How do we promote smart growth in Ithaca?

Editor’s Note: The following is a letter-to-the-editor submitted by Robert Steuteville, executive director of “Better Cities & Towns” and a member of the Form Ithaca team.

For more on Form Ithaca, see the Ithaca Voice story here. To submit a guest column, contact me anytime at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

Ithaca is a truly amazing place with many great attributes: Livable neighborhoods, a strong sense of community, breathtaking natural resources, and the best employment growth rate in Upstate. Ithaca’s appeal and growing economy also pose challenges—particularly in affordable housing—even as our unique combination of walkable urban character, history, culture, and gorgeous landscape attract new residents and investors.

Fortunately, citizens and leaders are responding with long-term visions that, to the extent they are implemented, could make Ithaca even more livable, sustainable, and economically dynamic.

The City’s draft comprehensive plan—written through the hard work of citizens and staff—is full of terrific ideas. The Town’s new Comprehensive Plan, adopted last fall, is a first-rate blueprint for growth.

Both the City and the Town are moving toward a smart growth idea of compact, walkable development that preserves our countryside and historic buildings—while offering short commutes and transportation choice.

Yet questions remain: How can the Town and City of Ithaca steer growth to reflect their forward-thinking goals and visions? How can regulations and policies help to achieve those goals?

As the City’s plan points out, local conditions along with national and global trends have changed dramatically since the 1970s. Yet most of our land-use regulations are left over from that era. To effectively move forward, the City and Town need updated regulations that shape the inevitable growth into a form that enhances community character.

The Town’s plan recommends a new kind of zoning–called a “form-based code”–that emphasizes character and walkable neighborhoods over separation of use. The City, with its 2014 Collegetown Area Form Districts code, is moving in a similar direction.

Through grants from New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the Park Foundation, a local organization called Form Ithaca is drafting a “Character Code.” With help from citizens, municipal officials, and stakeholders, Form Ithaca intends to deliver this regulatory tool to be considered for adoption, in whole or in part, by the City and Town.

The next step in this process is a four-day, intensive, public planning session June 3-6 to demonstrate what the Character Code can do for Ithaca. We are bringing in nationally recognized urban designers and transportation experts who will present ideas to help this community move forward.

In addition to Downtown and Collegetown, Form Ithaca has mapped eight focal development points in a holistic vision for the City and Town.

These areas could support compact growth, but policies and infrastructure need adjustment. One example is the Waterfront, where Route 13 poses a barrier to walkability and adjacent neighborhoods.

This area offers significant economic development potential if jobs are connected to housing and the city is linked through sustainable development to its greatest natural asset—Cayuga Lake. Through the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, currently on a fast track, the state could help Ithaca grow in ways that align with its emerging long-term visions.

Meanwhile, the City’s existing neighborhoods and the Town’s wealth of countryside need protection. Because zoning was enacted after much of the City’s residential stock was built, the housing is mostly nonconforming.

Form Ithaca and the Character Code could prove instrumental in addressing these issues and shaping future growth in ways that enhance Ithaca’s character.

Please come to our public planning sessions at the Unitarian Church downtown, starting with a kickoff presentation at 7:30 p.m. June 3. We need your ideas for a more sustainable, healthy, and prosperous Ithaca. Go to formithaca.com for a full schedule of events and more information.

— Robert Steuteville