News Tidbits 3/28/15: It’s Affordable Housing Week

28 03 2015

The unplanned theme of the week: affordable housing projects.

1. This week and next, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency will be holding public hearings as part of the process to determine who will receive money from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants awarded to the city. The 21 applicants ranges from jobs training to community services to the development of affordable housing. In total, $1.78 million has been requested, and there’s $1.215 million available, just a little over two-thirds of the total requested.

Without discounting the value of the other applications, the focus here will be on the real estate development projects. For the record, writing about a project is neither an endorsement or opposition from this blog.

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A. INHS is requesting $457,326 dollars for its 210 Hancock Street redevelopment project (also known as the Neighborhood Pride site). The total cost of the project as stated in the application is now up to $17.3 million. The application only applies to the apartment buildings, not the townhouses. The townhouses and apartments are going to be subdivided into separate parcels, because certain affordable housing funds are targeted towards renters and others towards homeowners. Subdividing the Neighborhood Pride parcel into the apartment and owner-occupied parcels will make for a smoother application process, and they’ll be separate projects within the larger framework of the 210 Hancock property.

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

One of the commercial spaces will be occupied by local social welfare non-profit Tompkins Community Action for use in an early head-start program for approximately 30 children from lower-income households. The other two spaces have strong interest but do not have tenants lined up yet.

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B. This second project is something new. Alpern & Milton LLC (local buisnessman Ishka Alpern and his brother, Franklin Milton) are requesting $250,000 towards a $1,285,000, 12-unit project proposed for Inlet Island called “The Flatiron”. The project seeks a renovation of 4,900 sq ft at 910 W. State/MLK Street (shown above) and a 3,700 sq ft addition onto the neighboring parcel at 912 W. State/MLK. The finished project will resemble the triangular form of the famous Flatiron Building in NYC. the application says “the project will be of a historic nature, but the structure being proposed is not currently, nor will it be, deemed ‘historic’ in terms of housing or building code”. Ten of the units will be available to 30-50% AMI, and the other two will be available to those making 50-80% AMI.

The brothers do have some small projects to their credit, according to the filed paperwork. They handled the renovation of Brookton’s Market and 514-516 W. State/MLK Street. Judging from the google maps dating back to 2012, some renovations have already been done to 910 W. State.

2. In this week’s Journal, there was an article that gave a rundown of recipients of the Tompkins County Affordable Housing fund paid for by a combination of the city of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell. Most of them I recognized – Holly Creek, the Habitat for Humanity duplexes in Groton and Trumansburg, Breckenridge Place and so on.

There was one I didn’t recognize. The Amici House proposal, which is being planned by Tompkins Community Action. I vaguely remember coming across this during the Stone Quarry debate last year, but at the time I couldn’t even verify if it was a real proposal. TCAction is proposing to build approximately 15 units affordable townhouses at 661-665 Spencer Road, just east of the Salvation Army store. There haven’t been any formal plans presented yet, but the project did receive $75,000 from the fund to pay for a pre-development feasibility study.

Farm Pond Site RES'D & LOT s 010414

3. Like single-family home development? Have lots of extra money lying around? The second phase of Lansing’s 21-lot Farm Pond Circle development is up for sale. Jack Jensen, the original developer, passed away last fall. Of the ten lots in phase two, four have already been reserved; there are also two lots left in phase one. The second phase is being offered for $155,000.

The Farm Pond Circle development is fairly stringent. Current deed restrictions limit the size of each housing unit to 2600 sq ft, vinyl or aluminum siding isn’t allowed, and only very specific subsections of the lots can be developed. Buyers aren’t limited to green energy, but there is a strong push in that direction. Also, at least four of the lots are earmarked for affordable housing (single-family or duplexes, buyers muse make  less than 80% of median county income of $53k)). The affordable units, at least two of which have already been built, are being developed in partnership with Jack Jensen’s non-profit, Community Building Works!.

4. It’s back again. The county’s Old Library committee will be meeting next Friday the 3rd at 9 AM in the legislature chambers. The goal of this meeting will be to review the formal proposals received for the Old Library site, which is likely the same four remaining from the RFEI, but in theory it could one or a hundred. Whereas the RFEI submissions were general, the proposals get into the nitty-gritty – site plan, architectural details, funding, time frame, proponents, all of it. Expect revisions to the previous four designs as a result of commentary from the public and legislators.

