That Time Someone Wanted a 10-Story Building on Stewart Avenue

30 07 2014

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In keeping with the history theme that is another facet of this blog, here’s a historical construction project to go with all the Collegetown news in the past week. After all, one giant proposal deserves another, 50 years its senior.

I owe reader “Ex-Ithacan” for suggesting this one, as he remembered the proposal when he was a kid, and inquired about it on the website Skyscraperpage.com. Although his source was the Ithaca Journal, I had a hunch the Cornell Sun would have also run a feature about such a large project, so I checked the Sun archives.

Oh hey, I was right. An article about the project, from February 16, 1965, can be found here, sandwiching some extraordinarily sexist advertisements. First, let’s try and put ourselves in the 1965 timeframe. Cornell was rapidly expanding, Collegetown was even more of a ghetto than it is now (let’s not forget old Ctown’s heroin sales and murder), and the big theme for cities was Urban Renewal, where cities desperately tore down their inner cores in an effort to draw in suburban-style development that might bring people back into the cities (retrospectively, this was by and large a failure). Anyone looking back at this time as idyllic in Ithaca is blowing smoke.

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The site in question is 403-415 Stewart Avenue. The site was home to luxurious house belonging to Zeta Psi until WWII; after they moved out, it burnt down a few years later, and the site was reclaimed as it is now – a parking lot used by Cornell.

The parking lot was to be developed by a private group called “State and Aurora Corporation” into a 10-story building housing 70 luxury apartments. The intended clientele were Cornell faculty, Cornell retirees, and deep-pocketed locals. The building would have had a construction cost of $1 million (about $7.57 million today). Even at this time, zoning of the site allowed only 4 floors, so it needed a variance. Cornell placed a high value on the property, and since they owned the lot, one of the sale stipulations was that their staff would have had first dibs on 3/4ths pf the units, similar to what we’re seeing with the Greenways project off of Honness Lane.

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The design itself is a dated melange of modernism and brutalism, created by Sherwood Holt (no relation to Ithaca-based HOLT Architects). The 70 units ran the gamut from studios to 3 bedrooms, and the top two floors were designed to be larger “penthouse” units. There would have been 67 feet of frontage on Stewart Avenue, and 109 feet on Williams Street. I wouldn’t call it much in the way of frontage though, it looks to be built onto a podium. Zoning at the time required two parking spaces per unit, so this project would have needed 140 spaces. 70 were surface spaces on the south side of the lot, and 70 were in the pedestrian-unfriendly podium (an ordinance at the time required half of all new parking spaces to be “indoor” spaces).

Also like now, proponents and opponents had similar arguments to today’s debates. Mayor Hunna Johns promoted the revenue it would bring (which would pay for the city’s investment in sewer lines to the site), and because Cornell had expressed interest in building on the site, local officials feared another tax-exempt property if the private developer wasn’t granted approval. On the other end of the spectrum, about 50 local residents signed a petition against the proposal, saying it would burden utilities and cause congestion. It looks like the planning board had only minor suggestions for the development, so it’s hard to imagine it didn’t get ZBA approval.

So why wasn’t it built? My guess is that Cornell did an assessment of its needs, and decided that it wasn’t a high priority to sell to the developer; and when the Ithaca real estate market crashed in the late 1960s, it probably killed the proposal for good. Cornell still owns the site, but zoning rules permit only a 4-story 40′ building (as they did in 1965). It’s outside of the Collegetown zoning, and if it ever gets developed is anyone’s guess.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

 

 





“Collegetown Dryden” Project Proposed

28 07 2014

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The Manhattanization of Collegetown continues. I’ve been waiting to post this one because the city was taking its time with uploading the supporting documentation; given that they had about eleven different projects at the six-hour marathon Planning Board meeting last Tuesday, I’m not going to fault them for taking a breather.

Anyway, this project, called “Collegetown Dryden”, is yet another addition to the Collegetown Boom. Located primarily in an MU-2 zone (i.e. the densest Collegetown zone, where no parking spaces are required), this project seeks to redevelop the Palms Block, a collection of four run-down structures that includes the brick building on the corner, the old Palms building, and the old Collegetown Candy and Nuts building on the corner of Dryden and Linden (the Kraftee’s Building is not included in this count; it is being redeveloped separately). The Palms building was recommended for historic preservation several years ago, but never gained significant traction. In January 2012, the recently-closed Palms and its two eastern neighbors (213 and 215 Dryden) sold for $3.75 million to local real estate development firm Novarr-Mackesey, the company responsible for Collegetown Terrace on East State Street. The old Tompkins Trust Bank on the corner was sold to Novarr-Mackesey in July 2011 for $1.65 million. Lastly, an adjacent house on Linden (240) that was bought for $475k in 2010 will be torn down and replaced. In sum, the firm has been collecting properties on this block for years and has been biding its time, waiting for the Collegetown zoning issue to sort itself out.

