Ithaca’s Economic Mystery (Again)

18 04 2014

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I don’t consider myself an optimist. Maybe that’s the result of growing up in upstate New York, or working in a field that suffered its share of setbacks due to the recession. I don’t like the term pessimist either, preferring to go with the more socially acceptable term “realist”.

Which is why this IJ article citing the state Labor numbers doesn’t make one damned bit of sense. I’m not even talking about the fact that they threw Ithaca into two separate employment regions (Ithaca and Binghamton, and Ithaca and Syracuse). to quote a section of the article:

“In the Ithaca region, financial activities, trade, transportation and utilities, and leisure and hospitality each added 100 jobs.

The education-and-health-services sector lost 1,300 jobs from March 2013 to March 2014. That sector’s employment was 38,300 this March.”

I mean, doesn’t it seem just a little unusual that the area lost 1,000 jobs? I did the numbers for Cornell just last month, the difference in employment over the period of November 2012-November 2013 is a loss of about 50. Ithaca College’s headcount reports 1,822 employees,  about 12 less than the previous year. Those are both from November, and health and education are grouped together, but if we’re talking about 1,000, and it’s not Cornell or IC that caused it, then who did? I don’t recall any news of a huge layoff in Tompkins County.

The state regional breakdown PDF says the number of jobs went from 70,900 to 69,900 in the region (IJ says 60,900 to 59,900…someone in their office needs to double-check their numbers, because the 2011 average jobs number was 66,194).  The state description of their methodology says they use a time-series regression model and a sampling of 18,000 establishments statewide to determine jobs data. I’m wondering if this is all a quirk in the sampling, given that Ithaca is a small market (and small sample size in turn).

Maybe Ithaca’s economy really is in the crapper. But honestly, it’s not the first time the state has given overly-negative assessments, and the county agencies have to do damage control. But do we really have to go through this every other year?


Boiceville Cottages Update, 4/2014

14 04 2014

I had an alumni event in Ithaca, and my drive in always take me in via 79. The Boiceville Cottages are about a mile out of the way, so I had just enough time before dinner to stop by and shoot a few photos.

Unfortunately, spring is also mud season in upstate, and that became all too clear when I stepped out of my car on the edge of the parking lot, and the mud went halfway up my dress shoes. Luckily, I had a second, not-as-dressy pair on hand, but this is definitely not the time of the year to be walking around in nice shoes.

Compared to my last time through Boiceville in December, all the foundations laid at that time are now occupied by homes that are largely complete, with exterior finishes and detail work underway on the newest cottages. No more foundations have been laid, so I’m unsure if more are planned for this year; some areas had been cleared, but it looked to be used for the staging of construction equipment.

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2013 Census Estimates: Say Hi to the New Neighbors

30 03 2014

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Every late March, the U.S. census releases their new population estimates for counties. So, I causally checked in to see how the Tompkins County numbers were doing. The county typically shows a modest addition of a few hundred each year – from 2010 to 2012, the estimated addition was 990 residents, from 101,564 to 102,554, which if carried out evenly, it would be an expected 4.9% increase for the decade (and roughly on par with the 5.2% in the 2000s).

I was a little taken aback when I saw the numbers for this year. For one thing, somewhere along the way, they revised 2012′s number up to 102,713. For another thing, this year’s number is a relative spike in the trajectory – 103,617.  In addition of 904 from the revised 2012 figure, and 1,063 from the original 2012 estimate. So, the change from 2012 to 2013 is about as much or more than the gain of the previous two years. Using the 2013 figure and extrapolating the three years’ estimates out to the end of the decade, the county would be projected to grow 6.74% to about 108,400 residents in the year 2020.

In many states, this would not seem an overly impressive figure. But it is worth noting that this is economically-depressed upstate New York. Last year, the only counties that were growing faster than Tompkins (as a percentage) were Jefferson County (Watertown, with the economic engine of Fort Drum) and Saratoga County (Saratoga Springs, with the massive Global Foundries computer chip plant in suburban Malta).  With the 2013 figures, Tompkins County moves into the second-place slot, behind Jefferson County (I note that the population estimates gave Jefferson a population decrease this year; the army base up there is expected to see a loss of 1500 to 2000 soldiers as it loses a brigade over the next few years, as part of army cutbacks). I’m also leaving out downstate counties/boroughs – Kings County/Brooklyn Borough is projected to have added 88,000 people for 3.5% growth since 2010. Almost all of Tompkins’s population, in three years. New York City gains ever-more reason to view it and its boroughs as the center of the world. On the other end of the scale, Schoharie (sko-hair-ee) County has the biggest estimated percent loss, at -2.8%. Schoharie is a rural county just west of Albany; it suffered a major hit from Hurricane Irene.

