News Tidbits 11/30/15: It’s like the 1990s All Over Again

30 11 2015


1. I want to start this oddly-timed roundup with a big thanks to the readers and commenters who encouraged me to write last Monday’s op-ed. If it wasn’t for you guys, I would have held off. I’m not looking to make waves, but there is a significant, valid concern over Cornell’s housing shortage, and it merited a rebuke.

I also want to thank you guys because the emails I received (about 10 separate readers) were pretty much offloading on how much they hate Cornell, which completely missed the point the article. Worse still, one went into a rant on not only students, but on how much they hate racial minorities, and a second went off into a density rant (followed by stomach-churning quote “if nurses, police and teachers can’t afford to live here, they shouldn’t be living here”). If I thought they were representative of Ithaca for even a moment, I’d hang up my keyboard. But I know that there are good people like the readers here, who are more thoughtful, knowledgeable and arguably less crazy.

So, with all that noted, here’s the actual news – someone familiar with the Cornell Campus Planning Committee wrote in to say that the Maplewood replacement is expected to have 600-700 beds, and that the committee is still hopeful for an August 2017 opening, which would mean it would have to presented fairly soon (that would still leave a year-long gap in housing, but better late than never). They also acknowledged that “Cornell didn’t do such a good job” with planning for a possible housing shortage, which although not an official statement, seems as good of a justification for Monday’s piece as any.


2. Then there was the other piece that dovetailed the affordable housing setbacks last week – Greenways, INHS’s 46-unit affordable owner-occupied townhouse project in the East Ithaca neighborhood, is being abandoned. A part two article with some hard data is being planned. There’s no real silver lining here. It’s Cornell land and the university could potentially revive it, but there’s no indication that will ever happen.

It’s just been a crappy week for housing affordability in Ithaca.

3. Over in Collegetown, several rental homes are being offloaded at once. The properties, 120-134 Linden Avenue, consist of six student apartment houses, with a listed price of $6.5 million. A check of the county website indicates the properties are assessed at $2.75 million, and a cross-check of the Collegetown Form Zoning shows most of these properties are CR-1 (the southern two homes) and CR-3 (the four northernmost homes). CR-1 is the least dense zoning, and CR-3 is a little denser, but mostly maxed out by the existing properties. In short, the code suggests significant redevelopment is unlikely, so the price seems to be based off of potential rental income.

The Halkiopoulos family currently owns the properties, which make up a sizable portion of their multi-million dollar Collegetown portfolio (they’re one of the medium-sized landlords). The Halkiopouloses’ M.O. has been to buy single-family homes and convert the property to student rentals, rather than building their own apartment buildings. It seems likely that the high price indicates they’ll go to one of the other big landlords, or to someone with really deep pockets looking to break into the Collegetown market.

4. A couple folks might be concerned this week after Jason Tillberg’s latest piece about Ithaca’s deflating economy. But there’s a caution light before this data is taken to be hard truth. Frankly, the BLS estimates suck.

A lot.

The numbers are subject to big revisions. Case in point, here are the pre-revision and post-revision 2013 and 2014 data:

ith_initial_1314 ith_revised_1314

It’s not uncommon for the numbers to be changed by thousands, because it’s based on a random sampling of non-government multi-person employers. 500,000 are sampled over the whole country each month, but only about 55 of the 3,300 or so orgs in Tompkins and Cortland Counties are included in the Ithaca metro sample (Cortland’s jobs numbers are included with Ithaca’s because jobs are measured by Combined Statistical Area [CSAs]. However, Ithaca is considered a separate metropolitan area [MSA] from the Cortland micropolitan area [µSA], so population stats are always distinct). The overall trend of the selected orgs is then applied to a base number. For places like Ithaca where the local economy is dominated by a few employers, random sampling isn’t the best approach because it misses crucial components of the local economic picture. But the BLS sticks with its current approach for consistency’s sake across regions and time periods.

During the first quarter of each year, the BLS conducts a full analysis and re-analysis of data going back the last three years. The general rule is, the data from three years ago is very good, the data from two years ago is okay, and the data from the previous year is…very, very preliminary. Tompkins County hasn’t had any large layoffs reported the state’s WARN database this year, and the only major retail closings recently have been A.C. Moore and Tim Horton’s.