Since most folks can’t make Friday meetings, if anyone has general comments, conflicts or concerns about the proposals, I’ll just leave the committee’s contact info here: Legislature@tompkins-co.org. Use “Old Library” as the subject.





Tompkins Financial Corporation Plans New Headquarters Downtown

25 03 2015

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Downtown Ithaca will be getting another large addition in the next couple of years, if Tompkins Financial Corporation has their way.

The local financial services company has announced plans for a new headquarters in downtown Ithaca. The location of the proposal, 118 East Seneca Street, is between the DeWitt Mall and Seneca Place on the Commons. The site is currently home to a small drive-thru branch of Tompkins Trust Bank.

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The sketch plan can be found here. Currently, there is no specific design, only a massing diagram (local firms Trowbridge Wolf Lansdcape Architects and HOLT Architects will be designing the new building). Potentially, the project could be seven floors, 100 feet tall, and about 110,000 GSF. Plans call for a small amount of enclosed parking on the first floor behind the building footprint, with floors 2-7 being built out and over the parking.

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The bank branch would be moved across the street to 113-119 East Seneca, and though it’s a little hard to tell from the images provided, it looks like the buildings on site will remain in place, while major renovations are applied to the ground level. 113-119 East Seneca currently has a surface lot topped by three floors of offices.

The project has a fairly quick schedule, with formal plans expected at next month’s Planning Board meeting, and final approvals for the headquarters expected by June. According to the blurb on the Ithaca Times, completion is anticipated by January 2017.

Tracing its history back to 1836 and the establishment of Tompkins County Bank, the Ithaca-based company offers retail and corporate banking, insurance, and asset management services. Along with Tompkins Trust Bank, TFC operates several other subsidiary banks, including Tompkins Bank of Castile on Western New York, and Tompkins VIST Bank in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Collectively, the company holds about $5 billion in assets and employs 1,000, including 400 in its headquarters.

On a final note, it’s worth noting that TFC turned down participation in the U.S. Treasury’s TARP program, otherwise known as the “bank bailout”, and was did not offer subprime loans during the 2000s housing bubble.





News Tidbits 3/21/15: Imagine If It Was Trader Joe’s…

21 03 2015

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1. Yet another chain restaurant entering the Ithaca scene, this time Louisville, Kentucky-based Texas Roadhouse. There’s 24 separate documents on the city website, and I’ll link to the most useful ones here – the Building Application here, the elevation drawings here, the Full  Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) here and overall site plan here. I wrote about this for the Voice, and I’ll recapitulate the salient details here-

-The site location is 719 South Meadow Street, the northern end of big-box land. The site was previously home to a Cellular One and a 1980s one-story masonry building that was demolished in 2013, leaving the current vacant lot.

-The construction time period is expected to be from September 2015 to Spring 2016. The project will begin the PDC review process in April. The construction cost is pegged at $1.35 million, including landscaping and parking improvements.

-About 30 construction jobs and 40 permanent (albeit food service) jobs will be created, according to the application. Jeff Stein at the Ithaca Voice says that an email from Texas Roadhouse corporate expects 170 permanent jobs, so I’m not sure which figure is correct.

-The 7,163 sq ft store looks to be the standard corporate design theme for the 430-restuarant chain.

One of the things that continues to amaze me is that, here on the blog, news like this is not a big attention-getter, it’s worth a blurb and not much more. On the Voice, where the audience is more general, people go nuts when they hear about new chain places moving into Ithaca. The lovers and the haters, and sometimes even attacking each other in the comments. In the first 24 hours after the Roadhouse article was published, it was shared 300 times on facebook, and had 2600 likes. Any other real estate or business article would be lucky to get 1/20th of those figures. I never cease to be surprised.

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2. Looks like another town of Ithaca project is hitting the dustbin. The 68 acres involved in Rural Housing Preservation Associates Troy Road project have been put up for sale. Originally proposed in February 2014 as a 216-unit project, the original design met with stiff resistance from neighbors and town officials. In November, a smaller, 130-unit plan (shown above) that included on-sire orchards and clustered housing was much better received, and the town planning board declared itself Lead Agency for site plan review, but the project never progressed further. In consideration of other dead mutil-family projects (such as NRP’s Cayuga Trails and Holochuck Homes’ 106-unit townhome development), the town is having a difficult time providing new housing, partly due to developer problems and partly due to local opposition and red tape.