Echoing my comments from last year, estimates should be used with caution, as they don’t always reflect the true population. From the housing units perspective, using the number of 2.29 residents per unit estimated for 2008-2012, one gets justification for about 395 more units of housing for the past year, or about 897 units since 2010. I’m cautious about using these number as much more than curiosities, but they’re intriguing, and seem to bode well for the health of this county. Even when the jobs numbers aren’t.


A Walk Down Varick Street

4 03 2014

I try and keep in track of the hotlinks to this site from other blogs. A while back, I noticed a link from a little-used community blog for Ithaca’s Lower Northside, aptly named I decide to check it out, and stumbled upon a map it had included in one of its (few) posts. It’s an atlas of the Ithaca area dating from 1866. When Cornell U. was still a dream under construction, and Ithaca had yet to be incorporated as a city (something that wouldn’t happen until 1888). A lot has changed in 128 years, and it’s really a fascinating look back on an older incarnation of the city of gorges.


Clicking on the image will pull up the fine print, or just follow the link above. Unfortunately, the commercial version of wordpress this blog uses doesn’t allow for embedded PDFs, otherwise I’d have cut out the extra step. Of course, for the sake of following along, here’s a map of the current-ish city of Ithaca.

In 1866, Ithaca was much smaller, posting a population in 1870 of 8,462, a number that probably had a bit of help from the newly opened Cornell U. and its 400 or so students. Tompkins county was only one-third of its present population, with about 33,000 people. The county had seen a massive population decline in the 1850s and was only just beginning to recover during this decade.

Ithaca was, as today, “centrally isolated”, having been bypassed for a major railroad in favor of Syracuse. However, the Cayuga branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western railroad had its terminus in the city, and there were steamboats one could take down Cayuga if they were coming out of the north. Ithaca was still expanding in all directions, yet to fill out Fall Creek or the Northside, and barely reaching where Collegetown is today. The small hamlet of Forest Home was still known by its original name, Free Hollow, and at the cruxes of dirt roads, small clusters of houses, churches, and small schoolhouses can be seen. A nice asset here is the inclusion of homeowners’ names; we see names that still live on as place and street names in Ithaca today, like Bryant (Park neighborhood), Coddington (Road), Renwick (Place/Drive/Heights Road), and Mitchell (Street). Ezra’s land is nearly vacant except for his own home, his farmland having but a few roads; and IC and South Hill are barer still.  Cascadilla Place is there, completing construction the year this map was made; the water-cure sanitarium was never used as such since Ezra Cornell, its biggest investor, swooped in and repurposed the structure.

Another notable name on the larger map, though perhaps not as important today, is Heustis. College Avenue used to be called Heustis Street, after landowner Lorenzo Heustis. The name was changed at the urging of local property owners in 1908. Similarly, Collegetown’s Linden Street, not yet in existence but forthcoming, had to beg the city and line their road with linden trees to get their name change from Hazen Street approved in 1924.


Looking a little closer at Ithaca itself, a little re-orienting is required in some neighborhoods. The county fairgrounds were north of the city on Railroad Avenue (now Lincoln Street), in what is today a mostly residential area. No King or Queen Streets yet in Fall Creek, then a sparsely populated if growing neighborhood. Steamboats had their dock near where 13 passes the Sciencenter today. Llenroc (then “Forest Park”) shows up here near the cemetery, the grandiose mansion in the midst of construction in 1866, nine years from completion. Other streets had different names as well;  among them, Park Place was Varick Street (for Richard Varick DeWitt, local landowner; also an infinitely cooler name than a Monopoly space), Hillview Place was Mechanic Street, Esty Street was New Street, Cleveland Avenue was Wheat Street, and Court Street was Mill Street (residents despised it so much it was changed to Finch Street, then Court Street in 1924). Most prominently, State Street went by Owego Street at the time (the name change would come next year, in 1867). The contemporary Ithacan asking for directions might get a little confused.


Some noted landmarks still stand – the Clinton House (1829), and the old County Courthouse (1854) on the public square. Others have seen the wrecking ball, some not all too long ago – the Cornell Library, brand new in 1866, made it to 1960, the old city hall to 1966. Urban renewal took its toll on the city, though perhaps not as extreme as Albany or Syracuse.

