ITHACA, N.Y.—There are few city staff who have left such a visible mark on the city of Ithaca as JoAnn Cornish. The city’s Planning Director wrapped up nearly 25 years of service to the community with her retirement at the end of 2021.
In this free-flowing part two of the interview, we present the topics below as she looked back and opened up about her years in city government. The first part of our interview, the more standard back-and-forth, can be found here.
On Southwest Ithaca and “Big-Box” Stores
“You know, I grew up in Ithaca, and then married and moved to New York (City), and then moved back to Ithaca when we had two young kids, I’ve always had a deep commitment to the city.
When I first started with the city, I had worked for the town of Ithaca before that, I started as an environmental landscape planner, with a degree in environmental science and a degree in landscape architecture. So when I started with the city as the environmental planner, it was under Alan Cohen and we were in the midst of, really, a financial crisis for the city. Although it was very controversial, Alan was determined to increase the tax base, and really one of my first big jobs was to try and attract big-box developers to the city. In Ithaca, many, many people don’t want to see change, so it was really challenging. We brought in Home Depot and Lowe’s and of course Wal-Mart, which was a huge controversy.
It was basically all on 360 acres of property in the Southwest that was producing some revenue, but nothing like what we knew it could produce. So we started to attract developers who were interested in bringing big boxes to Ithaca. At that time, we really were focused on increasing the tax base. Property and sales tax are the lifeblood of any city. Having an environmental science background, I’ve been to so many places where it was just these big boxes and a sea of asphalt, and hundreds upon hundreds of parking spaces. We wanted to make sure that when we brought these major retailers to the city, we did it in a way, and I was truly committed to this, that was much more environmentally sound.
Along with those big boxes came design guidelines and stormwater management and all the things that right now are pretty commonplace. But back in the early 2000s when you’re just starting to think about smart growth, and climate change was just starting to be a topic back then, we came up with a set of design guidelines, both architectural and environmental, that really allowed for a much more sound planning for these major developments. That really started out my career with the city.”
“Shortly after that, under Thys Van Cort, my predecessor, we came to study and develop a plan for Downtown. At that time, Woolworth’s was still in operation, where the county library is now. We weren’t really happy with the county taking up another prominent piece of real estate in the city and taking it off the tax rolls, but we worked with the county to create the new public library, and at that time we were doing the whole study of downtown and what could be.
Alan Cohen was very much supportive of development, and it was really a pleasure working with him on these things. At that time we planned to rebuild the center section of the Green Street Garage so it could take on four more stories, which you’re seeing happen today. For me, it’s been such a thrill to look out my window at City Hall and see all of these things that we had envisioned back in the early 2000s really come to fruition.
We really looked at Downtown, we looked at what the zoning was, what should change in order to allow for real development. Along with the Green Garage, we built the Cayuga Garage, and we built the Creekwalk, that was major city investment. From there we saw major development. The first big development was the Hilton Garden Inn, and of course when that was built, the office complex was built with it, and that brought Cornell downtown. Several hundred employees previously on the hill were now in downtown, utilizing the shops and businesses. Also, there was a requirement that they park in the Cayuga Garage so that they would have to walk through the Commons to get to and from work, which really helped in enlivening the Commons and supporting it.
After that, it just started to snowball; the Lofts at Cayuga Green, the Cayuga Place Apartments, and so many of the new buildings that you see in Downtown. The Challenge Industries site, that big pink behemoth of a building, and then Challenge Industries relocated and sold that, we got the Seneca Way Apartments. More recently we’ve gotten Harold’s Square and City Centre, which is just an amazing development, it’s just incredible. So many Downtown housing developments and retail, which, unfortunately, [the retail] is struggling right now. That Downtown Plan helped to create a plan for Downtown. We worked on it for many years and we’re still seeing a great interest for development in this area.
I think back, when I first heard “Smart Growth,” I thought, ‘What the hell is smart growth?’ But actually, we started before Smart Growth was even a term, to densify the core of Downtown, and now it’s a national trend, where so many downtowns throughout the U.S. are starting to repopulate and develop again as people move back into the core. Not requiring a car and mass transportation, those things really helped to form what we envisioned happening in Downtown.
