News Tidbits 7/25/15: To Reuse and Rejuvenate

25 07 2015

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1. Let’s just outright say it – the Tompkins County Legisltaure’s Old Library decision is a complete mess at this point. As covered last week, there were three separate individual resolutions – one from legislator Mike Lane for the Travis Hyde proposal (first image), and one each from legislators Dooley Kiefer and Leslyn McBean-Clairborne for the Franklin proposal (second image).

They all failed. 8 yes’s are required. The Travis Hyde proposal failed with 5 yes and 7 no’s. The Franklin proposal failed with 5 yes and 7 no’s on Kiefer’s resolution, and 4 yes and 8 no’s on McBean-Clairborne’s resolution. Martha Robertson, a supporter of the Travis Hyde proposal, recused herself because she had received donations from Frost Travis during her failed congressional campaign in 2014. Legislator Glenn Morey, also a supporter of the Travis Hyde proposal, was absent from the meeting.

I don’t see any way this will ever get the eight votes required. Kathy Luz Herrera voted against the proposals because the resolution has a ground lease (meaning the county still owns the land but leases the property), and Dooley Kiefer has stated she refuses to support any of the projects unless they have a ground lease – in other words, these two have mutually exclusive votes. By voting against McBean-Clairborne, Kiefer’s made it clear she will vote against the Franklin project unless it meets her exact specifications. Shinagawa voted against Travis Hyde for not being what the community wanted, but won’t vote for the Franklin proposal unless they guarantee Lifelong’s involved. And Stein has come out in favor of the Travis Hyde proposal. There’s no solution on the horizon.

So now it heads back to the Old Library Committee. Sale to the highest bidder and demolition of the library are real options on the table.

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2. Turning to Lansing town, the planning board there has approved plans for the 102-unit Cayuga Farms townhouse project for a 31.4 acre parcel off of North Triphammer Road near Horvath Drive. First reported last Friday by the Lansing Star, the project received negative SEQR determination (meaning that, following the state’s environmental review guidelines, that the planning board decided the project will have no serious detrimental impact on the community) and issued preliminary site plan approval.

However, one issue still remains to be resolved before any shovels hit the dirt – sewer. The project currently has a modular package sewer treatment proposal that would work in place of the voter-defeated municipal sewer, and allow for denser development than the town’s rule on septic tanks. But the DEC’s interest in that type of treatment has been mixed. It could be a while before the situation gets sorted out.

Readers might remember this project because it’s one of the few I’ve openly derided. The 102 units are townhouse-style apartments marketed towards the upper end of the market. They would be built in phases over a period of several years.

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3. Now for some eye candy. Included with this week’s planning board project review committee agenda are additional renderings for John Novarr’s project at 209-215 Dryden Road. Doing a quick visual cross-check with the initial renderings, there don’t appear to be any substantial design changes, and the colorful metal cladding appears to retain the same pattern as before. Getting a little poetic here, the cascading metal bars are reminiscent of water running down a wall.

The city’s Full Environmental Assessment Form doesn’t express many worries about the project; some concerns have been raised about too many pedestrians on the street (the building would add 420 people to Collegetown’s sidewalks at the outset, 600 when fully occupied), but that seems to be about it for now.

The $12 million project is moving right along in an effort to start construction this fall. Declaration of Lead Agency and some CEQR discussion (the city’s more stringent version of SEQR, State Environmental Quality Review) are expected at the July planning board meeting. Plans call for 76,200 SF building with three floors of classrooms and three floors of offices for Cornell’s Johnson School Executive MBA program. The building would be ready for the Big Red’s B-students in April 2017. The property would remain on the tax rolls.

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4. A couple of interesting news notes courtesy of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) Agenda:

First, popular downtown restaurant Madeline’s is looking to obtain an agency loan as part of a renovation project. The $470,000 project would add three jobs, only one of which pays living wage. The restaurant on the first floor of the Rothschild Building (the two-story building in the above photo) hopes to take advantage of the new hotels going up, and law firm Miller Mayer moving its 60 employees into the Rothschild Building. Previously the firm was in the Chemung Canal Trust Company building further up the Commons.

Second, the Finger Lakes School of Massage has applied for an agency loan to facilitate a move from West Hill to downtown. The school would move its ~34 staff and 75-95 students into 10,804 SF of leased space on the Rothschild Building’s second floor, with a further 1,700 SF on the ground level for a retail store and alumni massage clinic. The space would be renovated at a cost of about $194,300.

Although both projects come with risks (Madeline’s being a restaurant, FLSM having some worrying financial statements), both projects have been recommended for loan approval. The FLSM and Miller Mayer news suggest that most of the office space in the old Rothschild Building, left vacant when Tetra Tech moved to Cornell’s office park in 2010, has now been refilled.

The new window cut out built recently into the Rothschild Building’s east facade is part of the space where FLSM is moving into.

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5. And now another reuse project – at 416-418 East State Street, currently home to an underused 7,600 SF office and a connected manufacturing/storage building. The house dates from the 19th century, with various additions as recent as the 1970s. According to plans filed with the city, an LLC linked to Argos Inn architect Ben Rosenblum has plans to convert the old manufacturing space into a bar and storage space, with renovated offices and a 2 bedroom apartment in the original house. The project will include an accessory parking lot, revised landscaping and handicap access. Area and setback deficiencies have resulted in the need for a zoning variance, but a parking variances won’t be required because the bar will have after hours parking across the street at Gateway Plaza. The building itself won’t change dimensions, but the change in use triggers the city zoning laws.

