is recruited. The PSC also has strict rules regulating public outreach. The city will be required to participate in a 90-day outreach process to educate customers about the T-GEN program, inform residents of their options (including default NYSEG pricing), and answer questions about the details of the T-GEN offerings. It’s expected that outreach period will wrap up in October. Opt-out notifications will be sent to
prospective customers in May 2024, followed by customer enrollment into T-GEN in June 2024.
Evans stressed the benefits of the CCA in her unveiling of the plans, noting the cost savings of the CCA (previously estimated at about 10-15% discount compared to current electric utility prices). She noted that changes in regulation caused discussions with the PSC to drag on a couple of months longer than they initially planned, but everyone, city and state level, is ready to move forward.
Councilor Brock says she appreciated the city’s effort to electrify, but was concerned about the local electrical system’s ability to meet existing load as well as new additions to the distribution networks. Evans stressed that the PSC’s objective is that utility systems will be reliable, and NYSEG is working with the system to upgrade systems, investing $156 million around the area just last year.
“Yes, congestion is a concern when you have electricity flowing all over the place, but that’s an iterative conversation to have with Avangrid [NYSEG’s parent company],” Wilson said. “There’s certainly enough capacity to support where we are now and where we’ll be in the next three years.”
As for the recent push by NYSEG to jack up current electricity prices by a significant amount, Evans noted that the 62% increase is on the delivery rate, which even in the CCA would still be handled by NYSEG because they own the power lines and substations. In other words, the CCA won’t free Ithacans from that proposed rate increase.
Responding to a question from Councilor Jorge DeFendini (D-4th Ward), Evans stated she was still trying to get information from the state to determine if state-subsidized utility customers would still get their discounts under the T-GEN CCA. Councilor Brown found it confusing and asked how they’d handle community outreach. Evans explained that T-GEN will work with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) on the outreach effort. Brown urged T-GEN to work with a grassroots organization, while her colleague Brock lauded the use of CCE as an outreach partner.
Once again, this was just an informational presentation. Voting items, including the CCA Administrator and the deal with an energy supplier, will be held over the coming months.
Draft Unsanctioned Encampments Policy
Let’s start off by saying what this is not. This is not a plan to prevent homelessness. This is also not a plan to get unhoused individuals into safe and supportive housing. It does not address the causes of homelessness. This is a proposal meant to accomplish one thing – “to develop a draft City policy regarding unsanctioned encampments on City-owned property, including a recommended methodology for policy enforcement given competing demands for limited City resources and a desire not to criminalize homelessness.”
According to city Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, the goal is to establish consistent guidelines when the presence of an encampment conflicts with the needed use of public land or in situations that present an imminent threat to public health, safety, general welfare or environmental conditions. Primary goals include avoiding the need for relocation to the maximum extent possible, establishing a protocol designed to achieve voluntary relocation when necessary and providing basic hygiene facilities in an area where camping is allowed. This policy is restricted to camping only and thus far no proposed changes are suggested to emergency response for medical emergencies, fires or criminal activity.
The policy would allow camping in areas of no conflict with public use, while discouraging the establishment of encampments in areas of conflict with public use. It also provides an outline for a system of response and enforcement.
City lands are divided into three zones: “Green Zones,” where camping is allowed. “Red Zone” are where camping is not allowed, and the prohibition is actively enforced. Currently, there are no active encampments in the potential Red Zones.
There are also “Amber Zones” where camping is technically not allowed, but enforcement is only triggered for individual campsites in specific situations. That seems like an odd setup, and Amber Zones appear to only exist in theory, as there are none on the proposed map. As for the enforcement protocol, it aims for voluntary relocation before more severe methods are undertaken. For the first three visits to a camper in a Red Zone, each of which is reported into a database, an outreach worker tries to persuade the camper to move elsewhere. After that third attempt though, the police start making visits.
Now, to say this has been a complicated and contentious topic is like calling the Titanic a minor accident. Of the nearly four hours devoted to Wednesday night’s meeting, about three of those hours were focused to the Draft Unsanctioned Encampments Policy.
“If the policy makes clear where camping is allowed and where it’s not, is that in and of itself enough information to prevent encampments where they are not desired?” asked Director Nicholas.
“I’m glad to see this move forward, but I’m also very mindful that we don’t confuse this. This is a land-use policy. This does not address quality of life, or safety, or welfare,” noted Brock. Brock was on the working group that helped craft the draft policy. She noted that the “intimate partnership” of the county, outreach workers, and adjacent property owners would be necessary in order for any plan to work. “This is just one step. We have so much more work to do.”