Then, of course, I’m also thinking about all the new office space Downtown. You know, that’s a tough one because people have gotten used to working remotely. Certainly, the Planning staff has been very successful working out of their homes. With our profession, you actually don’t need to be in the office, most of our work is online, writing and researching, and you can do that from your house. Harold’s Square has all this empty office space, and I know Gary Ferguson of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, and Tom Knipe, our Economic Development Director, they’ll be working on an office recruitment program to try and fill those spaces. It’s a little concerning, but it’s something we’ll deal with, and we look forward to seeing it truly completed. We look forward to construction finishing so people can have some breathing space.”
On the Commons and the Conference Center
“Going back to Downtown, early in the 2000s, we had a Commons redesign committee. You know, everything is done by committee here, you don’t do anything on your own. We had the Commons redesign committee, and at that time we hadn’t envisioned a total redesign. We added a small fountain because the original fountain had been taken down, we repaved a lot of the areas, just updated it basically. Then came the concern over the 100-year-old utilities which ran under the Commons, and that really prompted up to take a holistic approach to what we were going to do with the Commons. We knew we were going to have to dig it all up to get at those utilities.
That’s when we engaged with Sasaki [Associates, planning firm]. The city did a lot of work to prepare for the upgrading of all those utilities, and we did that in conjunction with the new design for the Commons. That’s really one of my crowning jewels in my career, actually rebuilding the Commons. When I was in high school, the original Commons was built. I don’t think I paid much attention to it back then, but I remembered that. Then there was the whole controversy on whether or not to open the street up again. You know, we were going to dig it all up, why not just open the street to help the retailers? But ultimately the community said no. They said ‘we love the Commons and want to have the Commons.’ So we embarked on that five-year planning process for the new Commons.
Svante, he’s amazing. He was able to secure money to get it done and also the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, which we worked very closely with, together we were all able to find funding to get this thing done. It started out as a $6 million project, and as everything does, it escalated, to about $15 million. But we did it. We got it done. It was not easy. There was a lot of heartache, a lot of businesses suffered. We tried to coordinate with some of the new buildings like Harold’s Square, so we could get all the pain over with as quickly as possible. But that didn’t happen. We got the Commons completed, and then Harold’s Square started up. The businesses Downtown were pretty concerned about all the construction, but we got through it.
Now we have new construction, the Asteri project, the updating of the green Garage, as well as the Conference Center and the Ithacan, but it’s on the backside of the Commons. It has created a few issues with access to the Commons from Green Street, but ultimately it’s all good for Downtown. The Conference Center is really exciting, to bring that many people into the core of Downtown.
I have to say that with somewhat of a cautionary note, because the pandemic has certainly changed so many things. Prior to the pandemic, people would go to conferences, people would fly across the country for professional development. Now, most of it is remote. I can attend conferences I could never afford to attend and my staff can because it’s all online. A Conference Center, I’m a little nervous about it. But we’ll promote it, we’ll work with the Chamber (of Commerce), we’ll work with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, and certainly the city’s Economic Development program, to make sure it’s viable and successful.”
“It started with the Southwest and went into Downtown, and then of course we had Collegetown. We had a recession in 2008 where almost all development stopped, things weren’t financing, and we used that time to develop a Collegetown Master Plan, and the rezoning. We wanted to zone much higher, I’ll tell you that. But the community was not going to have 12-story buildings in Collegetown, that was not going to happen. We were in favor of the Goody Clancy plan. The core of Collegetown is so important for Cornell and the community. We compromised, we rezoned it, and then miraculously, the recession was over, financing was starting again, and everyone who was waiting for this to happen, it just opened the floodgates in Collegetown.
Lots of Ithacans don’t want things to change, but one of the biggest concerns about Collegetown were the aging buildings that were housing a lot of college students. They were purchased as single-family homes, they’re wood-frame, cut-up (for apartments), they’re really truly dangerous buildings for so many people to be living in. Things like restricting the occupancy and updating the buildings so they meet code were difficult, a lot of the buildings in Collegetown had not had any kind of improvement or investment for a long time, they were basically cash cows. The Collegetown Plan allowed for new buildings and a lot of student housing. Some are beautiful, some not so much. We don’t have control over everything, though we try. We really saw a rebirth of Collegetown.
One of the things that has concerned me in Collegetown is the 400 Block, which is really the core. The buildings are beautiful but the streetscape is in terrible condition. This (past) year, I applied for and got a capital project to hire someone to redesign that 400 Block and hopefully we’ll be able to get money for the improvements. It’s one block, but it really needs to be looked at and updated.
