News Tidbits 10/3/15: Lying in Wait

3 10 2015

1.We’ll start with a news piece out of the ‘burbs. Over in Lansing town, wealthy homeowners are accusing the town board and the town planning board of disenfranchising and ignoring them over concerns about the proposed Novalane housing development. Dan Veaner at the Lansing Star gives a very thorough rundown here.

Quick summary, Novalane is a 19-lot high-end housing development slated for farmland between two other high end housing developments, the mostly-built Lakewatch and Eastlake subdivisions, the first phase of which is comprised of seven lots on the west side of the parcel. The sticking point has to do with access roads for the new homes. The developer proposes to connect the two developments via the Smuggler’s Path cul-de-sac, which would extend down through an undeveloped lot in Eastlake and connect with Eastlake Road.

According to the town, the intent has always been to connect the two developments – but apparently, no one ever had a good idea where. Neighbors on Reach Run are incensed because they’re afraid of additional traffic on their road if the connector isn’t extended all the way, but if connected, Eastlake residents are opposed to cross-traffic they suspect will cut through to get to East Shore Drive. Aside from that conundrum, some neighbors have suggested being okay with the road if it went all the way from Smuggler’s Path to form an intersection with Waterwagon Road, but that doesn’t seem possible given the property lines of the Rec Club. At the very least, it would be a big burden in the development costs.

So on the one hand, here is a town that has struggled with planning issues. On the other, you have wealthy residents angry about construction vehicles accessing the one house currently under construction in Lakewatch, and prepared to sue the town over the potential of seven more houses. There’s also this gem of a line:

“We’re large taxpayers.  It’s an autocracy.  To be treated like that by our own representatives is incorrect and not acceptable.  Who are they working for?”

Maybe all taxpayers and not just the large ones? Just saying.

2. Switching over to another ‘burb, the proprietors of Storage Squad made their pitch to the town of Dryden, per the Ithaca Times. Storage Squad, a Cornell startup that has expanded to twenty cities, seems to have a rather unique take on the appearance of self-storage. For their facility planned at 1401 Dryden Road, the company wants to build 79,600 SF of space, 70,000 SF of which would be in five buildings consisting of 400 storage units. 315 units may join 3-4 years down the line. According to the presentation, there would be a Cornell-inspired clock tower, brick and ivy growing on the side walls. Paved entries, gated, and split-face concrete masonry units. Apparently, it was enough to win the town supervisor over. A special zoning permit will be required, but approval is expected later this fall. No word on whether they’ll keep the 150-year old house on-site.

3.  Must be a good week for Dryden. The eyesore at 76 West Main Street has been sold and has a construction loan approved to finish renovations. The Ithaca Voice article I did on the reno is here. I toyed with the idea of calling Dryden mayor Reba Taylor for a quote, but I figured I’d get a very generic statement it any at all, and in the interest of time the idea was shelved. I might get a response to one-third of the calls I make regarding development/real estate stuff, which can be frustrating but I’ve gotten used to it.


4. The Times’ Josh Brokaw brings out an update on the latest State Street Triangle news. The important details:

– CTB has agreed to take one of the commercial spaces. No word on how that would affect the North Aurora Street location a couple blocks away.

– The planning board didn’t have many words; One member suggested the curve portion was “too flat” and an arcade on the first floor (not the video game kind, but the archways over a walkway kind). A second brought up affordable housing, which the developers have given consideration, but isn’t in the current plan.

– In favor: the director of Cinemapolis, other developers, CTB’s owner and students. Not in favor – the head of Historic Ithaca, and councilman George McGonigal – who opposed the Stone Quarry Apartments, the waterfront rezoning, 210 Hancock and thinks the city can make Cornell build dorms. The Times has called him out as “anti-urban”. If a councilperson outside the first ward speaks out, it’ll get a lot more credence on this blog.



5. The city and Cornell gave an interesting presentation about development to the Collegetown Neighborhood Council this week. City planning director JoAnn Cornish gave a rundown of what’s planned, included the 102 apartments 302-306 College Avenue (phases one and two shown above). This one might still be in the hopper, but don’t expect it to move forward anytime soon – the developers (the Avramis family) have rented out the houses to be demolished through May 2017. It also seems like that one building would be in the 2017-2018 time frame, the second 2018-2019. So these two mid-rises are quite a ways out, assuming they’re still in the works. Also, Fane’s 12-story proposal for 330 College is still dead, but something more modest may come forward someday.

On another interesting note, Cornell’s lead planner, Leslie Schill, said the university may be looking into turning Eddy Gate and the Sheldon Court plaza into green spaces to offset the lack of parks in the neighborhood. Cornell might also renovate the Ag Quad into a richer pedestrian experience.

