The Past and Future of Mixed-Use

13 09 2014

 

I figured I’d change this up from the standard construction update format. There hasn’t been enough development news tidbits this week to merit putting up a new entry; better luck next week, ladies and gents.

I was impressed by the Ithaca Times recent editorial, “The Mixed-Use Future“. It’s a piece that upholds the value of mixed-use projects and that single-use neighborhoods shouldn’t be maintained strictly because that’s the status quo.

Mixed-use projects are something that have only recently picked up steam, as urban areas embrace new urbanist concepts in an effort to add vibrancy to decaying downtowns. Ithaca has arguably been one of the most successful examples in upstate. But it had to work to get there, and the process hasn’t been without acrimony.

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I’ll rewind the clock back about 15 years to the start of the new millennium. Ithaca’s downtown was quite a bit different from today. There was no Gateway Commons, Breckenridge, Seneca Place or Cayuga Green. The Commons was plagued with high vacancies, severe enough that then-mayor Alan Cohen was mulling over reopening it to vehicular traffic. The big news at that time was the county library’s plan to move into the old Woolworth’s on Green Street (which they purchased at low cost, the owner had struggled to fill the building after Woolworth’s closed in 1998).

The last two newer developments I mentioned, Seneca Place and Cayuga Green, are closely tied together. They and the Cayuga Street garage all depended on each other as the sort of “pie-in-the-sky” redevelopment plan that Ithaca desperately wanted.

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In the early 2000s, their working titles were the “Cayuga Green at Six Mile Creek” and “Ciminelli/Cornell Office/Hotel” projects, and collectively they were called the “Downtown Development Project“. Cayuga Green has heavy city involvement. At the time, the swath of land surrounding the library on its block was all city-owned surface parking, with the helix for the Green Street parking garage to its east (it was actually kinda neat looking for a parking garage ramp; a photo can be found here).  The first phase of Cayuga Green would also be the lynch pin for the Ciminelli project; the city would convey the parking lots to the IURA, who could sell them off and partner with a developer to build a parking garage to serve the Ciminelli building and some of Cayuga Green. This phase would become the current Cayuga Street garage, which opened in June 2005 with 700 spaces, 34,000 sq ft of first floor retail, and a nearly $20 million price tag. The 185,000 sq ft Ciminelli project was constructed concurrently and also opened in 2005 as Seneca Place on the Commons, with the Hilton Garden Inn for its hotel occupant, Cornell as the primary office tenant, and retail space that would fill up over the next couple years.

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Phase II focused on a couple things (IIA and IIB, technically). The Green Street Garage would be redeveloped, the helix torn down, and a movie theater would go in the renovated space under the garage. The city owned the top two floors of the 3-story garage, and used eminent domain on the owner of the first floor. Originally, there was to be either 36,000 sq ft of retail on the first floor, or an intermodal transit center (a hub for TCAT and Greyhound/Trailways, essentially). The garage would add two more floors and have space for 1,082 cars.

Perhaps thankfully, this was never done (though the zoning was raised from 60′ to 85′ for the land that the Green Street garage sits on). The Cayuga garage picked up more retail space as the plans were rewritten. A 12 screen national theater chain was proposed for the retail space of the Green Street garage, but given the plans for an expanded theater at the mall in Lansing, it became clear that such a project wasn’t feasible. By good fortune and negotiation, Cinemapolis agreed to take the space, and the theater shrank from 12 to 5 screens and went into the Green Street garage.

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IIB and Phase III are the residential portions, Cayuga Place Apartments and Cayuga Place Residences (Cayuga Green condos). As originally proposed, there was going to be 70 to 80 apartments with ground-floor retail, and anywhere from 40 to 122 condos. The city IURA had entered a contract in 2002 with Cincinnati-based Bloomfield/Schon to develop the units. The apartments were first proposed in 2005, and with abatements approved, the 68 units and 15,000 sq ft of retail space opened in 2008. The condos are a lot more complicated, bouncing between several iterations and layouts (here’s a few versions 1, 2, and 3, here’s 4 and here’s 5) before settling on the 45-unit design currently under construction. Part of the problem was financing, especially during the recession; a later problem was that the land along Six Mile Creek is not that great for construction. It will have taken 15 years, but the downtown redevelopment project will be complete next year.

