Cornell Ag Quad Rehabilitation Construction Update, 9/2016

28 09 2016

Kinda outside the normal coverage, but an important project nevertheless. Cornell is currently undertaking a major rehabilitation of the CALS Quadrangle, better known as the “Ag Quad”. The $9.6 million “Ag Quad Utility Infrastructure Upgrades and Landscape Revitalization Project” (originally $7.8 million) began during the summer, and is scheduled for a completion before the 2017-18 academic year. Most of the construction is planned during the summer months of 2016 and 2017, when the ground is easier to work with and impact on campus activities is at a minimum.

According to university landscape architect David Cutter, the work has planned for at least a decade, but was a lower priority vs. other projects such as the Mann Library and Warren Hall renovations, which used the quad as a staging area. With the bulk of building renovations complete (a new academic building on the south side of the quad, but it’s just a hazy concept at this time), and with infrastructure approaching 100 years old, the university decided now was as good a time as any to get the rehab underway. Plans were approved by the Ithaca city Planning Board in February.

The first phase is what’s underway now. That involves the replacement of underground utilities infrastructure. In that catch-all are water pipes, sewer pipes, steam pipes, and a new ductbank (electrical conduit grouping) for telecommunications from the CIT Building. Several walkways have been excavated to make way for new or improved underground utilities corridors. The second phase is refreshed landscaping. Along with new permeable pavement walkways and entrance plazas in front of Roberts Hall and Mann Library come 54 new tree plantings, a rain garden, and upgraded lighting (from two poles to twenty). The plazas will come with movable tables and chairs, traditional benches and concrete slab benches (rough-hewn sides, cut/thermally-finished tops). For additional safety, the rehabbed quad will host collapsible bollards, an increased number of blue light security phones, and a new emergency vehicle path. Primary walkways will be 12′ wide, and secondary walkways 8′ wide. Some of the new garden spaces and landscaping will be done by students in various CALS programs.

The project has been the subject of relatively little controversy compared to most. Some consternation was expressed that four Cornellian cherry trees next to the west side of the Plant Science Building would be cut down for “infrastructure changes”, but other than that, there wasn’t much else in the way of concern or opposition. Eleven other trees are also or are being removed, so the net gain is 39.

The $9.6 million is coming mostly out of the university’s budget (CALS and Utilities), with some private funds. MKW & Associates LLC of New Jersey is the lead landscape architect, Over & Under Piping Contractors Inc. of Auburn is the GC, and Albany-based CHA Consulting Inc. is providing civil engineering expertise.

In the photos below, the new sanitary and steam pipes are being fed through a protective concrete threader, and new cobbled pavers being paid out in front of Mann. The rebar sticking out of the curved concrete in front of Mann is part of a bi-level concrete stairwall that will be capped with cut stone – my guess is the rebar is there to strengthen the concrete, and will be trimmed down once the concrete is fully cured and the project team is ready to move on to the next step. The metal tool on the left side of the last photo is a portable trench shield used for pipe installation.

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News Tidbits 9/24/16: The Implicit and the Explicit

24 09 2016

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1. Over in the town of Dryden, it looks like Buzz Dolph and STREAM Collaborative’s Tiny Timbers project is up for preliminary approval. The site plan hasn’t changed much, just slight modifications for a dumpster/recycling enclosure and a bus pull-off. However, the home options have been expanded a bit. There will be five options, ranging from a 1-story 525 SF home starting at $99,500, to a 1,050 SF model priced at $184,500. Design specs (flooring, finishes, HVAC) can be found here.

Along with Tiny Timbers, Dolph is planning a similar, smaller project near his house on Quarry Road in Dryden town. That $800,000 project, called “Quarry Ridge Cooperative“, consists of two duplexes (four units), all owner-occupied. The homes will be connected to a shared driveway and carport through breezeways. Back of the envelope calculations suggest these units will be around 1,000 SF each. The 2.26 acres will be collectively owned by the four homeowners.

