The Ithaca Economy, Part I: A Tale of Two Recessions

25 05 2015

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Ithaca’s economy has been growing in the past 25 years. Like any market, it’s also had its share of ups and downs – in particular, a recession in the early 1990s and a recession in the late 2000s. Nationally, the early 1990s recession was mild, especially in comparison to the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The 1990s recession only lasted 8 months on a national level (July 1990 – March 1991) and GDP loss was -1.4%. The Great Recession was 18 months (Dec 2007 – Jun 2009) and a GDP loss of -4.3%.

In Ithaca, these recessions played out a little differently.

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According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), after a peak employment of 53,100 non-farm jobs in October 1990, the economy sputtered and shrank, falling as low as 47,700 jobs in January 1992, and not surpassing the 53,100 high mark until October 1995. The first half of the decade saw no real growth in jobs numbers.  The Ithaca College Economic Index, which establishes a number based on local economic indices, further highlights the poor 1990s ecnomy. The way the index works is that the index value in January 1985 = 100; 101 means 1% growth since Jan 1985. The county grew at a rapid pace in the late 1980s, and the index was 135.32 in March 1989. But by March 1992, it was 115.75; the economy shrank 14.5%. The index wouldn’t go above 135 again until February 1999. By this measure, Ithaca and Tompkins County had a lost decade.

In contrast, the late 2000s recession had a pre-recession peak of 158.66 in January 2008, fell as low as 149.44 in March 2009, and a new all-time high was established in June 2010. The economy index contracted only 5.8% during the recession, and Ithaca recovered relatively quickly compared to many cities. The jobs total is hardly a blip, an averaged loss of 200 jobs in 2009 that were quickly recovered in 2010’s growth.

So, why the difference? That’s the $64,000 question. An oft-cited reason is that Tompkins County’s institutions of Higher Education are responsible – Cornell, Ithaca College and TC3 were less buffeted by the economic headwaters that made the recession as bad as it was. Cornell published a report in the late 2000s saying that its construction projects alone provided over 700 jobs. Visitors to the university and staying in hotels and eating at local restaurants was claimed to have created almost 800 jobs.

But the colleges were here in the early 1990s as well. And while Cornell eliminated 900 positions during the recession by retirement or layoffs, the job numbers suggest that other employers must have picked up the slack in employment.

One of the ways to try and figure this out would be to look at the breakdown in employment by sector as described by the BLS. Perhaps education didn’t play as much of a role in the 1990s recession, or other industries grew while Cornell’s rank were whittled down in the late 2000s. Part II will be examining the job sector breakdowns and running some calculations to see just what changed in the job totals, and when.





News Tidbits 5/23: Cast A Discerning Eye

23 05 2015

1. Starting off this week’s round-up, here are some new renders of PPM Homes’s apartment project proposed for 215-221 West Spencer Street just south of downtown.

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Note that C & D are the same design, but mirrored. The general forms are pretty much the same as the original sketch plan, but the porch and windows have been altered and the rooflines have been tweaked on A and B to give the Spencer Street facade a little more visual interest.

The 12-unit, 4-building project is being described as a “pocket neighborhood”. The two upper buildings closest to West Cayuga will have three two-bedroom units here, and the lower buildings facing West Spencer have a combined four two-bedroom units and two three-bedroom units, for a total of 26 bedrooms in the project. 12 parking spaces are provided as required by zoning. The owner is looking into remote net-metering of an off-site solar panel installation to provide all of the project’s electricity needs. The site will launch into the formal planning board review process next month.

The steeply-sloped 0.47 acre parcel has been vacant for several years, and currently sees use as an informal 12-space parking lot. The property was originally marketed for affordable housing projects only, but received no purchase bids. Once the affordable stipulation was removed, the parcel was marketed once again, and Ed Cope bought the parcel for $110,000 on March 6th.

The building designs are the work of local architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative.

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Random aside, I just found out that PPM’s Ed Cope is a Cornell biologist. And here I thought writing this blog and being an air quality scientist was an interesting contrast.

2. There might have been a day in not-too-distant past where someone said, “You know what Ithaca needs? Mini-golf.” Apparently someone heard those wishes. the Town of Ithaca’s Planning Committee will be looking at a possible zoning modification down near the intersection of Elmira Road and Seven Mile Drive that would allow a mini-gold establishment to move forward.

Stretching my memory here a bit, I seem to recall a mini-golf place up by Trumansburg, but if my google search is any indication, it closed a couple of years ago. I suppose there’s a niche to be filled.