There have been some concerns expressed about this project – at least one neighbor is vociferously opposed to a bar, citing noise problems and concerns about smokers, and the county planning department is not a fan of the traffic and parking arrangement. Offhand, I think a bar is legal in B-4 zoning, but the noise impacts will merit further scrutiny.

The project is definitely something of interest to the Voice’s audience, but in an email, Rosenblum said that details are still being worked out and that he’d prefer to discuss the plan at a later date.

Scott Whitham is serving as a consultant, and local architect Jason Demarest is designing the renovation.

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6. Some very substantial changes are in store for Campus Advantage’s $40 million, 240-unit State Street Triangle project at 301 East State Street in downtown Ithaca.

The Texas-based developer has recruited the assistance of Ithaca architecture firm STREAM Collaborative to help redesign the 240-unit project. And there’s clearly been a lot of work since the previous planning board rendition.

In this revision, a much greater emphasis has been placed on the street interaction and active street uses. Gone is the soaring corner, and in its place is a design with a greater use of horizontal elements (like the decorative belt above the third floor) in order to give the building a more human scale – crucial when you’re planning one of the largest buildings in Ithaca.

The developer is also seeking to remove the northbound turning lane from Aurora onto State Street, and replacing it with a pedestrian area with widened sidewalks, outdoor seating and dining spaces. The land would have to be procured from the city, or some other type of collaboration would have to take place with city officials and engineers.

In documents provided in the city’s planning board agenda for next Tuesday, the developer notes that the project remains student-oriented, but in order to play down comments of it being a massive dorm, 10 4-bedroom units were reconfigured into 40 studio apartments that the developer hopes will be appealing to non-student tenants looking for a less expensive, modestly-sized space.

The State Street Triangle project is also exploring LEED certification.

The project still has a lot of details to be addressed – city transportation engineer Tim Logue has expressed concerns that the traffic study underestimates the number of car trips, and has asked for a revised study. The project is also under closer analysis because the potential addition of 600 residents into downtown Ithaca would put a greater stress on utilities and infrastructure.

These and other questions are likely to be topics of discussion at next Tuesday’s meeting.

The State Street Triangle may be pursuing a CIITAP tax abatement (so much for my theory a couple weeks ago), but the city has not uploaded the application at the time of this writing.
7. Looks like a busy meeting next week for the Ithaca city planning board. In order:

1. A subdivision at 106-108 Madison Street on the Northside. The applicant wishes to create a new lot on the east side of the existing lot, for the purpose of building a new-single-family home.

2. A. Declaration of Environmental Significance and BZA recommendation for the Dibella’s sub shop proposed at 222 Elmira Road

B. Declaration of Environmental Significance, BZA recommendation and potential approval for the 1,100 SF addition to the Maguire Chrsyler/Fiat dealership in Southwest Ithaca

C. Declaration of Environmental Significance, and potential approval for the two duplexes proposed at 112 Blair/804 East State Street

D. Site-plan approval for the first phase of the Tompkins Financial HQ (the new drive-through in the current HQ’s parking lot)

E. CEQR (the city’s version of SEQR) discussion for 215-221 W. Spencer Street

F. Declaration of Lead Agency and CEQR discussion on 209-215 Dryden (the Novarr project noted above)

G. Declaration of Lead Agency and CEQR discussion on State Street Triangle (

noted above)

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H. Sketch Plan – Hotel Ithaca Expansion. Readers might remember a 9-story addition and convention center were approved for the Hotel Ithaca almost two years ago (shown above). Nothing has happened with the expansion plans, for reasons which had been attributed to financing. Dunno what we can expect this time around, but we’ll find out next week.





News Tidbits 7/18/15: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

18 07 2015

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1. The Old Library conundrum continues. At last Friday’s meeting, the committee was unable to come up with an endorsement. As it also turns out, absent legislators Peter Stein and Kathy Luz Herrera can no longer re-introduce the preferred developer vote because absent legislators can  only re-introduce a resolution for the subsequent county meeting – in other words, they didn’t put it up for a re-vote on the 7th, so that option is no longer available. Stein didn’t make a resolution, and Luz Herrera was once again absent from the meeting.

Now things get a little more haphazard. Individual legislators can introduce resolutions for a preferred developer, which Dooley Kiefer and Leslyn McBean-Clairborne are doing for the Franklin/STREAM proposal (the 22 condos and medical office space, first image), and Mike Lane for Travis Hyde (the 60 apartments with space for Lifelong, second image). Either one would require eight votes in favor. Martha Robertson’s recusal makes the Travis Hyde proposal a little less likely to hit that magic number, but unless anyone’s had a change of heart, if Kathy Luz Herrera and Peter Stein don’t both vote in favor of the Franklin proposal, nothing moves forward. The county gets left with a building they can’t make a decision on and don’t want to keep.

The building needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations at this point, not to mention routine maintenance; the lack of a decision could be a weight on any legislator’s re-election prospects. If there is no decision, what happens next is anyone’s guess; spending money to mothball the building, demolition, or even selling the property on the open market. whatever the case, this is definitely not a comfortable position for the county to be in.