2. On a related note, another sister project to Tiny Timbers is being prepped for a site on the city’s portion of West Hill. Dolph et al. are looking to do a similar development to the one in Varna on a 5.45 acre parcel at the south end of the 400 Block of Campbell Avenue, which was noted in a weekly news roundup when it hit the market back for $195k in August 2015. The Journal’s Nick Reynolds touched on it in a through write-up he did earlier this week. The comprehensive plan calls this portion of West Hill low-density residential, less than 10 units per acre. Current zoning is R-1a, 10000 SF minimum lot size with mandatory off-street parking, although maybe a cluster subdivision would come into play here. The Varna property is a little over 6 units per acre. If one assumes a similar density to the Varna project, the ballpark is about 35 units, if sticking to the 10000 SF lot size, then 23 units.

On the one hand, expect some grumbling from neighbors who won’t be thrilled with development at the end of their dead-end street. On the other hand, these small houses are modestly-sized and priced, they’ll be owner-occupied, and if the Varna site is any indication, the landscaping and building design will be aesthetically pleasing.

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3. I dunno if I’ve ever seen such strenuous contention between the planning board and the city’s planning department. The planning board’s objected to Zoning Director Phyllis Radke’s determination that the project is legal per the Form District MU-1 Zoning.

The document put forth by John Schroeder and approved by the board rests on the following interpretations:
-in cases where the zoning isn’t explicitly stated in denser zones, it should rely on what is stated in less dense codes, and interpretations of the introductory “purpose and intent” section of the code, which qualifies similarities of form and scale if the numbers and dimensions for facade length aren’t explicitly stated.

-The argument also draws debate towards the unstated but implied interpretation of street facade, which refers to the building’s primary face, vs. building facades facing both streets. The board’s filing argues that the Bool Street facade was intended as a primary facade early on.

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-Unlabeled parts of the diagram, such as MU-1’s, have no meaning. Even if they could give the impression of longer facades, it’s not the intent of the code.

The document goes on to say that Radke “invented claims unsupported by the text”, uses “tortured logic” and “silly conclusions”. Ouch.  Since interpretation is not a cut-and-dry matter of clear definitions, so we end up with an argument from both sides that relies on an interpretation of ambiguities, something more akin to a court room. A curious result of this discussion is that the Planning Board had to send out a letter to neighbors saying they would be arguing zoning determinations, which are going to be far out of most readers’ expertise, as the precise details and intent of the 2014 zoning will be the primary driver of this debate.

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4. The Ithacan is reporting a mid-to-late October opening for the Marriott, the Journal is reporting November. Presumably, one of them is correct. The delay from the original August opening is attributed to a labor shortage. Hiring is currently underway for the 159-room hotel and its restaurant, which according to the IJ, are expected to employ 50 to 60 in total. About 75% will be full-time, and wages are expected to run from $10/hr + tips for wait staff, to $18-$19/hour, with the hope that a premium paycheck compared to similar positions at other local hotels will translate to a premium experience for guests.

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5. It looks like TC3’s Childcare facility is well on its way to reality. At least $4.5 million has been secured for the $5.5 million project and its scholarship endowment for students with children. $2.5 million for that was recently received in a set of state grant and funds, according to WHCU. Another $2 million comes from benefactor Arthur Kuckes, for whom the new facility will be named.

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6. It’s been a while since I’ve done house of the week. So, here’s a new house underway on the 200 Block of Pearl Street in the city’s Bryant Park neighborhood. Ithaca’s Carina Construction is doing their modular magic here, the pieces have been assembled and most of the siding and roof trim has been attached. Not 100% sure if there will be a porch, the lack of siding above the door suggests it’s a possibility.

To be honest, when I was going through my list of single-families underway, I was mostly finding that Carina dominated the list. Since Avalon Homes went under, and most stick-builds are beaucoup bucks due to higher labor and materials costs, Carina’s offerings have broad appeal in Ithaca’s isolated, tight home market.

The lot was created four years ago by a subdivision of 222 Miller across the street. Since then, it exchanged hands a few times before a local realtor sold the property for $130,000 in July to a family who relocated to the area from Texas.

