News Tidbits 6/27/15: A Bad week for YIMBYs

27 06 2015

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1. Starting this off with least controversial news-maker this week – John Novarr’s 209-215 Dryden Road project, which I wrote about for the Voice here and with site plan details and SPR/render links here. The first article’s a little helter-skelter as a write-up because there was a lot of frantic 11:30 PM fact-checking going on in an effort to get the news out.

The $12 million, 12,000 sq ft proposal is smaller than Collegetown Dryden, but more importantly, the project isn’t residential; it’s classroom and office space for Cornell’s MBA program, three floors for each of those uses. That definitely brings something different to Collegetown and its mostly residential focus. With assurances given that the property will be kept on the tax rolls, the initial opposition appears to mostly be related to the design, which to be honest, is rather avant-garde and an acquired taste (not one I’ve acquired, to be honest). However, bringing 200 staff and a few hundred professional students into Collegetown would be a real asset for businesses struggling to stay open amid the neighborhood’s 32/36-week profit window.

209-215 Dryden Road is within the MU-2 zoning from the looks of it, so a trip to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) seems unlikely at the moment. We’ll see what happens moving forward, this one could be a fairly smooth approvals process.

2. For a smaller developer, Ithaca-based Modern Living Rentals has been pretty busy this year. Along with 707 East Seneca Street and 902 Dryden, they have a modular duplex (3 bedrooms each, 6 total) currently under construction at 605 South Aurora Street in Ithaca city. A construction permit was issued back in 2014, according to the city planning report. The orientation is a little odd in that the new duplex is being built in front of the old home on the property, since the house is longitudinally centered but set back on its lot. Taking a guess, the intended market is likely IC students. The new units look like they’ll be ready for occupancy in time for the fall semester.

3. Here’s an interesting piece of news, courtesy of the Tompkins County Government Operations Committee – plans to sell a vacant lot to non-profit housing developer INHS. In its May minutes, the committee announced intent to sell a vacant, foreclosed parcel in Freeville for affordable housing. The property is described as a 1.72 acre parcel on Cook Street in the village, which through a little deductive searching, turns up the lot in the map above, just north of the Lehigh Crossing Senior Apartments. The minutes state that INHS is in the process of drafting up an acquisition offer for the county attorney.

Freeville is outside of INHS’s usual realm of Ithaca city and town, but INHS expanded its reach when it merged with its county equivalent, Better Housing for Tompkins County (BHTC) last December.  This might be the first new rural project post-merger. The Lehigh Crossing Apartments have 24 units on 2..3 acres, so if INHS were to build at the same density, this site would be looking at something around 18 units. Not big, but not inconsequential, especially for a 520-person village.

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4. A decision to decrease sewer hookup costs in Lansing village also shares some details about a senior housing project in the works. The news comes from the Lansing Star, where the village voted to decrease its sewer hookup fee from $2,350 per unit to $1,000 for the first unit and $500 for each additional unit. Apparently the high fee was the result of the lack of a permitting process in the 1990s.

The article notes that the developer of a mixed-use request had requested a fee waiver because it would have cost $138,650 for their “59 units of senior housing”. Now it will be $30,000. Not as good as a waiver, but still pretty good. Lansing village only has one project that meets the description provided, the 87,500 sq ft Cinema Drive project covered here previously. The semi-educated guess back in May was 51 units, so the ballpark estimate wasn’t too shabby.

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5. It’s official, 327 Eddy is under construction. Asbestos removal has been completed and the Club Sudz building is coming down. The Fontanas hope to have the building completed and ready for occupancy by next August. In replacement of Club Sudz’ and Pixel’s 7 units and 2,500 sq ft of commercial space, the new 5-story building will bring 1,800 of retail space and 22 new units with 53 bedrooms to the market.

Eagle-eyed readers might recall the building was originally going to be six floors, but a floor was lopped off since it was approved.

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6. Updated renders for 215-221 West Spencer Street, coming right up. A little more detail on the facades, some window updates from the last version, and…well, honest personal opinion…it’s a very attractive design. Materials could underwhelm it, but as presented, it appears to be a lovely addition to South Hill. Good work STREAM Collaborative.

The 12-unit, 26-bed project plans to start construction next year. The project replaces an informal (dirt) parking lot.

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7. Touching on the Old Library decision briefly, a public meeting on the two proposals will be held Monday June 29th at 6:308:30pm at Greenstar’s “The Space” (700 West Buffalo Street). Douglas Sutherland will represent Franklin Properties (first image) and Frost Travis will be presenting for Travis Hyde. Should the County Legislature decide to take another vote to see if the stalemate will be broken, the next chance will be at their July 7th meeting.

EDIT: The public meeting scheduled for the 29th has been cancelled .

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8. Onto the thornier topics – Not sure what was worse this week, the reaction to the State Street Triangle project, or the INHS Hancock Street opposition. The objective, non-partisan write-up about the State Street project is on the Voice here. This and news piece #9 are opinion pieces, feel free to ignore them.