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3. The writers over at the Ithaca Times have an article up this week about the Kendal at Ithaca expansion currently underway. In order to stay on schedule, Kendal had to do their groundbreaking in January, with the intent of finishing in January 2016. Even with the appalling winter we’ve had this year, the director of Kendal claims the project is only three days behind schedule.

The Kendal expansion will add 24 senior apartments and 13 skilled patient care beds to the current 212 apartment and 35 beds on-site. The $29.3 million project is expected to add about 20 jobs when complete. Local architecture firm Chiang O’Brien is handling the design of the building additions.

4. More bad news from Cornell, at least for this blog’s sake. From a Cornell Daily Sun writeup about a town hall-style budget meeting conducted by outgoing President David Skorton:

“Cornell can also cut costs further by reducing campus construction, a step Skorton recommends the University take. 

‘Much of the construction you’ve seen on campus over the last 20 years has been supported by debt,” Skorton said. “We are at the point now, for at least a few years, where we need to very, very seriously reduce construction of new space.'”

I could imagine a couple impacts from this. First off, this probably won’t affect projects with permits in hand and funding in place, like the Gannett addition or Upson Hall’s renovation. But through the rest of the decade, there could be a serious curtailing of new construction. This would hurt the local construction industry, for whom Cornell is a good chunk of their work. Skorton’s explanation also works as a reason to not build any new dorms, and that’s worrisome. The rapidly increasing student population has not only been crunched by tight supply, it’s spreading into adjacent neighborhoods and raising rents for permanent residents, and contributing to strains in town-gown relations.

One thing is clear. The impacts of Cornell’s latest budget issue will be felt throughout the community.

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5. Looking ahead at the agenda for next week’s city Planning and Development Board meeting, here’s what to expect:

A. Final Site Plan Approval for the 4-unit, 9-bedroom INHS affordable housing project at 402 Sough Cayuga Street

B. Public Hearing and possible approval for the Lake Street Bridge Replacement

C. Discussion (no actions expected) on INHS’s 210 Hancock development – some minor tweaks have been worked into the plan, such as moving the new Lake Avenue north of the playground and adding a crosswalk.

D. Sketch Plan for 215 W. Spencer Street by Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative. This should be interesting. Readers of the blog will know I’ve mentioned this site a couple of times – it was a vacant lot that was sold by the IURA to local rental developer PPM Homes a couple weeks ago, and apparently they’re wasting no time with getting their plans in motion.

A 0.47 acre parcel (shown above), 215-221 West Spencer is in an R-3a zone that allows for a 40′ structure with 35% lot coverage. That’s a max theoretical buildout of 28,662 sq ft (which if you give 20,000 sq ft for the housing units, and 1,000 sq ft per unit, we get a hypothetical 20 units), but whatever does get proposed will likely be somewhat smaller. STREAM Collaborative is a local architecture firm with a few other projects under its belt, including the 21-unit 323 Taughannock project on Inlet Island, and the Franklin/O’Shae proposal for the Old Library site (the proposal that reuses the Old Library Building). STREAM Collaborative was also responsible for the design of the Troy Road project mentioned earlier, so at least they won’t be going without work anytime soon. Noah Demarest has done pretty good work previously, so I have high hopes for this project.

Along with these four discussion topics, the PDB will review a minor subdivision to create a new home lot at 104 Campbell Avenue on West Hill, a review of application materials to see if any revisions are desired, and discussion of the Planning Board Annual Report, 2014 Edition.

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6. It’s that time of the year for building new student rentals for 2015/16. Here we have a Craigslist posting for 318-320 Pleasant Street on South Hill. The rear portion (left) is an addition, a duplex with 3 bedrooms each. The owners of the 105-year old house are members of the Stavropoulos family, who run the Renting Ithaca rental company and the State Street Diner.





Ithaca Jobs Numbers Revised – Vindication Feels Good

19 03 2015
I predicted between 69,600 and 70,100. Looks like I’m right, for now.
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March is an important month for the Bureau of Labor Statistics; it’s the month where the previous three years’ of data are revised. For Ithaca, it’s yielded some very interesting results.

First off, the 2013 numbers have been revised from a yearly average of 69,000 to an average of 69,400, a 2.8% increase or 1,900 jobs more than the 2012 averaged job total of 67,500. The 2012 data were not changed.

Secondly, the 2014 total job numbers have also been revised upward, from an initial estimate of 69,150 jobs, to 69,650 in the Ithaca area in 2014. The gain seems paltry compared to 2013’s gains. 250 jobs, a 0.4% increase.