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7. The Planning Board Agenda is up, and it’s the shortest in ages, thanks to that special meeting last week. Here’s the rundown:

1.  Agenda Review                                                      6:00
2.  Privilege of the Floor                                              6:01

 3.  Subdivision Review

A. Project:  Minor Subdivision                                      6:15
Location: 404 Wood St.
Actions: Declaration of Lead Agency  – PUBLIC HEARING – Determination of Environmental Significance – Recommendation to BZA

A minor subdivision to split a double-lot in Ithaca’s South Side neighborhood into two lots, one with the existing house and one that would be used for a new house or small apartment building. A variance for an existing rear year deficiency of the house would need to be approved (the rear deficiency wouldn’t be affected by the new lot which is on the east side, but it’s a legal technicality).
B. Project:  Minor Subdivision                                          6:30
Location: 1001 N. Aurora St. (Tax Parcel # 12.-6-13)
Actions: Declaration of Lead Agency – PUBLIC HEARING – Determination of Environmental Significance
Touched on this one last week. Deconstruction of an existing single-family home for two two-family homes, each on its lot.

4. Site Plan Review

A. Project:  Two Duplexes                                              6:45
Location: 1001 N. Aurora St. (Tax Parcel # 12.-6-13)
Applicant: Dan Hirtler for Stavros Stavropoulos
Actions: Declaration of Lead Agency – PUBLIC HEARING – Determination of Environmental Significance – Consideration of Preliminary & Final Site Plan Approval

B. SKETCH PLAN:  Townhomes & Apartments at 119-121 & 125 College Ave.        7:00

I’ve spilled some electronic ink on this project before – Novarr’s $10 million project for faculty townhomes and apartments. Rumor mill says “modern-looking” and “glassy”, which given Novarr’s fondness for ikon.5 architects (his guest house is on the main page of their portfolio), that isn’t a surprise. The three parcels are CR-4 zoning, so 4 stories and 50% lot coverage allowed. Previous estimates were for 50-60 units. I’d say the biggest uncertainty in approvals comes from the existing apartment houses, which haven’t been declared historic, but former councilwoman Mary Tomlan and the Planning Board’s John Schroeder recommended for consideration in 2009 (only 15 of the 31 suggestions were considered, and only 2 received historic designation, Snaith House and Grandview House). Novarr’s been amenable to compromises before (see Collegetown Terrace), so we’ll see what happens here.

5. Zoning Appeals
• #3044, Area Variance, 170 Pearsall Pl.
• #3046, Area Variance, 404 Wood St.
• #3048, Appeal of Zoning Determination, 201 College Ave.                                 7:30

 





Cayuga Meadows Construction Update, 9/2016

22 09 2016

LeChase Construction is making good progress on Conifer LLC’s 68-unit Cayuga Meadows apartment project off of West Hill Drive in the town of Ithaca. The wood frame is topped out on the north side of the L-shaped building, where they’re starting to nail plywood (the decking) to the roof trusses – later they’ll be covered over with tar paper or a similar material, followed by the shingles. It also looks like they’ve started attaching a little Tyvek housewrap to the second floor of the structure. As you go southward, framing is only up to the second floor, with rough openings in the plywood for doors and windows. At the rear of the property, a trench has been dug for a new water main, which is being routed below what will be the building’s parking lot.

The apartment units, which are intended for seniors with limited incomes, are expect to be ready for occupancy next fall. More information about the project can be found here.

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News Tidbits 9/17/16: Point By Point

17 09 2016

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1. Starting this week off with the Maguires again. Although there was significant vocal opposition from planning committee members to the proposal, they decided to postpone the decision for another month. It would have been more merciful and understanding if they had just declined to continue, but the committee voted 4-1 against making a decision at their Wednesday night meeting, citing to need to process public comment. Most of the comments in favor of the proposal mostly spoke highly of the Maguires as employers and economic drivers (and even some of the opposition did as well), most of the opposition focused on the plan not meshing with visions for what they want the neighborhood to become. The board will consider a resolution against the project next month, but it sounds like the decision has already been made.

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2. This will be something of an unusual month. Along with the typical retinue of meetings, the Planning Board will have a special meeting next week to weigh in on the next round of Chain Works District EIS public comments, approve some slight revisions to 210 Hancock, and zoning determination for 201 College Avenue.