Collegetown just continues to grow, we continue to have interest. We get realtors from all over the U.S. asking is we know what’s for sale, if we can recommend where they build. Most everyone wants to build in Collegetown because it’s such a lucrative market with students. That’s Collegetown.”
On the Waterfront
“We’ve gotten Southwest, Downtown, Collegetown, and then we started to focus on the waterfront. Again, we wrote a Master Plan for the waterfront and we rezoned a lot of the waterfront, and again, there was a lot of controversy. We worked for a couple of years with quite a large committee to come up with a plan for the waterfront. It’s always been underutilized and when I was a kid growing up, Fulton Street wasn’t there. That was really the back end of town, no one paid any attention to it. It was abandoned railroads, and really, nothing was happening there. But we started to look at it asa great opportunity for development and to take advantage of the waterfront.
We have about six miles of publicly-owned waterfront. We have Cass Park, and Newman Golf Course, and Stewart Park, and that’s quite a huge swath of public land for the public to enjoy. We decided what land was left along the waterfront, to look at it and see how it could be developed. Now we’re really seeing this become an attractive place for development. We’ve got Cayuga Medical Center being built, Guthrie Medical Center about to open, the new GreenStar, the Arthaus apartments just opened, and so many buildings on the horizon that have been approved or in the review process. I think in the next ten years we’ll see a lot of growth in that area, and it’s exciting for the city, to see this vitality brought to that area of town.”
On Affordable Housing
One of the amazing things that happened during my time with the city is bringing housing to the core of the city, to Downtown, but also a lot of affordable housing. I think that is directly attributable to Svante, who had his own struggles growing up, he understood the real need for quality, safe, affordable housing. It started with Breckinridge, INHS has been such a wonderful partner, they’ve done amazing things in the city. That was in the core, but there was also the Hancock Street development, the Ithaca Housing Authority properties down on the Northside, and throughout the city we’re seeing a real increase in affordable housing units, it’s really miraculous, what’s happened.
There’s a lot of concern over bringing so much affordable housing into the city, people are very nervous about it, but it’s such a wonderful thing, it allows people to live and work in the city, they don’t have to commute from places outside of the city and spend so much on gas and insurance and car repairs. It’s interesting because with some of the projects, we have seen them build small parking lots to accommodate residents, but most of the time they’re not full. I think we really are moving towards a Downtown environment where people are not having cars. I hope that’s the case, because TCAT is a wonderful partner, they continue to provide a really good service, and now with Uber and Lyft and (Ithaca) Carshare, you really don’t need a car if you don’t want one. I think that ‘Smart Growth’ philosophy is really paying off with the development that we’re seeing.”
On working with Common Council
“That has been a challenge, I will say. I worked under three mayors and a number of council members, some of which were wonderful and some not so much. People would often say to me, ‘How can you do that night after night?’ I don’t exactly have a poker face. If you knew what I was thinking, your toes might curl. You know, Common Council are ultimately the decision-makers. I’ve always tried to present the facts and my professional opinion, which is not always welcomed. But I have always maintained that you present them with as much information as you can, you allow them to make an informed decision. Some elected officials will make up their mind far in advance of any decision, and you can’t change that. Some are very interested in hearing the facts and making sure they understand it is what it is you’re presenting or asking, and others, they just don’t have time for you.
But I have learned a couple of things over the years. One is that some Common Councilors’ minds will not be changed, and to not even try. But the goal is to try to get the majority of councilors on board. The other is, and this was hard to do early in my career, is to admit when you don’t know something. You prepare so much for these meetings and you think you have everything at your fingertips, and the first question out of the box can be something you can’t answer. I used to stumble on that, and that’s something (former Mayor) Alan Cohen taught me — if you don’t know, just say you don’t know, and you’ll get back to them. That was a hard lesson to learn, but I learned it. I think it was appreciated over the years. Some councilor wants to pontificate on the floor and prove a point, and I can say I can’t answer it right now and will get back to them. It is frustrating when some members take information and present it in the way they think, but you just keep going and hammering home the facts and the benefits and concerns and impacts. Ultimately, they’re going to make their decision and you really have to accept that. It hasn’t always been easy.”