Now comes the question of, “Does this fit with the town’s new Comprehensive Plan?” Here’s the description the town proposes for the Inlet Valley Gateway, including the area in question:

The Inlet Valley Gateway district is intended to be a setting for a mix of office, small-scale retail, hospitality, and tourism and agritourism uses, with low-impact light industrial, artisanal industrial, and skilled trade uses.
The scale, architecture and landscaping of future development will need to be carefully designed and articulated.

This area should retain a semi-rural character, with deep setbacks from arterial streets, wide spacing between uses, landscaped front yards, and vehicle parking sited on the side and/or rear of structures. Shared curb cuts will reduce potential conflicts with highway traffic. Sidewalks should follow streets, with connections to adjacent areas planned for residential development. Architectural design, landscaping, and site planning regulations should apply to all uses in this area, including industrial uses. Agglomeration of mechanical commercial uses, and incremental expansion of commercial zoning resulting in strip commercial development, will be strongly discouraged.

It sounds like that if the site is designed right, it could be a good fit. Probably a better fit than the Maguire’s dealership/HQ plan that was shelved a few months ago.

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3. Here’s a couple of photos of the new duplex being built at 514 Linn Street. Each unit will be 3 bedrooms, and the apartments will be completed this summer. The building is being built on the foundation of the previous home that existed on the site, which dated from the late 1800s and was a near-copy of the peach-colored house next door. 514 Linn is being developed by the Stavropoulos family, who run the State Street Diner.

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4. In an effort to win over the city, Texas Roadhouse is tweaking their proposed restaurant off of S. Meadow/13. Latest render here. Members of the planning board have previously expressed concerns that the original design had the entrance facing northward into the parking lot rather than the street, and that not enough attention was being placed on the street-facing west side. If the render is any indicator, the modified proposal still has a primary entrance on the north side of the building, but the street-facing side has a handicapped entryway, and the landscaping has been spruced up. Dunno if it’s what the board quite wanted, but they’ll decide if it’s good enough during their meeting next week.

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5. Looks like Pat Kraft’s Dryden South project (205 Dryden) has a website up and running. The 10-unit, 40 bedroom project will start site clearing in a few weeks, with excavation/foundation work going through the summer (according to an interview conducted by the Sun, Kraft hopes to have structural steel rising by the time students get back in late August). The 6-story, 65′ building will house Kraftee’s on its first floor, with two units of four bedrooms each on each floor above. units will be available for rent starting next August.

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A neat little detail from the site is this old conceptual sketch done by Jagat Sharma for the site. Note the April 2009 date at lower right; this project has been in the planning stages for years, even though it only hit the Planning Board last Spring. On a personal note, I’m glad this hulking box didn’t end up being the final design.

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6. For those interested in what’s going on with Simeon’s, here’s an updated sketch design of the rebuild, courtesy of the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council (ILPC). The somewhat controversial side balcony/overhang is gone. About the only major difference between the original entrance and the rebuild is the location of the front door, which is now on the left (west) side instead of being in the center.

7.. Looks to be a quieter meeting for the planning board this month. No new sketch plans, and only one project, Texas Roadhouse, is being considered for approval. Here’s what’s up for discussion at Tuesday’s meeting:

IA. A minor subdivision to create a new home lot a 212 Hook Place on West Hill.

IB. A minor subdivision to divide a property on Hector Street on West Hill. The sisters applying for the subdivision are splitting the land among themselves but intend to keep both lots “Forever Wild”.

IIA. 210 Hancock gets its public hearing and possibly its Determination of Environmental Significance (which if okayed means that the project can be considered for prelim approval in June). I’m hearing there might be opposition mobilizing against the project. Given how transparent the whole design process has been, and that this is affordable housing in an urban area that struggles with housing costs, I’m going to be very, very disappointed if this happens.

B. Texas Roadhouse is up for Determination of Env. Signif. and possible Prelim/Final Site Plan Approval

C. Tompkins Financial’s new HQ will be reviewing parts of its Environmental Assessment Forms; no decisions expected

D. Declaration of Lead Agency (Planning Board agrees to conduct review) for the Maguire Fiat addition.

The board will also be conducting a review of State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) forms used in determining environmental significance.





Boiceville Cottages Construction Update, 5/2015

20 05 2015

With three months filed away since my last trip out to the Boiceville Cottages, it seems like a good time for an update.