6. The Carpenter Business Park purchaser continues to intrigue. A company called Carpenter Business Park LLC, using a P.O. Box ties to the Miller Mayer law firm, has bought two more parcels after buying the four unused land parcels in the Carpenter Business Park for $2.4 million last August. This time around, the LLC purchased a nondescript one-story commercial building at 742 Cascadilla Street, and a nearby tiny silver of land between the Palisades Corporation and Cornell U. Press buildings for $304,000. It’s not clear what the buyer is intended to do with all these properties (we know it’s not a big box store), but it’s definitely curious. If something comes up, it’ll be shared here.


News Tidbits 9/26/15: Trying to Keep Tabs

26 09 2015

1. It’s rare for a substantial project to go completely under the radar from start to finish. Except that’s pretty much what happened with the following building.

Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) recently finished renovations to two of their dorms on their Dryden campus. Along with the renovation of about 41,000 SF of existing space, the two dorms were connected by a new 3-story, 10,000 SF addition designed by Ithaca’s HOLT Architects. The existing dorms sat at a 90° angle to each other, so the addition by HOLT creates a single, L-shaped structure, with the expansion holding common space and amenities. Binghamton construction firm William H. Lane Inc. handled the build-out. The image above comes courtesy of HOLT’s website.

Technically, it did come up once on the blog, but it was misinterpreted. When William H. Lane announced it was opening an Ithaca office to handle the growth in their Ithaca/Tompkins work, one of the examples given in the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin was a dormitory expansion at TC3. At the time, I had done a search for the project and filed an inquiry with TC3, but there was no response, and my search only turned up renovations underway for the main classroom building. I assumed there was a miscommunication, so…oops.

2. In real estate sales, it looks like a couple of the smaller developers were in buying mode this week. Lansing’s SDM Rentals (Scott Morgan, owner of SDM Landscaping) bought a vacant 2.93 acre parcel at approximately 455 West Dryden Road in the town of Dryden for $21,000 on the 23rd. If past behavior is any indication, Morgan will probably be looking to do rentals, likely a few townhouses on the property. Currently, Morgan is planning 8 duplexes (16 units) at 543 Asbury Road in Dryden, which may or may not have a zoning issue. Morgan is also building out on Bone Plain Road in Dryden, and owns the recently-built Meadowbrook Apartments (14 units in the form of duplex townhouses) at 393 Peruville Road in Lansing.

Meanwhile over in Danby, Chris Petrillose of Petrillose Properties picked up a 2.11 acre parcel along the 400 block of Troy Road for $34,000. Given that that area has seen a lot of scattered small-scale development (1 & 2-family homes) in the past few years, and that Petrillose finished work on duplexes in Ithaca town, a couple rental units seems likely.


3. How well was the Hotel Ithaca received? Let’s quote IJ Reporter Nick Reynolds’ Twitter:

Many sweet, way-over-my-head architecture burns thrown tonight. Let’s just say you guys aren’t getting a Hotel Ithaca update anytime soon.”

The primary complaint focus not on function but on form – according to the IJ follow-up article, materials and a dated design were dinged by board members (and comments about “LEED-certified stucco” and comparisons to the Bellagio didn’t help). NH Architecture’s portfolio tends to be the same general design, which means they’re going to have to go the extra mile on this one, or developer Hart Hotels might need to switch up their approach. Their Belhurst Castle Hotel design isn’t bad, so maybe they can channel some of that creativity into the downtown Ithaca site.

So rest assured, “Cornell PhD”, those cross-hatches aren’t making it off the drawing board anytime soon.



4. A few years ago (spring-summer 2012), the city planning board reviewed and approved a large project for the Ithaca waterfront called “Cascadilla Landing“. The three-phase, 183 unit project called for 6 units in duplexes, 11 townhouses, and the remainder to be built in 5-story apartment buildings designed by Ithaca architect John Snyder (the same gentleman behind the Carey Building addition). The first phase called for two buildings and 92 units, Buildings “C” and “D” (“C” shown above). So the project was approved and then…nothing. Never got off the ground.

However, the impending closure of Johnson’s Boatyard on Pier Road is piquing my curiosity. Now, initially it seemed highly unlikely because I thought Cascadilla Landing had never been fully approved (in fact, it received preliminary approval in September 2012 – thanks Noah). But since it was approved, all an ambitious individual would have to do is simply re-apply for approval if there are no changes to the plan (PB approval is only good for 2 years – part of the reason why Harold’s Square was back before the board last month). It’s still unlikely that the project is moving forward soon, but not impossible. A phone call to Snyder’s office and a call to Pier Road Properties (the developer as represented by accountant Andy LaVigne on the application materials) have so far not been returned.


5. Preliminary, but it’s nice to see work progressing on the Chapter house redevelopment. Voice article here. The key thing to stress here is that there are design studies, and they’ll be subject to the ILPC’s whims. It looks like making the fourth floor of the Chapter House habitable or not is something that’s still being debated, along with the plans for the still-standing 408 Stewart. It’s hard to believe that things will be ready in August 2016, given that there’s no formal application yet, and the languid pace projects like this go through the commission.