In short, don’t let it keep you up at night, and wait until March before passing judgement on the 2015 economy.


5. Over in Dryden town, the townhouse project proposed by local firm Modern Living Rentals (MLR) at 902 Dryden Road in Varna is a little smaller – 13 units and 40 bedrooms, versus the previous 15 units and 42 bedrooms; these numbers include the duplex with 6 bedrooms that currently exists on the site. Meanwhile, the procession of hate continued at the latest town meeting. The arguments are the same as before. To the earlier, larger proposal, some town councilpersons had given a tentative positive response, while at least one was opposed to the original proposal (in Dryden, the Town Board votes on projects rather than the Planning Board). MLR hopes to request approval at the town’s December 17th meeting – if approved, the construction period is planned for January-August 2016.

For those interested, the Stormwater Plan (SWPPP) is here, revised Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) here, revised site plan here, project description courtesy of STREAM Collaborative here. No new renders, but presumably it still looks the same in terms of materials and colors.


6. Next up on the suburban tour, the fighting over the Biggs Parcel in the town of Ithaca. The Indian Creek Neighborhood Association (ICNA) presented a plan for the property – and the plan is, maybe we can find a way to force the county to keep it, but if not please don’t sell the land to anyone who will build on it. All the county wants is to sell the land so it pays taxes, and the ICNA plan seems to have failed to really address that point. Tompkins officials countered by saying that they’re not keeping it and that if the ICNA cares about this parcel of land so much, buy it. There was then some back and forth about doing a new assessment to account for the developmentally-prohibitive wetlands on site – in other words, decreasing its current $340,000 assessment, with the exact amount to be determined by the county assessment department. At 25.52 acres, of which some is still developable, the price will likely stay above six figures.

So the county’s doing its new assessment, because all it wants is to sell the land so that someone is paying taxes on it. Meanwhile, the ICNA has taken to venting on their web page, angry that the county still plans to sell, and that they may have to actually buy the land in order to dictate its future use.


7. To wrap up a thoroughly depressing week, a couple of demolitions by neglect. 327 West State Street and 404 West Green Street will both be demolished by the end of the year, according to the Ithaca Times. Both are older, likely century-old structures, but too far gone to be salvageable. According to county records, the City Health Club, which abuts and owns both properties, purchased 404 West Green in 1987, and 327 West State Street in 1993. The porch on 404 came down sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and the only change since then was painting the plywood on the boarded-up door and windows. County photos suggest 327 was in bad shape but possibly occupied up until 2000 or so, and steadily grew worse from there. Offhand, the procedure is to bill the owner for the demo. 404 West Green is B-2d zoning, 327 West State is CBD-60. But don’t expect any redevelopment anytime soon.

Hmmm…bad economic news, projects being cancelled, decay and demolitions in the city and fighting over suburban projects. For Ithaca and Tompkins County, it’s like the 1990s recession all over again.

Cornell Plans Renovation for Hughes Hall

27 11 2015

There is almost never a period without construction at Cornell. Don’t expect that to end anytime soon.

Cornell’s latest construction plans were presented as a sketch proposal at last Tuesday’s Planning and Development Board meeting. The sketch plan is the first step in the process, where an applicant solicits input and first reactions from the board. A copy of the powerpoint presentation can be found on the city’s website here.


The renovation of Hughes Hall is the second phase of a three-phase expansion and renovation of the Cornell Law School. The first phase, which consisted of 40,000 SF of new, partially-subterranean classrooms and a 170-space auditorium, began in Summer 2012 and was completed in Fall 2014 at a cost of $23.8 million. Ann Beha Architects of Boston, and Welliver Construction of Elmira worked on the first phase of the renovation and expansion program. Ithaca Builds offers plenty of interior and exterior images of the first phase here, and a copy of the original Ste Plan Review from 2012 is on the city’s website here.

The first phase was Certified LEED Platinum (the highest LEED designation), which was possible in part because as an underground structure, it was easier to design and pay for maximum energy efficiency. The Hughes Hall renovation will pursue LEED Silver at a minimum.


Initially, Hughes Hall was to be the third phase, with a renovation of Myron Taylor Hall planned as Phase II. However, since the plan was initially conceived several years ago, the second and third phases were switched around.  The total cost of all three phases is pegged at $60 million (2012 estimate).


