Riots in Collegetown

14 10 2014
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Photo courtesy of the Cornell Daily Sun

Entry number five in the Collegetown history series.

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There’s a lot to dislike about Collegetown. The litter, the students, the traffic, the students, the noise, the students. For as much value as it is to the city’s coffers, I’m willing to wager that a survey of 20 random Ithaca residents on the worst neighborhood in the city would turn up a near tie between Collegetown and specific sections of crime-plagued West Hill. To some, Collegetown could hardly be a worse place.

But it can; take for instance, student rioting.

Rioting could fall into two fairly broad categories – violent social commentary, or drunken idiocy. Syracuse can provide an example of the latter. Collegetown’s riot may be a little alcohol-infused (particularly the second one discussed here), but mostly they were the result of social unrest.

Today’s clock is rolling back to May 1972. That spring had been a long semester at Cornell. Carpenter Hall had been taken over a few weeks earlier, with students demanding that Cornell Aeronautical Lab stop government research (much of their research focused on defense and military concerns), that trustees with a hand in Gulf Oil force the company out of Portugal’s African colonies, and that the ROTC be permanently disbanded. The administration, then under President Dale Corson, said it was “prepared to talk and listen but not negotiate“. The protestors refused to budge, but stormed out to Day Hall when an injunction was about to be served.

May 11 started just like any other anti-war rally, with 200-300 students protesting in front of Day Hall at around 10 PM. But when they decided to march to Collegetown, things spiraled out of control. Several students went to the First National Bank on the corner of College and Dryden (the corner where the failed Green Cafe is now), smashed the windows, and tried to set the bank on fire with homemade torches. IPD responded to the rioters with tear gas. Eight protesters were arrested and two policemen sustained injuries, one of which was a broken leg. The rioters, dressed in Halloween masks and being in a destructive sort of mood, retreated to campus, where they smashed the windows of the Campus Store and Day Hall, to the tune of “Day Hall must fall” chants. They marched on to Barton because of its ROTC affiliation, smashing several more windows while Cornell police watched in their riot gear, but did not intervene. By 1:15 AM, the rioters called it a night and dispersed. The damage to Collegetown was estimated to be thousands of dollars, which would be in the tens of thousands when adjusted to 2014 values.

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Photo courtesy of the Cornell Daily Sun

Corson and his administration were none too amused, and vowed to prevent any recurrence with the help of the IPD. That vow would be tested two days later, at a student block party on College Avenue near its intersection with Catherine Street. The party had hundreds of attendees and had been well-publicized, but it lacked the necessary permits from the city (yes, even in the idyllic days of yore, there was red tape). Mayor Ed Conley, remembering the riots two days earlier, was not going to let it slide. The police were out by 6 PM and started to arrest students for minor infractions such as noise violations. The proverbial stick was poking the hornet’s nest, and Cornell’s provost tried to step in on the university’s behalf and offer up party space on campus. But students declined, and unrest began to boil over by 9:30 PM. The officers turned to tear gas to keep the street clear, which fomented the students and encouraged them to act out. Bottles, rocks and obscenities began to fly. Soon the battlefield had migrated up College Avenue, where IPD threw tear gas into buildings in an effort to gas out what they thought were unruly students taking refuge, but ending up gassing innocent bystanders as well. One store-owner accused the police of starting a fire with a canister thrown into his deli. The rioting continued to 2 AM, and resulted in 29 arrests, including 13 Cornell students. Accusations were thrown around about who started it and who did what damage, and a report some time afterward laid blame on the students, the IPD, the mayor and Cornell (so essentially, everyone was at fault). In retrospect, the May 13th episode was regarded as a giant mistake. The May 11th incident was still a flash point months afterward, a drug-infused example of organized crime per the district attorney and a witchhunt per the students.

Not to condone the drunken throngs losing their dinner on the sidewalk, but I suppose I’d rather put up with that than burning buildings and riot gear.