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2. Looks like the Amabel housing development in Ithaca town is undergoing some site plan changes once again. Quoting the web page, “[w]e recently came to the conclusion that it is far better to park the cars at each house then to have car parks within the common space, allowing 2 cars per house if needed. This also allowed for more guest parking spaces.” Rather than having a road go through the middle of the housing development, the development is now encircled by the road coming in and out of Five Mile Drive. I asked developer Sue Cosentini of New Earth Living LLC if those were garages facing the driveways, and the reply was “no, [but] they may be carports though.” As a result of the revised site plan, the project would need to go back in front of the Ithaca planning board for re-approvals.

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3. Recently, Finger Lakes ReUse has been working on plans to open a new “downtown” branch and HQ at the site of the former BOCES Building at 214 Elmira Road on the edge of big-box land. The plans for the gut renovation of the ca. 1950 building (Ithaca’s first big-box supermarket) have been in the works for a while, and grants have been awarded to fund the project.

One thing that appears to be a recent addition, though, is a three-story, 20,000 SF office building. The building, described as the “Main Headquarters”, is strictly a conceptual proposal. The grant announced in December funds two new buildings,  the renovation and what could be either be the proposed 5,000 SF warehouse to the west of the existing building, or the “tenant space” occupied by Boris Garage at 210 Elmira.

The office building is an interesting idea, adding density to the often-underutilized Southwest Corridor and showing what future plans might be in store for the non-profit.

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4. It seems like there was an unpleasant surprise at this month’s IDA meeting – the motion from committee member Will Burbank to put a moratorium on all tax abatements until a county CIITAP is in place for local labor/construction unions and prevailing wage policy. For those unfamiliar, a moratorium is in this case a temporary prohibition of all new tax abatements. After considerable debate and a split opinion from committee members, the motion was rescinded until next month.

Speaking as a matter of opinion, it might seem like a good idea on the surface, but an all-out moratorium sounds more like a case of “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” as one of my professors used to say. Generally, the policy for businesses to hire the contractor with the best price and a strong record for quality, on-time work. Sometimes that’s a local business with local labor; sometimes it’s a company in Binghamton, Syracuse or Rochester. Hence the debate.

The problem with a moratorium is that it stops everything applying for a tax abatement, including projects that already have plans to use local labor. And to be frank, local governments have a terrible track record with moratoriums, frequently extending them because of bureaucratic red tape. I think the unions support the CIITAP idea, but a moratorium that could place even larger numbers of their membership out of work for 12 or 18 months is undesirable and politically damaging. Local labor is important, but a moratorium isn’t the best approach.

On another note, the IDA did unanimously approve the tax abatement for the Tompkins Financial Headquarters project.The 7-story, 110,000 SF building proposed for 118 East Seneca Street in downtown Ithaca will likely start construction later this year.

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5. In economic news, Ithaca Beer had its informal groundbreaking Thursday the 16th for its expansion. The 23,800 SF addition by HOLT Architects will triple brewing capacity when it is completed in approximately eight months. The expansion at their site in Ithaca town is expected to create 22 new jobs.

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6. Also in Ithaca town, a senior living facility is looking to receive final approval on its expansion. Brookdale Senior Living is looking to obtain final site plan approvals for its 32-unit Clare Bridge Crossings expansion at 101 Bundy Drive on West Hill. Brookdale is planning to start construction of the one-story 23,200 SF addition this October, with the first tenants moving in around October 2016. There’s no mention of job creation in the application, but there is a letter of opposition from a Cornell professor concerned that new construction will be detrimental to current residents.

Noted previously here back in May, the Brookdale site is a PDZ that consists of two facilities at the moment – Sterling House is a 48-unit assisted living facility, while Claire Bridge Cottage is a 32-unit facility specializing in memory care (Alzheimer’s and dementia). The new building, “Clare Bridge Crossings”, is designed to bridge the gap between the two – patients who might be in early stages of illness and experiencing mild symptoms, but otherwise still capable of some degree of personal independence. The whole complex is in the process of being renamed to Brookdale of Ithaca.

The new building will be tucked between the other two structures, so it won’t be visible from the street. Along with the new building, there will be updates to parking, landscaping stormwater facilities, and the addition of a couple of courtyards between the buildings. The architect is PDC Midwest, a Wisconsin firm that specializes in memory care facilities.

7. Let’s end off this week on a high note. Chances of a Chapter House rebuild are looking good. The owner’s looking into reusing the walls that remain standing, and even what’s left of the floorplates. The idea is to have the building look like it did before (though perhaps with a modern fire suppression system, one imagines). Looking forward to sharing renderings as they become available.





News Tidbits 7/11/15: Trying to Make A Dent in the Housing Deficit

11 07 2015

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1. We’ll start this off with a brief data map, courtesy of Curbed NY. The Urban Institute, a DC think tank, quantifies the country’s affordable housing problem with a detailed study that lays out, county by county across the whole United States just how many units are affordable to what it labels “extremely low-income” (ELI) households, who make 30% or less of county median income. In Tompkins County, this means families of four making $23,200 or less during 2013, the latest year for which data is available. The full report comes with an interactive map.

Nationwide, the numbers aren’t very good – in 2013, only 28 of every 100 ELI families could find affordable housing, down from 37 out of every 100 in 2000. In Tompkins County, the situation is even worse – it’s gone from affordable housing being available for 19 out of every 100 ELI households in 2000, to 16 out of every 100 ELI households in 2013. There was only two other counties in the northeast that fared worse – Centre County, PA, home to State College and Penn State, and Monroe County, PA, a far-flung NYC commuter county.

While much of the talk about affordability focuses on the middle class getting priced out, it’s worth noting that the tight housing market and college-centric rental market have had a continued negative impact on what little housing there is for the poorest tiers.