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Onto the proposal itself. Speaking professionally, I’d say it’s something different and visually distinct from Jagat Sharma’s ubiquitous Collegetown designs. Speaking informally, someone referred to it as the “Tron Building“, and I’m inclined to agree. If they changed up the odd window setup, I might like it. The design is by the same firm that did Collegetown Terrace, ikon.5 out of Princeton.

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The design as proposed has three unique structures, referred to as buildings “A”, “B”, and “C”, totaling 107,302 sq ft. Building “A” is the six-story structure at the corner of College Avenue and Dryden Road, and will have 2,000 sq ft of retail on the first floor. “B” is the six-story building fronting Dryden with a 9,000 sq ft “cellar” and 7,800 sq ft of retail space, and “C” is a three story residential building built over a one-story, 11-space parking garage fronting Linden Avenue. Together, they provide 141 units, all studios. This is unusual, but it has merit. Studios are going to be less expensive than units with bedrooms, and will be more accessible to students with less affluent income levels. I’m not saying it’s going to be cheap, definitely not with the high land values here. But it will be cheaper to rent than some of the other properties in inner Collegetown.

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Compared to Jason Fane’s 330 College juggernaut, this one is right at the very edge of legal zoning. It totals six floors and 80′ in the MU zoning sections (Buildings “A” and “B”) and four floors in the CR-4 (Building “C”). It’s all legal, no ZBA required. I’d also say that in comparison to some other developers, John Novarr seems a little more neighborly, which certainly helps in the approvals process. This was the type of development envisioned when the form guidelines were passed, so it should be feasible, unlike the non-starter proposed across the street. Look for this one to go through revisions and discussion, with possible approval by the end of the year. A multi-phased 2015-2017 construction time frame is likely.

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The Elephant in the Room: 330 College Avenue

23 07 2014

Note: After Jeff Stein of the Ithaca Voice sent me a photo of the rendering last night, I quickly wrote up and published this entry. Shortly after that, he mentioned that he wished to have the “scoop“, and since it was his photo, I obliged and rescheduled this for noon today. This updated version has the uploaded render from the city website. So if you saw this last night, then saw it was gone, you’re not going crazy. -BC

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Let’s be clear: this will not happen. What Jason Fane was thinking in proposing a 12-story building for the Green Cafe site has everything to do with seeing what he can get away with. The calculating businessman as always, shocking the board and meeting attendees with a massive proposal…my only guess is that he is willing to negotiate down. The likely goal is to end up with something still above the 80′ 6-story limit for that site, and apparently the way to do that is shock and awe.

A copy of sketch plan can be found here. Mostly site photos, but we can see the first floor layout (6,000 sq ft in three retail units, and some apartment space; the building also shares a rear corridor with Fane’s Collegetown Center next door) and a render from the angle of the third floor of the Ciaschi Block, but set too far back from the street to actually exist.

I mean just look at it, it overwhelms the large 312 College and Collegetown Center buildings next to it. This thing is a goddamned behemoth of a building, as Ithaca standards go. It’s a lovely design, I think, I’d love to see this downtown on the old Tetra Tech/Rothschild’s property. Of course, that’s like saying a Mercedes SLS is the car you’d like to buy, but you make only 30K/yr. It’s not reasonable.

For the record, the never-to-be-built design is by Fane’s preferred architect, Jagat Sharma of local firm Sharma Architecture. The current site is that of the vacant Green Cafe, and before that short stint as a restaurant in 2009/2010, the one-story structure was used for meetings and storage by Bank of America. Built in 1998 and occupying 0.97 acres (including the apartment building attached), it has an assessed land value of $2.5 million, as it sits on what is probably the most expensive corner in the city. Everyone expected a redevelopment, just not this large.

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I can hardly believe I’m even writing about this. It’s so spectacularly overboard that it defies all common sense and logic.