Looking at the data more closely, the 2014 data is, at a glance, alarming – November 2014 lost 1,000 jobs when compared to November 2013. December 2014 lost 1,500 jobs when compared to December 2013.

However, these results aren’t the result of changes in 2014. The Voice looked at archived reports of the initial jobs numbers for 2013 and 2014, which we’ve included below (values shown are in thousands – for example, 69.0 equals 69,000 jobs).

Now here are the revised 2013 numbers and 2014 numbers:

For visual reference, here’s a lne and bar plot of the numbers.
The large drop last Spring has been erased. The drop of 1300 jobs last May is now a gain of 700. Pretty big difference. Spring 2013 job numbers decreased slightly in the revision.Summer employment values were also decreased in both years, which means there is more seasonality to the Ithaca employment cycle than previously estimated.

Fall 2013, by the BLS’s account, had tremendous job growth, with November and December 2013 now tied at 73,700 jobs, the record employment figures in the Ithaca metro. A revision such as December 2013’s, where 2800 more jobs were added, is highly unusual. It is because of this revision that the 2014 numbers look so poorly – compared to the initial fall 2014 values, they were actually increased a little bit, just not as much as 2013’s were.

So what can we expect from the 2014 numbers moving forward? Being the “freshest” data, there is a very good chance they will be revised again next March. For the sake of example, the 2013 numbers were initially 68,000 at the end of 2013, then 69,000 in the March 2014, and now 69,400. We will need to wait and see if the fall 2014 figures are adjusted, and by now much.





News Tibits 3/14/15: A Spring Thaw and A Warming Housing Market

14 03 2015

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1. This past Friday the 6th, the city IURA (Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency) sold off a vacant city-owned property at 215-221 West Spencer Street to Edward Cope for $110,000. The name might not sound familiar, but a quick address check of the sales documents reveals an association with PPM Homes, a local rental company with a few hundred bedrooms in dozens of properties scattered around the city, most of them subdivided homes. Edward Cope also bought a vacant privately-owned lot at nearby 228 West Spencer Street for $15,000 on February 19th. 228 West Spencer, a small, steep site with tight zoning restrictions, was approved last year for one custom house design with 1536 sq ft. of space (the design plans came with the sale). As for 215-221 West Spencer, it was noted in July of last year that the city was selling the parcel (though I was under the impression it had already sold) and the buyer was intending multi-family housing. The 0.47 acre site has the potential for a medium-sized apartment building (20 units), but that’s a simple calculation using the zoning. With topography and neighbor considerations, the reality will be smaller.

In short, keep an eye on these properties, because PPM has the money to make the house and the apartment building happen.

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2. From the March IURA Agenda, a few good notes from the attached February minutes:

A. The Hotel Ithaca conference center is still actively trying to move forward.

B. The IURA received an inquiry about vacant land in the Cherry Street industrial park, from a business seeking to relocate into the city.

C. The city is making progress on taking over the state-owned parcel at 508 Taughannock Boulevard, previously used by the U.S. Coast Guard.

D. The former Ithaca Gun site is virtually entirely cleaned up, which will allow the apartment project proposed for the site to move forward with the planning and approvals process.

All things to keep an eye on in the upcoming months.

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3. Looking at the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee Agenda, there was quite a pushback from locals and the county for the proposed Titus-Wood historic district. The city fire department objected to landmarking their parking lot, the county wrote a letter opposing landmarking 317 W. State (and 315 W. State, which is not a registered address but could be the parking lot) because it was felt neither was historic enough and that it impeded urban infill, and the owner of 110 S. Albany, Ian Shapiro of Taitem Engineering, protested because his previous experience with the ILPC has been very frustrating, and that the ILPC gives applicants a really hard time over energy conservation efforts such as solar panels.

For the record, he’s not wrong about that. Some ILPC members have not been a fan of solar panels (examples here, here, here and here), and it has been at times a months-long process to get installation approval. It boils down to a dispute of alternative energy use vs. historic preservation, both things that Ithacans love, but can conflict with each other in cases like these.

Regardless of the opposition, the PEDC passed the historic district resolution with a unanimous vote, and the resolution now goes on to the Common Council, who will likely approve the new historic district.

