The BOOKPRESS March 2000


Jack Goldman

On the issue of economic development, Ithaca is rapidly becoming a divided city. Interpreting his re-election as a mandate, Mayor Alan Cohen has vigorously—some would say heedlessly—pressed forward with his plans for commercial development in the Southwest and West End. Despite Ithaca’s small population of 15,000 permanent residents (the number doubles when Cornell University and Ithaca College are in session), and the sluggish rate of 1% annual increase over the past decade, Cohen believes that the city is poised to attract large-scale chain stores which would fuel an economic boom.

Critics have pointed out that Ithaca is a late entry to this strategy and that the model it is adopting has been shown to impose serious environmental and social costs in countless towns throughout the country. Even with the best of intentions,the city may find that it has little leverage in negotiations with such organizations as Home Depot, Target, Borders, and others on the all-too familiar list. It is doubtful if a small, geographically isolated city like Ithaca can attract big-box stores without offering considerable infrastructure, maintenance, and tax abatement benefits that, over time, may seriously erode anticipated sales tax revenues.

There are also legitimate questions as to whether the Ithaca market is large enough to sustain more than one major shopping area. City representatives offer a vague and largely unsupported notion of mutual symbiosis between Southwest Park and the Commons. But past experience in other cities shows that big-box stores act as a magnet for strip mall development along the most heavily trafficked routes—in this case, Route 13—and this would draw additional commercial activity away from the Commons. Shifting its economic base to national retailers would make the city much more vulnerable to economic forces entirely beyond its control. Woolworth’s and Lauriat’s closed their doors here, not because their Ithaca locations were unprofitable, but because both chains went bankrupt.

Some would say that economic growth necessarily entails risks. While this may be true, it does not mean that the mayor’s approach is best for Ithaca. A recent article in The New York Times describes how an increasing number of communities have been left to pick up the pieces of malls abandoned by big-box retailers, turning them instead into modern replicas of old downtown neighborhoods. Other cities around the country are now working with private-sector developers to revitalize languishing downtowns, with a combination of small-scale national chains and local merchants.

Downtown Ithaca is certainly better off than many, but the city has not provided the leadership and investment to develop a comprehensive plan that would capitalize on its architectural assets and authentic local history. If adequate resources were assured to enable the Commons area to regain its economic vitality, the city could then pursue some larger retailers in the Southwest without jeopardizing downtown commerce. By reversing these priorities, the city is engaging in a high-stakes gamble that sufficient revenues will be generated by Southwest Park to restore the health of the Commons. What is more likely is that infrastructure and maintenance costs in the Southwest will drain the city’s resources, leaving the downtown to suffer an irreversible decline.

One need not be opposed to economic growth to believe that Mayor Cohen’s blueprint for Southwest Park represents a failure of community planning. Imaginatively impoverished and lacking a firm grasp of economic realities, it is certainly not worth the sacrifice of the valuable environmental and urban characteristics which still provide Ithaca with a sense of hope and a sense of place.

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