2. Staying on the topic of affordability,  the county is all set to sell a foreclosed vacant lot in Freeville to INHS for the express purpose of affordable housing. This was first mentioned on the blog a couple of weeks ago. The 1.7 acres of land off of Cook Street in Freeville is assessed at $25,000, but the county is generously selling the land to INHS for the low price of $7,320, which is the amount owed on back taxes and “required maintenance”. This project would be next to Freeville’s other affordable housing complex, the 24-unit Lehigh Crossing senior apartments south of the parcel. Those were built in 1991 and are managed by a for-profit developer out of Buffalo (Belmont Management).

As noted previously, the village of Freeville (population 520) is outside of INHS’s usual realm of Ithaca city and town, but INHS expanded its reach when it merged with its county equivalent, Better Housing for Tompkins County (BHTC) last December.  This is likely to be the first new rural project post-merger, and the first new affordable housing development outside of Ithaca in several years. BHTC had a string of failures prior to the merger. For INHS, after the controversy with Stone Quarry and 210 Hancock, taking on a development site that’s likely to have less opposition will be a welcome change of pace.

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3. No full decisions from the Board of Zoning Appeals on the 210 Hancock project, but there was plenty of acrimony. Of the three requested variances (height, parking and commercial loading), only the commercial loading variance was granted at Tuesday’s meeting, with the height and parking up in the air until additional information is received about pile driving impacts and winter odd-even parking. INHS has just over two months to submit the additional information.

The same vitriolic sentiment could be applied for the Old Library proposals, where legislator Martha Robertson has been called out for a possible ethics violation, and emails on the Fall Creek Neighborhood Association listserve have turned unpleasant. All in all, it’s been a pretty harsh week for anything related to development in or near Fall Creek.

Some of the 210 opposition is upset that they’re being perceived as “classist”, but when the gentleman leading the opposition posts tweets like this to the #twithaca page for all to see, a negative reaction shouldn’t be a surprise. As for the old library debate, the legislature’s Old Library Committee met on the morning of the 10th, but no endorsements were made.

4. A couple of details worth noting for ILPC’s meeting next Tuesday – “early design guidance” for work planned at 201 W. Clinton Street, and “discussion” about 406 and 408 Stewart Avenue in Collegetown.

201 West Clinton, also known as the Hardy House, was built around 1835, and was previously the home of the local Red Cross chapter from about 1922-2011. After the ARC moved out, it was restored and converted back to a private residence. The house was more recently reviewed/approved for solar panels, and I dunno what’s in store for this next round.

As for 406 and 408 Stewart Avenue, those would be the addresses for the historic (ca. 1898) three-story red-shingled apartment house destroyed during the Chapter House fire last Spring, and the fire-damaged but still-standing apartment house to its north. They are/were operated by CSP Management, the same folks tending to the Simeon’s project. So let’s keep hopes up for a possible rebuild faithful to the original 406.

If you still need your weekly dose of crazy, here’s a rather paranoid screed submitted as part of an application to the ILPC. I can only imagine the committee’s initial reaction to this.

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5. Time to move another Collegetown project into the “under construction” column – 307 College Avenue, a.k.a. Collegetown Crossing, will hold a formal groundbreaking on Monday at 10 AM. The 46-unit, 96-bedroom project was approved last September after a years-long debate over parking; the project was only able to move forward when the new Collegetown zoning went into effect last year. Expect a 12-month construction period, with occupancy likely in August 2016. Collegetown Crossing, which also includes a 4,000 sq ft Greenstar grocery store branch, a pocket park and a TCAT transit hub, is being developed by the Lower family and their company Urban Ithaca.

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6. Looks like we’re on to another iteration of the proposed pair of duplexes at 112 Blair / 804 East State Street in outer Collegetown. Updated file here, previous plans here. It kinda feels like there’s a disconnect going on – the neighbors basically don’t like the houses for being boring pre-fab duplexes; the developer, Demos/Johnny LLC (Costas Nestopoulos), doesn’t want to change that, but is willing to adjust the site layout and invest in extensive landscaping in an effort to hide them. The two sides have met and they seem close to a compromise.

Rather unusually, the 12-bedroom project (4 units with 3 bedrooms each) will open to student tenants in January 2016, after a construction period of September-December 2015. Being a small project, there will probably be enough intersession shuffling to make it work.

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7. Here’s another small project getting a revision – the Maguire Fiat/Chrysler addition down in bog box land. Still adding 20 display spaces, but the addition has grown from 1,165 SF in the last version to 1,435 SF, include a small 418 SF second story intended as a lunch room. This project, which will need an area variance, is also looking at September-December 2015 buildout.





News Tidbits 6/27/15: A Bad week for YIMBYs

27 06 2015

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1. Starting this off with least controversial news-maker this week – John Novarr’s 209-215 Dryden Road project, which I wrote about for the Voice here and with site plan details and SPR/render links here. The first article’s a little helter-skelter as a write-up because there was a lot of frantic 11:30 PM fact-checking going on in an effort to get the news out.

The $12 million, 12,000 sq ft proposal is smaller than Collegetown Dryden, but more importantly, the project isn’t residential; it’s classroom and office space for Cornell’s MBA program, three floors for each of those uses. That definitely brings something different to Collegetown and its mostly residential focus. With assurances given that the property will be kept on the tax rolls, the initial opposition appears to mostly be related to the design, which to be honest, is rather avant-garde and an acquired taste (not one I’ve acquired, to be honest). However, bringing 200 staff and a few hundred professional students into Collegetown would be a real asset for businesses struggling to stay open amid the neighborhood’s 32/36-week profit window.