News Tidbits 10/10: Waiting For That Fall Slowdown

10 10 2014

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1. Well, this should be fun and exciting. 707 East Seneca, a vacated parcel that was put up for sale by the city, already has a potential development proposed. A sketch plan is due to head to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council this month. It’s a small piece of real estate in a historic district, neither of those details beckons development opportunities. The property was offered for sale at $175k, which is $75k above assessed value, and is zoned to allow up to 4 housing units.

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2. Some additional documentation about 114 Catherine. Cover letter here, Site plan Review drawings here, and Site Plan Review forms and documentation here. Apparently they were reusing the Dryden South SPR and forgot to update the numbers; Sharma has so many projects going they can’t keep in track. About the only difference from the old renders to these new ones is the addition of narrow windows into the brick face of the front facade, and some cute cut-and-paste vegetation. According to the docs, the new 3-unit, 17-bedroom building will cost about $500,000 to build, and has a timeline of January 2015 to July 2015 (for August move-in, presumably). This is a key detail – developer Nick Lambrou wants his project done before projects like Collegetown Crossing, 327 Eddy and others start major work; bigger demand for construction workers will drive the labor costs up, so he’s trying to get his project completed before that happens. Look at it as an appetizer before the main course arrives.

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3. Next up, a few more details on Ithaca Beer Company, courtesy of its TCIDA application. Apparently, the construction on this project is supposed to start very soon – mid-November, for a May 2015 completion. A PDZ is very encompassing, and as close to carte blanche as town zoning gets. There’s not much the town needs to sign off on. And although winter construction is difficult, the foundation can be poured during the winter, given proper precautions. The cost of construction and new equipment will be approximately $7.2 million. The total cost of tax abatement requests (property, sales and mortgage) is about $350,000, most of that being in property tax. The addition is expected to create 22 new jobs (IBC currently employs 42), of which 18 look to be living wage. IBC has received tax incentives in the past and met or exceeded its obligations; I don’t see this application causing much fuss.

4. Normally, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to Board of Public Works minutes; while important, public works aren’t exactly glamorous. But one thing caught my eye in the 9/22 minutes. It’s related to the Brindley Street bridge replacement, a one-lane bridge on a street you’d forget about if you weren’t explicitly looking for it. This line was included in the discussion of bridge options:

“Ben Weitzman has some very large plans for his parcel which is a very under
developed piece of property”

I think this is the Ben Weitsman of 132 Cherry Street? A branch of the Upstate Shredding metal scrapping company? I’m not sure if the plans are industrial or something else, there have been rumors of residential projects being considered in this area. It’s something to keep an eye on in the coming months.

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5. From the Cornell Daily Sun, looks like Cornell “Sesquicentennial Commemorative Grove” is complete. That was surprisingly quick. The formal dedication will be the Friday before Cornell’s Homecoming.

 

 





News Tidbits 10/4/14: Risky Business

4 10 2014

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1. According to the IJ, Urgo Hotels finally has a construction company lined up for the long-awaited downtown Marriott hotel. The firm, William H. Lane Inc. out of Binghamton, is no stranger to the area, with previous work on Cornell and IC’s campuses. Construction would hopefully start in October and take place over a year or so; late 2015 would be great, but early 2016 seems more plausible. The journal article makes reference to the firm also being involved with a dorm expansion planned at Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) starting construction this fall; this is the first time I’ve heard anything about there being more dorms out in Dryden. I checked TC3’s news archives and found nothing, and I contacted their residential life but received no response. The main classroom building is undergoing renovation, so it could just be a typo on the Journal’s part.

With as many delays as the Marriott project has had, I won’t believe the hotel’s under construction until I see foundation work underway.