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The changes to 210 Hancock are noticeable but minor. On the landscaping side, the concrete curb around the playground is proposed to be removed as a cost-saving measure, a fence separating the for-sale and for-rent townhouses will be removed and a fire lane put in, and the Lake Avenue paving will be changed up to match the waterfront trail. For the buildings, the 54-unit apartment building would have some windows tweaked or removed to standardize sizes (reduce cost) and fire safety concerns, and some of the yellow metal panels would be replaced with brick for cost and ease of installation. No changes are proposed to the townhouses.

As for 201 College, City Zoning Director Phyllis Radke issued a determination that 201 College is compliant and permitted by MU-1 zoning. She also states a number of concerns with the Planning Board’s handling of the review. Among the reasons cited are:

  • Pre-site plan review in November 2015 by zoning and planning concluded the project met CAFD guidelines.
  • Facade isn’t defined in the CAFD document. Building length and facade length can be interpreted as two separate measurements.
  • Facade length did not come up as a concern until July, four months after meetings began, after design review by the board, and after prelim site approval had been granted.
  • The building meets the conceptual guidelines provided in the zoning. While there are concerns about (yet unwritten) design standards and activation of both street facades, there’s nothing in the code for MU-1 that explicitly limits facade length on any side other than the primary face. There is, however, in MU-2. So secondary street facade length was stated in the code for one zone, but in no others. Even though it’s been argued as an ambiguity, the board did not consider secondary street facade length in its review of a CR-2 zoned duplex at 319 Oak Avenue in early 2015. The activation requirements apply only to the primary face for non MU-2 structures. If the board decided it was still ambiguous, Hess Realty Corp. vs. Town of Rotterdam (1993) says that ambiguities must be resolved in the favor of the property owner.
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  • The 2009 vision guidelines that people keep citing, and Neil uses on the “Save our Soul” facebook page – not only do they suggest taking down Neil’s house, they also have building lengths running the entirety of Bool Street.

With all that noted, even if it’s decided the project is in fact legal and doesn’t need a trip to the BZA, it likely won’t be moving forward this year, if at all. Visum couldn’t start in time for the desired August 2017 completion, and the project and site are for sale. For a potential buyer, though, it would be of significant benefit to have the zoning debate resolved before any sale occurs.

3. Out in the towns, there’s not a whole lot of development discussion in next week’s agendas. The town of Ithaca will continue its review of Maplewood Park (running behind schedule at this point) and issue a couple of lot subdivisions, neither of which are expected to be a big debate.  The town of Dryden received plans for a 10,500 SF self-storage facility for the vacant northeast corner of Freeville Road and Enterprise Drive. The 70′ x 150′ warehouse will house 121 units, and about 7,500 SF will be climate-controlled. The project will cost about $350,000. There also plans for an Open Development Area (ODA) on Dryden’s Scofield Road. ODA means an ROW or easement is required for building permits, and the town has to review the plans – nothing’s been filed yet.

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4. A pair of construction loan agreements worth noting this week. The first is Storage Squad’s facility going up at 1401 Dryden Road east of Varna. According to a filing on the 12th, the company received a construction loan of $1.4 million from Tompkins Trust. That money will be used to finance the build-out of their 79,600 SF storage facility already underway. The second is the Dollar General being built at the corner of Route 34/East Shore Drive and Cayuga Vista Drive in Lansing. Primax Properties (under the name Sea Mountain Ventures II LLC) received a $956,000 loan to build the 9,100 SF retail store, which is also under construction. that loan was also filed on the 12th. The lending institution is BB&T, a major regional bank in the Southeast. Primax is headquartered in Charlotte, and BB&T is headquartered just 90 minutes up the road in Winston-Salem, so in this case, it’s less about a bank being interested in Ithaca, and more about two major companies located near each other and having an established business relationship.

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5. So the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s Economic Development Committee selected the $3.7 million Seneca/Corn proposal to submit to the state for the Restore NY 4 grant. And I feel a bit embarrassed because the Voice story, comparing the Seneca/Corn proposal and the State Street rehabs, ran after the decision was made, so it comes off as a bit clueless thanks to timing. Anyway, the application will be looked at by the Planning Committee, and submitted in early October. If all goes well, funding could be granted by the beginning of next year, with the renovated Wyllie’s and the Ithaca Glass overbuild ready for tenants by early 2018. Ed Cope is the developer, STREAM Collaborative the architect.

