Council Approves New Zoning On The Waterfront

Categories Housing & Development, Ithaca, Politics

By Josh Brokaw

At its August 2 meeting, Ithaca’s Common Council voted to approve new zoning standards for areas along the West End waterfront.

The process of designing the new zoning standards started in 2015, once the new city comprehensive plan was approved, and began in earnest with committee meetings and public outreach starting in the fall of 2016.

“We went through this so many times, it’s like being in a French restaurant and getting so frustrated you order a hot dog,” Alderperson George McGonigal (D-1st Ward) said of the process. McGonigal also called his work on the zoning committee the “most important” he’s done in his time on Common Council.

Like most any zoning rules, there are many details that only a financially-interested developer or a planning nerd can love. A two-page summary of the requirements is here.  The general intent of the regulations, as Brian Crandall summarized in April, are to encourage more “mixed-use” development of housing, retail, and entertainment while leaving room for the traditional industrial uses the waterfront has had since the early days of Ithaca.

There are four districts that make up the waterfront zone, stretching from the “Newman” area along Willow Avenue, around the Haunt and the TCAT bus yard, then south to the “Market” zone around the Ithaca Farmers’ Market and Wastewater Treatment Plant, then the “Waterfront” zone that surrounds Inlet Island and the “Cherry Street” area south of State Street, west of the Wegman’s plaza.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the intent of this zoning is to take a quick look at a sampling of what uses are prohibited, this list being for the Cherry Street District: “Mobile Homes, Propane or Petroleum Fuel Storage, Casinos, Fueling Stations, Single Story stand-alone Self-Storage Facilities and no storage uses of any kind on the ground floor, except as an accessory use, Big Box Retail, Drive-thru Establishments, Cemeteries …”

In other words, no more of the big-box, car-oriented development that exists in the southwest portion of the city along Elmira Road. Car dealerships are not permitted, so Maguire will not be returning to this area with any proposals. And when gas stations in this area go out of business, no new gas stations will be permitted to replace them.

Somewhat different regulations apply in each of these districts, but across all of them the maximum building height is 63 feet, five stories, with buildings along the water required to build a “step back” closest to the water of a maximum three stories before the building reaches its full height. Council, after some discussion, decided to strike a proposed incentive for developers to put in a 10-foot wide public walkway that would have eliminated the step-back requirement; it was generally felt that the walkway, with no guarantee of continuance between properties, might just become a nice private space for the property owner with little public benefit.

In other zoning news, Council applied the “active use” requirement that Commons properties already abide by to an extended area that includes Cayuga and State streets west to Geneva and along Tioga and Aurora north to Buffalo. Active use means that a building should have something “active” happening on its ground floor – i.e. not residential, storage, or office, unless the building is a private house.

Featured photo via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of Cayuga Inlet while “temporarily flooded”, from 1902 book “The Physical Geography of New York State.” 


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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

Email josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.

Twitter: @jdbrokaw