Also, it was extraordinarily difficult to get a hold of most of the relevant parties for the article. Neither architect responded, I couldn’t get a hold of city Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken…thankfully, Jerry Dietz was happy to assist, and although I felt a little bad calling ILPC Chair Ed Finegan since he has no formal part in the project itself, he was a big help. Both were keen to stress the preliminary aspect of this project, which hopefully came through in the article.

But I’ve just about had it with responding back to commenters on the Facebook article.



The 160-foot Hurdle at 815 South Aurora Street

23 09 2015


Developer Todd Fox has big plans brewing for Ithaca’s South Hill, but a cell phone tower stands in the way.

Fox, one of the owners of local rental company Modern Living Rentals (MLR), shared preliminary plans for an 87-unit apartment building at 815 South Aurora Street at the Planning and Development Board meeting Tuesday evening.

Fox’s plans call for a multi-story apartment building built into the hillside, a block from Ithaca College and near Rogan’s Corner. The design, created by Ithaca-based architecture firm STREAM Collaborative, is reminiscent of nearby Emerson Power Transmission, with design cues from the former factory incorporated into the new apartment building. All 87 units would be studio apartments (i.e. no formal bedroom space). 87 parking spaces are also planned.

The building site at 815 South Aurora Street is currently a sloping grass field on the north side of a 2.5 acre lot. Two other buildings on the same property would be unaffected.

Compared to other projects that have come before the board in the past couple of years, 815 South Aurora has a unique obstacle. A cell phone tower, and a city law by extension.


The current city ordinance states that buildings can’t be built within a radius equal to double the height of a communications tower. In this particular case, the tower stands 170 feet tall, meaning nothing can be built within 340 feet of the tower. Two apartment buildings in the Hudson Heights Studio Apartments complex, and the current buildings on site are grandfathered in; they were built before the law was enacted.

To help make his case, Fox hired two private engineering companies (Ithaca’s TAITEM Engineering and Groton’s Spec Consulting) to analyze the case, and their findings determined that an appropriate fall zone is the height of the tower plus 10 feet for a little wind/bounce – so 180 feet total. With this info in hand, Fox is trying to get the city to refine the zoning to allow the decrease in fall zone and therefore permit the land to be used for the proposed apartment building.

Previously in June, Fox had approached the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) asking for a modification from the law. However, the BZA said it would not consider the application. The city attorney advised the BZA that they can’t override a council-approved law outright. However, the BZA could make a consideration on a case-by-case basis, which meant that Fox and architect Noah Demarest would have to present a firm plan for the site, and then apply for a code variance before any decision could be made. Which leads us to the present; a project on the table, with a 160-foot hurdle.

In an email, Fox wrote “[a] fall zone of twice the height is an arbitrary safety distance. The ordinance was created at a time when Cell towers first began being constructed and there was not much knowledge about them at that time. We also contacted as many municipalities in Central New York that we could and everyone that we talked to had the fall zone being just the height of the cell tower plus several feet, give or take for debris throw off. ”


When asked how his project would be compatible with the rest of the neighborhood, Fox replied “[w]e feel like our project helps serve as a gateway into Ithaca. One of the things that we found very enticing about this project was the opportunity to pull Ithaca College students out of the South Hill neighborhood.”

“One of the constant complaints and desires of long-term residents is to try and see a shift away from the growing student population in the neighborhood. I don’t see the multifamily properties getting converted back to owner occupied anytime soon. But I do see the ability of single-family homes that are currently rentals, being sold back to families. The only way this is going to happen is if new developments are built that can support this transition. We need space for the students and we need space for families, and we think that our development helps create an opportunity for both of those demographics.”

Demographics or not, the project still doesn’t conform with the law. It will be up to the planning board and the BZA to decide whether or not the project site is safe, and if the proposed apartment building is a good fit with the South Hill community.

The War in Fall Creek

22 09 2015

A few weeks ago in the Voice, an article ran saying that bidding wars were breaking out in Fall Creek. Homes in the neighborhood are being fought over by multiple buyers, and driving up the sales prices (and assessments for all the other properties).

So, being of an analytical mind, I wanted to see if there was any way to prove that. And that is the topic of today’s post.

So the hypothesis is, if there are bidding wars going on, we should be seeing relatively low reductions from listing to sales price, or even sale prices above the listing price. According to anecdotal evidence from real estate website Zillow, 90-95% of list value is common, assuming that the home was priced realistically for its market.

Using the bounds of Fall Creek as defined in the article, listing and sales data were pulled from houses sold within the neighborhood from 2013 to present. Zillow and Trulia (mostly Zillow) were used to find old listing prices, and the sales price were cross-checked with the county records website when possible. The initial price was used, meaning that if the owners reduced the price before a house sold, it “didn’t count”.