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6. For sale this week, and for the budding entrepreneur – 2,310 SF neighborhood commercial retail at 402-04 West Court Street in the Washington Park neighborhood. Talk about a change. When I started at Cornell ten years ago, this was “The Corner Store”, and it was severely run down. I don’t remember the florist sign, but everything else in the assessment photo below fits my memories from the mid 2000s.

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During the past ten years, the bump-out was renovated, then the building was repainted, and The Corner Store became the “Red and White Cafe“, a highly-regarded neighborhood fish fry and seafood restaurant. According to the listing, the major renovations came about three years ago. County records indicate the property last exchanged hands in 1988. Along with the retail space comes 432 SF of storage.

The listing is asking for $975,000, but that would be for building and business – the building and lot are valued at $120,000, so any potential buyer is going to be much more interested in the cafe than the building.





News Tidbits 9/10/16: Situations To Be Avoided

10 09 2016

Pardon the week hiatus. Sometimes, by the time there’s enough news to share, it’s already the weekend, so it just makes more sense to fun a longer feature the following week.

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1. The Maguire dealership proposal for Carpenter Business Park had a lukewarm reception at its public info session a week and a half ago. A copy of the application can be found here, and Second Ward Councilman Ducson Nguyen was kind enough to upload a 90-minute video of the meeting on his facebook page, and a transcript of the meeting can be found here. A second public info meeting will be held on the 14th.

You might recall news of the project broke last winter, followed shortly thereafter by a vote of the city Common Council to subject waterfront and waterfront-vicinity properties to a “Temporary Mandatory Planned Unit Development” (TM-PUD), meaning that any building proposal would be subject to a vote of the Common Council as a stipulation of approval (typically, projects only need the Planning Board’s consent, plus the BZA and/or ILPC if needed). One other project has gone through the TM-PUD process since then, the Cherry Artspace performing arts building. The small experimental theater held its public info meetings at the end of March and mid-April. It enjoyed fairly broad  public support, but two of the eight voting councilmen still voted against its construction at the May meeting. If a a project with widespread support has some trouble getting passage, you can already guess what will happen with the Maguire proposal.

There’s only about a year left in that TM-PUD. But for the Maguires, it was too late as soon as the TM-PUD was passed. Perhaps more concerning, this is creating one of those cases where everybody’s opinion is coming out of the woodwork – some demand it be a park, some say industrial space only, Form Ithaca advocates walkable mixed-uses, and then there was that verbal brawl on the Ithaca West list-serve about the evils of the Ithaca Community Garden. A lot of folks think their idea is the only reasonable option, so if this plays out like the old library site, there’s going to be a lot of acrimony in the long run. Hopefully when the TM-PUD expires, the city will have the new urban mixed-use zoning ready for implementation, so situations like this can be avoided in the future.

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2. Can’t help but feel just a little sympathetic towards Steve Fontana – he tried to have this project open for move-in, and everything that could go wrong, was going wrong. The Journal’s Nick Reynolds reports that first it was a safety systems issue with the elevator holding up the certificate of occupancy, and then a water main burst. The latest planned opening date is September 9th, when the initial date was August 1st. Now it’s a financial issue, a public relations issue, and a mess for all involved. This could be used as an example of why Todd Fox put the 201 College site up for sale – it became clear that August 2017 opening wasn’t going to happen.

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3. On that note, I’m going touch on 201 College real quick. Given the amount of time that went into the Collegetown Form District – six years – this just looks bad all around. On the one hand, Todd Fox could benefit from more patience (granted, we don’t know what the financing situation was), and the character attack on Neil Golder in his supporting documentation turned some people off to his cause. But what John Schroeder did also deserves strong scrutiny. It’s odd to claim a zoning code issue when the MU-1 code is only three pages, and he helped write it. He was also aware that 201 College went through pre-site plan review with the city’s Planning Department, and they gave it the okay to proceed with review. This looks very suspiciously like Schroeder was explicitly looking for anything he could to help out his old colleague Neil, and that small ambiguity was the best he could do, which he was able to parlay with success.

This continues an uncomfortable pattern we’ve seen with other projects like the Old Library where one government body gives the OK, and another stops it after the consent is given. The whole point of these laborious review processes is to prevent controversy from arising. Who wants to take on the risk of proposing condos, mixed-use and affordable housing when, given that many projects require the approvals of multiple boards and committees, there’s a track record of mixed signals?