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There’s been an enormous amount of controversy. A 20-year abatement was used for Seneca Place, the labor used in some of the construction was from North Carolina, and the fight with one of the property owners (Thomas Pine, who ran Race Office Supply on the corner of Seneca and Tioga) was pretty ugly. The fight over the apartments and condos was even uglier in some ways, because the developer requested and received a 10-year tax abatement (and the ICSD was not game). Instead of bringing new, permanent jobs like an employer’s new office or factory, this was housing, and it was market-rate and premium housing at that. The retail portion offered jobs, if they could lure shops, and retail doesn’t exactly pay well either. Some, such as local megalord Jason Fane, said the project would fail. There have been problems, certainly. The Cayuga garage has struggled to fill its retail space. Only now with the impending addition of TC3’s Coltivare restaurant and learning center has it filled most of the space (Merrill Lynch took the leap a few years ago and rents some of the space; then there was that failed wine tourism center). It has taken years for the condos to begin construction. But, slowly and haphazardly, the project is building up and out.

Ithacans did a lot of soul-searching. Were the costs outweighing the benefits? Was growth downtown, or even in the county, a good thing?

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Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen opinions. I think that for all the problems and strife, that the city has benefited from the downtown projects. Through local character and some luck, the downtown residential units are full and most of the retail space is occupied. Seneca Place and Cayuga Green demonstrate that mixed-use can add life to underutilized parcels and spark interest in neighboring properties. Each project should be weighed carefully, of course. But thanks in part to active urban reinvestment, Ithaca is in a position many upstate cities envy.

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Cornell Construction Projects Update, 9/2014

10 09 2014

1. The future Klarman Hall progresses on East Avenue. The $61 million, 33,250 sq ft humanities building being built by Welliver is currently in the process of building its north foundation wall, with rebar assembly underway this month (Jason at IB offers a more thorough explanation). The concrete is being poured section-by-section, and the north foundation wall has made some progress since Jason’s photos from September 1st.

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2. Exterior work is finishing up on Statler Hall. The $2.4 million renovation and 1,300 sq addition to the front entrance will be finished before winter comes, and will round out phase III of renovations to the ca. 1949 structure. All three additions are by KSS Architects.

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3. Renovations continue to the historic wing of Stocking Hall. Inside, ceilings are being dry-walled and walls are being primed. The gutters are being replaced and new windows are being prepared for the the original 1921 structure.  These photos don’t show these details, but I have a friend who’s kind enough to forward the project updates the program sends to its alumni. The project is a little behind schedule since it was due to finish in August 2014, and it looks like Q1 or Q2 of 2015 is a safer bet. Both the renovations and the new addition cost a combined $105 million.

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4. A more subtle campus project is the re-landscaping of the campus property along Tower Road. The road was repaved, and the adjacent parking was removed and replaced with sidewalks, lighting and covered bus shelters. Considering this is where I typically park when I visit the campus, I’m less than enthused, but it is a prettier sight then the pothole-laden parking spaces that used to be there.

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Belle Sherman Cottages Update, 9/2014

9 09 2014

Agora Development‘s Belle Sherman Cottages project continues to build out. Some observant readers might have caught the piece from Buffalo development blog Buffalo Rising, which featured the project as an example of smart infill development (Buffalo Rising is rather fond of Ithaca). Since the early August update from Jason at Ithaca Builds, lots 4 and 6 have been completed and lot 18, a craftsman bungalow, is substantially complete. Meanwhile, work has begun at lot 3, a craftsman farmhouse. Given the previous rate of progress, I expect 18 will be complete by the end of the month, and lot 3 by early November. I don’t think it would be remiss to think another home will start before winter sets in. Of the 19 lots for single-family homes, only two lots are left, lot 12 (another craftsman bungalow) and lot 9, a new design that has yet to be published.

