Collaborative Team Tackles Big Challenges for the City and Town

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Tompkins Weekly 2-10-14

By Noah Demarest

Downtown Ithaca has a new home for a group of experienced design professionals sharing space and working to build more sustainable projects, neighborhoods, cities, towns and regions.  STREAM Colab, a new shared co-working space, is home to a bevy of professional consultants including planning firms Whitham Planning & Design and Randall + West, architecture and landscape architecture firm STREAM Collaborative, and a host of other artists, designers and engineers.  The Colab provides professionals with access to a conference room, printers, high speed internet and a lounge, in addition to their most important amenity, each other.  Having an interdisciplinary team in one room allows Colab members to test ideas, ask questions and enjoy each other’s company. The community of sharing has translated into important collaborative projects as well.

STREAM Collaborative and Randall + West recently joined forces with Ithaca non-profit, Better! Cities and Towns to win a $175,000 grant through NYSERDA’s Cleaner, Greener Communities Initiative.  The project will help the City and Town of Ithaca to build new zoning regulations based on the SmartCode, an open source zoning code that can be calibrated to reflect the best of a community and promotes smarter growth, open space preservation and diverse walkable neighborhoods. Both the City and Town of Ithaca currently rely on outdated zoning regulations that incentivise or require traffic-creating, single-use and auto-dependent sprawl and create unnecessary barriers for pedestrian oriented neighborhoods. Both municipalities have called for a new code in their draft comprehensive plans and are keen to have zoning that reflect their community vision.

The existing zoning in the city and the town reflects mid-century planning ideas. The result is zoning that, for the most part, only allows single-use, automobile-oriented development is plain to see. In the last 50 years the population of Tompkins County has doubled while the City’s population has hardly changed at all. While the services, traffic and other demands have increased dramatically (sprawl development requires significantly more infrastructure per person, but generates significantly less tax base) municipalities have been left in the lurch with growing costs and revenues that can not keep pace.

The keys to building a socially, ecologically and economically sustainable Ithaca are to align zoning with our community’s intentions, to create connected, walkable, blended-density neighborhoods in the right places, and simultaneously to support the preservation of farmland, open space and natural resources. In many instances the current zoning makes achieving this vision difficult or illegal. The effort made to wade through pages and pages of old zoning codes, paired with the legislative willpower to replace counterproductive rules, sets the table for smarter growth. Ithaca’s anticipated future form-based code could facilitate mixed-use, compact smart growth by supporting housing that is energy and location efficient and by enabling the creation of housing choices that reflect the region’s changing demographics.

Market studies continue to show a strong demand for urban, multifamily housing in Ithaca. But entitlements for such housing are now difficult; applicants must appear before planning and zoning boards to ask for variances to build innovative projects or even make simple modifications to older traditional projects that represent the best and most beloved Ithaca buildings and neighborhoods. A 2013 national meta-analysis by Smart Growth America estimated that compact growth generates 10 times more tax dollars per acre than typical suburban subdivisions, infrastructure costs average 38% less than conventional development, and regular service delivery, such as police and fire, costs 10% less annually.

By applying the open source SmartCode as a new unified zoning ordinance for Ithaca, calibrated to both the urban and rural needs of the City and Town, respectively, a group of local professionals are doing their best to help codify the shared sustainability goals for the region.

Noah Demarest RA, RLA, LEED AP is the founder of STREAM Collaborative.

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