2. In economic news, a quickly-growing local company is applying for tax abatements to help fund its expansion. BinOptics of Lansing is based out of the Cornell Business Park over near the airport, at 9 Brown and 20 Thornwood Drive. According to their TCIDA tax abatement application, the abatement is to underwrite some of the cost for expanding in those two buildings, and adding a 2,800 sq ft clean room onto 9 Brown (BinOptics works in the manufacture and sale of optical and laser devices). The project is expected to cost $7.7 million, mostly on new equipment. On paper, it sounds promising; the 14 year-old company claims to have grown from about 50 to 143 employees in the past 3 years, 35 in the past year alone. They expect to add 91 more jobs over the next 3 years, of which the vast majority pay living wage. The abatement is for about $200k in mortgage and sales taxes, and a multi-million dollar abatement on property taxes (I’m not sure of the exact figure because it deviates from the TCIDA standard plan, but it is greater than the standard plan).

I’m not about to support or oppose this until I know how much the tax abatement is for, but the glassdoor reviews don’t bode well.

3. And now there are four – Integrated Acquisition and Development has pulled out of the Old Library competition. Its “Library Square” project had the most units, but was generally unloved by constituents. INHS dropped out of the running when it acquired the Neighborhood Pride grocery site a few months ago and decided to focus on thatThat leaves Travis Hyde’s proposal, Cornerstone Group, and the two favorites, DPI’s condo proposal, and Franklin/O’Shae’s reuse proposal. Both have ardent groups of supporters; as an observation, what DPI has in big name supporters, Franklin/O’Shae is counteracting with grassroots outreach. Both have their own merits, one promoting home ownership, the other ecological sensitivity.

Now comes the actual RFP (Request for Proposals). According to the county press release, it will include

“…detailed site plan, building design and floor plans; detailed cost and financial information, including the proposed financing for the project; certification of ability to close on acquisition (or lease) by a given date; verification of any agreement or memorandum of understanding with Lifelong (if a part of the project), and with any other parties committing to lease or own space in the building.  Among other recommended elements are any anticipated request for tax abatements or tax credits; strategies to manage parking demand; specific measures to reduce carbon footprint; and evidence of meeting with the City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and with City staff to assure that the project meets zoning and code requirements.”

The draft RFP is due to be reviewed at the November 7th meeting.

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4. The Ithaca Times is running a piece where shop owners on the 300 Block of East State are fretting about the loss of the municipal parking lot for the Hampton Inn project. Will the loss of adjacent parking be inconvenient? Sure, a little bit. This was also a block that historically (The Strand, 1916-1993) had a large theater occupying much of the site. Some of the shopkeeps and property owners are cautious and neutral about the parking changes and coming hotel, which is fair; one seems to think it will ruin their business. The same one who, although quoted that she’d support downtown residential projects, has also gone on the record for opposing the Carey Building addition, saying the addition was out of character. Hmm. Regardless, it will be logistically complex, but I think the end results will justify the nuisances.

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5. On the other hand, the ever-increasing Commons delays are a serious, serious problem. I can’t claim to know much about the bidding process, but Vacri was the only one who bid for the third phase, came in well over budget. What Ithaca is getting is a watered-down, overpriced, much-delayed project that threatens downtown’s commercial vitality, which is really unfortunate. Michael Kuo, the Commons project manager, probably wants to crawl under a rock. I wouldn’t blame him for that.

6. The Belle Sherman Cottages project on the east side of Ithaca says that sales and prep work are underway for their townhomes. The townhomes will be built in 2 sets of 5 units, one set will have garages facing the front side (thumbs down) and the other will have garage doors in the back (thumbs up). All of the units are 2-bedrooms, 2.5 bath, and start at about $250k. That makes them a bit of a premium price in the Ithaca market, but they are new, and I have no doubt at least a couple of the units will be bought by deep-pocketed Cornellian parents who don’t want to worry about their little ivy leaguer paying rent. I know at least one townhouse unit has already sold.

Spring seems to be intended completion period, whether that’s for one set of 5 or both, I’m not sure. I’m going to guess that it depends on sales this fall.

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7. In other town news, the planning board will be looking at plans to make Ithaca a little boozier. Local brewery Ithaca Beer plans to more than double the size of their current 16,000 sq ft brewery and restaurant with a 23,800 sq ft addition. The addition will house increased production and storage space, something that in the documents filed, the brewery claims in necessary to keep up with its “tremendous growth”. Its unknown how many jobs would be created by the expansion, although the paperwork implies there will be a sizable increase.