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Boiceville Cottages Update, 9/2014

8 09 2014

Out in Caroline, local company Schickel Construction’s Boiceville Cottages development continues to expand. Since the last pass through in late June, the two 5-unit gatehouses were completed and occupied, and construction has begun on at least four more units. The parchment exterior and blue trim make for an attractive pairing. The foundation being poured southeast of the gatehouses (fourth photo from too) seems too large to be a cottage unit and isn’t their usual triangular layout, and I’m not sure what else it could be offhand (the project design no longer matches the 2012 site plan from the town website). The more typical three-unit cottage pairing seems to be underway with the poured foundations on the other side of the street.

Boiceville has been built in phases – the initial 24 houses in 1996/1997, and another 36 in the late 2000s. The current ongoing phase allows for another 75 units, for a total of 135 on the properties. Arguably, that would make it the densest large parcel in the 3,300-person town.

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News Tidbits 9/6/14: What Makes A Neighborhood?

6 09 2014

1. A trio of notable articles from the IJ. The first one is about the 128 West Falls Street development (previously discussed here), and the negotiations done with neighbors in order to make the project acceptable to the neighborhood. The developer (Heritage Builders) and the neighbors worked together for a compromise. Some of the neighbors are still upset about their being any development at all (in which case, I must ask why does one live in an inner city neighborhood with vacant land), but if most of them are on board, I’m glad they and the developer were able to address each other’s needs and concerns and come to a reasonable solution. There are still people willing to make compromises, thankfully.

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2. Article number two has already been foreshadowed by Ithaca Builds, namely that old Elmira Road is getting a more pedestrian-friendly makeover. Bike lanes, sidewalks (only on the north side due to budget cuts), curbing, all in an effort to make it more friendly to all street users, from walkers to bikers to drivers. And it’s only going to take three days? Color me surprised.

At least one building on Elmira Road will be getting a makeover soon – a renovation prepared by local firm STREAM Collaborative will turn the old BOCES Building at 214 Elmira Road into the the Finger Lakes ReUse Center’s new headquarters.

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Image Property of STREAM Collaborative

3. Piece number three is that, surprise surprise, Ithaca has a higher cost of living then most other upstate cities. Most upstate cities are a little below the national average (4-12% less). Ithaca is nearly 6% above. Ithaca has the highest cost of living outside of the the New York City and downstate metros. If anyone feels uncomfortable using numbers from a conservative think tank, here’s their government source. Personally, I always just go with Sperling’s. Taking a closer look at those numbers gives a big clue why Ithaca is more expensive – the housing cost is over 31% above the national average. Every other parameter is virtually average. except that one.

I’ll give an example: Syracuse and Ithaca are only about 50 miles apart. On a scale with 100 equaling the national average, Syracuse has a score of 88.9, Ithaca 113.4. Quite a difference. Food, utilities and transportation are cheaper in Ithaca. But housing is astoundingly different – Ithaca’s 131.2 to Syracuse’s 45.4, which is what causes the disparity. Granted, I know that for many, living in the Syracuse area is undesirable (and I say this as someone originally from the Syracuse metro). Ithaca is in demand, ergo, prices for homes and apartments go up. But as middle-income families feel the pinch, spiraling housing costs pose a serious concern to the region’s economic well-being.

4. Now for a piece from the Cornell Daily Sun, an informative piece they did about the recently-approved 205 Dryden (Dryden South) project by Pat Kraft. No shocking revelations, but the interview with Kraft is a nice asset. I do take some umbrage with his complaint that the Collegetown form zoning makes it feels like he’s not developing anything, and he’s being told what he can build. There are reasons for that. Certain landowners have a blemished track record, and this is better than years of bickering with city agencies because of someone’s artistic license, or more likely, profit maximizing through value engineering.