The area that would become the Commons is already dense with buildings, though it steadily tapers in any direction and peters out after several blocks. Collegetown is hardly Collegetown, with only a few homes on Spring Street (Schuyler Place, 1924), Factory Street (Stewart Avenue, 1888), and Eddy Street. A tobacco barn, grist and cotton mills, and foundries provided local employment, as well as brewery just south of the current-day police station. Ithaca was a growing large town in upstate New York, with small industries and a developing core.

I’ve heard students derisively say that without Cornell (and presumably IC), Ithaca would be as small and unimportant as Watkins Glen. I think that’s an extreme judgement. Maybe Cortland-sized, or maybe it would have ended up like Elmira; but there was a village here before there was a university here, a village that is fascinating to examine on an old map.

News Tidbits 2/10/14: A Big Project Scouts Out South Hill

10 02 2014


Well, I suppose if there’s demand, and a lack of easily developable to the north, west and east, suburban developers would have targeted South Hill for big projects sooner or later. Fresh from the press comes news of a proposed 216-unit development for the town of Ithaca, on two lots  just east of Troy Road, a little north from its intersection with King Road. The PDF of the plan is here, in the town agenda.


The proposed project is virtually all residential, divided up into 26 single-family lots, 80-120 apartments, 60 garden homes, 30 patio homes, and a 5,000 sq ft clubhouse with your lease office and a few office spaces for rent. To me, it has the airs of a cut-and-paste suburban development. For the record, a garden home is a cute way of saying townhome,  and patio homes are (in this case) one-story duplexes. The architecture theme is “rural agricultural” style: the apartment buildings will look similar to barns, and the patio homes will resemble small farmhouses. The target markets are empty nesters, and twenty-and thirty somethings (grad students and young professionals).

As easy as it to poo-poo this, there is a worse alternative – that which is currently okay under the zoning, which is 70 to 90 lots of low-density residential sprawl. This project, if it gets to proceed as a Planned Development Zone (PDZ) a la Ecovillage, would only disturb about 22 of the 67 acres the two lots comprise.  The project is being developed by Rural Housing Preservation Associates, which looks to be an awkward corporate offspring of a few development companies in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and has enlisted the help of local companies STREAM Collaborative, Whitham Planning & Design, and Hunt EAS. Honestly, the armchair architecture critic in me is okay with those choices.

Something like this will have a multi-year buildout, and there’s been considerable development on South Hill in the past several years. But not anything on this scale. It’ll be interesting to watch this project evolve as it moves through the bureaucratic process.



Belle Sherman Cottages and Boiceville Cottages Progress, 12/2013

3 01 2014

Over my New Year’s holiday, I passed from Albany to Binghamton to Ithaca, to meet with someone and carpool west to Buffalo. This gave me a few hours to kill waiting for that person to arrive, so…carpe diem.

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I really don’t care for the finish on the new cottages. It makes them look prematurely aged and gives them a less inviting appearance vs. their older cohorts.

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Compared to the last photos, the cluster in the left of the second photo from top is now complete, with slab foundations in place for the next dozen cottages. I suspect these will mostly be built during the spring.

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Notably, when this day started, it was raining and in the low 40s.

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Next up were the Belle Sherman Cottages (a.k.a. Vine Street Cottages) on the east edge of the city.

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The “craftsman bungalow” on lot 19 is nearing completion, from the looks of it.

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Meanwhile, another house will be starting construction in the near future. This one looks to be lot 14, another “Victorian Farmhouse”, like the beige home in the lead-in photo. I wonder how many homes will have to be sold before marketing starts for the townhouses?

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As a quick side note, I noticed the grassy lot next to where I usually to park my car is now occupied by a two-story home. It’s not the same as the spec home proposed in the initial ad (the lot sold last August), but this house doesn’t look half bad (the entryway seems a little spartan).

News Tidbits 11/17/13: Hotels and Hazing

18 11 2013


After a lull in new development proposals in the city of gorges, something new has come to the table.  Down in big box land, another hotel seeks to join the ten-year old Hampton Inn (66 rooms) and the recently-completed Fairfield Inn (106 rooms). According to Jason over at Ithaca Builds, the proposed “All Suites Hotel” at 371 Elmira Road calls for a 4-story, 54′ tall, 11,769 sq ft hotel with approximately 76 rooms, proposed for the site of a vacant office building and an auto body shop (both of which would be demolished). Looking at the aerial below, its proximity to the new Fairfield (upper right) is quite clear. Planning board agenda here, map of site here, site plans here, elevations/renderings here.