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News Tidbits 7/17/14: It’s All About the Materials

17 07 2014

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Given the rate of development exposition and modification, this is becoming a sort of weekly digest. I’m perfectly okay with that.

1. First up, the omnipresent Carey Building addition by Travis-Hyde Properties. This one has been tweaked at least twice already (not counting the initial massing model), and here we have another update, though it looks to be mostly in the materials that the addition would be composed with. revised plans here. Depending on your definition of structural height, the addition would bring the Carey Building to 77’10” to the penthouse roof, 82’10” to the parapet, or 87’10” to the mechanical rooftop. To highlight some of the other changes, the roof-lines were tweaked, as were the windows on the east face. The west face is still blank, though the lighter color does make it seem a little less overbearing in the renders.

Also, contrary to the recent Times article, not all five additional floors are residential. The first floor of the addition (third floor from street level) is additional office space for the business incubator.

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2. Next up is 327 Eddy, owned by Stephen Fontana and designed by local firm Sharma Architecture. Cover letter here, application here, and drawings here. I remember thinking the sketch render looked a little weird with the brick above the courtyard, and the design has been tweaked as this proposal materializes out of the aether. We now have some dates and figures. This one would be starting in May 2015 and completed in August 2016. The estimated cost of construction is $5 million (like the other two Sharma applications for 205 Dryden and 307 College…they may just be making up a nice, round, semi-believable number). It will build up 68′ from the sidewalk of Eddy Street, and 60′ from the rear portion (the building steps up as it extends back into its steep lot). Still 28 units and 64 bedrooms, and it has 1,800 sq ft of ground-floor retail space.

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3. Greenways, the INHS affordable townhouse development off of Honness Lane (site shown in the lead photo), has been approved. Good.

4. Cayuga Ridge, the Biggs Property proposal out on West Hill, is not so lucky. This one has been tied up for a while due to neighbors’ opposition to the site’s development – it’s also turned into a veritable sh*tshow, with those against the development using the standard traffic and sprawl arguments (the latter being a little weird since it’s right next to the hospital and across the street from the Overlook complex), while some of those for the project have played the race card. A neighbors group sued to have the county’s land sale stopped for not following SEQR environmental regulations, and the ruling was upheld. While not dead, the sale of the property to developer NRP/Better Housing for Tompkins County is on hold while the town of Ithaca reviews the project and the SEQR is conducted, with the county as an involved party. It’s not the best location, but on the other hand, the affordable housing issue is rearing its ugly head. On a side note, unlike its city counterpart (INHS), Better Housing has some of the worst luck of any non-profit developer in the county. The Lansing Preserve failure from a few years back comes to mind.

4. Residential tax assessments are up 6.17% (about $1.27 million) in the county year-over-year, about triple the usual 2% rate. The cost of housing is rising much faster than anticipated, which is contributing to the area’s affordability issues. Construction projects such as Collegetown Terrace also help; for instance, that project’s value went up from $19.1 to $26.64 million, which results in an additional $275,000 in tax revenue (the tax revenue at $19.1 million was about $700,000). Don’t expect taxes on existing homes to go down with the increased revenue though, because rising healthcare costs eat away most of the gains.

 

 





The Collegetown Construction Boom

12 07 2014

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Building off of some of the work I’ve done with Jeff Stein over at the Ithaca Voice, this will be done in the form of an explainer.

1. What do you mean by “construction boom”?

Housing proposals have increased in the city of Ithaca in the past couple years, and in no place is it more apparent than Collegetown. The recent proposal for 327 Eddy Street brings the total of proposed developments to five – 327 Eddy, 205 Dryden Road (Dryden South), 307 College Avenue (Collegetown Crossing), 140 College Avenue (the John Snaith House addition), and 202 Eddy Street (a reconstruction of a house that burned down). As proposed, the projects would add 86 units and 223 bedrooms to Collegetown proper, a level of development not seen since before the October 2007 development moratorium.

2. Moratorium? What’s that, and why did Ithaca vote for one?

In its basic definition, a moratorium is a temporary ban on an activity. In Ithaca’s case, a moratorium on all new construction was voted into place by the Common Council for what was traditionally defined as the Collegetown neighborhood. Construction already approved could go forward, but no projects in the neighborhood could be reviewed and approved until the moratorium was lifted. The moratorium was originally for 12 months, then extended to 18 months, finally lifting in April 2009. One might have expected construction to take off at that point, but it didn’t, for the same reason the moratorium was put into place – design and implementation of a new zoning plan for Collegetown, sometimes called the Collegetown Vision, and later, the Collegetown Urban Plan and Conceptual Design Guidelines.

