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:

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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.

Collegetown Terrace Construction Update, 11/2015

10 11 2015

Well, this one can finally be counted as “underway”. Site prep has begun for the last building at the Collegetown Terrace site, on the 900 Block of East State Street south of Collegetown. Being just a few weeks underway (work commenced in late October), the primary tasks in the short-term are clearing the site and building shoring walls (the steel H-beams with wood lagging). The H-beams are drilled or driven in at regular intervals, and hold the soil back while the foundation is excavated. This building is going to have a deep foundation and a large footprint, so foundation work is likely to take a while, we’ll be well into 2016 before steel starts to rise from the ground.

The last phase of Collegetown Terrace (Phase III) is expected to be completed by August 2017. Phase III will focus on the construction on the last building, #7 (formally known as 120 Valentine Place), a long, curving building very similar to  the completed Building #5. Funding for the new building comes from part of a $50 million loan extended to developer Novarr-Mackesey in 2013 by Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank, and revised in December 2014. As this project demonstrates, even though a proposal might be approved, it can take years for something to actually get off the ground — if ever. Initial approvals were granted all the way back in 2011.

Building 7 is expected to have 247 units, and 344 bedrooms once it’s completed. About 80 of the units will be set up “dormitory-style”, where all tenants get their own bedroom and bathroom, but share kitchens and community lounge spaces. Novarr-Mackesey had found after the previous phases were completed that parking was only being utilized by 50% of tenants, so rather than build a floor of parking that would more than likely go unused, the firm applied to the city Board of Zoning Appeals for a parking variance (652 spaces for the whole complex, which is 51 less than required by zoning) to change one floor of parking planned for Building 7 into the “dorm-style” living space. The variance was granted by the BZA in Spring 2014. The dorm-style units are expected to rent at half to two-thirds of the cost of a studio unit, and to appeal to graduate and professional students on a budget. The current layout calls for parking on the first floor, then the dorm floor, then regular studio-3 bedroom units on floors 3-6.

With this project underway, it’s the single-largest residential building under construction in Tompkins County. Hopefully, one that will make a dent in the city and county’s housing crunch.

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News Tidbits 11/7/15: All the Small Things

7 11 2015


1. The Chapter House project is finally beginning the first stages of design review with the ever-stringent (or picky, pending your view) Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council. As seen in the render above, gone is the fourth floor, and gone for now are plans to build a new structure at 408 Stewart, after some members of the ILPC expressed opposition to a tear-down, even though the exterior has been butchered and the architect called it a “fire trap”.

The committee also had disagreements over which version of the Chapter House is more historic, the original ca. 1903 design evoked above, or the 1920s renovation that everyone remembers. The September minutes showed intent towards the four story design seen previously, but the design shown above is three floors – whether that be to the committee’s persuasion, or concerns over a zoning variance isn’t clear. It might be in October’s minutes, but those haven’t been approved, and are therefore not available yet.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the committee is planning “Property Condition Review and Potential Action” for the decayed carriage house at 312 West State Street. The board was also set to provide “Early Design Review” for a project at 315 North Cayuga Street, probably some kind of renovation/restoration of the First Presbyterian Church, but the item has since been pulled.

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2. Wait long enough and history repeats itself. In March 2009, I did a post called “Warren Real Estate Tries to Sell a Frat House“. It looked at 210 Thurston Avenue in Cornell Heights, when it was on the market for $950,000. The house has historically been a Cornell fraternity house, built around 1900, re-purposed not long thereafter for the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity until WWII, when the brothers left for service and the chapter never reopened. It was then used by other GLOs over the decades (Alpha Omicron Pi in the 1940s, Sigma Alpha Mu from the late 1940s to early 2000s, and Phi Delta Theta’s annex in the late 2000s).

After sitting on the market for a couple of years, the house sold in December 2011 for $677,500 to an LLC representing the wealthy parent of a Cornell wrestler, who had the house renovated for the team in 2011/12. The legal occupancy increased from 33 to 40 persons as a result of the reno.

So now it’s on the market again, this time for $2,750,000. That must have been quite a renovation. An open house will be held 1-3 PM this Sunday.

I’d recommend it to the Phi Mu ladies given their recent rejection by Cayuga Heights’ zoning board, but the asking price is almost four times the house they were looking at 520 Wyckoff. The house on Wyckoff was also intended for 16 occupants rather than 40. Oh, and I suppose those urinals the owners installed would be a bit out of place.

We’ll see what happens. This one could be on the market for a while. Again.

3. Also new to the market this week, two parcels in the town of Ithaca that have the potential for development.

The first, 1564 Slaterville Road. The sale includes four parcels – 1564 Slaterville Road itself, a 19th century home on 1.52 acres, and the other three are vacant parcels with frontage on Slaterville Road and Park Lane, which serves as an entrance to the Eastern Heights neighborhood, and has seen a number of higher-end single-family homes in the past several years (there have been plans for a 16-lot housing development on the adjacent land to the north, but nothing has been approved). Altogether, the sale comprises 9.2 acres of land, on the market for $995,000. The properties are valued at $297,300 total, so if the owner is asking such a high price, either they’re delusional, or purposely going after developers. The land currently falls under Ithaca town’s Medium-Density Residential (MDR) zoning, which is single-family homes and duplexes only. The Comprehensive Plan calls for “Established Neighborhood” use, with an average of 2-4 units/acre, either homes, townhomes or apartments (sensitive to neighboring uses), and the possibility of low-intensity commercial (home office). Expect any potential form-based code to accommodate those details.

