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.

 





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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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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News Tidbits 8/16/14: Weighing the Arguments

16 08 2014

1. Although there might be five proposals still in the running for the old library space, if one goes off of public sentiment, there are two leading candidates – the DPI proposal for its 84-unit project (76 condos, 8 apartments), and Franklin/O’Shae’s 32-unit mixed use proposal, the one that re-purposes the original 1967 structure. I spent an evening in the office doing work while listening to the entire audio file for the August 12th meeting and its 28 speakers (not something I intend to talk about with my colleagues). The DPI proposal has some heavy hitters speaking on its behalf – former city councilpersons, the former head of Ithaca’s city planning office, Cornell and IC faculty, and so forth, talking about the need for market-rate condos in the city. The Franklin/O’Shae proposal, which has an online petition, went for an ecological tactic, saying that the project would result in less waste (the building wouldn’t be demolished), and it would minimize neighborhood disruptions. Some of the Franklin/O’Shae project supporters said that there were too many units in the other proposals and that they weren’t sustainable; condo proponents countered with the Danter study, which showed very high demand for condos in downtown, and that the DPI proposal recycles materials from the old structure, rather than the structure itself (which has had asbestos issues). Both sides’ arguments have valid points and flaws. We shall see what happens moving forward.

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2. INHS is going up to the BZA for variances for two projects – a single-family home to be built on a slightly too-small lot at “203” Third Street (near Madison Street), and a four-unit set of townhouses at a vacant parcel at 402 S. Cayuga, a piece of vacant land abutting the Y-shaped intersection of South Titus Avenue and South Cayuga Street. As usual for INHS, the five housing units would be marketed as affordable owner-occupied housing to moderate-income households. The townhomes are intended for completion by June 30, 2015, and the single-family home by December 2015.

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3. Over at Collegetown Terrace, a BZA-approved lot tweak is being requested to modify the lots, a split that would separate Buildings 5 and 6 from the lot where 7 would be built. 7 would have lot frontage on a private street rather than public street, which is why the BZA is needed. The whole reason for this split is financing for the massive project. The project is much easier to finance in smaller chunks, especially since it’s being built in phases. The key takeaway from this otherwise minor note is that Building 7 (120 Valentine Place) does not have financing for construction, so who knows when it will start. If the lot tweak is passed (and there’s no compelling reason for it not to be, since no changes to the design will occur), maybe end of summer/early fall; otherwise, it’s anyone guess.

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4. Meanwhile, another student-oriented project is on hold, perhaps indefinitely. The 45-unit project at 7 Ridgewood is being put on hold, as the person directing the proposal for developer CA Living, Cornell alum Stephen Bus, has left the company. Whether this project eventually continues, gets revised, or is cancelled completely has yet to be determined. But this is the second failure for the site, which had a proposal for an attractive 30-unit apartment building in the mid-1990s that also ended up being shelved.

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5. Seems legit this time – the Ithaca metro posted a 400 job increase as compared to June 2013, to 65,600 (0.6%). This is a positive sign and it’s important, because whether pro-development or anti-development, if the local job market tanks, everyone’s in trouble. Manufacturing and Other Services saw slight gains (100 each), while Hospitality/Leisure and Professional/Business Services saw slight losses (100 each). The big factor is that education and healthcare is up 1.2% year-to-year, about 400 jobs. As covered on the Voice, the statistics have had issues before; I wouldn’t be surprised if the same problem is occurring with Syracuse’s massive 3,300 job loss over the same time period.





“Collegetown Dryden” Project Proposed

28 07 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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The Elephant in the Room: 330 College Avenue

23 07 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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