3. It took them seven years to update the Collegetown zoning?

Well, if you count from the time the initiative was announced, it was actually eight years. Initially came a public meeting period from 2006 to 2007 to design an implementation strategy (you could joke they had a meeting on how to set up meetings). Then they selected Goody Clancy, a Boston-based urban planning firm, to design the guidelines based off city and market needs, and public input. When the plan came out in late 2008, a number of local officials and public members were unhappy because they felt it made Collegetown too dense, so they counteracted and endorsed a plan in August 2009 that reduced the proposed zoning, placed emphasis on annual payments in lieu of parking, and instated community incentives to allow for taller structures. For instance, at the corner of College and Dryden, the Goody Clancy plan called for 90′, and the revised plan called for 60′, with 75′ if special incentives were met, like hotel rooms or community space. If you’re really interested, you can view a 239-page PDF that shows the two plans here.

At this point, many of the major property owners in Collegetown were incensed by the complicated zoning plan and balked at having to pay for parking that many of their tenants wouldn’t use. The landowners ran to their lawyers, and faced with an insurmountable legal challenge, the city was unable to affirm their endorsement. For $250,000 in fees and costs, there was nothing changed from when the vision statement was written, because no one could come up with a compromise.

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4. Then why are we seeing a building boom if there was no zoning change? Or did the city actually come up with a plan?

In fact they did. One of the biggest changes to the plan over the past few years was the exploration and adoption of form-based zoning. Traditional zoning focuses on use – residential, industrial, and so forth. Form-based zoning focuses on the design of the structure – how tall it can be, should it have street-level retail, porches, window size, setbacks, and so forth.  There have been many meetings to work out the details, but eventually, a form-based plan was developed. I’m not going to bore you with the zoning details, but if you’re interested, I did a write-up here, and you can find a copy of the new zoning plan here. Perhaps the key detail to developers was that for the most densely zoned parcels, parking would no longer be required. In an area of extremely high land values like Collegetown, that makes all the difference.

5. So you’re telling me this came down to parking?

That was a big part of it, yes. Also, because the zoning’s been in flux for so long, a lot of developers who wanted to build were holding off because they weren’t sure if they would end up spending money designing and planning something that would be prohibited by a change in zoning. Once the new zoning was adopted this past March, it created an attractive, stable structure for those inner Collegetown parcels, and developers have responded in earnest.

6. Whoa, hang on. I’ve seen that huge Collegetown Terrace project going up on East State Street. Why aren’t you counting that?

Because it falls just outside what’s considered to be Collegetown, and was never affected by any of the zoning debate. Not to say that the project wasn’t controversial, but that’s another story.

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News Tidbits 7/9/14: Look Into the Crystal Ball

9 07 2014

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News to peruse and keep you amused.

First, INHS’s Greenways, a project I spend way too much time writing about. The 46-unit affordable townhouse development went up for review with the town of Ithaca at the start of the month (along with a temporary classroom building, a new single-family building lot in Northeast Ithaca, and a YMCA pavilion). Due to a technicality, it was pushed back to the July 15th meeting. Along the agenda attachments are new renders and a simpler site plan drawing. The project will be built in three phases, and if Holly Creek is any guideline, each phase could take a year; so if I had to take a guess, from 2014- October 2015, we’ll see townhouse sections A-E built, a total of 16 units. The subsequent phases (F-K and L-N) would likely be built and sold over roughly 12-month periods.

One thing to note is that Cornell is selling INHS the land for below market-value, with the stipulation that Cornell employees get first dibs on units as they go up for sale. With 7,000 employees, I don’t imagine weak demand from Cornell staff. Cornell is fulfilling a goal it stated way back in June 2008, and one of the first posts I ever wrote for this blog. The image in that entry is one of the very few stock images I’ve ever used, by the way.

As for the townhouse designs, no complaints here. They’re simple and colorful.

I’m going to expand on my old library site ruminations – I don’t see INHS winning the site because they are going to be stretched pretty thin over the next few years, with this and the expansive Neighborhood Pride site, along with smaller builds. While they have shown themselves capable of large projects in recent years, multiple multifamily projects will be a very large undertaking; it’s hard to imagine the county placing another egg in INHS’s already-full basket.