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8. Over at the city’s design review board, the owners of the Rothschild’s Building (215 E. State) want to add another multi-pane window to the 1970s structure. I can comfortably say it’s an improvement.

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9. Lastly, from the city’s planning committee comes intended start dates of several local projects. The Hotel Ithaca addition and convention center? Shooting for a November start. Also, Ithaca Gun will be an apartment complex.

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News Tidbits 9/29/14: Thinking Inside the Box

29 09 2014

This is a little later than usual. I didn’t want to post anything before now was because I was hoping the Ithaca Gun sketch plan would be posted to the city website by Friday. It still has not, meaning that it either wasn’t discussed at the Planning Board meeting, or someone in city hall is taking their time with the uploads. My plan to write that up and get that out Friday while in Dulles airport was a no-go, and only now have I had the time to execute Plan B. So here we are.

1. Down in big box land, Wegman’s is planning yet another big box, with maybe a couple more to follow. The site plan dates from 1999, When Wegmans received approvals for three outparcels (satellite little boxes to their big box) with a total of ~36,000 sq ft of retail space. Wegmans wants to move forward on that plan, but change up the individual parcels (the completed total would still be 36,000 sq ft). The first phase is for a one-story, 15,700 sq ft building with 88 parking spaces, to be built on a section ot the current parking lot. Cover letter to the city here, Full Envrionmental Assessment Form (FEAF) here, Site Plan Review (SPR) application here, SPR renderings here, and color rendering here. The first building is planned for construction from April to October 2015, with an estimated $4,000,000 cost. Fake second floor? You got it. Cutesy little awnings and brackets to suggest Main Street USA imagery? You get that too.

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There’s a pretty good chance that, as Jason at IB covered this past spring, this is a new Wegmans-owned wine and liquor store, which they have at several of their NYS locations (for those unfamiliar with state law, grocery stores can’t sell wine or liquor, unless it’s a wholly separate part of a building with its own entrance, or it’s in another building completely).

2. Collegetown Crossing is finally, finally approved. Familiar readers will recall that this project has been held up for years due to its need for a parking variance under the old zoning plan. The new plan did away with the parking requirement, but since the building straddles two parcels with different form guidelines, part of the rear portion was reduced. With approvals in hand, developer Josh Lower can focus on getting financing and construction loans (being in Collegetown with its captive and lucrative rental market, that probably won’t be a big hurdle). Over time, the retail spaces on the first floor have been consolidated to three, a 3,200 sq ft small grocery store (a planned Greenstar branch) and two smaller spaces. 46 apartments with 96 bedrooms will fill out the second to sixth floors. The tentative opening of the store, and first occupancy for those apartments, is summer 2016 (July/August). 2015/2016 will see a lot of steel going up in Collegetown, with 327 Eddy and 205 Dryden on similar timeframes. To my pleasant surprise, a number of residents spoke in favor of the project, citing the appeal of a small grocery store in walking distance.

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3. One project moves forward, another bites the dust – NRP is calling off its Cayuga Trails development over on West Hill. Although the 58-unit project was opposed by neighbors due to concerns about traffic and for being lower-income housing, the reason the project is being called off has nothing to do with either of those. When the full environmental review was conducted, the wetlands on site are much larger than anyone anticipated, and developing wetlands is an extremely complicated and expensive process – they usually have to be replaced in order to get permission to build. Most developers, affordable or otherwise, will not touch wetlands because of the permissions process and high costs (this recently was an issue in Lansing because an undeveloped site being marketed for office space was found to be wetlands). So the project is halting and it is unlikely anything will be built on the site. Unfortunately, this also results in the county trying to rid itself of a parcel they don’t want and can’t be developed – not a great situation for their budget, but alas, not much they can do.

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4. Another setback, this one economic – Sears is closing its location up at the mall, putting 37 people out of work, including 13 long-term full timers. When it closes in December, 55,000 sq ft of big box space will hit the market. For those taking this as a sign that the economy is doomed, it’s not. Sears and its sister brand KMart have been dropping like flies all over the country, with several dozen closing in the past year. In Albany, the Sears store shrank by 50%, giving up space to expensive supermarket Whole Foods.