209-215 Dryden Road is within the MU-2 zoning from the looks of it, so a trip to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) seems unlikely at the moment. We’ll see what happens moving forward, this one could be a fairly smooth approvals process.

2. For a smaller developer, Ithaca-based Modern Living Rentals has been pretty busy this year. Along with 707 East Seneca Street and 902 Dryden, they have a modular duplex (3 bedrooms each, 6 total) currently under construction at 605 South Aurora Street in Ithaca city. A construction permit was issued back in 2014, according to the city planning report. The orientation is a little odd in that the new duplex is being built in front of the old home on the property, since the house is longitudinally centered but set back on its lot. Taking a guess, the intended market is likely IC students. The new units look like they’ll be ready for occupancy in time for the fall semester.

3. Here’s an interesting piece of news, courtesy of the Tompkins County Government Operations Committee – plans to sell a vacant lot to non-profit housing developer INHS. In its May minutes, the committee announced intent to sell a vacant, foreclosed parcel in Freeville for affordable housing. The property is described as a 1.72 acre parcel on Cook Street in the village, which through a little deductive searching, turns up the lot in the map above, just north of the Lehigh Crossing Senior Apartments. The minutes state that INHS is in the process of drafting up an acquisition offer for the county attorney.

Freeville is outside of INHS’s usual realm of Ithaca city and town, but INHS expanded its reach when it merged with its county equivalent, Better Housing for Tompkins County (BHTC) last December.  This might be the first new rural project post-merger. The Lehigh Crossing Apartments have 24 units on 2.3 acres, so if INHS were to build at the same density, this site would be looking at something around 18 units. Not big, but not inconsequential, especially for a 520-person village.

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4. A decision to decrease sewer hookup costs in Lansing village also shares some details about a senior housing project in the works. The news comes from the Lansing Star, where the village voted to decrease its sewer hookup fee from $2,350 per unit to $1,000 for the first unit and $500 for each additional unit. Apparently the high fee was the result of the lack of a permitting process in the 1990s.

The article notes that the developer of a mixed-use request had requested a fee waiver because it would have cost $138,650 for their “59 units of senior housing”. Now it will be $30,000. Not as good as a waiver, but still pretty good. Lansing village only has one project that meets the description provided, the 87,500 sq ft Cinema Drive project covered here previously. The semi-educated guess back in May was 51 units, so the ballpark estimate wasn’t too shabby.

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5. It’s official, 327 Eddy is under construction. Asbestos removal has been completed and the Club Sudz building is coming down. The Fontanas hope to have the building completed and ready for occupancy by next August. In replacement of Club Sudz’ and Pixel’s 7 units and 2,500 sq ft of commercial space, the new 5-story building will bring 1,800 of retail space and 22 new units with 53 bedrooms to the market.

Eagle-eyed readers might recall the building was originally going to be six floors, but a floor was lopped off since it was approved.

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6. Updated renders for 215-221 West Spencer Street, coming right up. A little more detail on the facades, some window updates from the last version, and…well, honest personal opinion…it’s a very attractive design. Materials could underwhelm it, but as presented, it appears to be a lovely addition to South Hill. Good work STREAM Collaborative.

The 12-unit, 26-bed project plans to start construction next year. The project replaces an informal (dirt) parking lot.

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7. Touching on the Old Library decision briefly, a public meeting on the two proposals will be held Monday June 29th at 6:308:30pm at Greenstar’s “The Space” (700 West Buffalo Street). Douglas Sutherland will represent Franklin Properties (first image) and Frost Travis will be presenting for Travis Hyde. Should the County Legislature decide to take another vote to see if the stalemate will be broken, the next chance will be at their July 7th meeting.

EDIT: The public meeting scheduled for the 29th has been cancelled .

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8. Onto the thornier topics – Not sure what was worse this week, the reaction to the State Street Triangle project, or the INHS Hancock Street opposition. The objective, non-partisan write-up about the State Street project is on the Voice here. This and news piece #9 are opinion pieces, feel free to ignore them.

At least the State Street objections (latest renders here), I can understand the initial shock and recoil; there’s this perception that Ithaca is a small town, and this doesn’t jive with that. Regardless, by Ithaca standards it is massive, 11 stories with 289,000 sq ft of space and 620 bedrooms; if this was, say, a four-story building with an 11-story tower on the closest third to the Commons, the reaction would probably be less vitriolic (people would still hate it, but let’s entertain this thought exercise).

But that probably won’t happen. Not with this developer, or with any developer that purchases the Trebloc site. Here’s my theory why, and it goes a little more in-depth than “they want maximum profit”.

In December, Jason Fane’s 130 East Clinton project was rejected for tax abatements, and one of the reasons cited was that market-rate housing wasn’t enough of a community benefit. State Street Triangle is mostly apartments – it contains only a modest amount of retail space, with less than 13,000 sq ft it’s not even 5% of its usable space. If it were to apply for an abatement, it would likely be rejected for the same reason.

Arguably, they could try commercial office or even industrial “maker spaces”. But the market demand for office space doesn’t seem to be growing much, and industrial uses don’t tend to be a good fit in heavily populated areas. A developer could even try condos, but if developers knowledgeable with the area are hesitating, than a bank won’t hesitate to hold off on financing (aside on that – if the Old Library goes condo, other developers and financiers will view it as an experiment, or more positively, a pioneer; until it’s clear that the project is successful, don’t expect more condos in Ithaca).