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Next on the whirlwind tour, revisions of the Travis-Hyde’s Carey Building addition in downtown Ithaca (another topic that’s had a lot of keys typed on its behalf). The details are still the same, 18 apartments, most of them tiny, with office space on floors 2 and 3 and retail on the bottom. Compared to the old design, more windows have been placed in the east facade, the top two floors were reworked, and the glass block details are gone, replaced by regular windows. It’s an improvement, though I don’t like the blank wall on the west face.

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Next item on the list, the NYS Dept. of Transportation parcel on the waterfront. Similar to the old library, this site has an RFP for a study and analysis of the relocation of the DOT facility, and a subsequent redevelopment of the parcel. Proposals were due June 26th. Granted, since this involves the state, this won’t move any faster than NYS wants to (i.e. slow and reluctant – they’ve been planning a move to a site in Dryden since 2006; the DOT blames the torpid pace on hang-ups with funding, which is why the RFP is asking someone else to come up with a plan). The feasibility study will be complete by May 2015, with the site re-development expected to begin in early 2017, assuming moving the DOT site is feasible. It’s a large parcel with strong potential for the mixed-use development that the city wants per the comprehensive plan. Who knows, there might actually be something to write about in five years.

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I’ll wrap this up with another potential future development: 215-221 W. Spencer Street, the parcel shown below. The Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (a city department) sold the 0.47 acre property for $110,000 in April. The buyer intends multi-family housing. 701 Cliff Street, a small parcel left vacant the demolition of a dilapidated house, received multiple offers and was sold for well above asking price. Its buyer intends one or more housing units.

Using the zoning map as a guide, 215-221 West Spencer is in an R-3a zone that allows for a 40′ structure with 35% lot coverage. That’s a max theoretical buildout of 28,662 sq ft (which if you give 20,000 sq ft for the housing units, and 1,000 sq ft per unit, we get a hypothetical 20 units), but whatever does get proposed will likely be somewhat smaller. The site is something to keep an eye on in the long-term.

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Odds and Ends Construction Updates, June 2014

6 07 2014

Random odds and ends. First off are the Lehigh Valley House condos, which will take the century-old Lehigh Valley House and renovate it into ground-floor commercial space and six condominium units on the upper floors. The project is being developed by Tim Ciaschi; the Ciaschi family has a long history of work in Ithaca. I note that my photo is a few days before IB’s latest update, given the progress of the siding installation.

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A couple blocks away on 13 is Magnolia House, a $2.7 million project that provides a 14-person shelter for homeless women. It took a while to open, but it looks like that it’s occupied, if the furniture in the second photo is any clue. I liked this better when the copper was fresh.

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Here’s a project that’s flown under the radar. Downtown at 144 the Commons (Mockingbird Paperie/Ithacards building), local developer Jim Merod is building seven apartments into renovated space on the second and third floors, three each on the second and third floors and a new penthouse suite in an expansion of the top floor. This one will probably be available for renting by late fall.

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I figured I could use a couple photos of the completed Breckenridge Place. The affordable housing project by INHS brings 50 units of moderate-income units to downtown, and as Jason has covered, the lack of affordable housing in Ithaca is a major, major issue. Recently, there’s been some drama with the Old Library site since the projects have been more focused on apartments rather than condos. Condos would be nice, but from the county’s perspective, there’s a problem – condos require someone to have considerably greater financial assets than an apartment; you buy a condo, you rent an apartment. This pushes a project out of the affordable range, and the DPI proposal has already said it’s geared towards middle-to-high end incomes. I’m sure a project like that would be financially profitable (see the Danter study for evidence), but that’s not the point. If the county gets to choose the developer, and is seeking affordable housing as a way to provide the greatest community benefit with its assets, why would they choose a project that benefits only the wealthier portions of the community? I realize I might be stepping into s–t on this one, but this has been nagging me for a while. Condos are a great idea, but these are the wrong circumstances.

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The site of College Crossings, just south of Ithaca College. The land is cleared and some construction equipment is on site, but it’s hard to tell if this is one is actually under construction. A friend who lives nearby explained that in her perspective, “they spend all day in the bulldozer pushing dirt back and forth, but not actually doing anything”. This project has dragged for years, so I wouldn’t be surprised. The website claims two of the six retail spaces are rented and a third space is pending, and the sign on the property indicated a Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts were future tenants. The upper floor will have two apartments with four and five bedrooms respectively.

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