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Responses to “showcase” — Dave Nutter

Dave Nutter sent our first report from the June 12 meeting regarding the “Climate Showcase Community Proposal.”

I attended the meeting yesterday evening at PRI.
According to the Tompkins County Planning Department RFP this is a US EPA Climate Showcase Community Proposal for a “pedestrian oriented community” with a “Pedestrian Neighborhood” with “pedestrian connections to … the larger community”. There will be a marketing campaign to promote this. There will be pedestrian connections to the Cayuga Medical Center, to the bus stop a quarter mile away (which might get a shelter), and to the Black Diamond Trail.
This project plans to build row houses along pleasant human-scale walking lanes with parking on the periphery, similar to EcoVillage (a beneficiary of this federal grant). But as at EcoVillage residents will still be very much dependent on motor vehicles for several reasons. Although there is employment within walking distance at nearby medical offices, the nearest grocery store, Greenstar, is over 3 miles away, and although the gradient isn’t too bad for walking on NYS-96, the sidewalk only goes half way. The Black Diamond Trail is flatter, but the result is that there is a 350′ elevation difference between the trail and the development site, the equivalent of Buffalo Street hill. The traffic is intimidating for bicycling on NYS-96, although some riders persevere. The Black Diamond Trail trades the efficiency of a hard surface and gradual slope on NYS-96 for a quiet flat ride among trees but on an energy-sapping surface, plus the long steep hill. Yes, the trip can be biked or walked, and some people may do it, but current facilities are far from ideal, and the project shouldn’t depend on walking or biking as the basis of being “sustainable”. TCAT is promoted as another option, but as attendees pointed out, buses going into Ithaca on NYS-96 in the morning are already standing-room-only when they pass Woolf Lane upstream of this project, and they are so full that they do not stop to pick up passengers on Cliff Street. Thus, despite the many “pedestrian” references, this will be another car-dependent suburban development.
Planners argue that many workers commute from outside the county, so a car commute of 3 miles into town is better than a car commute of 15 miles. However that doesn’t improve the traffic situation for the City or anywhere else downstream. The planning document mentions new retirees and academic families as target markets for this project, but does not mention workers, so maybe it will simply add to traffic. A planner mentioned the idea of a convenience store being built nearby to serve this new development, but unless there is a huge amount of additional dense development nearby as well, this sounds unrealistic.
Land Use:
The project is a Climate Showcase Community Proposal, yet it proposes to raze forest and build houses and parking lots across the street from existing unused parking lots and the Biggs buildings. In terms of climate change I think it makes more sense to knock down the inefficient old buildings and build there and in the adjacent fields than to knock down a third of the forest. At the very least the existing parking lots could be re-used instead of building new ones a few feet away. Planners argue that the alternative is to knock down the whole woods and only put in 35 units instead of the 60 this project entails.
Attendees were concerned about the addition of another low income community, saying crime has gone up in the area since the Overlook Apartments opened on West HIll Circle across NYS-96 from the hospital entrance. Some said they had been robbed, and the perpetrator(s) and stolen items were found in that low-income development. Project promoters said this project would be different in several ways. Instead of being owned and managed by an out-of-town outfit as Overlook is, it would be managed by a local organization, Better Housing of Tompkins County, which successfully manages several other housing developments. Criminals would be kicked out. Instead of being ghettoized as solely low-income, this project would be mixed income levels, from 30% to 90% of the county’s median income, as well as varied sized units mixed throughout. There would be about 8 single bedroom (725 sq ft), 16 two-bedroom (950 sq ft), 26 three-bedroom & two bathroom (1290 sq ft), and 8 four-bedroom & two bathroom (1360 sq ft). The total number of units should add up to 60, even though the numbers they gave did not quite. Some units would be handicapped-accessible for hearing, sight, or mobility. There would only be a few of the very poorest tenants, they would be integrated within the project, and they might be mainly retirees, not the typically younger criminal demographic. The units would look the same outside, but the more expensive units would be fancier inside. More expensive units would help subsidize the cheaper units a bit, but this is not essential to the project.
Renting v Owning:
The units in this project would be rental for the first 15 years due to the federal funding source. After that they can and will be sold. Better Housing folks said that despite be rental they wanted the benefits of long-term residents who are invested in the place. They said that a way to get that is to discount the sale price to renters based on how long they have lived there. When sold, there will still be a limit to how much profiteering can happen. I think the total time the rental and sale price limits exist is 40 years. Although renters must initially qualify by their level of family income, they can keep renting at the discount rate even if their income level rises above the qualifying level.
Quality of buildings:
As I understand it, the financing involves taking federal tax credits which the developers, Better Housing and NRP, get for building such a project (sorry, I forget exactly what quality of this project gets the tax credits) and selling these tax credits at some discount rate to businesses elsewhere who want to use those tax credits to reduce their own tax burden. About 70-75% of the funding is raised this way, and only 25-30% is from the actual rentals. Thus, they can afford to build larger, higher quality apartments than the rental income alone would support. They claim to provide much better deals than other developers make, and they want to “raise the bar” for the quality of affordable housing. This better deal would also lead to longer tenancy.
Attendees from nearby Indian Creek and Dubois Roads said low water pressure is already an issue in this area, and they questioned how 60 units could be added (even if they are efficient) without exacerbating the problem. Local ground water tends to have a high sulphur content, so staying on the municipal water is preferred. Developers did not yet have an answer.
Attendees asked if this project would be exempt from taxes. No, but it would be taxed at the rate it is rented, not at full market value.
Those are the issues I recall at the moment. I’ll add more if I think of it.
–Dave Nutter

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