One of the problems is, not all houses go through real estate agents, and not all homes are widely advertised when they’re put on the market. There’s a lot more sale information out there than there is listing information. Nevertheless, sales and listing prices were found for 45 homes in the Fall Creek area. Not the most robust sample size, but the homes are a nice distribution of sub-neighborhoods and sales values. The mean listing price here is $238,460, and the median $226,900. The average home value in Ithaca was about $220,500 over that time period (and $229,100 now), so our initial values are both pretty close to the city average.


Now let’s look at the sale prices. Many prices went down, and judging from the increase in a few of the pricier bins, some values went up as well. The mean sales price is $234,444, and the median sales price is $225,000. The lump sum math says that the average decrease from listing to sales price was 1.68%. So if we go by the Zillow guideline of where sales price is 90-96% of listing price, and here the sales price is 98.32% of the list price, then there’s at least evidence that Fall Creek is doing quite well as a real estate market.


However, looking at the aggregate values don’t tell the whole story. Breaking down and sorting the percentage change between listing price and sales price, 17 of the listings saw an increase from the asking price in the listing, to the sales price. And then there’s at least 4 property owners who either had really unrealistic expectations, or were hosed. One of those houses was on the market for 22 months, while most of the other listings were on the market for 2-4 months (and by on the market, I’m counting the pending sale/listing removed period).


If one goes looking for trends with time, they won’t find anything here. With an R-squared of 0.0447 (and R of 0.2114), the trend line is crap and there’s no strong correlation with prices as a function of time. There didn’t appear to be a strong trend geographically either, although I did not set up the data for geographic parameters (but if someone really pushes for it, it’ll be produced for verification’s sake).

In conclusion, there might be some bidding wars going on. There are definitely homes selling over asking price, and the housing market in Fall Creek is certainly healthy. But there are still a number of homes selling in the more typical -5% to -10% range, either because sellers are asking too much, or because buyers haven’t been biting (given the other evidence, I’m going with sellers asking too much).

There have been very rapid appreciations in home values in the past 15 years, which have caused strains for residents with modest or fixed incomes. But for now, home buyers appear more than happy to offer a way out. For better or worse.

News Tidbits 9/19/15: It’s A Numbers Game

19 09 2015



1. Readers might have noticed that there was no Monday night (Tuesday) piece this week. The piece that was originally scheduled evolved into the building permits analysis that was a featured article on the Voice (link here). The initial intent was to run a mirror of the piece on the same day, but things got a little delayed, and eventually I just scrapped running it as the topic-of-the-week.

The reaction was generally favorable (if maybe less traffic than hoped; math-y pieces typically aren’t big traffic generators), but there’s a couple of quick criticisms that came in that I want to address. Namely that I didn’t include proposed projects, and that I left out non-residential construction.

Truthfully, there is no reliable long-term record of non-residential construction. HUD doesn’t break it down in their SOCDS database, and the county doesn’t have complete data on non-residential construction (for their reports, they also rely on the HUD SOCDS database). Related to that, HUD data for 2015 is very preliminary, relying on imputed values. Finalized and corrected 2015 data won’t be available for use until March 2016.

That being said, residential permits are an effective gauge for a few reasons – one, residential is the largest individual construction sector nationwide; two most recent local construction is residential or institutional, and three, many of the projects built in Ithaca are “mixed-use” meaning they have commercial and residential components. although the commercial components aren’t kept in track, the residential construction permits are available, and are showing up in the city’s SOCDS data.

For proposed projects, it’s not prudent to “count your chickens before they’ve hatched”. This passage was originally in the piece, but was pulled before the final version was published:

“As mentioned earlier, news sources like us here the Voice are guilty are promoting the misconceptions. We try and keep tabs on all the big projects – when they get proposed, approved and underway. The thing is, not all projects go from proposed to built. Some never receive approvals. Some get approved, but wait years to get construction financing, if ever. So it seems like there’s more than there is.”

Without having hard evidence in front of me, I’d argue that if one were to somehow include office and retail, the area still isn’t booming if we’re looking in a historical timeframe – you’d have large spikes in retail during the mid 1970s when the mall was built, and from about 1997-2004 in Southwest Ithaca and Lansing for big box retail. For office space, there would be a peak in the late 1980s/early 1990s for the Cornell business park by the airport; there’s circumstantial evidence that the office market today is pretty weak, TFC’s HQ being the odd project out. Industrial space would have peaked with Borgwarner’s construction in the early 1980s, but in recent years it’s been minimal or even negative growth (due to the Emerson shutdown). Hotels might be the only category that shows a “boom” at present.