The pace of construction has picked up with the onset of the warm half of the year. The stucco homes with pea green timber trim have been completed. Three homes that were sheathed and had only a few windows fitted in February have progressed have now been fully fitted, stucco has been applied, and an attractive canary yellow timber trim is being attached to the new homes. Four more homes (stucco with teal timber trim) have started since last February, and these are not as far along – some of the red waterproof sheathing is still visible while the exterior finishes are being applied. Three concrete slab foundations, outlined with blue waterproofing (the covering might be for cement board being used to protect the slab insulation) are ready for new house construction in the near future. Suffice it to say, given the amount of disturbed land nearby, more slabs and more homes are a likely bet as we press on towards summer. So far, there looks to be at least 17 units completed during this calendar year.

A couple more community features have also been added – a small wooden footbridge now crosses the neck of the pond, and a simple, modern looking bus stop shelter has been built near the meeting house.

Boiceville is in the midst of a 75-unit expansion, which will bring the number of units on the property to 135. Most of the units are 1 and 2-bedroom cottages, built in clusters of three, although a few “gatehouse” rowhouses offer studios and 3-bedroom units. The initial 24 units were built from 1996-97, with another 36 units built in the late 2000s.

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Klarman Hall Construction Update, 5/2015

19 05 2015

Since the last update on Klarman Hall in February, the snow has melted and East Avenue has been reopened to all vehicular traffic. Construction firm Welliver has been pouring concrete on the upper floors and the structural steel has been erected. Concrete pre-cast has been installed on the atrium-facing portions of the top floor, with bright green glass-mat sheathing visible on some of the panels. Within these panels, the window cutouts are visible, and as seen in the last photo, windows have already been installed on the south block facing into what will be the atrium. Windows will be installed in the north block shortly. To hoist these panels into place, a telescopic crane is used.

Less visible to the outside observer, interior wall framing is underway on the upper levels, with utilities rough-in continuing, and some drywall installation underway in the more complete areas. Openings have been created in Goldwin Smith’s rotunda (where people will flow in and out of Klarman’s atrium), and the sub-slab (the concrete below the new floor) is being poured.

The long-term construction schedule calls for window glazing (exterior glass wall installation) and drywall to be complete by the end of June. The atrium skylight glazing will take place during the summer, the elevator will be installed by August, and the green roof will be prepared just as the fall semester kicks in. Klarman Hall will open its doors to the public in December if all goes to schedule.

The 33,250 sq ft building was designed by Koetter | Kim & Associates, and is named for billionaire hedge fund manager Seth Klarman ’79. The cost of the new building, which began construction in May 2013, is estimated at $61 million.

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Gannett Health Center Construction Update, 5/2015

18 05 2015

Construction on the Gannett Health Center addition officially launched March 30th, and now that a couple of months have passed, visitors can see some real progress has been made at the site. The photos below were taken last Saturday.

Perhaps the most obvious visual impact is the plywood in the old window spaces, presumably for protection of occupants while work goes on only a few feet away.  The large machine against the southwest wall of Gannett is a pile driver, inserting poles into the soil to provide foundation support for the new building. More specifically, the poles are H piles, also known as bearing piles, which you can in the last photo on the left. The large metal tubes in the last photo are caisson pipes that will be socketed to the bedrock and filled with concrete. These are numbered and are going to be inserted right next to the existing building, according to the construction workers I spoke with at the gate. Feel free to ask the workers questions if they don’t have their hands full, most are more than happy to talk about their work.

Although the photo of the hole itself seems to have been accidentally deleted, the excavator on the west side of the site is being used to dig out a rather large, deep hole where further foundation work/pile driving will take place.

Construction at Gannett will be broken into phases – Phase I focuses on new construction, Phase II on renovation of the current building, and Phase III concludes the project with reconstruction of the Ho Plaza entrance. Phase I is expected to be complete by July 2016, and Phase II by August 2017. The whole project is expected to be complete by October 2017.

The building design is by local architecture firm Chiang O’Brien, with landscaping by Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects. There will be two additions to Gannett, a four-story, 55,000 square-foot building (which will use the H-piles seen below), and an additional 18,600 square foot addition that replaces the northeast side of the current building. The project also includes a new entrance and substantial renovations to the original 1950s structure (22,400 square feet of the existing 35,000), as well as landscaping, site amenities, and utilities improvements. The projected cost is $55 million.

The Gannett Health Center expansion has been a long time coming. Initial plans in the late 2000s called for a completely new building on site. HOLT Architects prepared a plan for a 119,000 square foot building, and an all-new building was also included in Cornell’s 2008 Master Plan. But once the Great Recession waged its battle on Cornell’s finances, the Gannett redevelopment was scaled back to its current form. According to a statement given by Gannett Director Dr. Janet Corson-Rikert to the Sun, the earlier plan had a budget of $133 million; the new addition and renovations are expected to cost $55 million.