Externally, the changes to Hughes Hall will be subtle – the current open-air loggia will be enclosed and a new entryway will be built on the east side of Hughes. A glass-enclosed staircase will be built onto into the West facade, and the dining room terrace will be repaired. Although some parts of the Law School are historic (Myron Taylor Hall, which dates from 1932), 62,000 SF Hughes Hall is a later addition, built in 1963/64, that lacks the historical detailing of the older structures.


Internally, administrative and other non-faculty offices will be located on the ground floor, with a dining room, event room and other office/flex space on the floor below (note that the building is built into a hillside, so the Fork & Gavel Cafe, although one level below the ground floor, exits near surface level on the southern side of the building). Although the upper floors aren’t discussed in the sketch plan, the general upper-level plan is for new offices for law school functions and faculty that replace dorm rooms for first-year J.D. students.

With this mostly-interior renovation, the focus of review will probably be on staging and general harmony with surrounding physical environment (buildings and landscape). At first glance, this project doesn’t appear to be stirring any major issues (overlooking the loss of student housing, which is worth criticism but nowhere close to illegal), but will probably create the standard blitz of documents and PDFs that Cornell sends to the city to preemptively answer any questions committee members may have.

Given the timing, Cornell is likely shooting for a Spring construction start, with completion in 2017.



News Tidbits 11/21/15: Building and Rebuilding

21 11 2015

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1. Starting off this week with some eye candy, here are some updates renders of the townhouses proposed for INHS’s 210 Hancock project in the city’s North Side neighborhood. Details and project status here. 210 Hancock has been approved by the Planning Board, and Cornell, the city and county do have dedicated funds ($200,000 total) going towards the affordable housing units, but still needs to be seventeen conditions prior to receiving a construction permit, one of which required revised townhouses to better reflect the neighborhood. The Common Council also need to vote to discontinue using the sections of Lake Avenue and Adams Street on which the new greenways and playground will be constructed, which apart from the time needed and paperwork generated, isn’t expected to encounter any obstacles, with formal conveyance to INHS anticipated by March 2016. INHS is shooting for a May construction start.

The Planning Board will be voting on “satisfaction of site plan approval” at its meeting next Tuesday, which should be a fairly smooth procedure, if the paperwork’s all correct.

Personal opinion, the townhouses, with more color and variation in style, appear to be an improvement over the previous version. These five will be rentals, while the other seven will be for-sale units, and built in a later phase (government funding for affordable rentals is easier to obtain than it is for affordable owner-occupied units, so it could take a year or two for those seven to get the necessary funding). The apartments have not had any substantial design changes since approval.


For what it’s worth, here’s the final site plan. The rental townhomes will be on the north corner of the parcel, furthest from Hancock.

2. Turning attention to the suburbs, someone’s put up some sizable chunks of land for sale in Lansing village. The properties consist of four parcels – 16.87 acres (the western parcel) for $500,000, right next to a previously-listed threesome of 28.07 acres (the eastern parcels) for $650,000. The eastern parcel also comes with a house, which the listing pretty much ignores. Lansing has it zoned as low-density residential, and given the prices (the western parcel is assessed at $397,600, the eastern parcels at $561,100 (1, 2, and 3)) and being surrounded by development on three sides, these seem likely to become suburban housing developments, possibly one big 30-lot development if the parcels are merged. For the suburbanites out there, it’s something to monitor.

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3. House of the week – or in this case, tiny house of the week. The 1-bedroom, 650 SF carriage house underway at 201 West Clinton Street draws inspiration from 19th century carriage houses, which makes sense given that it’s in Henry St. John Historic District. It and the main house are owned by former Planning Board member Isabel Fernández and her partner, TWMLA architect Zac Boggs. The two of them did a major and meticulous restoration of the main house, which used to house the local Red Cross chapter, a couple of years ago (more info on that here).

Anyway, the framing is underway and some ZIP System sheathing has been applied to the exterior plywood. No roof yet and probably not much in the way of interior rough-ins, but give it a couple of months and that 1960s garage will be given a new life as a tiny house.