The point of the article remains that

1. If we look at available building permit data, Tompkins has seen an uptick in construction, but not a construction “boom”, and
2. It feels like a boom because the region’s coming off of a very low period of activity, and there’s more construction in the highly visible urban areas of Ithaca city, vs. the suburban and rural development that has been more prevalent in previous years.

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2. It’s time for a semi-regular house-of-the-week feature. I’ve been meaning to update on this for a while, but I keep missing the turn off Route 79. Local developer Chris Petrillose of Petrillose Properties (possibly related to Bob Petrillose, the founder of the Hot Truck) recently finished his second and third duplex  off of Wiedmeier Court in the town of Ithaca. Like the first duplex that was finished last year, each building consists of a 4-bedroom unit and 2-bedroom unit.

According to county records, the Wiedmeiers began to develop the land in the mid-2000s, building 2 duplexes of their own before deciding to sell the other lots (Petrillose bought the lots for the duplexes in 2012). The rest of the land, 12.34 acres, is currently for sale, so perhaps this won’t be the last visit.

3. Previously reported here and on the Voice, the city is studying whether or not to sell fire station No. 9, located in the heart of Collegetown at 309 College Avenue, to an interested private developer. We now know the consultant the city hired to perform the study.

Kingsbury Architecture, a small local firm, is investigating whether it would be worth the city’s investment to build a new station elsewhere on East Hill and sell the aging station, or invest in repairs and long-term maintenance for the current 1968 structure. Kingsbury has little presence online, but in an example of how small of a world this is, they were the initial firm used to plan St. Catherine of Siena’s new parish center, the project discussed in last week’s news update. However, according to church newsletter, the congregation amicably ended the partnership because of cost issues. The church staff went architect shopping, and that’s how Richard McElhiney Architects came into the project. Some of Kingsbury’s work can be found on the church’s webpage here. Kingsbury also appears to have done some interior renovation work at Cornell, and roof replacement at the Cascadilla Boathouse.


4. New documents from Campus Advantage give insights on the tenant mix and parking situation in downtown Ithaca.

First, my personal disclaimer – Even though part of their market research cites work I’ve written for the Voice about the housing crisis, my work was done impartially.

The new information comes as part of Campus Advantage’s official response to the city planning board’s request for more specific values on resident population, parking utilization and bus capacity, among other details. The documents are provided as part of the planning board’s materials here.

Updated figures indicate the proposed building has gone on a diet – the number of bedrooms has dropped from 620 to 582, the number of units from 240 to 232, and the square footage from 288,845 SF to 216,434 SF, a 25% reduction in mass. The maximum height remains the same at 11 stories at 116 feet. The slimming down comes in response to unfavorable review of the previous design as “too massive”, especially on the side facing East State Street.


According to an internal study by Campus Advantage, the Texas developer forecasts that, of the 582 tenants when at full capacity, 77.8% (431) will be students, and 22.2% (123) non-students. Of those students, 78.4% (338) will be undergraduates. Cornell students would comprise 64% (276) of the student population, Ithaca College 32% (138), and TC3 4% (17). A quick glance at the details behind these projections shows that CA assumes 95% occupancy, studios and other smaller units will be half or majority non-student, and that undergrads will be more inclined towards shared 4-bedrooms and 5-bedroom units. CA conducted online surveys with student groups to gather information for their study.


The parking demand from residents is predicted to be 191-219 spaces, taken from a study conducted by third-party traffic engineering firm SRF Associates. A further 64 parking spaces will be required for commercial retail tenants on the first floor (57 customer spaces, 7 employee spaces), for a grand total of 283 parking spaces. The 2012 Randall/West Collegetown parking study used as reference looked at student and non-student vehicle ownership in the Collegetown neighborhood, and the higher end (or “more conservative”, as SRF calls it) 219-space figure comes from a calculation the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit urban planning think-tank. Given that Randall/west focused on Collegetown, the more conservative figure is the safer bet.

It’s not clear whether the parking garage study above is CA’s or the city’s, but the application itself states that the city’s Parking Director, Frank Nagy, has confirmed that enough parking is available, and a letter from TCAT’s Doug Swarts states that TCAT has the capacity for State Street Triangle’s potential tenants. Looking at the above study, though, it appears that if built, and if all the other approved and likely projects (i.e. don’t include 130 East Clinton) are built, the parking garages will be nearly full.

Since the new drawings were presented at the public open house on September 10th, there do not appear to have been revisions – what was shown then will be shown at the planning board meeting next Tuesday (links to those drawings here). However, the planning board will be looking to schedule a design review committee meeting, where board members provide suggestions and guidance on design features for the new building. In other words, this probably isn’t the building’s final design.

Also included in the attachment are two opposition letters – one from Historic Ithaca saying the building’s still too tall and massive, the other from former planning board and councilwoman Jane Marcham, who takes the unusual if debatable tact by saying that students living downtown deprives the colleges of campus life. Students comprise 40% of the market-rate downtown rental market, so there’s a few to interview for opinions should anyone be interested.