“I’m still leery about the language that’s used,” said councilor Brown. “When we talk enforcement and what’s it meant over the years, I really want [it] to use different language.” Brown also questioned why police officers would be used at all if the goal wasn’t to criminalize homelessness.
“We do need to have the stick, though we hope to never use it,” said Brock. “We want to avoid the negative interaction, that’s not who we are as a community. But by having it there, it does recognize that is a possibility. Just based on past behaviors and indicator events, for the last decade we have not actively used law enforcement in this way and we’ve done everything possible to avoid it, unless in the most egregious of cases. Only if no other housing options are available, is this a violation.” After the meeting, Brock reached out to say that she meant to say it’s a violation only if housing is available and the individual still chooses not to relocate.
“It’s an extremely difficult problem with no obvious solutions or resources to combat it,” said councilor Nguyen. “Enforcement has connotations that could better be avoided. I’m still not sure about the amber zoning. I want to focus on the green zone and the resources offered, and outreach worker contacts.”
“I think our track record has shown that voluntary persuasion is more effective,” DeFendini said. “In terms of trying to get folks to relocate who might be resistant to it, we are in a difficult position if we want to hold true to our values that we don’t want to criminalize homelessness. It’s a difficult, challenging reality to be in. But I don’t think that a less effective approach of enforcement as a last resort for the sake of having one is the best approach for it. I don’t want that to hinder our overall approach, to get folks into a better location and a safer area long-term.”
Now, looking at the map, there are three parcel collections considered for zone debate: West Hill, Cherry Street, and Negundo Woods. All have factors that make them undesirable for Green Zones, but may be suitable for Amber Zones, or Red Zones if deemed by council.
Brock wanted the West Hill parcels to be a Red Zone, citing concerns about West Village and family housing nearby, and that West Village residents were alarmed by the possibility of a homeless encampment nearby. Brock also had concerns about the Negundo Woods site because of the difficulty for emergency services access and the swampy areas within, and felt that an Amber Zone would invite activity that couldn’t be adequately serviced. In fact, Brock didn’t like the idea of Amber Zones overall.
“Because we have a shortage of housing, and this is city-owned land, why don’t we talk about making these areas places people can live and thrive?” asked councilor Brown.
Truth is, 15 or so years ago, Southwest Park, the Green Zone above, was floated for up to 600 mixed-income housing units, but it never moved off the drawing boards due to the unstable, waterlogged soils and utility easements. The site is only formally used for city materials storage and dewatering dredged materials from the Inlet, and has often informally housed one of “the Jungle” encampments. Brock noted that the site is adjacent to what was for decades the former county dump, and was hesitant to support housing there.
Brock also expressed reluctance for housing at the end of Cherry Street due to its use for railcar storage, and Nguyen noted the mushy soils had caused business projects to be cancelled there as well. In response, Brown asked if it could be designated an Amber Zone, as transitional housing. However, DeFendini and PEDC Chair Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) sounded reluctant to support “transitional” housing at the site.
“I heard a lot tonight about the enforcement protocol,” surmised Gearhart. “It seemed to me to be broken out into two areas. The first is who does that enforcement, and the other is, what’s the process, the timeline, the steps, in that protocol? If we move this forward, I’d like to parse those things a little better.”
There were a couple of clear takeaways from the discussion. One was a reluctance to involve the police in the enforcement process. The other was that this was, in essence, a short-term measure—a “band-aid,” in a sense. There was also a clear divergence between the tentative law enforcement presence favored by councilor Brock, and a softer approach favored by councilor Brown.
“I do think we’ve been marketing this as a short-term solution, that can quickly tackle these problems,” said councilor Kumar. She also advocated for removing the police from enforcement, describing it as both weak and poor messaging with respect to avoiding criminalization.
Brock was insistent about keeping a law enforcement component, citing the experience of the Gorge Rangers in policing Six Mile Creek, and describing how they were often threatened and needed to have police support.
“There is a role for law enforcement,” she said. “I think it would be an error to take it out of the policy. I think there could be more context […] but it should be included to delineate the very true reality that there are individuals who will not comply without law enforcement present.”
Mayor Laura Lewis, who made a late appearance to the meeting, stressed that this is a one-year pilot program, outreach workers will be hired and trained to engage with the unhoused community, and that more affordable housing was needed long-term.
As for circulation, there was some reluctance. There was a good chance that, due to absences, quorum would not exist for a July meeting, and discussion would not pick up again until August. Director Nicholas suggested an expanded circulation for comment, and the PEDC did seem interested in putting something forward for circulation.
A vote was taken to circulate the draft policy as-is for the purpose of soliciting comment. Kumar was not keen on circulation, but Chair Gearhart was hopeful that circulation may help come up with ideas to help bridge disagreements. With that, the vote to circulate for comment passed unanimously.