Urban planners on ‘clear signal’ that Ithaca’s zoning is broken

Editor’s Note: An urban planning group, called Form Ithaca, recently held a series of meetings in Ithaca to devise ways for Ithaca to manage its growth, while maintaining a high quality of life.

To learn more, the Ithaca Voice decided to talk with Rob Steuteville of Better! Cities and Towns to get an idea of what’s being suggested, why they want to change the current laws and regulations, and how they are going about sharing their idea with the rest of us.

The interview is being published in two installments. This first installment, which tackles Route 13 and Form Ithaca’s key areas of study, can be read here

1 — Quality of life vs. affordable housing?

Q: In the Ithaca area, one of the big current issues is that housing is becoming more and more unaffordable, but people are concerned that development will decrease or wreck their quality of life. How do ideas like the ones FormIthaca have shared address these problems and concerns?

RS: First of all, affordability is often tied to transit. It’s not just cost of housing itself, the cost of transportation also has a big impact. Transportation costs for a household could be 20-25% of income in auto-dependent places. If the need of a car is limited, then there’s less of an expense for transport, it could drop to 10% of income. We need housing in places where cars are optional or less necessary; that will help make housing affordable.

Caption: A conceptual image of a South Hill town center. (Seth Harry and Associates)

We also need housing that’s not necessarily large-lot single family homes or apartments. Housing that’s not high-end, but in the middle, with smaller, less expensive lots for homes. We’re looking at these possibilities as well.

2 — The ‘clear signal’ current zoning is broken

Q: I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. There have been a couple of instances of local officials being skeptical of FormIthaca, writing off their ideas as trendy and more of a fad rather than anything of real value. How would you respond to that criticism?

RS: There’s a track record for form-based code, it’s been done in many municipalities. Form-based coding works, it can set a standard for development, it can establish high standards, but it’s not a barrier to development. It’s pragmatic, it works, it enables a mixed-use walkable community, and walkable neighborhoods that are the kind of places people want to live in.

There’s always some nervousness when you change anything, but we’re changing all the time, and the way we change now is a response to current zoning. Form-based code is what the market favors now. Current zoning is more of a barrier; 80% of new development [in Ithaca city] has to go to Board of Zoning Appeals.

That’s a clear signal that the zoning is not where people want it to be. It’s not an efficient system, if what’s being built is being different from code. The town of Ithaca recognizes it, and is moving forward with form-based zoning, and the city is looking into it – the Collegetown code predates Form Ithaca, but has elements of form-based code.