4. Time to take a look at the Planning and Development Board agenda for next Tuesday. For reference, here’s what a typical project guideline looks like:

PDB (Sketch Plan) -> PDB (Declaration of Lead Agency) -> PDB (Determination of Env’tal Signif., PDB BZA reccomendation if necessary) -> BZA (if necessary) -> PDB (prelim/final approval).

Here’s the meat of the agenda:

A. 210 Hancock – Satisfaction of Conditions of Site Plan Approval (see above)
B. 215-221 Spencer St. – Consideration of Prelim/Final Site Plan Approval  – this one was first presented as sketch plan in March, to give an idea of how long this has been in front of the boards
C. 416-418 East State Street – Determination of Environmental Significance and Recommendation to the BZA – “The Printing Press” jazz bar is a proposed re-use for a former printshop and warehouse that has seen heavy neighbor opposition. The bar has changed its emphasis, redesigned the landscape and moved itself to a more internal location to mitigate concerns, but the opposition is still strong, mostly focusing on noise and traffic. The board has simply and succinctly recommended that the BZA grant a zoning variance.
D. 327 Elmira Road – Determination of Environmental Significance and Recommendation to the BZA – The Herson Wagner Funeral Home project. This one’s had pretty smooth sailing so far, only a couple complaints that Elmira Road isn’t appropriate for a funeral home. The Planning Board, however, applauds the proposal, which replaces a construction equipment storage yard, for better interfacing with the residential neighbors at the back of its property. It has been recommended for BZA approval.
E. Simeon’s on the Commons Rebuild – Presentation & Design Review Meeting – Before anyone throws up their arms, this is only to talk about the materials and design of the reconstruction, and to get the planning board’s comment and recommendations.
F. The Chapter House Rebuild – Sketch Plan – The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) must have come to some kind of acceptance on the proposed rebuild if the Chapter House is finally at the sketch plan stage. the Planning Board will have their own recommendations, which will have to be coordinated to some degree with the ILPC (the ILPC is arguably the much stricter of the two). We’ll see how it looks next week.
G. Hughes Hall Renovations – Sketch Plan – more on that in a moment
H. DeWitt House (Old Library Site) – Sketch Plan – originally slated to be seen a couple months ago, but pulled from the agenda. The 60-unit project is not only subject to Planning Board review, but ILPC review since it’s in the DeWitt Park Historic District.

5. So, Hughes Hall. Hughes Hall, built in 1963, has dorm housing and dining facilities for Cornell students attending the law school, but those 47 students will need to find alternative housing once the hall closes in May 2016 (yes, with Maplewood closing as well, Cornell is putting 527 graduate and professional students out on the open market next year…it’s gonna be rough). However, this has kinda been known for a while. Cornell has intended to renovate Hughes Hall since at least 2011, as Phase III of its law school expansion and renovation. The building was used as swing space while Phase I was underway, and then the phases were flipped and Phase II became Hughes Hall’s renovation, while Phase III became Myron Taylor Hall’s renovation. According to Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, who designed the law school addition (Phase I), the Hughes Hall renovation will “house offices, administrative support spaces, academic programs and meeting spaces.” Well see how the renovated digs look at Tuesday’s meeting.

Klarman Hall Construction Update, 11/2015

15 11 2015

Klarman Hall is nearly ready to open its doors. The atrium’s being painted, some glass on the East Avenue entrance needs to be installed, and landscaping still needs to be done, as well as some work putting windows back into the construction-facing walls of Goldwin Smith. But apart from that and some finishing work on the inside, this project is almost done. New trees won’t be planted until the Spring, so that they don’t have to fight for survival through the winter while adjusting to a new environment.

Additional images of the project (including aerials!) can be found on Landmark Images here. Additional project information is available on Cornell’s website, or the umpteen million posts discussing this project over the past two years that it’s been under construction. Welliver and LeChase Construction were the contractors for this project, and Boston-based Koetter | Kim & Associates is the project architect.

This is just meant to be a short thing, but there might be an expanded Voice piece once this project approaches its ribbon-cutting in January.