While Ithaca’s market is too small to be on Whole Foods’s radar, I’m not worried about the future of the space. 55,000 sq ft is middle-of-the-road for the big boxes, and like with the Ithaca Kmart that closed in 2011 and was replaced with Hobby Lobby, this has significant redevelopment potential. I’m no fan of suburban malls, but I like empty storefronts even less.

5. Here, let me stress that again – there are many issues in Ithaca’s market, but a weak economy is not one of them. At the moment. A 1.7% increase in jobs year-over-year is pretty good. I’m not happy that the gains were completely in education and healthcare, but since these are summer numbers, these are more likely to be full-time staff positions, rather than seasonal positions which are typically service-oriented (and lower-paying).

 





Another Project for Collegetown: 114 Catherine Street

24 09 2014

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Yet another project slated for Collegetown and its construction boom. In this case, it’s 114 Catherine Street. I discussed the background of the parcel in my last post, but I’ll do a one-sentence rehash – it’s a 10-bedroom apartment building in a CR-4 zone where parking isn’t required.

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Now we have a design. Renders and sketch plan details here. Perhaps somewhat surprising, the new building doesn’t tear down the whole apartment building and take advantage of the full lot. the new 3-story, 4,180 sq ft, 17-bedroom addition will be placed in the front of the current building, replacing the street-abutting parking lot (hooray for that). There is one 5-bedroom unit on the first floor and a 6-bedroom unit on the second floor and the third floor. The design is by the prolific Collegetown firm Sharma Architecture. If they wanted to, they could probably add another floor, but in terms of length and width, this is pretty much it once you account for required lot setbacks and maximum permitted lot coverage.

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Is the design going to win awards? Probably not. It’s not bad, though, and it’s certainly better than a parking lot. Since CR-4 doesn’t require parking, this parcel will lose 6 spaces of the current 14, and have only 8 spaces on the property. The old zoning would’ve required 18 parking spaces. Extra spaces would be available for rent in the parking lot northwest of the new building, on an adjacent parcel also owned by developer Lambrou Real Estate.

 





News Tidbits 9/20/14: Ithaca’s A Habitation Destination

20 09 2014

1. Expanding on the Ithaca Times piece on increased tax revenue from construction in the city, the IJ has come out with its own piece. Here are your spark notes:
I. Of the 6.16% increase in the tax base (an extra $1.2 million in revenue), 53% is due to commercial property construction.

II. “Only” 59.2% of property is tax-exempt now. Of which 83.5% of that 59.2% is Cornell and its holdings.

III. Building permits are lagging forecast revenue a little ($631k vs. $700k expected), but some larger projects are only getting their permits now, so it will probably balance itself out.

2. One more set of revisions for 323 Taughannock, pdf here. The differences compared to the previous revision are minor; the projecting “tower” on the southeast side has seen its windows tweaked, and the roof layout has been modified as well. This should be the last revision, since the project is up for final approval this month. The 20-unit residential waterfront project is set to begin in January, with a six-month build-out and $3.5 million price tag.

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3. According to the IURA (Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency) meeting minutes, the city is very much interested in selling off a parcel it owns on Inlet Island, once it buys out the DEC’s property. Currently, 410-426 Taughannock Boulevard is used as a municipal parking lot. The 1.29 acre parcel was acquired for $1 by the city in May 2003. The parcel is assessed for over $300k, and that’s not including an adjacent parcel also used for parking (416 Taughannock). This is a large waterfront zoned (WF-1) piece of land, where the zoning is for one or more buildings with of 3-5 stories and nearly unrestricted lot coverage. For a developer, that means that there’s a lot of possibilities here. This would hit the market in early 2016 at the earliest, after 323 Taughannock has been built. But if 323 is successful, then I think this parcel will be highly desirable and any development on its land could potentially be quite large. Along with the DOT site up by the Farmer’s Market, Ithaca could have quite the developed waterfront at the end of the decade.

