Re-Thinking Ithaca with Form-Based Code

Posted: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 6:00 am

When you are walking around in Ithaca, what makes you say to yourself, “This is a nice place”? That was the starting point of a regional planning experiment that began with a pilot study over a year ago and culminated with a series of public sessions called a “charette” between June 3 and 6. And it isn’t over yet. By the end of the year a group of planners—called Form Ithaca—will be presenting a new zoning code to the Town and City of Ithaca, a set of regulations that will suggest reinstating as the norm the walkable landscape that both Ithacans and visitors alike admire and are drawn to.

“This is a compact region,” said Rob Steuteville of Better! Town & Cities, the non-profit organization to which NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) awarded the $175,000 grant to fund the code development process. “We can look specifically at the city, but also at the wider region. We can even bring farmland preservation into the discussion. We have sprawl here, but it doesn’t go on and on. The commutes are short, and within the city there is a lot of walkability.”

According to Steuteville and other local planners—including members of the STREAM Collaborative and Randall+West—many of the characteristics that make Ithaca appealing to its residents—small setbacks from the street, amenities that you can walk to—would actually be illegal or difficult to build under the present conventional zoning code. In fact, a significant percentage of the built environment in the city does not conform to the existing code.

The current zoning ordinance for the city of Ithaca was adopted in 1975. Zoning codes began being introduced in the early 20th century (Ithaca’s first code became law in 1924), but became more widespread and comprehensive after World War II.

“After the 1940s it became an era of specialists,” said Seth Harry of Seth Harry and Associates of Woodbine, Maryland. “You had transportation engineers designing for the automobile.” According to Harry, engineers tend to design spaces based on abstract principles. “Everything we do is based on empirical data,” he said. “Engineers say, ‘You can’t do that,’ and we’ll show them an example of where it’s working.”

Harry, one of several planners and architects brought in to help with the recent charette, is an architect and urban designer who has worked on over 150 community development plans around the country, said, “We don’t talk in the abstract. We’re constantly drawing, and we show the public what they will get.” At the end of the charette process the designers will process all the input they got from the general public and produced plans and renderings that Harry promised would show the public how it will actually feel to be in the proposed designed spaces.

A Charette

A goal central to Form Ithaca’s mission is to produce the basis for a “form-based” zoning ordinance for both the city and the town. While conventional zoning focuses on segregating uses into different areas, the new approach, according to the Form-Based Codes Institute (, addresses “the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.”

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Approximately a year ago, STREAM Collaborative and Randall+West received a small grant from Tompkins County government to do a pilot study that would provide the data necessary to submit a proposal to NYSERDA to fund the larger project. In January 2015 Form Ithaca held a workshop at the downtown public library and used a series of interactive tools to get the members of the public in attendance to visualize and respond to how the community is changing. The Form Ithaca consultant team had already identified eight “focus areas” in the city and town as possible test sites for implementation of form-based code ideas. At the January workshop members of the public expressed interest in concentrating on two of the focus areas during the planned June charette. One area is in the city and the other is in the town.

The city focus is the waterfront between Newman Golf Course, the mouth of the flood control channel, and south to Route 13, which was identified as a barrier, preventing city residents from reaching the lake and stalling further development in the area beyond it.

On June 4, the second day of the charette Barry Mahaffey of BSB Design and Rob Morache of STREAM Collaborative summed up what members of the public had said about the area the day before.

“Connectivity across Route 13 needs to be improved,” said Mahaffey, “by creating new connections. One already exists at Third Street, but we’d like to add one at Fifth Street.” People also wished to see a pedestrian bridge added across the Cayuga Inlet and an automobile bridge across the mouth of Cascadilla Creek. A form-based code would allow the construction of a mixture of residential, retail, and light-industrial buildings to create entirely new neighborhoods. The proportions of these new blocks and the relationships of building to the streets would be derived from measuring existing blocks in the adjacent Northside and Fall Creek neighborhoods.

The triangular area bounded by Cascadilla Creek, Newman Golf Course, and Route 13 could see the development of housing, retail and “maker shops.” A more formal yacht club was proposed at the site of the existing boat storage yard. TCAT, another large tenant of the area, has reportedly outgrown its space and would like to relocate to a larger facility with room to store more buses. The city and the state Department of Transporation are also using several acres simply for materials storage.

It was also suggested that much of the parking immediately around the farmers market be moved into garages proposed by the charette, allowing that thriving institution to expand.

Morache and Chris Parker of STREAM summarized the design ideas that came out of discussion of the intersection between King Road and Route 96B in the town of Ithaca. “There are two ways of looking at form-based code to tranform the area,” said Parker. “You can construct a village square or a rural village.” In either model the existing roads would be inter-connected with new ones. The measurements of the streets and the buildings with respect to the streets would correspond to those found in areas deemed walkable elsewhere in the city and town.