Rezoning has come up as an idea, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Spot rezoning (single-lot rezoning) would likely be deemed illegal because the current zoning is consistent with the recently-passed Comprehensive Plan, something the courts look for in zoning lawsuits. Thinking slightly broader, Collegetown’s MU-1 is nine parcels – Fox, Josh Lower and John Novarr, all major local developers, own seven of them. If 20% of those affected by a rezoning proposal file a protest petition, a super-majority of the Common Council – 75%, 8 of 10 in practice – is required for rezoning approval. That is what stopped the first Collegetown rezoning during the Peterson administration. If it couldn’t pass then, a similar super-majority event is unlikely to pass now.

4. On the edge of Ithaca’s South Side neighborhood, the CVS Pharmacy sold for a pretty penny – or rather, $4.09 million, on the 1st. The property is assessed at $1.8 million, but sold for $3.6 million in 2006. The buyer is an LLC traceable to a suburban Boston firm with a broad retail space portfolio, so whether they plan to keep things as they are, or propose something new, is anyone’s guess.

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5. Finally, a copy of the Site Plan Review application for Newman Development Group’s City Centre project at 301 East State Street in Downtown Ithaca. Keep in mind, this is from the June filing, so things are likely to have been updated or revised in response to the planning board. The 9 story building tops out at 96 feet. The approximate construction cost at the time of the filing was $32 million, with a proposed build-out from February 2017 to October 2019, which seems lengthy, and in another part of the document it says construction will last only 20 months. 400 construction jobs, 50 permanent jobs by tenants in the 10,600 SF of first floor retail, and building service staff. Overall square footage isn’t given, but given the retail and 7,225 SF of amenity space, 160,000 SF probably isn’t a bad first guess. For comparison, State Street Triangle was 288,000 SF, later reduced to the same height and similar dimensions as City Centre. In a sense, City Centre started off where SST required months to get to. Hopefully that bodes well for the proposal.

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6. Remember that airport business park study from a while back? There’s no strong demand for a business park. But the NYS DOT wants to move their waterfront office and storage facility to the site. So removing those salt sheds and replacing them with mixed-use waterfront property won’t happen until the state buys whatever it needs here, builds and moves in to a new facility. Not sure what they’ll do with the property on Ellis Drive in Dryden that they’ve owned for the past decade; presumably sell it as surplus, but who knows?

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7. From the Ithaca Times: The Al-Huda Islamic Center hopes to start construction on their Graham Road mosque in 2017, and then obtain land for burials later this decade. In other news, new Times reporter Lori Sanken is reporting on the Chain Works progress, the Planning Board requesting color changes, careful consideration of heights, and debates about forest [preservation and Route 96B. Developer Dave Lubin of UnChained Properties wants to do renovations to existing buildings first, but seeing as they have yet to have the state sign off on a remediation place, they’re considering the construction of new buildings first, if NYS DEC approval for remediation gets delayed. And Catholic Charities and non-profit group Ithaca Welcomes Refugees are actively trying to procure affordable living space for 50 refugees who will be arriving in the Ithaca area after October 1st.

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8. It’s been incubating for a while, but it looks like former Lansing town supervisor A. Scott Pinney’s plan for 15 duplexes (30 units) is moving forward. A gravel road will be extended from 4 existing duplexes at 390 Peruville Road (NYS 34B), looping through the property from Scofield to Peruville. The “Developer’s Conference” to talk about the project will be a part of the Lansing town planning board’s meeting next Monday. Also up for discussion are slight revisions to the Village Solars PDA, related to the community center and first-floor commercial space in the proposed Building F.

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9. From the Ithaca city Projects Memo for September, it looks like there’s a couple of subdivisions planned. One is for 404 Wood Street in the South Side neighborhood, where the owner wants to subdivide a double-lot he has for sale, allowing the vacant lot to be developed for a house or small apartment building. Quoting the application, “Instead of an empty grassy lot, there would be a building on it”. Points for simplicity.