4. Over in Lansing, concerned citizens looks like they can put their fears to rest regarding development of the Kingdom Farm property. The 528.1-acre property sold to a Cayuga County dairy farmer on March 10th for the hefty price of $2.8 million (in other words, $5,302/acre). The farm has been in the possession of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the business branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses) for several decades, and the owners even pitched a 500-unit development for the site in the late 2000s. Back in October when the tax-exempt land went up for sale for $3 million, the Lansing Star reported that some more activist local residents wanted the town to step in and help a farmer buy the land so they could keep the property agricultural. There hasn’t been any news of the town taking that step, and it appears the problem resolved itself without the need of taxpayer dollars. Also, it means the property, assessed at $2.2 million, goes back onto the tax rolls. This might be one of the few cases where everything appears to have been worked out and all can go home happy.

5. 514 Linn Street has come down for a new duplex now under construction. Each apartment unit will have 3 bedrooms and be completed this summer. Although the predecessor building dated from the late 1800s, it was also an early “cookie-cutter” home; 512 Linn was the same design. Fall Creek is mostly developed, but Linn Street is no stranger to new builds – 514 follows a few years after 516 Linn, which was a new home built on a vacant lot.

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6. Lastly, it looks like the town of Ithaca’s planning board finally has a few things to work on, after having no meeting since early January. For their Tuesday meeting, the town will review plans for more luxury tents at La Tourelle, a new municipal water tank near Sapsucker Woods, and revised plans for the Amabel project off of Five Mile Drive. The number of units has been reduced to 28, and since November, two units were added to the far west portion of the parcel bordering Five Mile Drive (and as it turns out, those center units aren’t duplexes). Contrary to the example render, six different home designs will be available. Developer Sue Cosentini of New Earth Living LLC hopes to begin sales this summer.

Get connected:

Have comments or questions about these projects for your local government? Contact info below:

Town of Ithaca Planning Board: Use the form here – http://www.town.ithaca.ny.us/contact-us

Ithaca Common Council: http://www.cityofithaca.org/341/Common-Council – click on your councilperson’s name, their email is on the subsequent page.

 





Poking At the Jobs Numbers, Again

9 03 2015

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Talk about doom and gloom. One look at the Journal’s webpage and the pessimists are in for a treat. It’s no secret that Binghamton, Elmira and to a lesser extent Syracuse and Utica-Rome have suffering, declining economies. Upstate was the factory of the nation a hundred years ago. Now, for a number of reasons, manufacturing has shifted to the south, or more commonly, overseas. Ithaca’s neighboring metros are suffering.

I’m personally not a fan of the way the article is presented. It’s the highlighted piece of the Journal. But the title doesn’t really apply to Ithaca, and they acknowledge that if one reads the article. A lot of folks will only glance at the title, think it applies to Ithaca, and think that the Ithaca economy is tanking. Question dear reader, how many times have you read an article online, scrolled down to the comments and clearly see the comment of someone who read only part of the article, if any of it at all?

Here’s the Ithaca excerpt, which they title the “Ithaca Oasis”:

“Ithaca is the sole economic oasis in central New York. Since the recession, Ithaca’s private-sector jobs have grown by 10 percent. Only New York City has done better in the state, with nearly 15 percent more private-sector jobs in the same period.

“We have come back in terms of jobs in this most recent recovery,” said Elia Kacaypyr, who follows Tompkins County conditions as an economics professor at Ithaca College. “Things are better here than many of our neighbors.”

The reason for Ithaca’s resilience: an economy heavily dependent on education services and far less reliant on manufacturing. Education and health services alone added 6,800 jobs in the Ithaca region over the past 10 years, with 4,600 of those since the recession in 2008.

But that belies some underlying weakness, Kacaypyr said, notably in housing and retail sales.

Median home prices in Ithaca declined slightly in 2014 compared to 2013, and 2014 retail sales increased just slightly ahead of a 1.6 percent inflation rate. Also, the pace of Ithaca’s job growth is slowing.”

I guess if it was me, I’d have pushed for “Ithaca An Economic Oasis in Sputtering Upstate Economy”, or “Upstate Economy Suffers, Ithaca Rare Exception”. But what do I know; I’m a blogger, not a professional journalist.

Anyway, that last paragraph stands out to me – the IJ ran an article about that a couple of days ago, here. The report, prepared by Elia Kacapyr of Ithaca College, is mostly disappointing news, 0% growth in the local economy with most indicators staying steady with inflation. But I do want to make a couple of contrasting points to some of the data.