Development would be shifted away from Route 96B for the sake of safety. In the core of the proposed “village” the density would be greatest, consisting of one- and two-story townhouses with short setbacks from the streets. These blocks would have suitable retail at traditional locations like the corners of central intersections.

Another plan proposed building a connecting commercial road between the College Circle apartments and East King Road. This would form an axis around which higher density residential development could be built. In both approaches about one-quarter of a mile from the center of the new village you would see a transition to lower density housing in the form of small-lot single-family homes.

This new village would include parks on the scale of Dewitt Park in downtown Ithaca at intervals throughout the areas of mixed residential and retail development. The quarter-mile radius cited here has been found to be a standard size for a walkable “pedestrian shed.”

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The Town of Ithaca approved a new comprehensive plan in fall 2014 and the City of Ithaca is presently circulating a completed draft of their new plan. The work of Form Ithaca is timed to help both the town and the city carry out the goals of their respective plans. The town has announced that they intend to revise their entire zoning ordinance using “SmartCode,” a type of form-based code. City government officials have said that form-based zoning ideas will be implemented both downtown and in Collegetown the two most densely developed areas of the city, but is not presently promising to revise its entire 1975 code.

“We retarded growth [in the city] with regulations,” said David West of Randall+West. “We forced it to happen outside the city. People want to live near or in the city, but they can’t.” West, who graduated from the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell and now teaches there, did a study in 2009 while still in school. He found that one-third of Cornell employees wanted to live closer to where they worked, but were unable to. He noted that the population of Tompkins County had doubled since 1960, but the population of the city of Ithaca has increased only slightly. The lion’s share of the growth has been in the form of suburban sprawl. “There has been demand,” he said, “because of job growth, but it has been a question of where to put [newcomers]. In the city is the better option.”

On the Waterfront

West also hoped that the new focus on form-based code would bring town and city regulations into sync. At present the least dense residential zone in the city is denser than the most dense residential zone in the town. He further noted that land-use terms such as an “inn” are defined differently, and the two ordinances do not even agree on the definition of a parking space. This makes development that takes place along the city/town boundary—notably the proposed ChainWorks neighborhood on South Hill—overly complicated.

“Neither the city nor the town have called for changes in neighborhood fabric,” said West. “[Form Ithaca is] focusing on places where changes have been called for.” The NYSERDA grant period runs through the end of 2015. Form Ithaca will present an outline for a form-based code to both municipalities before then. “What we produce will then be adjusted by the political process,” West said. “The city will pull pieces for particular neighborhoods and for over-lay zones.” The latter has been proposed for the ChainWorks project.

“Ithaca is small enough so that people [in the planning profession] know each other,” said Steuteville of Better! Towns & Cities. “We run into each other at Wegmans and at festivals, and there is a consensus forming about this [form-based] approach.”

Steuteville said that he has not seen any major pushback from the Ithaca public during the workshop or the charette. Furthermore the form-based approach is a national trend, taking hold in more likely places like Burlington, Vermont and Charlotte, North Carolina, but also in less likely locations like Oklahoma City and Denver.

“Ithaca has such possibilities,” he said, “because this is where young, educated Millennials and retirees want to live. And this doesn’t skip Generation X either; they want this too.”

One thing an attendee at the charette will notice about the suggested designs that have emerged for both the water front and the King Road/Route 96B intersection: they add a lot of housing, 300 to 330 units at the town of Ithaca location and more than that in the city. “Other people who are smarter than we are have projected population growth for this area,” said Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative. “And if the population does grow, then [these conceptual plans] create options we don’t have about where and how those people can live.

“We tend to live, work, and play in a quarter-mile radius,” he said of urban dwellers. “This approach creates a collection of quarter-mile zones, and that leads to nesting.” These collections of “pedestrian zones” are greater than the sum of their parts.

“Inside the city there has been limited development with low-density growth,” said Demarest, a city native, who is trained as both a planner and an architect. “The city has been perceived as completely built out.” He applauded the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services proposed project at Hancock Street in Northside for its intention to add density through building some four-story buildings and mixing in retail and smaller-scale townhouses.

Demarest was pleased with the way the charette went. He felt that it had helped calibrate the form-based approach for Ithaca and had also allowed the staffs of the town and city planning departments to see the new code’s principles at work.

“The charette demonstrated that the form-based approach is more about having what you want,” he said, “while the conventional approach is more about excluding uses.”

The next step, said Demarest, will be for Form Ithaca to make the rounds at town and city committees and staff meetings to present the code as it was deployed for the waterfront and King Road intersection, which together include a broad spectrum of form-based use combinations. It is up the staff planners after that.

Traditionally, he said, governments hire a consultant to further develop a zoning ordinance, but the city has a history of doing it themselves. This process will include a number of information sessions and hearings that will be further opportunities for the public to weigh in.

In addition, Demarest urged anyone interested to visit and send in comments via the site. •