PAUL GLOVER ESSAYS: community control of food, fuel, housing, health care, planning, education, finance.
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Bigger or Better:
Ithaca Decides

Paul Glover,  Ithaca Times,  June 1987


    Ithacans are proud of our excellent small city, energetic yet relaxed in the valley, bounded by hills, lake and university.  We enjoy the best of urban life, amid cascades and farms.  Most of us can walk ten minutes to wild rushing water, fine restaurants and good theater.  In Ithaca's six square miles are yachts and forest, stone churches and boutiques, thousands of computers at work in old homes.

All races, styles and ages of people work together, study, play and are snowbound together.  We are garden fresh and modern, our blood runs autumn colors.  Many newcomers have found a homeland here, a great place to raise kids.  Oldtimers are comfortably settled.

Yet throughout Ithaca and Tompkins County people are seeing this good life being pushed aside by aggressive development.  We see it most dramatically in Lansing and Collegetown, but it is happening suddenly, or gradually, everywhere.  Ill winds rise, carrying the dust from construction sites, the rattle of bulldozers, the drone of traffic, the smell of gasoline and cash.  Perhaps more boldly than ever before, with the population growth twice as fast as New York state's, greater Ithaca builds up and outward.

Growth and Progress

Cornell is spreading farther above Cayuga's waters, embarked on record-breaking expansion.  This "major international resource" raises some dozen new buildings, upgrades others and plans still more, to capture government-- and industry-- research contracts.  Big Red employs over 6,000 faculty and staff to supercompute such notable frontiers as microelectronics, Star Wars and gene splicing.  Cornell's new 500-seat Performing Arts Center fits tight by gorge and garage.  A campus loop road is being designed.  The orchards would be replaced by building and road.  And so on.

Pyramid Mall would become the largest structure in Tompkins County if allowed to add seven cinemas.  Landing Village, home of the county's bloodiest intersection (the overpass), also faces Texas developers who want to build a fortress for 700 rich families, complete with private golf course, beside a new conference center and hotel.

New hotels and wider roads are applauded by the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, which expects even more tourists this year, thanks to national mailings and media.  "Publicity last year was negligible compared to this year," says Tony Spinelli of the Conventions and Visitors Bureau.  Promotion this season will "hit the natural beauty of the area," he says.

The Town of Ithaca's suburbanization has fed unprecedented traffic jams. Building permits for about 650 more housing units are approved.  Most of these are along Route 79 (East Hill) and King Road (South Hill).  Sewerage being extended out Trumansburg Road would be ready for the suburbs which would follow a new four-lane Route 96.  "We know there are large landowners on West Hill waiting to see what happens with Route 96," says Susan Beeners, the Town of Ithaca's planner.  Although she finds "a lot of reaction against proposed projects," few neighborhoods are organized to resist them.  "There is a sense in the community we are at the edge of tremendous expansion," she says.

Garbage Mountain in Danby grows by 350,000 pounds daily.  The county dump will expire next year, ages 17 years.  Twenty-three sites have been proposed for the next one.  It will be known as a "sanitary landfill" because dripping carcinogens are to be kept from groundwater by a one-eighth--inch plastic diaper.  Nobody wants to live by the dump, but everyone wants to make trash.

Cornell has the city's taxpayers hard at work, using our planning department to organize housing the University fails to build.  Student pressure on off-campus housing raises rents and drives residents out.  Taxpayers also provide Cornell bargain fire protection and road repair and will pay $800,000 for a parking ramp needed by the Performing Arts Center.  

Wegman's is the latest pearl on the Elmira Road strong, welcomed with a 50 percent tax write-off.  While the city's population has not increased lately, its budget jumped 19 percent this year, a record.

NYSEG is stimulating industrial development by offering discount electricity to heaviest users, a practice prohibited back when the nation valued its fuel supply.

Tompkins County Airport intends to build a new terminal and stretch string runway 1,200 feet, to greet more passengers.