However, nothing changes the fact that building downtown is quite expensive. So, being a for-profit company, if you want to build in an expensive area, you have two options to ensure return on your $40 million investment and get the construction loans you need – build as much as possible, and/or make your units as expensive as possible. If you’re a company that specializes in student housing, you’re not going to push the latter because there’s a lower ceiling on what students can afford. That would be my guess on how State Street Triangle came to be.

There are a few possibilities that might make the project more palatable to community members, such as free bus passes for tenants or a 10% affordable housing requirement within the tower (if the INHS project oppositions are any clue, this is going to be the only way to go from here on), but given the costs, those ideas just might kill the project completely. Which is exactly what some folks are looking for.

At the very least, let’s let the Planning Board do their work. If they can help change this:
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to this:

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Let’s see what they and the developer can negotiate here.

9. Now for 210 Hancock. Here is a project that’s been transparent, incredibly transparent, throughout their whole planning process. At first, there was little opposition. Now, it threatens the proposal, apartments, townhomes and all.

A wise man once told me in when I was preparing a piece, “There’s no point in talking about this with you, the public’s going to have issues with it either way”. At this point, I’m inclined to believe him.

I’ve read the petition, and I’ve read the facebook comments. It’s regrettable, to say the least.

A lot of the comments just seem to be misinformed. People saw the petition, thought that INHS was only building the apartments, and signed it. The petition was worded with charged and selective language. I’d like to take a few minutes out to refute and argue some of the commentary.

“there must be a safe place for children to play…”

“People need access to green space, yards and the ability to get outside directly from their living space.”

“I want my 3 year old to grow up in a neighborhood where he can safely ride a bike, play sports and walk his dog.”

You’re right. That’s why the project, as proposed by INHS and tweaked by the city Planning Board, builds a playground that blends into Conley Park without the threat of vehicular traffic (shown in the plan below). Adams Street and Lake Avenue would be removed, allowing kids living in the apartments and townhomes to go the playground without crossing any street.

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“I’m a lifelong resident, and I’m frankly getting tired of seeing all these areas getting bulldozed and developed…especially when we have dozens of empty/condemned houses and buildings just sitting around!”

The rental vacancy rate is 0.5%. A healthy market is 3-5%. Further to that, if there are dozens of homes, even if they were for sale, it’s still not enough to handle the demand, which is in the few thousands.

“inadequate parking planned.”

“The parking issue is already a problem. This will only make it worse.”

“I am a Fall Creek resident and do not want this area in our neighborhood to resemble Collegetown in density or difficulty in parking.”

84 parking spaces are required by zoning, 64 are proposed. However, only 22 spaces are expected to be used by the 53 apartments. In the parking study of INHS tenants, 41% of apartment tenants have 1 car, 12% of those have two. One of the reasons why INHS’s parking utilization is so low is that many of its apartments are rented by seniors – for example, Breckenridge Place is 60% seniors on fixed incomes. With limited mobility and/or income, many don’t maintain personal cars.

In a sense, although the Cornerstone project for affordable senior housing wasn’t selected by the Old Library site, the INHS project on Hancock Street may serve in some ways as a reasonable alternative.

“We don’t owe any developer a profit on their development.”

INHS is a non-profit community developer. The townhouses sold at Holly Creek over the past year were in the $105-$120k range. For comparison’s sake, the townhomes in the Belle Sherman Cottages sold for double that, and those aren’t even considered high-end (high-end would be the $410,000 townhomes in Lansing’s Woodland Park).

The reason why construction won’t start until Fall 2016/Fall 2017, with the apartments finishing up in Fall 2017/Fall 2018, is that they are completely reliant on government grants and donations from community supporters. The townhouses won’t start for a couple of years (their time frame is 2018-2020) because funding for purchasable units is more difficult to get. Just like with the condominium debate, the government is more likely to disburse a grant if it knows there are buyers waiting in the wings. And for low and moderate-income households, far more are capable of renting versus buying. As for the rent-to-own option suggested by the petition writer, it’s speculative, complicated, and NYS/federal HUD will not provide grants for that type of property acquisition. INHS couldn’t do it if they wanted to.

“[need]assurance mixed income will be there”

It will. As I wrote in March:

“210 Hancock will have 53 apartments – the 3 bedrooms have been eliminated and split into 1 and 2 bedroom units, so the number of units has gone up but the total number of bedrooms remains the same (64). The units are targeted towards renters making 48-80% of annual median income (AMI). The AMI given is $59,150 for a one-bedroom and $71,000 for a two-bedroom. The one-bedroom units will be rent for $700-1,000/month to those making $29,600-$41,600, and the two-bedroom units will rent for $835-$1300/month to individuals making $34,720-$53,720. Three of the units will be fully handicap adapted.”

“A 54 apartment high-rise is not the appropriate place for children to grow up, low income or not.”

“It is too dense and not suited to Fall Creek or Northside.”

“I moved to Ithaca and settled in Fall Creek to live in a small town.”

For starters, it’s harder to make housing affordable if there are fewer units on the a plot of land. Secondly, because the INHS project takes lead on the city’s right-of-way (ROW) on Lake Avenue and Adams Street, the calculated density per acre is 23.6 units per acre. Cascadilla Green, one block to the north, is 20 units per acre. Also note that units are 1 and 2 bedrooms per unit; most of the houses on blocks in Northside and Fall Creek are 3 bedrooms per unit.