The other parcel up for sale is 969 East Shore Road, one of the few properties in the town’s lakeshore exclave. This one is also asking a huge premium, $1.45 million for a 2.09-acre property assessed at $300,000. The property was used as the headquarters for the John C. Lowery construction company until they moved to Freeville; it had been built in the 1960s for a chemical company. The seller, the CEO of a local manufacturer, picked up the property for $300,000 in December 2013.

Although it falls under the town’s Lakefront Commercial (LC) zoning, which in itself says only marinas and wind turbines are okay, special use permits allow for mixed-use, hotel, and other non-water options. Like the Slaterville parcel, this one also falls under the “Established Neighborhood” use guidelines.

If they sell, and it bears mentioning, it’ll be mentioned in a later news roundup.

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4. It’s house of the week. This week, 319 Oak Avenue in Collegetown. The lot was created by a subdivision of the existing lot, 424 Dryden Road, in February of this year. What was once a parking lot is now the foundation for a duplex with 3-bedrooms each. Foundation and stem walls have been poured and cured, and given that this photo is a couple weeks old, the foundation has probably been backfilled already, and rough framing may even be underway.

The site falls into the CR-2 Zone of the Collegetown Form District, meaning 2-3 floors, and pitched roofs and porches are required. The architect is Daniel Hirtler of Ithaca, and the developers are William and Angie Chen, also of Ithaca.

5. It’s a quiet week. The city of Ithaca’s projects memo has absolutely nothing new (not even new attachments to the three projects subject to review), and the town of Lansing has nothing interesting either. So we’ll wrap this up with some economic news:

A Lansing technology firm will be seeking sales tax abatements this month as part of a planned expansion project.

Advanced Design Consulting USA (ADC), located in a 15,000 SF facility at 126 Ridge Road in the town of Lansing, has submitted an application to the Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority (TCIDA) for review at their November 12th meeting.

The company is applying for a one-time sales tax abatement on the cost of construction materials, and is valued at $54,880.

ADC specializes in the design and manufacture of high-precision scientific instruments, especially those used in physics research. The firm states in their IDA application that their small size has limited their ability to gain large contracts, and it is necessary for them to expand in order to expand their business. The 5,000 SF expansion is valued at $910,000, and would retain 14 jobs and create 7 additional jobs in their Lansing facility, with a median salary of $40,000. If approved, the expansion project would be completed by June 2016. With the expansion, ADC’s revenues are predicted to increase from the current $2 million, to $2.7 million in three years. The company did not commit to local construction labor in their application.

In an interview in 2014, ADC President Alexander Deyhim explained that the company declined a business incentive to move to Oak Ridge, Tennessee because of Tompkins County’s high quality of life, and proximity to Cornell’s nano-fabrication facilities.

For ADC, which was founded in Tompkins County in 1995, it will be the third expansion in twelve years. The company had previously applied for and received tax abatement approvals for a larger, 20,000 SF expansion project, but according to the current application, the firm reassessed its needs and decided to go with a smaller plan for the time being. The original abatement was never utilized. Supplemental documents indicate the town of Lansing has approved the physical plans for the expansion.

So does one force the company to use local labor, or does one risk turning the company down and sending the whole operation to Tennessee? Tax abatements are hardly ever a black-and-white decision.

804 East State Street Construction Update, 10/2015

20 10 2015

A new, small project to add to the list of projects underway, 804 East State has started construction on the fringe of Collegetown. The owners of the site, the Nestopoulos family of Ithaca, are building two modular duplexes, 4 units total, with 3 bedrooms each (12 total).

The foundations have been dug for both duplexes, and form boards have been placed in the footprints of the west building. The concrete foundation gets poured into the form boards, and the boards help the concrete hold its shape while it cures. Looking closely, you can see a few steps in the wood forms, since the site is sloped, the concrete foundation will be stepped. The small wood sticks on top of the forms are spreaders, to provide extra stiffness.

Once the forms are squared and levelled, the concrete will be poured in, levelled off and smoothed over. After a day or so, the forms can be removed, leaving the newly-finished foundation. Once the foundation is ready, the builders can begin erecting the concrete masonry unit (CMU) walls, the hollow concrete blocks seen in the photos. The modular pieces will then be brought in, hoisted into place and sealed together, not unlike the process at the Belle Sherman Cottages.

The plan is to have these completed by December 2015, with new occupants (likely students) moving in the following month. The project replaces a gravel parking lot. In an effort to appease neighbor opposition about the homes simple (and perhaps bland) design, the number of houses was reduced from three to two, they were oriented to minimize visual impact, parking was moved from below the units to surface lots, and extensive landscaping with an “outdoor room” is planned.