The Tompkins County Department of Planning is working for all the above.  Its specialty is roads.  Mapped large on the office wall are several proposed routes, the skeleton of a metropolitan system.  When citizens rejected the East Ithaca Connector as a trans-Ithaca beltway which would have sped suburbanization, planners began building piece-by-piece "improvements" to accomplish the same aim.

Octopus traffic was passable until County planners promoted locating the new hospital and DSS on West Hill.  Rather than restore nonstop traffic, by chopping the Octopus into four bridges (Plan A-modified), planners prefer cutting a new four-lane up the hill.

Department staff members also want a four-lane Route 13 connecting Ithaca to Route 81 at cortland.  It would make Ithaca an attractive shortcut and replace today's route, which causes average fatalities for a two-lane state road.

Major employers favor wide highways because they bring commuters from farther away, to compete for jobs.  As count planners said, "it is desirable to have some unemployment, to maintain healthy competition among labor" (Human Resources III, p.37, TCDP).

Among other monuments to Growth which follow this kind of Progress: the County Jail recently expanded from 33 cells to 55, to handle the increase in drug busts, assaults, murders, rapes and burglaries.  City Police Chief James Herson notes, "when you start packing people together to make a bigger city, crime rises."  As pressure mounts, the young become alienated, and tough.

Moreover, urban stress and noise cause proven higher rates of hypertension and heart attacks.  Traffic injuries and deaths explode where arterials meet residential streets.  There neighborhoods fail, homes are neglected.  Litter drifts by.

As Ithaca's dollar value increases, its community value declines.  Visit Syracuse, to remind yourself.

Save Ithaca

Recently citizens began organizing, convinced the destruction of ithaca greenbelt, for highways and subdivisions, is not growth but decay.

The city's planning board heard 40 speak for growth control, at a special meeting in March.  Their voices, joining others countywide, are becoming known as the Save Ithaca movement.  They are demanding slowed development, protection for neighborhoods, and more control of planning.  They see the ruin of Ithaca's intimate scale and friendly streets not a progress, but sadness.  "There is not place you can look that they're not building.  It's insane," says Robert Lieberman, author of Paradise Rezoned.


Ruth Mahr of Forest Home favors comprehensive planning which considers the costs of growth: the increased taxes for roads, water, sewerage,police, courts, fire and traffic control.  Studies in Denver and Palo Alto found that government needed to charge developers nearly half the selling price of a new home (in addition to regular taxes), just to pay for additional public services.

Bill Goldsmith, chairman of Cornell's Department of City and Regional Planning, believes that "while the University offers freedom to innovate, it on the other hand fails to adequately coordinate" long-range plans for child care, transportation, energy and student housing.

Joel Rabinowitz and many others learned hard lessons rom the Valentine Place massacre.  City officials defied neighborhood opposition to a major student housing project, by "deception, false assurances and collusion with the developer," he said.

"We can't afford to forget, to let this happen again," says Victoria Romanoff, restoration consultant for clinton House and Clinton Hall.  "Planers are despoiling so many regions that even they would someday have nowhere to escape to."

Bickley Townsend, former Ithaca city planner and recent president of the Bryant Park Civic Association, says, "The Department justifies the building boom by saying they want to keep students near campus and thereby keep rents elsewhere low.  But rents rise anyway.  They should put their efforts primarily to creating affordable housing."

While City planners claim to be racing ithaca town developers to keep housing from sprawling beyond Ithaca, more tall dull walls in Collegetown do not slow the Town's growth. While they claim to need 1,200-1,500 new units to "meet the demand," a different kind of demand is being raise.

Dan Hoffman (D-5th Ward, City council), announcing hi candidacy for mayor of Ithaca (5/13)
said, "The transformation from human-scale buildings to highrise skyline, from meadow and farmland to suburban shopping center and condos, is usually not a conscious, democratic choice, but a series of small steps that eventually adds up to a radically different community.  The essential questions for Ithaca right now should be: What kind of community do we want?  What kind of change is desirable?  THen: How can we exert the control and management that is necessary to get or preserve what we want?  There are alternatives."