What probably bothers me the most are some of the comments in the online petition for INHS.

“Shame on you “Ithaca Neighborhood Housing” for even thinking of creating something that will breed trouble…”

“This is an uncivilized proposal…”

“if all on welfare, this will invite crime…”

One of the reasons I harp on affordable housing is that I grew up in affordable housing. This 147-unit mixed-income complex in suburban Syracuse. Apartment 28E. I shared a bed with one of my brothers until I was 10, and even after my mother was finally able to buy a small ranch house, we shared a bedroom until he graduated and went to college two years before I did (by that point, we had moved on up to bunk beds). My mother did what she could. We were never more than working class, but she worked hard (still does) and made sure her kids worked hard.

At least some of the comments are kind enough to be “I want affordable housing but”. Others really make it sound like that those in need of affordable housing are a contamination of the community. Those statements aren’t worth debating. They’re just hurtful.

Anyway, this might be the longest news update I’ve done, so I’m going to wrap this up and detach from the computer for a while. There may or may not be a photo update Monday night, we’ll see.





News Tidbits 6/13/15: Things that make you go Hmm

13 06 2015

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1. We’ll start this week’s round-up with the 800-pound gorilla in the room – the Old Library decision. The general, non-partisan rundown can be found in the article I did for the Voice. Rather than rehash that, I’ll give my own thoughts and opinions here.
In what should be no surprise to anyone, there’s a lot of acrimony flying around. The unavoidable problem here is that everyone has a different expectation for the site. To be honest, I was a little surprised that the Travis Hyde proposal was the winner. The Cornerstone and Franklin proposals were running about even when it came to public sentiment – many of the Voice commenters were stressing the need for affordable senior housing, just like the county did in the RFEI. Others used online petitions to push for the condos and saving the old library, but I personally felt that that was always going to be a stretch simply because the condos are a double-edged sword; they’re a needed commodity, but that “air of elitism” associated with the sale of a public asset for high-end homes would hound the legislators all the way to the voting booth.

The truth is, the RFP was designed to be unattainable, and I called it out for that last fall. There was no way a project was going to incorporate all the things it requested. Franklin couldn’t renovate the building and make their units at the affordable level. Cornerstone was able to make their units affordable but wasn’t as environmentally friendly as the others (it also requested a large PILOT). And I guess Travis Hyde was in the middle. Which on that 0-5 scale they used to score the projects, gives a simplified sort of 5-0 (2.5), 0-5 (2.5), 3-3 (3). With unrealistic expectations, of course the legislators were going to be disappointed, and they set up everyone else to be disappointed too. But the thought of holding onto a vacant building with its mechanical systems at the end of their useful lives, ready to put the county on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in replacement costs, is probably the worst option out there.

TL;DR: There was going to a large contingent angry with the legislature’s decision, whatever it was. It’s times like this I wonder if the county should’ve just sold the site to the highest bidder.

Just for the record, because the three proposals were so different, and I thought all of three of them were good community assets, I honestly didn’t have a favorite. I had a slight preference towards DPI early on, but when they dropped out I became neutral about the whole process. But it’s only the Franklin supporters that are accusing me of subversively undermining them in the Voice write-ups, and it’s making me really cold to their cause.

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2. From the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) agenda, more talk this week about removing the setbacks from Nate’s Floral Estates (more on that in a moment), and a Memorandum of Understanding that both the city and Cornell will be chipping in $100k from their affordable housing funds to help finance INHS’s 210 Hancock affordable housing project (specifically, the 53 apartments – the 12 for-sale townhomes are being financed separately).

As covered by Jeff in the Voice, concerns have been raised that the site is unfit for new development due to the possibility of environmental contamination. Nate’s is partially on the site of the old city landfill, and has been for 40 years. But concerns raised by Ithaca city councilwoman Cynthia Brock, Ithaca town board member Rich DePaolo, and environmental activist Walter Hang have tabled the zoning change for now until the Department of Health can re-review their previous correspondence on the park’s expansion and determine if the extra 30 feet is safe to build on. The expansion may still happen, and we’ll just have to wait on the DOH’s decision before any zoning changes move forward.

On a separate note, there’s this line from the March minutes, which are rolled into the agenda for approval:

Alderperson Brock would like to see an increase in owner-occupied housing in the City. She does agree that affordable housing is needed, but the need is for “for sale” housing.

The last I checked, Ithaca is the 11th most expensive city in the country for rents as a proportion of income. The city needs affordable housing, for-sale housing, and affordable for-sale housing.

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3. Fresh renders of the Tompkins Financial HQ. This one’s had some pretty substantial revisions from the initial bland brick box. A little more character and a more varied use of materials. More drawings here, cover letter here. This project’s just scooting right along, the applicants hope to have preliminary site approval granted at the June 23rd Planning and Development Board meeting. Construction is now expected to start in August and wrap up in February 2017.

A traffic study conducted by SRF Associates of Rochester determined that with only 20 employees moving from the suburbs into downtown, that the impact to the vehicular traffic on East Seneca (thousands of cars per day) will be negligible. A long-term increase in traffic is likely if other entities move into the rented space TFC vacates, but that’s well outside the scope of a traffic study.