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5. Stone Quarry is getting really nasty, really fast. INHS has retained the services of Philips Lytle out of Buffalo (the same law firm that handled the indefinitely-postponed 7 Ridgewood project). Meanwhile, neighbors are demanding that the HUD funds for the subsidized project are withheld, on the grounds of environmental issues, not having enough time for community notice and comment, and that the project is “incompatible” with the neighborhood. They’re considering a legal challenge to stop the project, which was approved during August’s PDC meeting. There’s a ton of documentation that’s been uploaded in recent days – a 1,189 page environmental assessment report for the site, public notices, and so on, and so on. The city has also released point-by-point rebuttals to the filed complaints, and formally requested that HUD release the approved funds. If I had a workday where I just had to write rebuttals all day long, I might be hitting the bottle when I go home. IJ news summary of it all here, Voice summary of the events of the PDC meeting, including angry neighbors and the mayor’s outspoken support for the project here.

I’m going to call out one statement, this being from a group called the SRNA (Spencer Road Neighborhood Association) – they describe the neighborhood as being full of affordable housing, and run off some examples. The first is an 18-unit townhome project at 324 Spencer Road, called the Belmont Apartments. I’m familiar with this development because they advertise their townhomes as “NEW” on Craigslist, even though they were built in 1995. Rents there run from $1100-$1250, which is about equal to, or a little above the area mean. It’s middle-income, market-rate housing. Affordable in context is the cute word agencies substitute in for low-income housing, so using it to describe a market-rate, middle-income project seems misleading.

The second is the primary reason why I’m writing this whole thing – discussions of a 14-15 townhome development at 661-665 Spencer Road by local low-income services group TCAction (that address also happens to be their headquarters). I checked the minutes they cited and I can’t find any record of that. It could have been said and just not recorded in the minutes, but that seems like an odd thing to leave out. The three duplexes at 634, 636 and 638 Spencer check out, and they were built in 2008/2009.

Like many projects lately, tempers will be flaring, so for those of us without a dog in this fight, we might as well break out the popcorn and watch this boxing match play out from our ringside seats.

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6. Here we have the projects memo for proposals to be discussed at September’s Planning and Development Board meeting on the 23rd. No curveballs here; the project memo only reviews projects that have already been seen and have had initial comments (sketch plan), so everything here has come up at least once before. 128 West Falls Street will be looking for PDB declaration of lead agency (the board’s agreement to conduct formal design and environmental review) and recommendation to go to the BZA for zoning variance. The Hampton Inn downtown is looking to obtain PDB declaration of lead agency, as is the Chain Works District on South Hill. The Chain Works is probably the vaguest proposal they’ve had to review, because it’s over 15 years and the developers have only a couple ideas fleshed out on the Emerson site’s redevelopment. It also makes a few voters wary because once the environmental review is complete and the developer’s T1, T4 and T5 zones are approved, the developers have an enormous degree of freedom to develop the site as they see fit because it’s a PUD, a Planned Unit Development. They’re also using the town’s equivalent, called PDZ, for the portion of the 95-acre site in Ithaca town. For more about these details, Jason at Ithaca Builds offers a great summary here.

307 College and 323 Taughannock are up for final approval, and 327 Eddy for preliminary approval. There’s also a couple of minor zoning changes up for review.

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7. Here’s your morbid amusement for the week – the Lansing school district might have difficulty installing its new septic system because it could be disturbing a previously-unknown Native American burial ground. I think we have a plot point for the next Stephen King novel.





News Tidbits 8/30/14: There Never Seems To Be Enough Housing

30 08 2014

1. In a glance at the economy, some good news: over in Lansing, a new research building is under construction, and expected to add jobs. the new “Northeast Dairy and Food Testing Center” is a 50-50 collaboration between local firm Dairy one Cooperative Inc., and Chestnut Labs of Springfield, Missouri. The new 17,000 sq ft building at 720 Warren Road is a $3.5 million investment and will add 11 jobs at the outset, 3 through Dairy One and 8 through Chestnut Labs. 4 more jobs would be added over the following two years if all goes to plan.

According to the TCIDA report, Chestnut opted for Ithaca as its first satellite office because of a desire to expand into the Northeast and its proximity to Cornell. Although construction was supposed to begin last fall, it looks like we can expect construction to be completed this spring. I have yet to see a rendering, but the design is supposed to be by Syracuse-based Dalpos Architects.