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4. Since approval in late summer of 2013, all has been quiet on the wooded and hilly site of 130 East Clinton. Frankly, given that it’s a Jason Fane project and he doesn’t usually dawdle (having significant resources allows him to secure construction loans with relative ease), I was surprised, and in private, this was a topic of debate. Well, now we know. He’s seeking tax abatements for his 36-unit market-rate project through the city’s CIITAP incentive program. As previously briefed on the Voice, CIITAP is a program that allows an abatement on a portion of property taxes for up to 7 years. The parcel needs to be in a targeted urban area, 3 stories, and receive at least $500,000 in developer investment (130 East Clinton’s projected cost is $4.5 million). The city’s meeting is the 18th, and if the city endorses the project, then chances are good the county IDA will grant the abatements.

Fane’s probably the least-liked developer in town due to his colorful local history (this would also explain why I had hits to the blog the other day with the search phrase “fane like mr. potter”), but there’s no compelling reason to deny his CIITAP application. He meets the program requirements, and for Fane, this is all about the money and taking advantage of an opportunity. Presumably, if the tax breaks are approved, we could see this one begin excavation and site prep before year’s end.

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5. Another revision – this one the “Hampton Boutique Hotel” formerly known as the Hampton Inn downtown. A large number of major changes here – a floor has been added (bringing it to 123 rooms, 74,200 sq ft, 7 stories and 92 feet from ground to the mechanical penthouse roof), the external materials and the window layouts have been altered substantially, and of course, it’s no longer being proposed an a Hampton Inn (for comparison’s sake, the previous design is here). About the only thing that’s the same is the footprint. Part of these changes are likely the result of the Carey Building addition planned next door – the blank wall shown below faces the Carey’s rear side.

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6. A lot more info about the Chain Works District proposal. For one, it will be in four phases. The first phase will consist of the redevelopment of 4 buildings on site – 21, 24, 33 and 34, which combined will create 343,510 sq ft of space, of which 18,520 sq ft will be new. Phase one is planned as office/mixed-use (21/24) and manufacturing space (33/34). New roads and parking lots will also be developed. Phase 2 will be renovations and selected demolition of the rest of the complex, and 3 and 4 will be brand new buildings on the factory’s 95-acre land. There’s no rush, phase 4 won’t be completed until about 2030. Note that the first image below is a hypothetical setup – none of those later phase site plans are set in stone.

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7. Next week is going to be a fun week for this blog. Why, you ask? Well we’re going to have two new projects at the Planning Board meeting that will be presenting their sketch plans -

The first is 114 Catherine Street in Collegetown. Currently, 114 Catherine, also known as the “Mission Apartments”, is a 5-unit apartment building last renovated in 1985, assessed at about $590k, and owned by Lambrou Real Estate. 114 Catherine is in a CR-4 zone per the new form guidelines, which allows for a 2-4 floor all-residential building with no off-street parking required. At about 0.27 acres, 114 Catherine is fairly large as Collegetown lots go (much of the current site is used for parking), and given the Lambrous’s multiple building Collegetown Park development that abuts the property to the north, whatever gets proposed here is a likely continuation of that complex. Expect another Sharma Architecture design, as Jagat et al. have been the Lambrous’ go-to architects for the past couple decades.

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The second is…”Gun Hill Housing Project”…be still my beating heart. I’m cautiously optimistic that Travis Hyde Properties might finally, finally have achieved enough environmental rehabilitation of the once-toxic factory site that construction is now feasible. Fingers crossed, because this has been a huge pockmark on the city since the factory closed in 1986 (and demolished in 2008), has been in development hell for years, and redevelopment would really be a feather in the community’s cap. The last I heard, it would be about 45-50 units of non-student oriented condos, and most likely a HOLT Architects design (HOLT being a popular choice for Travis Hyde). I’m sure local environmental activist Walter Hang will be going over the project details with a fine-toothed comb, but like I said, fingers crossed.

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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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