As always, the project is likely to inspire some debate at the planning board meeting. We’ll see if the changes are to the board’s liking.


5. Wrapping up this short but informative week, here’s a look at the Planning Board agenda for next week:

A. State Street Triangle – Public Hearing, City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) discussion, and scheduling a Design Review Committee meeting. CEQR is they city’s more in-depth take on SEQR, where a project’s environmental impacts are considered, and a negative declaration (acceptance) is given only when adverse factors have been mitigated in a way the board sees fit. Design Review Committee pretty much is as it sounds – the board makes suggestions on the building design as a quality control / quality assurance measure.

B. 215-221 Spencer Street, Determination of Environmental Significance and Recommendation to the BZA – the board has decided to recommend approval of the parking variance (parking within the rear yard setback), given the site’s steep topography.

C. Site improvements, 416-418 East State Street416-418 East State Street is 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 variance 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 substantial concerns expressed about this project – neighbors are 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. The city will need to examine this project carefully.

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

D. Hotel Ithaca – Amended declaration of environmental significance. Backstory and plans here.

E. “Sketch Plan – 815 South Aurora Street, 87 unit housing project” – See conceptual design above, full backstory here. To recapitulate the salient details, local developer Todd Fox of Modern Living Rentals would like to build apartments on vacant land at 815 South Aurora Street, but can’t because the vast majority of the property is within the “fall zone” of a cell tower, which the city defines as twice the height of the tower. The 170′ tower creates a 340′ radius of no-man’s land (outer circle above), making the parcel virtually undevelopable. Fox had two private engineering companies (TAITEM Engineering and Spec Consulting) analyze the case, and they determined that an appropriate fall zone is the height of the tower plus 10 feet for a little wind/bounce – so 180′ total. With this info in hand, Fox tried to get the city to refine the zoning to allow the decrease in fall zone and therefore permit the land to be open for development. But when Fox and project architect Noah Demarest approached the BZA, they said they wouldn’t consider the 815 South Aurora Street application unless the law was amended, or Fox and Demarest go through the sketch plan and review process, and submit a formal application for a zoning variance.  So now we’re at the point of having a sketch plan to present. Regardless of design, the project will need an area variance issued by the BZA for the cell phone tower issue. At 87 units, this will be a pretty sizable project, and given Fox’s previous work (he’s been rather busy lately), it will likely be rentals, perhaps with Ithaca College students as the target market.

3 of the 5 projects above (SST, 215-221 West Spencer, and 815 South Aurora) have Noah Demarest/STREAM Collaborative as a lead or consulting architect. None of them have the same developer. Talk about having your fingers in many pots.

News Tidbits 9/12/15: Some Projects Lose Mass, and Some Hold Mass

12 09 2015

1. We’ll start this week off with a little bit of economic development news. According to paperwork filed with the Tompkins County IDA, CBORD, a Lansing-based software company, wants to move out of its digs in the Cornell office park by the airport, and into a new larger facility in renovated space in the South Hill Business Campus next to Ithaca College. CBORD would lease 41,000 SF of space with five year options to renew. All 245 local employees would be moved into the renovated space, which would be finished by the end of May 2016 and designed by local architect John Snyder.

The project is expected to cost about $3.7 million. No new jobs are stated in the application.

Assuming SHBC’s website is up-to-date, no contiguous spaces are currently large enough for the tenant, so either the internal space will be split up, or some other tenants will be jostled around to make room for CBORD.

As for the abatement itself, CBORD is requesting a sales tax abatement, one year in length, with a value of $296,000, about 8% of the project cost. It doesn’t appear to have made any waves at Thursday night’s meeting, so what;s likely to be a low-key public hearing and approval vote will be coming in the pipeline.

Also at the IDA meeting, final approvals were granted for tax abatements on the 209-215 Dryden project by John Novarr in conjunction with Cornell. and for INHS’s 210 Hancock affordable housing development in the city’s Northside neighborhood.

2. Another small infill project seeks approval from the city’s planning board and the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). 525 West Green Street, located on the edge of the South Side neighborhood, is currently home to a 4-unit apartment house. Local developer Todd Fox of Modern Living Rentals (MLR) is seeking to build a 4-unit, 4-bedroom apartment house at the rear of the property, where a clapped-out garage currently stands. The units would be rentals, but this far from Cornell and Ithaca College, the target market is likely to be permanent Ithaca residents – single professionals would be a good guess.


Plans drawn up by prolific local firm STREAM Collaborative call for a 2-story, 2,360 SF “carriage house” building designed to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, although quite honestly no one would be able to see the new building unless one were looking down the driveway. A landscaped rear parking area for 8 vehicles would replace the current 4-car lot behind the existing building.