The other is a double lot at 1001 North Aurora Street in Fall Creek. This came up a couple of weeks ago in a weekly tidbits round-up, because the new owner, Stavros Stavropoulos, received a $400,000 loan to build a duplex. Turns out it’s actually two duplexes, which require a lot subdivision, and will trigger planning board review. The application notes that even with the density increase, it’s still less than the surrounding neighborhood. The two two-family homes with have 3 bedrooms and about 1200 SF per unit, and are designed by local architect Daniel R. Hirtler to fit in with the neighborhood. Unusually, the application includes documentation of the previous owner signing off on the redevelopment plan. Construction is estimated to run from this month through May 2017.





Tompkins Financial Corporation HQ Construction Update, 8/2016

31 08 2016

Tompkins Financial Corporation’s decision to build in downtown Ithaca is seen as something of a major victory by civic groups and local leaders. For one, it’s a major economic investment, and for two, it’s taken by many as a sign that downtown Ithaca has “turned the corner”.

Tompkins Financial Corporation is the parent company of Tompkins Trust Bank, as well as some other financial units. The company can trace its roots back to Tompkins County Bank’s formation in 1836. Along with Tompkins, TFC also manages several smaller banks throughout New York and Pennsylvania, totaling 67 branches and about 1,100 employees. About 280 of those work in downtown Ithaca at the current headquarters.

Currently, the office space is decentralized, scattered throughout multiple downtown sites and one suburban site, some of which are owned and others of which are rented. The bank began studies several years ago to examine a new headquarters, and looked at an urban location downtown, and a suburban location. Throughout the last 50 years, most large private companies have opted for the latter, and not without good reason. The logistics are simpler, the land is cheaper, the parking is easier – a study commissioned by TFC showed they could have saved over three million dollars by choosing a suburban site. But, as downtowns like Ithaca’s have made a resurgence in popularity, and given the bank’s long-time presence in downtown, they decided to pursue the urban option.

The new headquarters, first proposed in March 2015, will keep 282 employees in downtown (making an average annual wage of about $81k), add 18 more from the consolidation of the Craft Road office in Lansing, and potentially add a number of new jobs as the bank continues to grow. The IDA application gives 6 new positions over 3 years, all well over living wage; paperwork submitted to the city says 77 jobs over ten years. The project applied for and received a ten-year tax abatement from the Tompkins County IDA, saving about $4.06 million in property taxes and $2.112 million in one-time sales taxes. The community hearing was generally supportive for an abatement, and even with the reduced short-term tax bill, a net positive of $3.78 million will still be paid in taxes over the next decade.

Now, a little about the site and the building. The project is really two separate projects, one much smaller than the other. The first, at 119 E. Seneca, will build a 965 SF drive-thru bank branch on what is current first floor parking underneath a 1970s office building owned by TFC. The surface lot will be reconfigured to support the drive-thru functions, and retain a small amount of parking space.

Across the street is where the real meat of the project is. Construction is currently underway on a 7-story, 110,000 SF commercial building at 118 East Seneca, with customer services and 20-25 parking spaces on the first floor and office space on floors 2-7, which will have larger floor-plates that will overhang over the first floor. The first through third floor offices will be geared towards consumer retail operations, and the top four floors will house general operations and senior leadership. The building will be 100 feet tall, just like the 10-story Marriott finishing up a few blocks away. Modern office buildings usually have 14′ floor-to-ceiling heights due to the size of heavy-duty commercial utility systems, better visibility and natural light penetration, and to provide ample accommodation for tenants’ computer equipment. A bit of a prestige factor also comes into play. Materials include a granite base, stone veneer on the front, light and dark brick veneer, and aluminum panels on the top floor’s sides and rear walls. TFC’s HQ will be built to LEED standards, but the company will not be seeking LEED certification due to the costs involved.

The new headquarters replaces a parking lot and drive-thru bank branch  built in 1990, and prior to that the site was home to the two-story Temple Theater, which despite described as “cramped”, “shabby” and “grungy”, brought to Ithaca the first showings of “The Godfather” and other big-budget films of the early 1970s. The Temple Theater operated from 1928 to 1976, when it closed not long after the mall opened in Lansing. The building was razed not long afterward.