The jobs number stated in the article, which seems to be a major swaying factor in the ecnomic report, is a net gain of 100 jobs in 2014 (a 2013 annual average of 69,000, and a 2014 annual average of 69,150, which is rounded down). The data comes from the Federal BLS website here. I don’t fault working with the data in it current form, but I will note that the numbers are suspect.

All of the year-over-year job losses are in a period of February to May 2014. I’ve written about this before. This was covered on the Voice. You can darn well bet that a loss of 1300 jobs like the one reported last May would make the news. Then the Voice ran reaction articles from city officials and county officials.

The BLS numbers are up for revision. And because the numbers are generated via random sampling, that for a small community like Ithaca, may not be statistically significant, and the potential for misleading data is large. In Spring 2012, initial reports of a 4,100 job loss were revised to a gain of 1,100, a nearly 10 percent change to the overall total (I made note of the steep drop that time as well). Revisions to the 2014 data haven’t been fully implemented yet, and there’s still no evidence of large layoffs in the education and healthcare sector. Latest numbers from Cornell’s factbook show the university added 73 faculty and staff from November 2013 to November 2014 (1% growth), and Ithaca College’s headcount decreased by 18 (1% loss). No large layoffs in the Ithaca area were noted in the state’s WARN act database.

My honest expectation is that when the numbers are completely final, the number of jobs averaged out over 2014 will come out between 69,600 and 70,100. It still won’t be as much growth as 2012-13, but it’s a roughly 1% increase for the year. I could be wrong, but we’ll see.

The report suggests 400 jobs will be gain in 2015, and economic growth of 0.3%. I think that with Cornell’s recent budget issues, and the resulting slowdown in hiring it may cause, that’s a fair estimate.





News Tidbits 3/7/15: All is Not Well on East Hill

7 03 2015

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1. Leading off this week with a note of optimism – David Lubin, the developer of the proposed Harold’s Square mixed-used building in downtown Ithaca, says that plans for the 11-story building are still underway, according to a comment he made to the Ithaca Journal. Lubin says he’s currently in the process of lining up investors to finance the construction of the project, a challenging process once one tells investors that the project is in upstate New York. It’s not impossible to have a private project financed in Ithaca (if the Marriott underway down the street is any indication), but for a project costing $38 million, it’s no surprise that it’s taking a while. It’s easy to think that this one has slipped into the dustbin, but fortunately it has not.

Meanwhile, Ithaca Builds woke from its winter slumber to give an update regarding Lubin’s other big project, the Chain Works District for the old Emerson site on South Hill. Currently, the Chain Works District is in the process of writing up its Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS). A DGEIS is part of the State Envrionmental Quality Review (SEQR), where the leading agency looks at a project, determines if any adverse project impacts are properly mitigated, and if so, issues a statement giving a negative declaration (approval). In this case, the NYS DEC also needs to be on board, approving the contaminated site for residential use. This is a pretty complicated project. There’s 800,000 sq ft of space to be removed or re-purposed, in an environmentally compromised site split between two political entities who are conducting joint meetings with their planning boards in an effort to try and move this project forward (the town of Ithaca board deferred to the city of Ithaca for lead agency; and both have rezoned the site to their respective specialized mixed-use zones). According to IB, the Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) contain about 60,000 pages of paperwork. The official timeline (already behind schedule, according to city docs) hopes to have the DGEIS submitted shortly, with a declaration of significance sometime in the Spring. In theory, Phase I site prep could start this year, but who knows if that will happen in practice.

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2. The ILPC (Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council) had a chance to review the four proposals for the Old Library site. Perhaps no surprise, the favored proposal was the Franklin/O’Shae proposal at top, which keeps the 1960s library and its “intrinsic historic value”. Members did, however, express some concern with the current building’s environmental contamination (asbestos). As for the other proposals, council members generally liked the Travis Hyde plan, and felt the Cornerstone and DPI projects were insensitive to the site (although one member expressed appreciation that at least the Cornerstone plan had affordable housing). It sounds like there will be some major tweaks to the building renders in the full proposals due later this month, so it’ll be best to hold off on judgment until those revised plans are published.