According to Site Plan Review documents, construction cost is estimated at $300,000, and construction would take place from November 2015 to July 2016. Area variances are required from the BZA since this building partially occupied space reserved for the rear setback, but according to the SPR the variance has already been granted.

Readers might recall that MLR has been a very busy company as of late – although relatively new to the Ithaca scene (MLR was established in 2010 by then-recent college graduates Charlie O’Connor and Todd Fox), the company has developed the 6-unit 707 East Seneca apartment building, a duplex at 605 South Aurora, and is currently going through the approvals process for solar-powered townhomes out in Varna. The duo also partnered with local real estate businessman Bryan Warren to purchase the Collegetown Bagels at 201-207 North Aurora Street.

As for the project itself, 525 West Green Street is perhaps the largest example of the carriage house trend Ithaca has been seeing lately, where old garages or unused rear lot spaces are being developed into small, detached apartments, typically no more than studio or 1-bedroom size. Other examples include 201 West Clinton, 607 Utica,  and new this month, a studio apartment proposed for a former workshop/garage at 701 North Aurora. Arguably, one could throw New Earth Living/Sue Cosentini’s Aurora Street pocket neighborhood in there as well.

Given that these properties are modestly-sized, rarely visible from the street, and provide rental income to property owners who in most cases live on the same lot, they seem like an appropriate way to increase density without upsetting Ithaca’s character balance.


3. Briefly in blurbs – according to the agenda for Ithaca town’s Public Works Committee (PWC), the town will be looking at sanitary sewer access for a potential development along Troy Road. Now, before anyone gets their blood pressure raised, this most likely has nothing to do with the 130-unit project that was mothballed a few months ago. But, there have been rumors of smaller-scale plans for one of the parcels that comprised the now-subdivided property. The development radar has been turned on, and if anything shows up, you’ll see it shared here.

4. Staying in Ithaca town for the time being, the town’s planning board has but one project on their agenda for next Tuesday – a new parish center for St. Catherine of Siena Church in the Northeast Ithaca neighborhood.

Yes, even in Ithaca, one of the least religious metros in the country, famously home to a school that pastors derided in fiery philippics 150 years ago for daring to not affiliate itself with a Christian denomination or enforce mandatory church attendance, churches can hold their own.


Plans call for a new 10,811 SF parish center at 302 St. Catherine Circle, on what is currently part of the church parking lot. Once built, the current parish center, a one-story, 10,275 SF jumble of boxes and corridors, would be demolished and replaced with parking spaces. Richard McElhiney Architects of NYC is the project architect, and a bit of an unusual choice since the firm doesn’t have a presence or previous work up here.

In an assessment by Ithaca town planner Christine Balestra, concerns were noted about a phased parking plan for the church while construction is underway, and minor requests for landscaping details (plans call for two fountains). Other than that, it doesn’t look like this is going to make any waves during the approvals process.

5. Over in the town of Danby, plans are underway to convert a former clothing design and warehouse facility into a mixed-tenant business center. Docs filed by STREAM Collaborative’s Noah Demarest on behalf of owner David Hall call for modifications of a Planned Development Zone for the property at 297-303 Gunderman Road. Danby’s PDZ is not unlike the city’s PUD and town of Ithaca’s PDZ, where the form and layout is regulated rather than the use. The original PDZ for the property dates from the mid-1990s.


The “Summit Enterprise Center” would be anchored by National Book Auctions currently on Danby Road, Blue Sky Center for Learning (a company that provides support and therapy for autistic individuals and their families), and New Moon Harvest, a food and beverage maker. Additional office, warehouse and industrial/food production space would be available to potential tenants. The existing 21,000 SF building and landscape would not be significantly changed, although future plans for a 4,147 SF addition and parking lot are noted.


6. Speaking of PDZs and PUDs, I did take the opportunity when I spoke to David Lubin last week to ask how things were going with the Chain Works District development. Here’s what he said:

“Chain Works District is continuing. We’re working with the state and Emerson, investigating the site and making sure all the remediation plans are readied and approved. There will be public hearings. It’s a slow process. We will need DEC approval for the residential uses. We hope to obtain city approvals [for the draft environmental impact statement] this year.”

There’s no doubt the project will take time. With complicated topography, environmental issues, 800,000 SF of planned development space and two municipalities, it’s arguably the most complicated tax parcel in all of the county, if not the region. Readers may stretch their memories back and remember that the first phase will consist of the renovation of buildings 21, 24, 33 and 34 into mixed-use and manufacturing space. Ithaca Builds (come back Jason, Ithacans need someone with your knowledge) provides a detailed run-down here.