Estimated costs have bounced around a little bit – initially reported as $26.5 million, they were up to $28 million by the time of the IDA application, and $31.3 million at the time of groundbreaking. The March sketch plan called for final approvals by June 2015, but they didn’t happen until December 2015. Not entirely the city’s fault, the timeline was very ambitious.

The site has been partially cleared and the existing drive-thru branch has been demolished. Currently, the project is undergoing foundation excavation and pile-driving. You can see the trenches being dug along the perimeter, and wood lagging and steel H beams have been laid along the outer edges to provide stability to the soil and buildings of adjacent properties. According to the report from Elwyn & Palmer, the project team will dig down about 12-13 feet for the sub-floor, thenceforth pile driving shall commence, 65-70 feet down. 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. Ithaca firms HOLT Architects and Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects are responsible for the design of the project, and Rochester’s LeChase Construction is the general contractor.

When TFC’s new headquarters opens in March 2018, expect something of a glut in the local office market as a lot of space is emptied in a short time. TFC CEO Grag Hartz has said that 119 and 121 East Seneca would be held onto and rented out, with the bank retaking space in those buildings as it needs. However, their office and bank on the Commons (the historic 2 and 3-story buildings on Bank Alley just south of the M&T Building) would be sold. The project is indirectly spurring Bank Tower’s conversion to apartments, given the tepid office market but very hot residential market downtown. Token teaser if you’ve read this far – a second conversion project is in the early stages.

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Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 8/2016

30 08 2016

In case you missed it, I did an interview with owner/developer David Hart of Hart Hotels, which can be found on the Voice here. Here’s some of the material that didn’t make the final cut.

Q: So, let’s start with a little about you. Hart Hotels is family operation, yes?

DH: My dad was the founder of our company, my sisters and I have followed him as principals. But we have non-family members who have been with us for a long time that have been a driving force. This is our 30th year in business.

Q: This is actually the second phase, right? There was a modernization and renovation already completed in the lobby and hotel area, if my notes are right.

DH: The 61 rooms in the hotel tower, we renovated down to the studs. The main building above the lobby has another 19 rooms, original 1970s guestrooms, we renovated to the studs as well, a little over a year ago. Now we’re into phase 2, which is new construction, and some more renovations.

Q: I believe plans filed with this plan have a third phase, right? One that considers the possibility of a three-story hotel addition on the wing going up now, and a conference center?

DH: Nothing planned or approved right now.

Q: Further on that topic, some folks have expressed concerns that [the hotel boom] is not economically sustainable. A sort of fear of a hotel bust to follow the hotel boom. What would you say to address those concerns?

DH: One of the things that we’re lacking is a large format meeting space, a type of conference center. It’s unusual for a city the size of Ithaca to not have its own meeting space, so part of our overall market preference is inhibited by not having that space. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for demand to outstrip supply on many weekends in Tompkins County or downtown Ithaca, so I don’t see the problem of oversupply on most Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year. So Sunday-Thursday business is where the boat needs to be lifted a little bit, especially with all the new rooms. Our meeting space will help that a little bit.

Q: As a major hotel operator, what would you say are the biggest advantages to being in Ithaca and specifically, downtown Ithaca, and what are the biggest challenges? What opportunities do you see over the next years? Where do see the Hotel Ithaca, in say, five years from now?

DH: Some of the hurdles are the seasonality, the winter vs. summer. The Finger Lakes are a popular destination, but the seasonality is harsher when the schools are out of session, we’re reliant on the interest the schools and colleges generate. Cornell and Ithaca College bring a lot of business to us. Sports, scholastic events, meetings, they drive a lot of demand from the routine list of activities in the school calendar. This is a strong region for hospitality, we’ve been in the Ithaca area for a while, the region continues to grow in popularity with the wineries, the cheesemakers, the distillers and craft beer-makers, those are all part of the things we have to sell and market and promote. And lake activity and recreation is also a part of our overall marketing and selling of the region. That translates to hotel room demand.

…In terms of expansions, sites in downtown are hard to come by and expensive, so I don’t know how much more new supply there will be downtown. If you look at 13, there have been new hotels, they’re fringe, limited-service, so we might see some growth out there, but there are a fair number of rooms and brands there so I don’t know how much more they can grow….

We want to be ready for graduation, have the building closed up by winter. The frame is being assembled offsite.

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