Although no brand is stated in the proposal, I suspect it might be a part of the Holiday Inn Express brand owned by Intercontinental Hotels Group. For one, the hotel is in the 60-80 room range as recently-built HIE hotels (see the recently-opened 74-room Holiday Inn Express in Cortland for example).  Reason number two, Intercontinental Hotels Group will lose its Ithaca presence once the license with the downtown property expires in January, and the Ithaca hotel market is generally strong enough that they might wish to maintain a slice of the hospitality market.


Although it’s pretty standard chain hotel fare, architectural work is being handled by Buffalo-based Silvestri Architects. Additional work will be undertaken by Optima Design and Engineering, also out of Buffalo (no surprise, the developer’s LLC also has a Buffalo address). Both organizations have previous experience with chain hotel construction and design.

Apart from that, other proposals in the city include a small amount of infill at the Statler Hotel, a two-family home on West Hill, and a 10,384 sq ft commercial building on Cherry Street. Ithaca Builds notes the Cherry Street proposal is a Crossfit Gym, to be housed in a rather industrial-looking 1-story structure with a pitched roof.

In other news, Cornell has beaten a proverbial hornet’s nest with a stick. The Cornell Sun published an article last Friday that the men’s lacrosse coach would be dismissed from his position.  The decision is widely suspected to be related to the suspension of the Lacrosse team from fall exhibition games after a hazing incident where allegedly freshman were forced to chug beer by senior team members. Unlike fraternities, where one merely has to wait before some chapter does something stupid, the lacrosse team is respected by its peers and a moneymaker for the university, so this seems unreasonably harsh. Given the commentary on the article, Cornell’s heavy-handed approach appears to have its share of critics. As a personal opinion, I feel the lacrosse team is being made an example of, to scare the other teams into playing nice. In the long run, I don’t think there will be much uproar until the university starts to go after large student groups outside the Greek system and athletics.  The more students who feel Cornell breathing down their necks, the more they’ll raise a hue and cry.

UPDATE 1/30/14: And it is in fact a Holiday Inn Express. I’m giving myself a gold star.

News tidbits 10/2/13: Old People and Affordable Housing

2 10 2013

A smattering of news articles worth noting, but not worth going to the trouble of giving their own articles…


1. Lansing Reserve is dead. The 65-unit project slated for a wooded parcelnorthwest of the intersection of 13 and Warren Road has been bought out by the village of Lansing, which intends to use the space as a “park”. The project, originally proposed in early 2011, has been beset with issues since the first public meeting, with concerns of traffic and wetland protection and “ruining the unique of [the] village”. Apart from Wal-Mart, it’s probably the only project I’ve seen proposed in recent years that the locals created their own websites and exaggerated figures/renderings in their efforts to oppose the project. Lansing town and village seemed to have struck an anti-development tone in the past several months, with this and the cancellation of the town’s sewer project (again).

2. Meanwhile, the same two groups that proposed Lansing Preserve are now looking to develop a parcel in the town of Ithaca, on West Hill near the hospital (aka the Biggs property). The town put out a request for bids on the parcel in late summer 2012, which I covered previously. Nothing formal proposed yet, but the project is expected to contain about 60 townhomes in the affordable housing market range (30-90% of local median income). Shades of Lansing playing out here, as the anti-development Ithaca West neighborhood group has been opposed to the sale of the parcel, let alone its development (the reasons cited – traffic and an increase in crime). However, their stance pits them against Ecovillage and their connections, so this should be an entertaining show. Ithaca Builds provides more coverage here.

3. Deep-pocketed retirement facility Kendal at Ithaca is preparing an expansion of its own. The 212 unit (indepedent living) and 71-bed (assisted/skilled care) facility plans to add 24 more indepdent living units (the parcel allows a max of 250) and 13 more beds to its skilled care group. This would be achieved with the construction of a new 2-story apartment building and three new 1-story wings for the reconfigured skilled care space. Chiang O’Brien are the architects and the project should be completed in the spring of 2014. Kendal at Ithaca first opened in 1995. to by Cornell-centric readers, the only reason you might care about this is that the facility hosts a sizable number of retired CU faculty/staff.