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Gannett Health Center Construction Update, 11/2015

13 11 2015

A lot of progress has been made with the Gannett Health Center addition on Cornell’s campus. The new addition has been framed up and topped out. Some of the interior walls have been framed with metal stud walls, with more work yet to come. The primary glass curtain wall is still being framed out, but some of the smaller sections to the north and east have some window panels installed. The variety of glass color used in the facade isn’t quite apparent just yet, since many of the panes are still covered with a blue cellophane wrap for protection.The dark blue material on the concrete stairwells is likely a water-resistant barrier, not unlike that used on the Planned Parenthood Building when that was under construction a couple years ago. The addition, which is phase one of Gannett’s three-phase expansion and modernization program, should be open for its first patients and staff next summer.

The Pike Company‘s Syracuse office is serving as general contractor for the $55 million project. Local architecture firm Chiang O’Brien designed the renovation and addition, and Ithaca firm Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects will be doing the site landscaping.

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Cornell Veterinary School Expansion Construction Update, 11/2015

12 11 2015

The site of the future west wing of the Cornell Veterinary School expansion has been excavated and the foundation is being poured for what will be a 3-story building with the new Flower-Sprecher Library, and additional program space. Look along the outer edge of the newest foundation section and you’ll see wooden forms pressed against the concrete. These forms provide stability and shape while the concrete hardens, and they provide support to the reinforcing rods embedded in the concrete. They will move further along the perimeter as pouring continues.

Without being all that knowledgeable about deep foundations, the structures in the middle of the excavated foundation might be pile caps. Piles are driven into the ground, trimmed to a predetermined height, formwork is set up around the piles and the concrete is poured and left to cure. So the piles are underneath the caps, and columns extend from the base of the cap. The load of the structure’s will be transferred to the pile caps and distributed to the piles below, providing stability for the building.

EDIT: Quoting commenter Drill Deep, who is knowledgeable about foundations: “No deep foundations at this one. Just very wide spread footers. East Hill and the Cornell campus usually has ground that can be made to do the job. The basement here is very tall and something like a hangar. Lots of headroom to run utilities.”

More information on the background and details of the expansion can be found in the September update here.

NYC-based architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi designed the expansion, and regional construction firm Welliver is the general contractor.

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Upson Hall Construction Update, 10/2015

12 10 2015

Over on the Engineering Quad of Cornell’s campus, work continues on the gut renovation of Upson Hall. Gone are the original Terra-cotta panels that banded the facade, and the bluestone that faced the building will be removed as the project progresses. Plastic sheeting covers the exterior, working as a vapor and weather barrier. Exterior metal studs, which form the walls, have started to show up on the third floor, with spaces indicating future window openings. These studs will be sheathed (probably with glass-mat gypsum sheet-rock) and later the facade will be put up after the windows have been installed and the building is fully closed in.

Inside the plastic sheets, new telecom rooms are being framed out on the first and second floors, and new drywall is being hung up. Wall framing for new classrooms and offices is underway on the third floor, as well as duct and pipe hanger installation (utilities rough-in). Floors four and five are still undergoing interior demolition – walls are being sandblasted to remove paint, worn-out mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are being removed, and the old interior walls are being deconstructed so that the space can be re-purposed. New vertical shafts are being cur through the floors, and these will house state-of-the-art electrical and telecom infrastructure.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks (target date October 21st), the steel angle installation will begin for the northeast and northwest corners, which will be expanded outward as part of the renovation (the net gain in space will be about 4,000 SF). Steel clips will be attached to the existing structural steel, and then the new steel beams will follow. The entire project is expected to be completed by September 2017, with landscaping work in the second phase.

Upson Hall houses the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department, and previously housed labs and offices for computer science until the completion of Gates Hall last year. Built in 1956, the 160,000 SF building is being renovated and modernized at a cost of $63 million.The building will be seeking LEED Gold certification.

The New York office of Perkins + Will, who designed the original building during the height of modern architecture 60 years ago, are also working on the new design, in conjunction with New York-based LTL Architects and engineering firm Thornton-Tomasetti. The Pike Company out of Rochester has been hired on as the general contractor for the multi-million dollar project.

An interview with Robert Goodwin, the design director for Perkins + Will’s role in the project, can be found on the Voice here.

On a personal note, I walked through a spider web while getting photos, and once I got back to my car, found a fingernail-sized sandy-brown spider on my cheek. I quickly grabbed it and flung it onto my umbrella, and shook it out a moment later. Spiders don’t freak me out much, but if that had been a bee on my face, you’d be reading on the Voice that I either died of a heart attack, or drove into a wall.

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