Building Downtown (Ithaca): New Zoning Encourages Sustainable Development

Sustainability is alive and thriving in Downtown Ithaca.

This guest opinion is from the staff at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

Downtown Ithaca logo

In its 2020 Strategic Plan, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance reaffirms its commitment to be a community leader in green and sustainable practices. Since the approval of the 2020 plan, the DIA has led or supported over a dozen sustainability-related initiatives. These include such efforts as the implementation of a recycling and compost system for downtown special events, the establishment of the Sustainability Center Serving Tompkins County in the former Carpet Bazaar building on West State Street, and the initiation of Energize Ithaca’s ambitious project to create an energy-efficient combined heat and power microgrid in downtown Ithaca.

A less visible, but ultimately much larger, success on the sustainability front was achieved earlier this month with the passing of a new downtown zoning package. Approved by the City Common Council, and supported by the City’s Planning Department and the DIA, the new zoning package encourages growth and development in Ithaca’s urban heart by increasing the opportunity for added height and volume on key blocks within the Central Business District. It carefully considers each downtown block and responds to the particular conditions of each location, reserving taller heights for blocks in the center of downtown, on and around the Ithaca Commons. The plan extended CBD60 zoning along the West State Street corridor, making this high-potential area part of the Central Business District.

How does more development in downtown Ithaca promote sustainability? Downtown is itself inherently green; indeed, it is the greenest commercial area in the community because of its central location and its abundance of existing buildings and infrastructure. With so many multi-story buildings close together and in many cases sharing exterior walls, there are tremendous savings in the environmental and financial costs of heating, power, and the delivery of essential municipal services. Downtown Ithaca is an energy-efficient urban core with a tremendous array of amenities occupying a relatively small footprint. It is a vibrant hive of activity that can serve as a showcase for the community’s broader interest in green and sustainable practices.

When new construction occurs downtown rather than in the suburbs, it takes advantage of this sustainable platform and conserves land by building upwards rather than outwards. For example, the Cayuga Place complex constructed in 2008 created 68 units of housing on a portion of a single city block; had a housing project of that scale been constructed outside the city along the Route 96 arterial corridor in the towns of Ithaca and Ulysses – it would have consumed over 120 acres spread over several miles. When new housing, lodging, offices, and retail space is built downtown, costly and inefficient expansions of utilities are avoided and the rural character of our beautiful region is preserved.

Moreover, downtown projects decrease dependence on automobiles and increase walkability and public transit, thus reducing carbon emissions and promoting healthy and socially-oriented lifestyles. Downtown Ithaca is already the transit hub of the community, serving as a primary node for the TCAT bus system and the headquarters of Ithaca Carshare. Most notably, perhaps, downtown is extremely accessible on foot and by bike. We are already a national leader in active transportation, with over 40% of the city’s population walking or biking to work on a regular basis. Further smart growth in downtown Ithaca will enhance its status as a focal center for car-free living, working, tourism, commerce, and recreation – and we can now expect this pedestrian experience to expand beyond the Commons pedestrian mall with the rezoning of West State Street.

This combination of energy and transportation factors makes living and working in downtown Ithaca a giant leap towards a sustainable future. According to estimates from the Center for Sustainable Economy, a couple living in an apartment in downtown Ithaca, using TCAT as a primary means of transportation, and adopting excellent green habits (e.g. unplugging appliances, composting, buying organic food) would have a carbon footprint approximately 34 percent of the national average. A couple with the same commendable habits but residing in a single-family home on one acre outside of town and commuting in a mid-size car would still be at 76 percent. Allowing for more vertical growth will allow more in our community to take part in this “green revolution.”

Says Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “Downtowns and sustainability go hand in hand. As our region’s central place, downtown Ithaca is the hub of our transit system. It is the place where our arterial roads converge. Living, working, and shopping downtown saves petroleum and reduces carbon emissions. As one of the country’s most walkable urban centers, it is important for new downtown development projects to be both dense and full of appropriate street character. The new zoning package is a key first step in ensuring that we can have the kind of smart growth that will make downtown Ithaca the most sustainable, efficient, and dynamic small city downtown in America.”



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