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205 Dryden Road (Dryden South) Construction Update, 10/2015

19 10 2015

Turning the corner from 307 College, 205 Dryden (“Dryden South” for marketing purposes) is the third of Collegetown’s midrise apartment buildings under construction. The basement has been excavated and sheet metal piles keep the surrounding soil from spilling back in. The basement will contain the mechanical room and storage space. Structural steel has been erected up to street level. In the second image, the outlines of future interior basement walls and the base of the future elevator shaft can be seen.

In what’s sure to stoke a few tempers, prices for Dryden South have been priced at $1350/bedroom per month, meaning $5400/month for each 4-bedroom unit. Incredibly expensive, but not especially surprising given the astronomically high land values in central Collegetown. Owner Pat Kraft, who also runs Kraftee’s book store, has actively marketed the apartments on Facebook, Craigslist and its own website.

When completed in July/August 2016, the 6-story, 65-foot structure will house Kraftee’s in 2,400 SF of retail space on its ground floor, and 2 4-bedroom apartments on each of the upper five floors, for a total of 10 units and 40 bedrooms.

As you can tell from the first photo, apart from the demolition earlier this summer, work has yet to begin on John Novarr’s Collegetown Dryden project next door. But with approvals in hand, that six-story research/office building will be starting something in the next month, if the site plan review document is still accurate. The $6.4 million project was designed by Ithaca architect Jagat Sharma and Rochester-based LeChase Contruction is in charge of the build-out.

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307 College Avenue (Collegetown Crossing) Construction Update, 10/2015

18 10 2015

The largest of the apartment projects under way in Collegetown, Urban Ithaca (the Lower family’s) project at 307 College Avenue, the “Collegetown Crossing” development, has made significant progress in the past few months.

Structural steel columns have risen to the height of the building’s second floor, and some cross beams have been erected. The concrete area where the buckets are sitting in the second image is the future pedestrian walkway connecting College and Linden Avenues. A year from now, those pillars will support the second through sixth floors, while a vegetated pocket park and walkway will lead past the main lobby for the apartments, one of the commercial spaces, and the laundry area, before a kink in the path takes it past the entrance to rear stairs and a fitness center, and then out towards Linden Avenue.

Also, don’t let the perspective fool you – the fire station’s concrete pad (where the photos were taken from) is a little higher than the walkway, so the walkway’s height is greater than it looks.

Notice the three concrete boxes? The closest concrete box to where I’m standing is the lobby’s stairwell. The one a little further behind it is for the lobby elevator, and the third one, furthest back in the photo, is for the freight elevator and rear stairwell. One of the two smaller storefronts will be in front of the elevator shaft towards the street, its outline clearly visible in the poured concrete of the second photo. All three of these will rise with the rest of the building as it moves skyward.

The project will bring 96 bedrooms to market in 46 units, as well as a 3,200 SF full-service branch of the Greenstar Co-Op grocery store. Two other commercial spaces and an indoor TCAT bus stop are planned, but no tenant announcements have been made for the other retail spaces. Apartment rents are expected to be in $950-$1250/bedroom range. Everything should be open for occupancy by August 2016.

According to construction loan documents recently filed with county, the project’s cost is about $10.5 million. Collegetown favorite Jagat Sharma is the designer, and Hayner Hoyt Corporation out of Syracuse will be in charge of construction.

In case anyone’s wondering, the “harlequin house” behind 307 College, 226 Linden Avenue, is another Lower property. Just like 205 College.

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327 Eddy Street (Dryden Eddy Apts) Construction Update, 10/2015

16 10 2015

Of the three major Collegetown apartment projects currently underway, 327 Eddy is probably the least “impressive” to look at because it has yet to begin putting up structural steel. But this isn’t to say there isn’t work underway.

The site has been excavated and the base of the building has been established. A steel rebar grid mesh can be seen at the base of the upper tier, with utility lines feeding through. The rebar mesh is a reinforcement for the concrete when it gets poured, helping to prevent cracks that may from in the concrete from spreading throughout the foundation and causing major damage. The lower building tier have yet to receive the rebar mesh, but given the elevation render, it might be filled out first with the “flowable fill” referenced in the last update. Rimming the base are steel sheet piles, which lock together to form a wall designed to keep spoil and water from neighboring properties from spilling onto the construction site.

Plans call for a new 5-story building split into “steps” on the steeply-sloped site. The mixed-use building will bring 1,800 SF of retail space and 22 new apartment units with 53 bedrooms to the market in August 2016. Longtime Collegetown landlord Steve Fontana (of the Fontana’s Shoes family) is the developer, Jagat Sharma is the architect, and GM Crisalli & Associates of Syracuse will be overseeing construction. A construction loan of $4,824,000 is being provided by Tompkins Trust Company.

Note in the elevation drawing below, the building is six stories. It was reduced to five, and the decorative crown was reworked after approval was granted.

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