2. Revised renders for 327 Eddy. The 28-unit, 64-bedroom Collegetown project looks nearly the same, except for one crucial detail – the east courtyard and stairwell have been transposed (mirrored), with the east courtyard on the south face and the stairwell on the north face. A few more windows were placed in the west courtyard as well. This is a smart suggestion, whoever’s it was; the 100 Block of Dryden obscures the blank faces of the side wall and stairwell, making it less prominent. The side with more windows faces down the hill, and given the relatively historic building next door, the views are likely to be more protected, and it’s more aesthetically pleasing from most vantage points.

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3. As reported by the IJ last Wednesday, the much-anticipated Harold’s Square project will be getting another revision. The building was originally supposed to be one floor of retail, three floors of office space, and six floors of apartments, with a penthouse level consisting of conference, mechanical and exercise rooms. Now, the top two floors of office space will be apartments instead. Currently, the building has 46 apartments approved, and any changes will likely need to be approved by the planning board. The article also notes that high construction costs in the growing economy are forcing businesses to rethink their development strategies, although the exact same thing happened during the recession due to the tight bank loan market. There’s always a reason.

I really can’t say this change-up in use really surprises me. Ithaca’s office market is not that great. The biggest employers here are colleges (who house offices on or very near campus), research/labs (who need specialized spaces), and tourism (hotels). It’s extremely tough to build office space in the Ithaca market because there’s so little demand for it. Seneca Place downtown was able to be built in 2004-05 partially because they secured Cornell as a tenant. But I’ve heard through the rumor mill that Cornell doesn’t fully use their space post-recession, and the university keeps renting it out as flex space and as a gesture to the community. On the other hand, apartments go like hotcakes, since the residential supply is much less than demand, and the success of recent projects indicates apartments are a safe investment in downtown.

Here’s what I expect – the building will be a little shorter, since residential floors have lower floor-to-ceiling ratios than office spaces. The exterior will be revised, mostly the low-rise section facing the Commons. The massing may change up, but given that there were 46 apartments on six floors initially, at a minimum I think another 20 apartments to be proposed.

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4. The Stone Quarry Apartment project by INHS has been approved. It wasn’t a pretty process, but it’s been greenlighted for construction, which is expected to begin this fall with an intended completion in October 2015.

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5. On the topic of affordable housing, another protested project is coming up for review, the 58-unit Biggs parcel project near Cayuga Medical Center. The project needs an approved SEQR from the town of Ithaca before it can move forward; the sketch plan is to be discussed at the September 2nd meeting, there will be no vote at that time. The working name of the project has gone from Cayuga Ridge to Cayuga Trails; I’m just going to keep calling it the Biggs parcel. There’s only a tenuous little overlap between the opposed parties here and those against Stone Quarry, but if the Ithaca West list-serve is any indication, the argument against the project is one part logic, one part bluster. There have already been allegations thrown around from both sides with this project, which is co-sponsored by the rural equivalent of INHS, Better Housing of Tompkins County, in a partnership with project developer NRP Group of Cleveland. While this Jerry Springer-type showdown continues to unfold, here are some updated renders of the project, courtesy of RDL Architects of suburban Cleveland:

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Nothing to write home about, simple and colorful. But there’s a good chance these never leave the drawing board. If it does somehow get approved, construction will start in Spring 2015 and last 12-14 months.

6. In other West Hill developments, EcoVillage is building their 15-unit apartment building/common house in their third neighborhood, TREE. Article from the Ithaca Journal here, and photo gallery here. I only reach EcoVillage once in a blue moon because it’s so far out of the way from other developments; my last photos are from spring 2013. At that time, the first set of houses were going up for the 40-unit neighborhood. According to the EcoVillage website, the first TREE residents, with homes designed by Jerry Weisburd, moved in last December. When all is complete by next spring, EcoVillage will actually be a fairly sizable village, with virtually 100% occupancy and a population around 240. Unlike many West Hill developments, EcoVillage has had comparatively weak opposition from West Hill residents. Lest they change their mind, EcoVillage adds a neighborhood about once a decade, so they have probably have nothing to worry about until the 2020’s.

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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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