At least the State Street objections (latest renders here), I can understand the initial shock and recoil; there’s this perception that Ithaca is a small town, and this doesn’t jive with that. Regardless, by Ithaca standards it is massive, 11 stories with 289,000 sq ft of space and 620 bedrooms; if this was, say, a four-story building with an 11-story tower on the closest third to the Commons, the reaction would probably be less vitriolic (people would still hate it, but let’s entertain this thought exercise).

But that probably won’t happen. Not with this developer, or with any developer that purchases the Trebloc site. Here’s my theory why, and it goes a little more in-depth than “they want maximum profit”.

In December, Jason Fane’s 130 East Clinton project was rejected for tax abatements, and one of the reasons cited was that market-rate housing wasn’t enough of a community benefit. State Street Triangle is mostly apartments – it contains only a modest amount of retail space, with less than 13,000 sq ft it’s not even 5% of its usable space. If it were to apply for an abatement, it would likely be rejected for the same reason.

Arguably, they could try commercial office or even industrial “maker spaces”. But the market demand for office space doesn’t seem to be growing much, and industrial uses don’t tend to be a good fit in heavily populated areas. A developer could even try condos, but if developers knowledgeable with the area are hesitating, than a bank won’t hesitate to hold off on financing (aside on that – if the Old Library goes condo, other developers and financiers will view it as an experiment, or more positively, a pioneer; until it’s clear that the project is successful, don’t expect more condos in Ithaca).

However, nothing changes the fact that building downtown is quite expensive. So, being a for-profit company, if you want to build in an expensive area, you have two options to ensure return on your $40 million investment and get the construction loans you need – build as much as possible, and/or make your units as expensive as possible. If you’re a company that specializes in student housing, you’re not going to push the latter because there’s a lower ceiling on what students can afford. That would be my guess on how State Street Triangle came to be.

There are a few possibilities that might make the project more palatable to community members, such as free bus passes for tenants or a 10% affordable housing requirement within the tower (if the INHS project oppositions are any clue, this is going to be the only way to go from here on), but given the costs, those ideas just might kill the project completely. Which is exactly what some folks are looking for.

At the very least, let’s let the Planning Board do their work. If they can help change this:
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to this:

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Let’s see what they and the developer can negotiate here.

9. Now for 210 Hancock. Here is a project that’s been transparent, incredibly transparent, throughout their whole planning process. At first, there was little opposition. Now, it threatens the proposal, apartments, townhomes and all.

A wise man once told me in when I was preparing a piece, “There’s no point in talking about this with you, the public’s going to have issues with it either way”. At this point, I’m inclined to believe him.

I’ve read the petition, and I’ve read the facebook comments. It’s regrettable, to say the least.

A lot of the comments just seem to be misinformed. People saw the petition, thought that INHS was only building the apartments, and signed it. The petition was worded with charged and selective language. I’d like to take a few minutes out to refute and argue some of the commentary.

“there must be a safe place for children to play…”

“People need access to green space, yards and the ability to get outside directly from their living space.”

“I want my 3 year old to grow up in a neighborhood where he can safely ride a bike, play sports and walk his dog.”

You’re right. That’s why the project, as proposed by INHS and tweaked by the city Planning Board, builds a playground that blends into Conley Park without the threat of vehicular traffic (shown in the plan below). Adams Street and Lake Avenue would be removed, allowing kids living in the apartments and townhomes to go the playground without crossing any street.

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“I’m a lifelong resident, and I’m frankly getting tired of seeing all these areas getting bulldozed and developed…especially when we have dozens of empty/condemned houses and buildings just sitting around!”

The rental vacancy rate is 0.5%. A healthy market is 3-5%. Further to that, if there are dozens of homes, even if they were for sale, it’s still not enough to handle the demand, which is in the few thousands.

“inadequate parking planned.”

“The parking issue is already a problem. This will only make it worse.”

“I am a Fall Creek resident and do not want this area in our neighborhood to resemble Collegetown in density or difficulty in parking.”

84 parking spaces are required by zoning, 64 are proposed. However, only 22 spaces are expected to be used by the 53 apartments. In the parking study of INHS tenants, 41% of apartment tenants have 1 car, 12% of those have two. One of the reasons why INHS’s parking utilization is so low is that many of its apartments are rented by seniors – for example, Breckenridge Place is 60% seniors on fixed incomes. With limited mobility and/or income, many don’t maintain personal cars.

In a sense, although the Cornerstone project for affordable senior housing wasn’t selected by the Old Library site, the INHS project on Hancock Street may serve in some ways as a reasonable alternative.

“We don’t owe any developer a profit on their development.”

INHS is a non-profit community developer. The townhouses sold at Holly Creek over the past year were in the $105-$120k range. For comparison’s sake, the townhomes in the Belle Sherman Cottages sold for double that, and those aren’t even considered high-end (high-end would be the $410,000 townhomes in Lansing’s Woodland Park).