-65+60+24 = +19 units. Well noted.


Just Passing Through

28 09 2013

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So I made the annual pilgrimage back to Ithaca and Cornell for Homecoming. I’d love to say something about how I go back to reminisce about the quality education and think fondly of the many opportunities provides.

But I don’t. I could care less about football, and that plastic wine-glass thing that gave out as a Homecoming gift struck me as so unnecessary in my own home (where we be all fancy and use real glass) that I never even bothered checking in. I went back to see some old faces and attend my fraternity’s annual meeting, where I like to give uncomfortable glances whenever I hear/read things that are disconcerting, like steep increases in expenses, or membership decline, or things in those vein. Since none of their current membership were students while I was, I am able to get away with being a 24-year old curmudgeon. I also had a chance to see a pair of friends (one works at IC, the other is a Cornell PhD student), do acts of young alumni drunkery, and go to the Cornell Orchards for the first time ever.

Since I kept busy, I kept noticing things that I would otherwise hold off on commenting on. Like when I was doing a 4-mile morning run with my best friend, who is a Cornell employee, and we went past the Vine Street Cottages (I did not see any new homes in construction from the trail-side, but I am hopeful they’ve sold another lot or two). I could’ve went running with a camera. Could’ve cancelled lunch plans or dinner plans. But I didn’t. I know Ithaca Builds has a pretty firm grasp on these things. I passed a random house under construction near Honness Lane, and another later in the day on Hanshaw, near Freese Road. As my day went on, I kept taking mental notes, driving past the Goldwin Smith site work, Gates Hall, Seneca Way, Collegetown Terrace, into the city and past Breckenridge Place, and in an attempt to find parking for a West End restaurant, ended up seeing the structural framework going up for the new Planned Parenthood building. For better or worse, this is how my mind is wired. Two of my friends asked if I knew anything about Collegetown Terrace, and I was able to rattle off enough “fast facts” in twenty seconds that they commented that they were surprised and impressed.

It occurred to me in previous years, I would’ve been busting my hump trying to find time to dig out my camera and do a photo tour. But this year was different. I took it easy, I knew I had my stories, and Ithaca Builds has theirs, and they complement each other well. So I could take a deep breath. I could enjoy the extra time. I spent the afternoon before I left not running around like a man on a mission, camera in hand, but at my old fraternity, gathered around the open-porch lounge with about 15 of my contemporaries, some of whom I hadn’t really had a chance to talk to in ages.

It’s odd to say I don’t regret not coming back with a metric ton of photos, but this time around, I feel like my trip back was more fulfilling without them.

But, on my way out of town on 79, I did take photos of the Boiceville Cottages, since they’re outside of Ithaca Builds‘s usual haunts. Comparing to my April photos, Looks like they’ll have built at least 15 units this year.

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Cayuga Heights Wants A Real Community Center

16 05 2013




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So the folks in Cayuga Heights are getting in on the development game. In this case, local developers are interesting in taking one of the few mixed-use areas of the wealthy bedroom community, and densifying it.


The focus of this proposal is the Community Corners area, the small, mostly commercial parcel next to the awkward intersections of Triphammer, Hanshaw and East Upland Roads. According to the Ithaca Journal, Most of the new construction would be focused on the grassy parcel at lower left, while some of the buildings already exist would be expanded upon with additional floors, such as the Island Fitness in the lower left of the commercial patch. The two parcels, although owned by separate groups (The Ciaschi Family, the same ones for whom the corner of College and Dryden is named, own Community Corners; the grassy parcel by Mark Mecenas). Notably, this building only finished renovation last year; the bank in the lead image and the two-story office building at Triphammer and Upland are only about three years old.


Incorporated into the proposal – more lower-level retail and office space, and about 100 units of housing, up to four floors in height. this would require a zoning variance, as the maximum height for Cayuga Heights is about 30 feet. The design thrown out there is from (Larry) Fabbroni Associates, who tend to be called on much more to discuss the civil engineering aspects of development projects rather than actual designs. I prefer to think of the above designs as more of a scheme than anything concrete.


Oh look, they even threw the vaguely hipster-like musician in there! How quaint!


Mecenas notes in the IJ article that build-out for this project would likely take a few years, and that’s after the village approves the zoning changes. But, a pedestrian-friendly mid-rise core to Cayuga Heights would definitely make it feel more like its own community rather than a wealthy branch of the Ithaca tree.




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