Calling a Halt, to Begin Again

Ithacans have tremendous power to decide Ithaca's future.  Hundreds of American cities and towns strictly regulate growth, for "health, safety, prosperity and general welfare."  They have enacted firm and legal growth management laws, to guide the timing, type and location of any development.  We can begin to do the same here.

While courts properly reject zoning laws which attempt to exclude the poor, they increasingly rule that growth itself is exclusionary.  It drives away longtime residents whose neighborhoods are torn up.  And it excludes future generations from what is enjoyed today, by cramming too many here at one time.

All the following controls, of varied strengths, have been upheld by state and federal courts.  Dozens of cities in New York state use the moratorium, refusing to issue or review building permits for as much as two years.  This buy s time to make or revise comprehensive plans;  to study sewage, soils, water, zoning, wetlands; to decrease traffic; to protect old homes; stabilize rents and restrain fast-food joints.

All across the country there are cities which ration building permits, to limit the residential growth rate.  Some, like Ramapo, N. Y., sell these permits to those developers who score most points for best design, site, and provision of low--income housing.  And these permits don't come cheap: man cities charge developers several dollars per square foot (or a percentage of construction costs), to fund day care, arts festivals and parks.  Hartford, Conn. requires commercial developers to pay into a fund for low-income housing and job training.  Then they require that local residents be hired for construction and permanent jobs.  Burlington, Vt, controls rents b investing in land trusts and limited-equity co-ops, while Santa Monica, Calif. dose so with rent control.

Voters in Eastlake, Ohio, and other places decide whether a subdivision is built.  Voters in San Diego got fed up with loopholes in zoning, and now vote on variance petitions, three times yearly.

While some municipalities levy sales taxes to buy greenbelts and agricultural preserves, others float bonds to acquire property (at present value) for open space.  Funds also buy easements, and compensate owners for downzoning.  

Most decisive of all are cities like Corvallis, Ore., which declares "urbanization shall be contained within the urban boundary."  They draw lines beyond which sewer, water and roads do not go.  Palm Beach, Fla., St. Helena, Calif., and Southampton, N.Y., set population caps.  Big Sur, Calif. has decreed itself a "no-development zone."

To save Ithaca, we will need candidates who will announce that Ithaca is no longer a playground for developers.  We will need legislators who will not only declare this but enforce it. We will need lawyers and planners who will keep speculators from sliding under the door.  And the public needs to demand this now.  Those who favor some , many or all possible controls can donate time or money to Save Ithaca, c/co Self-Reliance Center.

Whether rapid or slow, urban growth has proven impractical, producing gross blobs on the map, where communities used to be.  It is time to invent orderly transitions toward new ways to go.  Beyond growth management, we need talk about dynamic stability.  As Ithaca develops instead the progress of neighborhood life, and the growth of simple friendliness and simple hunan happiness, we will learn to live creatively with nature, rather than destroy it.  If we want for ourselves, our children and grandchildren a world with a future, we will plan 100 year ahead rather than five.  Sacramento, Calif., has based its plans partly on interviews with schoolkids.

Another local organization, called Greater Ithaca Neighborhood Association, brings Ithacans together to plan the nuts-and-bolts of such change.  They recommend we explore these things among others:

Employ each other, rather than depend on outside corporations.  The Local Exchange Trading System already catalogues dozens of Ithacans who work and trade for "Ithaca money."  This boosts local small business and protects us from national market shocks.  We are one of several LETS cites so far.

Convert parts of residential streets into park, garden and play area, to encourage the neighborliness which deters crime.  Berkeley's Slow Streets program does this.

Plant food trees in and around town, to ensure long-term food supply.  Ithaca currently brings 85 percent from out-of-state.

Ride bikes and superinsulate homes to cut fuel dependence and costs.

Whatever future we choose, there will be adjustments for us all, new uses for our skills.  The talents of developer, carpenter, banker farmer and planner will still be needed.  Greater Ithaca is part of the burgeoning movement which would make Ithacans stronger and prouder, and Ithaca better, rather than bigger.

Glover is founder of a dozen organizations and author of six books about grassroots community development.  
paul5glover@yahoo.com

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