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3. Now for some bad news- Cornell is running into major financial problems, to the tune of a $55 million deficit. About half of that, $27.5 million, is expected to be reconciled with budget cuts (the other half will be covered by tuition increases). Considering the very large role Cornell plays in the local economy, this could have a chilling effect on local businesses that depend on Cornell or its employees. There are shades of 2009 here, when a projected $150 million deficit over 5 years resulted in 432 voluntary retirements, and hundreds of jobs lost.  The cut from 2008 to 2009 was a 5% reduction for the 2009-10 fiscal year, while the cut to go into effect for 2015-16 is estimated at 2-2.3%. Quoting an interview the Sun did with Skorton:

“[In the 2008 financial crisis,] We froze everybody’s salary for a year, paused construction, slowed down on hiring, developed a voluntary staff retirement incentive and 8 percent of the staff force was reduced … and [we had] a couple hundred layoffs, which is very, very hard to do,” Skorton said. “So that’s how the University acted in the worst crisis that ever happened. And so that’s a predictor of how it’s going to happen in this case.”

An article in the Sun a couple of days later notes that faculty employment is at an all time high. With 1,652 faculty in Fall 2014, Cornell has now passed 2007’s 1,647. – but one observant commenter, who I will happily buy a drink if I ever meet in person, notes that Cornell’s total enrollment is up 2,050 students since 2007. Devil’s in the details, folks – Cornell could use this “all-time high” as an excuse to not hire more faculty during its latest financial crisis, even though the student-faculty ratio have been increasing for years. Let’s not forget that faculty-student ratios are a crucial part of college rankings.

All of this is rather disconcerting news, especially in a time where the national economy has been picking up. Cornell has real potential to not only cause a localized recession, but also fall behind its peer institutions.

4. On a somewhat brighter note, even with this appalling winter, the construction of Klarman Hall is only nine days behind schedule, according to the Sun. Atrium glass installation should begin in April, and East Avenue will be reopened to two-way traffic around that same time. Although this project is well underway towards a December 2015 completion, one has a right to wonder if it is wise for Cornell to pursue the Gannett expansion and Upson renovation (valued at over $100 million combined) during these perilous financial times.

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5. The town of Lansing’s planning board is set to review some slight changes to the massive Village Solars apartment project at its Tuesday meeting.

First, a quick primer – while the whole plan is for about 300 units, the approved phases account for only 174 units, and are being built in phases. The photo updates I’ve previously featured here on the blog show the first phase underway, buildings “A”, “B” and “C” on the right (south), with 36 units total. There are four phases, with two sub-phases in phase 2. Phase 2 consists of D, E, G and H with their 41 approved apartment units, and phase 2A is building F, which has the community center as well as 10 more units.

The revised plan calls for moving 6 units from buildings G and H to building M, which is in phase 4. G and H are combined into one apartment building (G/H), leaving 35 units in Phase 2. There are a couple reasons cited for this change – when working with NYSEG to lay out the utilities, it was decided to make phase 2 all electric services, due to concerns that Lansing may not be able to provide gas service if the tense situation with the gas pipeline proposal on West Dryden Road doesn’t go in the town’s favor. One of the results of the utility infrastructure change was a difference in utilities layout, and it was deemed prudent to shirt the walkway northward. This impacted the site design, which is why the Lucentes are seeking to revise the PDA (planned development area, similar to the city’s PUD and the town’s PDZ).

The change isn’t huge, and isn’t likely cause too much consternation among board members. This is actually the first site plan I’ve seen for the project, since it was approved before the town uploaded supplemental docs to its webpage. More importantly, it’s much clearer how future phases could build out – if the ~300-unit project takes 8-10 years as projected, then estimating the construction of phase 2 and 2A from summer 2015-16 seems reasonable.

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6. Planning board members had mixed reviews about the Simeon’s rebuild, according to the Ithaca Times. While some members were excited about the rebuild, others expressed concern with the proposed addition of a second-floor balcony, seen in the above render by architect Jason Demarest. The project is eligible for state tax credits designed to renovate historic buildings, but if the credits are granted, then the balcony would not be built. If the credits are not granted, the building owners are looking not only at a balcony, but the possibility of widening the bay windows a little (it turns out the bay windows were an early renovation to the original Griffin Building, and larger bay windows would benefit a planned expansion of Simeon’s to the second floor). Regardless, cast-iron ornamentation that was salvaged before demolition will be incorporated into the rebuild.

During the same meeting, the planning board accepted revised signage for the Marriott, and there was further discussion about the Canopy Hilton. Nearby residents expressed concerns that a downtown hotel will increase traffic, and complaints were made about the ingress/egress plan for both the hotel and the CSMA next door. No word on the land swap CSMA wants, but it doesn’t seem like they’re budging on their property’s all-important utility easement quite yet.








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