The initial work calls for site clearing, demo of the existing drive-thru branch on site, then excavation down to the first sub-floor, thenceforth pile driving shall commence. It’s anticipated the sandy soils will make the pile-driving move along faster, but the other buildings nearby will necessitate temporary support installations during the excavation process.

On a related note, Tompkins Financial has filed an application with the IDA for a 10-year tax abatement. The application for the $35 million project (of which $28 million is for construction of the new building) states that the requested abatement would save the project $4.06 million in property taxes, and $2.112 million in sales taxes. New taxes generated and paid over the same time period would equal $3.782 million.

In the application, TFC states that it would be a few million dollars cheaper to build at “a generic rural site”, and in order to make downtown headquarters more financially acceptable, they decided to apply for tax breaks.

The application only suggests 6 new jobs over the next three years, paying $37k-$84k annually. Given previous estimates of 77 new jobs over 10 years, this lack of major job growth early on forces the later years to pick up the slack.

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Of course, we also have a render of the new drive-thru across the street, which is nice but not nearly as exciting.

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4. Sometimes I feel like I should do a random house of the week feature. Here we have a modular home being built on the 200 Block of Eastern Heights Drive in the town of Ithaca. It looks nearly finished at this point; permits for the home were filed back in March, so this one seems to have followed a normal building schedule with no major hangups.

Some modular homes are done on the cheap and look the part; others, like the Belle Sherman Cottages, do a great job with the finishes. This one may not look as great the Belle Sherman project, but it looks like a decent infill home for the Eastern Heights neighborhood. And it has great views to boot.

5. According to the town of Ithaca’s May 11th minutes, a developer has expressed interest in buying fire Station No. 9 at 309 College Avenue in Collegetown. An appraisal has been done and the City has hired a consultant to look into it. Fire Station No. 9 was built in 1968 to replace the original station, which is now The Nines. It sits in Collegetown’s densest zone, MU-2, so a potential replacement could be six floors with no parking requirement. There’s a lot to be looked at here, especially with the potential public safety impacts. But it’s something worth paying attention to over the next several months.

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6. It’s unusual in Ithaca to see real estate advertisements posted with speculative commercial build-out plans. The above computer drawing is from the online posting for the sale of 120-140 Brindley Street in the West End. The three smaller buildings already exist – the “Aeroplane Factory” on the right and the other two properties comprise ~18,000 sq ft of flex office space. The drawing also shows an unbuilt 3-story office building; I don’t know how serious plans were for it, but it’s probably just conceptual. The real estate ad itself notes that a live/work building is possible, as well as a 6-story building of 25,000 sq ft.  The 2.38 acre site’s for sale for $2.79 million.





140 College Avenue Construction Update, 6/2015

11 06 2015

Just up the street from 114 Catherine and a couple blocks from 202 Eddy is 140 College Avenue, also known as the John Snaith House. Since last fall, work has been underway on a 3,800 sq ft, 12-bedroom addition to the 1874 structure.

John Snaith was an English builder, stone cutter and architect who came to Ithaca in 1869 to do work on Ezra Cornell’s Llenroc mansion (under construction at the time) and other buildings for the nascent university. Snaith lived in Ithaca for over a decade. He built the original Ithaca High School (destroyed by fire in 1912) and did work on the Sage Mansion, where he was fired by the ever-impatient Henry Sage.

After Snaith moved to Albany, the house was used as a boarding house, a B&B in the 1980s, and a private single-family home. The house was rented out to a landlady and her boarders when it was partially destroyed by fire in 1894. Snaith rebuilt the home shortly before his passing in 1896, but redesigned the top floor with mansard trusses and added dormer windows. Today, it’s student-oriented housing.

The addition is a sympathetic design approved by the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council (the house was designated a historic structure in 2011), separated from the original house by a glass “hyphen” connector. In the photos below, the exterior work is virtually complete, with the lap siding fully installed, as are all the windows and doors. Interior finishing is seemingly all that is left. This one should be ready for its first 12 occupants shortly. As someone who had reservations about the addition, I will admit that it came out nice.

The project is designed by local architect Jason Demarest and developed by Po Family Realty, a smaller Collegetown landlord.

None of the larger projects in Collegetown are underway just yet. Hopefully in the next few months we’ll see work start at 307 College (96 beds), 327 Eddy (64 beds) and 205 Dryden (40 beds), and Collegetown Terrace is expected to start construction of its 300+ bed phase III this year. A quick check of the neighborhood showed that construction has not yet started on a 6-bedroom duplex planned behind 424 Dryden.

Then of course, we have Novarr’s demolition work on the 200 Block of Dryden Avenue. Once demolition is complete, the site will remain empty until whatever he proposes is approved and financed.

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114 Catherine Street Construction Update, 6/2015

10 06 2015

Workers have been busy at the site of 114 Catherine Street in Collegetown. On Friday, a flatbed truck was parked just off-site, delivering the roof gables for the 3-story, 17-bedroom apartment building. Framing for the structure is actively underway, with recently-created rough openings showing the position of the windows and doors in the new 3-unit structure.

The architect behind this project is local architectural firm Jagat Sharma, and he building is being developed by Ithacan Nick Lambrou of Lambrou Real Estate. Plans call for the replacement of a parking lot with a 3-story, 4,180 sq ft structure with a 5-bedroom apartment on the first floor and a 6-bedroom apartment on the second floor and on the third floor. Building loan documents filed with the county establish the construction costs to be $1.3 million.

If construction stays to schedule, the building should be completed in time for Cornell’s fall semester.

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