7. Courtesy of Maria Livingston at HOLT Architects, here’s a render of the renovation HOLT is undertaking for its new headquarters at 619 West State Street. Gone are the rather dated-looking decorative parapets, and in comes a clean, modern design with a mix of wood, brick and steel facade materials. HOLT’s 30 employees will occupy most of the new space in the  net-zero energy structure, but there will be space for two other tenants (one of which has already been claimed).

HOLT is spending about $900k on the renovation, which is due to be complete next March. Tompkins Trust Company is providing the financing, and local company McPherson Builders is in charge of general construction.

A copy of the official press release, and an interior render, can be found on HOLT’s blog here.


8. We’ll wrap up this work with a topic at the tip of everyone’s tongue – State Street Triangle. Architects Kelly Grossman of Austin, Texas and Noah Demarest of STREAM have worked to redesign the project so that its massing is less imposing and its design a little more varied. Specifically, it now looks more like several buildings built next to each other with varying setbacks and heights, rather than one continuous mass – the change is especially prominent on the 300 Block of East State, where the most concern was raised.

The developers held a community meeting Thursday night (pro tip for Campus Advantage – next time, give more than 30 hours’ notice), which has been covered by the Journal here and the Voice here. That the developers scheduled their own community meeting outside of the confines of city hall is laudable.

As part of the redesign, the number of bedrooms has been reduced from 620 to 582. Recent estimates have now priced the project at $70 million. The developer has expressed interest in designated some of the units as affordable housing, in what would be an example of the inclusive zoning that some city staff are currently looking into.


The project is seeking a tax abatement, though the formal details have yet to be released. Rents would be between $980-$1,600 per month per person, and would include utilities, gym and other “all-inclusive services”. I suspect that a parking space in the Cayuga Garage is an added cost.

Speaking strictly for myself, the design is an improvement, though I have subjective quibbles – for instance, would a lighter color material make the north wall of 11-story middle section less visible from a distance, and would it be possible to give the blank walls more character. Balancing pros and cons, I also think the design of the Commons-facing corner looks tasteful and classy. The prospect of affordable units in the building is intriguing. If I was a planning board member, I’d ask to see material samples to make sure the building doesn’t end up looking cheap.


Additional images of the updated design can be found on the city’s website here, and a written summary of the changes from project consultant Scott Whitham of can be found here.

Hotel Ithaca Plans New 5-Story Wing in First Phase

10 09 2015


The Hotel Ithaca is once again seeking to expand its offerings.

In what’s being billed as a “modernization”, owner David Hart of Buffalo-based Hart Hotels is proposing a $9.5 million project that includes a new 5-story addition to the hotel, located at 222 S. Cayuga Street in downtown Ithaca. The 2-story north and west wings of the Hotel Ithaca would be demolished. Site Plan Review documents filed with the city (link here) call for a November 2015 construction start, with the new wing opening in April 2017. NH Architecture of Rochester will be designing the new hotel wing (additional drawings of the new wings can be found here).

The construction would be the first phase of a multi-year project. Once the new wing is opened, the south wing of the hotel would be decommissioned and eventually demolished. Sketch plans presented presented at a Planning Board meeting earlier this summer indicated a second, later phase that adds three more floors on the hotel wing (bringing the new wing to eight stories), with a two-story convention center sitting on the corner of South Cayuga and West Clinton Streets.


Because of the demolitions and decommission of the south wing in favor of later construction plans, the net increase of hotel rooms is actually a decrease – from 180 down to 170 rooms.

Like several other Hart Hotels properties throughout the Northeast, the hotel has no chain affiliation, although the property was a Holiday Inn until the end of 2013. The 180-room hotel initially opened as a Ramada Inn in 1972, and the 10-story “Executive Tower” was completed in 1984.

Zoning at the site is CBD-100 (Central Business District), meaning that a proposed structure can be up to 100 feet (two floors at the least) with minimal required setbacks and no required on-site parking.


Under plans previously presented three years ago, the Hotel Ithaca sought to demolish the two-story wings of the hotel, and in their place the hotel would would build a new 9-story, 115-room tower, a kitchen addition, and a 15,000 SF conference center.

The then-$18 million project had significant local support from business owners, because Ithaca lacks the ability to host mid-size conferences and conventions (midsize meaning about 500 attendees), which sends conventioneers elsewhere. Currently, the lack of meeting space limits conferences to about 250 guests. The addition of a convention facility is seen as a major benefit to downtown retail, as well as other hotels that would handle overflow guest traffic. Convention traffic typically happens during weekdays, when regular tourist traffic is lowest.

However, the project, which was initially slated to start in November 2012, has failed to obtain financing for construction. The project applied for and received a property tax abatement for the new construction, and the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) even offered the possibility of a $250,000 loan if it would create a financial package that would allow the convention center to be built. But until this summer, there had been no indication of any plans moving forward.

Due to the modifications of the original plan, the county IDA will need to re-approve the tax abatement incentive package previously offered to the hotel.


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