Breckenridge Place (2014), apartment community, Ithaca, New York.

Paul Mazzarella

M.R.P. '79

Breckenridge Place (2014), apartment community, Ithaca, New York.

A Force for Good in Ithaca's Neighborhoods

by Elisa Gallaro

Paul Mazzarella (M.R.P. '79) fell in love with Ithaca as a graduate student in Cornell's Department of City and Regional Planning. He earned his master's degree and, as is often the case with graduates, moved away for work. Five years later, after brief stints in East Lansing, Michigan, and Amherst, Massachusetts, Mazzarella returned to Ithaca — for good.

Over a 30-year career, Mazzarella led the transformation of Ithaca's downtown neighborhoods, particularly in his 26 years as executive director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS). During his tenure, INHS added hundreds of rental units, renovated more than 1,500 homes for low-income families, and revitalized much of the city's housing stock. 

Professional headshot of a middle-aged man dressed in business attire.

Paul Mazzarella.

Illustration of a man going for a walk with his daughter and son in a residential neighborhood.

Illustration of Cedar Creek (2010), residential community, Ithaca, New York.

These successes were rooted in effective partnerships with the City of Ithaca and a decision to diversify INHS's approach. For years, the nonprofit organization worked house by house, fixing deteriorated dwellings and helping people become or remain homeowners. "As the market changed, we realized we would not be able to meet demand simply by fixing up the existing housing," Mazzarella says. "We had to build a lot of new housing."

Among his proudest accomplishments was the creation of the Community Housing Trust, which promotes home ownership and, through a shared-equity arrangement between the trust and the home buyer, keeps houses affordable for future generations. 

The buyer purchases only the house and pays a low monthly rent to lease the land from the trust. The arrangement dramatically reduces the purchase price. Since the houses typically receive a special assessment, the homeowner can also save on taxes. In exchange for these benefits, the homeowner agrees to a cap on profits when the house is sold.

"It wasn't a brand new idea, but it had never been done in Ithaca before," Mazzarella says. "The goal of the program was to limit the price increase of homes, so they remain affordable. That's a little bit different from the traditional model of ownership — and it works."

Even so, the program generated "a fair amount of controversy," Mazzarella says. "A lot of people believe strongly that if you become a homeowner, you should be able to maximize your profits and do whatever you want with your home without restrictions."

That reaction didn't surprise or deter him. The housing trust was launched in 2009, and by then, Mazzarella had more than two decades of experience in planning. He'd learned, firsthand, that controversy often came with the territory.

Mazzarella's first planning role in Ithaca was as Deputy Director of the city's Planning Department. It was the early 1980s, and he was charged with helping to advance a zoning change to permit increased housing density in Collegetown. "There was a lot of pushback," he recalls. "I went to a lot of contentious Common Council and Planning and Development Board meetings. It got to be uncomfortable sometimes."

He had similar experiences at INHS, where almost every large project faced opposition from neighbors who had negative perceptions about affordable housing. "We often had to push hard to get approvals," Mazzarella says. "But once the housing was built, and people could actually see and experience it, they were relatively satisfied, so a lot of that opposition went away."

He traces his interest in planning to an early job as an assistant in the Salem Housing Authority in Oregon, where he worked closely with members of the Planning Department. At the time, Mazzarella and his wife were both considering graduate school. With its strong programs in planning for him and education for her, Cornell was the ideal choice.

Mazzarella's primary mentor at Cornell was faculty member Stuart Stein, who taught in the Department of City and Regional Planning from 1962 to 1993. Stein served as chair of Mazzarella's special committee for his master's project, which looked at the effectiveness of New York legislation governing the siting of power plants. 

"Stuart Stein had decades of experience, so he had a wealth of information that he shared with me about his own work," Mazzarella recalls. "He also had a breadth of knowledge — about where to go, what to do, and whom to talk to."