The project is expected to create about 175 construction jobs and 40 permanent jobs (additional doctors, counselors and support personnel) when completed. Gannett currently employs 227, up from just 104 in 1996.

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News Tidbits 5/16: Smart Developments, or Sprawl?

16 05 2015

Looks like this is going to be one of those longer roundups. I’m excited and intimidated at the same time.

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1. First off, I’m going to lead off with renders of the new Tompkins Financial Corporation. Write-up on the Voice here, more drawings here, traffic study here, cover letter here, Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) here.

Rather than describe it in neutral generalities as I did with the Voice article, I’m going to afford the right to be a little subjective. The design is respectful of its neighbors through the use of brick and stone veneer. There’s no real surprises in the design, and corporate buildings tend to be pretty conservative anyway. At 104 feet (100 to the rooftop, and then 4 feet for the roof parapet), this will make a dent in the Ithaca skyline, but once again, it respects and balances out it neighbors by being a little taller than the DeWitt Mall, and a little shorter than 121′ Seneca Place. On a spectrum, the street front is on the nice side though not fantastic; a bank branch and some offices will engage with the street only modestly, but it’s much, much better than the drive-thru there now. The new building is built to the sidewalk, has an urban form, it’s a multi-million dollar private investment and a lot of other things that most upstate mayors would sell their mothers to get. The project is still shooting for a summer approval and construction starting not long thereafter.

One concern I have is that this will offload tens of thousands of square feet of office space onto the Ithaca market. Office space is one of the weaker sectors of the local market, and this may exacerbate the situation. It could cause some problems come 2017, and maybe with projects still in the pipeline such as Harold’s Square, which is shooting for a fall start after two years of trying to secure financing. I think that in the longer term, a few of the spaces such as the Seneca Building (121 East Seneca) might be ripe for a residential conversion.

With that concern noted, I think the parking situation will be okay. Since most of the jobs are shuffling around downtown, there’s not going to be a huge influx of workers. Offhand, I think the numbers are low double-digits (20 or 30) for transfers from Lansing into the city, and then the 77 brand new jobs created over the next several years.

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2. And then there were none. With the sale of the last of their townhomes (lots 20-24), the Belle Sherman Cottages have technically sold out. I say technically because Lot 9, the new cottage design on the southwest corner of the parcel, has yet to be marketed let alone sold. I followed up with an email to developer Toby Millman of Agora Home LLC, and he replied that “[w]e are still working on the plans for that home and expect to release if for sale in the next month or so.” So keep an eye out for that.

3. Here’s an interesting piece of news from the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency – the city recently showed off the 6-acre parcel it owns on Cherry Street to an employer looking to relocate 250 employees to the property, buying the lot and building a one-story “campus setting” over the whole six acres. This may or may not be the same one previous mentioned in the March minutes, regarding an inquiry from a business located outside the city. Since the parcel may have been shown in January or February, it seems that the two are likely the same entity.

This isn’t the first piece of news regarding some potentially major work in this isolated section of Ithaca’s West End – scrap steel mogul Ben Weitsman has also been rumored to have plans, and improved access from the Brindley Street Bridge would aid in redevelopment of this part of the city.

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4. The planning board is cautiously enthusiastic about the State Street Triangle development. Per the minutes from the April meeting, they want the building to be as iconic as possible; board member John Schroeder went as fall as to suggest inspiration from the Carson Pirie Scott Building in Chicago:

Another member suggested a decorative crown. If my notes are right, a crown could exceed zoning as long as it’s not habitable space. Some other suggestions include a setback on the upper floors, and looking into incorporating other forms of housing.

5. A quick follow-up on the proposed removal of some lot setbacks at the Nate’s Floral Estates trailer park – according to a tweet from Ithaca Times writer Josh Brokaw, the removal would allow an extra 18 lots for manufactured housing. The trailer park currently has 112 lots, and it’s been noted to have a substantial waiting list. Nate’s Floral Estates serves as senior housing, so this is one way to make a dent in the affordable housing problem.

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6. It’s not too often you see someone request a zoning interpretation. At 815 South Aurora Street on South Hill, that’s exactly what local architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative is doing on behalf of developer Todd Fox. Fox would like to develop the land with apartments (and he’s no stranger to South Hill, having built a couple duplexes on Hudson Street a couple years ago), but can’t. The city won’t allow construction in the “fall zone” of cell towers, which they define as twice the height of the tower. At 815 South Aurora, a 170′ tower creates a 340′ radius of no-man’s land (outer circle above), making the parcel undevelopable. The developer got a hold of two private engineering companies (TAITEM Engineering and Spec Consulting), both of whom determined that an appropriate fall zone is the height of the tower plus 10 feet for a little wind/bounce – so 180′ total. With this info in hand, Fox is trying to get the city to refine the zoning to allow the decrease in fall zone and therefore permit the land to be open for development. It’s an interesting case, and the result could be a sizable apartment complex down the pipeline. Stay tuned for the BZA review in June.