That combination of knowledge and experience proved invaluable as Mazzarella researched and assessed a then relatively new provision of New York state law that sought to streamline the approval process for power plant construction. Instead of requiring review by multiple agencies, the provision centralized approval within a single government body. Mazzarella ultimately concluded that the provision was a failure. "This was in the 1970s, not long after a proposal to build a nuclear plant on Cayuga Lake, so the project was pretty relevant," he says.

Years later, Mazzarella would share his expertise with Cornell students as a guest lecturer on affordable housing and a guest critic and faculty advisor for Design Connect. The multidisciplinary, student-run organization gives AAP students the opportunity to gain practical experience by providing design and planning services, free of charge, to municipalities and nonprofit organizations. On the national level, Mazzarella was a longtime member of the Board of Directors of Community Housing Capital, which provides loans to create and preserve affordable housing.

Throughout Mazzarella's career, the common thread was the pull of public service, especially close to home. "I was very much attracted to working at the local government level — doing things that allowed me both to see the impact of what I was working on in real time and to have connections with a community of people who were affected by what I was doing," he says.

He views his Cornell education as providing a solid foundation in planning theory and, perhaps even more importantly, developing his ability to adapt when plans almost inevitably change. Students are taught "more about problem solving than just straight planning," he says. "In the real world, things often don't go according to plan, so problem solving is a valuable skill no matter what you end up doing."

Mazzarella routinely tapped into both sets of skills. Generations of Ithaca residents will long benefit as a result.


Selected Works

Rendering of houses next to a large building.

Founders' Way (2022), 320 West Buffalo St., Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, 53 apartment units, Ithaca, New York. INHS redeveloped the former Immaculate Conception School into a vibrant mixed-use community that provides affordable rental housing serving a range of household sizes and income levels and space for nonprofit organizations to serve the public.

Founders' Way (2022)

Exterior of a multistory, multicolored building.

210 Hancock (2017), Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, 65,000-square-foot mixed-use building and 12 townhouses, Ithaca, New York. The project transformed an entire city block from two vacant buildings surrounded by a surface parking lot into a vibrant mixed-use community that includes mixed-income rental housing, moderate income for-purchase housing sold into the INHS Community Housing Trust, an Early Head Start childcare facility, and not-for-profit commercial space.

210 Hancock (2017)

Aerial view of a multistory red brick building.

Breckenridge Place (2014), 100 West Seneca St., Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, 55,000 square feet, 50 apartment units, Ithaca, New York. Breckenridge Place is an award-winning, LEED Platinum-certified mixed-income apartment community that provides affordable housing in a highly walkable location to individuals and small families.

Breckenridge Place (2014)

Front exteriors of four attached homes.

Holly Creek (2013), Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, 22 townhomes, Ithaca, New York. Completed in two phases, Holly Creek earned ENERGY STAR LEED Gold Certification and was awarded the Housing Innovation Award by the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Holly Creek (2013)

Front view of four attached homes with neutral-colored siding.

Holly Creek (2013), Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, Ithaca, New York. Holly Creek is INHS' largest Community Housing Trust development with 22 townhomes, sold to first-time homebuyers. The homes sold at starting prices of $104,000, well below the county’s median price of $183,000.

Holly Creek (2013)

Illustration of a man going for a walk with his daughter and son in a residential neighborhood.

Cedar Creek (2010), 310 Floral Ave., illustration, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, Ithaca, New York. Consisting of 39 apartments and a community building, Cedar Creek serves a mix of family types with 44% of the units serving large families in three-bedroom units, 38% designed as two-bedroom units, and 18% as one-bedroom units.

Cedar Creek (2010) illustration

View of the front of a house exterior.

Cedar Creek (2010), 310 Floral Ave., front facade, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, Ithaca, New York. 

Cedar Creek (2010) facade

Aerial view of a cul-de-sac of duplex houses.

Cedar Creek (2010), 310 Floral Ave., aerial view, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, 39 apartments and a community building in seven structures, Ithaca, New York. Built on the side of a hill overlooking the Cayuga Lake Inlet, residents have incredible views of Cornell University, Ithaca College, and the city's skyline.

Cedar Creek (2010) aerial view

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