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A couple other minor projects are up for zoning variances on parking – a small 2-bedroom house planned for 228 West Spencer is seeking a variance because the builder (Ed Cope of PPM Homes) says there’s no room on the hilly lot, and Todd Fox is requesting a parking variance for a 2-bedroom basement apartment to be built at 108 Ferris Place, saying that its central location and easy bus access should make having a car unnecessary. Coincidentally, architect Noah Demarest is handling both appeal applications.

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7. To wrap things up, here’s the latest agenda from Ithaca town. There doesn’t appear to be anything too exciting going on next Tuesday. Cornell is renovating its softball field on East Hill with improved site access, a new restroom and ticket office, and replacing the existing bleaches, dugouts and press box. The 32-unit Clare Bridge assisted senior living project that was discussed last week will be reviewed. There are also sketch plans to be presented for a propane refueling station and sales office to be built on a vacant lot on Elmira Road/Rte. 13.

The planning board will also be reviewing plans to subdivide the Troy Road parcel that was once slated for a major residential project. The seller (Paul Rubin of Florida) apparently has a buyer for the triangular chunk of land south of the power lines (which can be seen in the old render above). With no explicit plans for either plot of land, there’s little reason to deny the subdivision at this time.

Personal opinion, I don’t like the direction this is going. It’s a real shame that the revised 130-road Troy Road project didn’t continue pursuit of approvals, it had really started to coalesce into a decent proposal. But now there’s a possibility where the land gets divvied into multiple chunks with homes scattered on it like bird crumbs. Single-family and duplex homes don’t have to go through board review, so there’s a lot less oversight when the land gets divided among multiple owners and built out in a piecemeal fashion. The last thing the town needs is expensive, sprawling, ecologically insensitive development.

 

 

 

 





Fast Facts: Ithaca College Employee Headcounts

12 05 2015

All facts come from Ithaca College’s Office of Institutional Research. All enrollment values are for the fall semester of a given year, i.e. 2001 means fall 2001.

Since the blog has previously taken a look at Cornell’s faculty and staff headcounts, it seems only fair to take a look at Ithaca College’s as well.

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Over the past decade or so, Ithaca College’s employment has grown. Since 2002, headcount has increased by 302 people/20.1%, about 1.68% per year on average. During the recession, employment at the school actually increased at a faster pace than the average, a stark contrast to the hundreds of jobs that were cut at Cornell.

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Breaking the numbers down into faculty and admin/staff components, faculty employment has grown by 155/26.96% since 2002, somewhat faster than the 147 person/15.86% growth in staff employment.

For the sake of comparison, Cornell employed 7,075 non-academic staff in 2002 and 7,018 in 2014, a 57 person/0.8% decrease. The Big Red also employed 2,756 faculty/academic staff in 2002, and 2,763 profs and lecturers in 2014, a 7 person/0.3% increase. (note, Cornell numbers are for the Ithaca campus only).

In other words, we have over the past decade or so, one school that has seen only small enrollment growth but large employment growth, while the other has seen large enrollment growth and no employment growth. I can’t vouch for whether one school’s grasp of their situation is better than the other, but the differences between the two make for an engaging conversation piece.

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Here’s something more apropos to current events – the split between full-time and part-time faculty at IC. In 2002, 18.41% of male faculty and 26.92% of female faculty were part-time. In 2014, 28.42% of male faculty and 33.71% of female faculty were part-time. Although Ithaca College has added 155 faculty over 12 years, only 57 of those positions are full-time. Part of the the growth in part-time faculty can be attributed to the growth in graduate students, who are considered part-time faculty at IC if they are teaching. But regardless, it’s clear that Ithaca has become more reliant on part-time staff to meet its teaching needs.

Not to take an official stance on any union-organizing, but double-checking with some previous Voice write-ups, the graph above means that there were 226 Ithaca College faculty that were earning no more than about $16,000/year.

Cornell doesn’t have part-time faculty listed in their data, but I assume grad students with TA assignments fill that role. As of 2014, 6.6% of non-academic staff at Cornell (468 of 7047) are considered part time, while 25% of non-academic IC staff (268 of 1074) are part time. So maybe that’s another piece in the conversation comparing schools.








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