The reason why construction won’t start until Fall 2016/Fall 2017, with the apartments finishing up in Fall 2017/Fall 2018, is that they are completely reliant on government grants and donations from community supporters. The townhouses won’t start for a couple of years (their time frame is 2018-2020) because funding for purchasable units is more difficult to get. Just like with the condominium debate, the government is more likely to disburse a grant if it knows there are buyers waiting in the wings. And for low and moderate-income households, far more are capable of renting versus buying. As for the rent-to-own option suggested by the petition writer, it’s speculative, complicated, and NYS/federal HUD will not provide grants for that type of property acquisition. INHS couldn’t do it if they wanted to.

“[need]assurance mixed income will be there”

It will. As I wrote in March:

“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.”

“A 54 apartment high-rise is not the appropriate place for children to grow up, low income or not.”

“It is too dense and not suited to Fall Creek or Northside.”

“I moved to Ithaca and settled in Fall Creek to live in a small town.”

For starters, it’s harder to make housing affordable if there are fewer units on the a plot of land. Secondly, because the INHS project takes lead on the city’s right-of-way (ROW) on Lake Avenue and Adams Street, the calculated density per acre is 23.6 units per acre. Cascadilla Green, one block to the north, is 20 units per acre. Also note that units are 1 and 2 bedrooms per unit; most of the houses on blocks in Northside and Fall Creek are 3 bedrooms per unit.

What probably bothers me the most are some of the comments in the online petition for INHS.

“Shame on you “Ithaca Neighborhood Housing” for even thinking of creating something that will breed trouble…”

“This is an uncivilized proposal…”

“if all on welfare, this will invite crime…”

One of the reasons I harp on affordable housing is that I grew up in affordable housing. This 147-unit mixed-income complex in suburban Syracuse. Apartment 28E. I shared a bed with one of my brothers until I was 10, and even after my mother was finally able to buy a small ranch house, we shared a bedroom until he graduated and went to college two years before I did (by that point, we had moved on up to bunk beds). My mother did what she could. We were never more than working class, but she worked hard (still does) and made sure her kids worked hard.

At least some of the comments are kind enough to be “I want affordable housing but”. Others really make it sound like that those in need of affordable housing are a contamination of the community. Those statements aren’t worth debating. They’re just hurtful.

Anyway, this might be the longest news update I’ve done, so I’m going to wrap this up and detach from the computer for a while. There may or may not be a photo update Monday night, we’ll see.





Kendal at Ithaca Construction Update, 6/2015

22 06 2015

There’s a bit of a story behind this one. Originally, there was photo update planned for April, but it was going to be an article for the Voice. The plan was to do an interview with the operators of Kendal. Photos were taken and the bare bones were drafted, but then after the initial phone call, there was no response. Finally shrugging my shoulder (and the Voice having moved on to other article ideas), the photos were going to be posted here.

That was when the marketing director responded. She gave a bunch of dates that worked for her, I tried to select a date, but she never responded back. But I did take a second round of photos in prep for the second interview. And now all the photos are finally going up.

The neat thing about these photos is that, since the construction schedule for the new wings is staggered, multiple stages of construction can be seen at once.

First, there’s the initial wood framing, followed by the installation of the roof trusses. This is followed by what appear to be two separate types of sheathing. One is Georgia-Pacific DensGlass sheathing, the yellow boards seen below. These are gypsum panels coated with fiberglass mats, designed to limit heat loss and keep moisture out. The dark red panels are plywood ZIP system roof and wall sheathing, which uses seams and tape to save time vs. traditional sheathing such as Tyvek housewrap.  The difference between the two appears to be that gypsum is fire-rated. The Kendal expansion has both apartments for independent seniors, and a skilled nursing facility (comparable to a nursing home in its level of care; the three degrees of independence are independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing). It seems likely that regulations mandate fire-rated construction for skilled nursing facilities, but not so in the case of senior apartments for independent living. Hence the two different sheathing types.

A sample wall on-site shows how the window installation and siding will look – the new addition will be designed to blend in with the original 20 year-old building. The newer photos are about a month old now, and since then many more windows have likely been installed in the rough openings of the apartment wing, and interior rough-in will kick in as the walls are framed out.

In the earlier photos from April, cinder block stairwells poke out from the first floor of framed and sheathed walls. The skilled nursing wing had yet to rise from ground-level.

Kendal at Ithaca is currently in the midst of a $29.3 million expansion. Three new wings will be built on the northeast side of the property as part of a new 48-bed skilled nursing center, an increase from the 35 beds currently available. On the southeast side of the complex, a new 2-story, 24-unit apartment complex is being built for independent seniors. A new entrance, cafe, fitness center, and health center are also included in the additions, as well as major interior renovations. Landscaping additions and a 26-car parking lot are also planned.The construction project is aiming to achieve LEED Gold certification.

Construction began this past January, and is supposed to wrap up in January 2016. An estimated 20 to 25 new jobs will be created by the expansion, most of those in service positions that pay $24-$45k.

Kendal was granted the privilege to issue tax-exempt municipal bonds by the county legislature to finance the construction of their new wings, but is not seeking any property tax abatement.

Local architecture firm Chiang O’Brien has partnered with the NYC office of Perkins Eastman to design the Kendal expansion. National contractor Lecesse Construction, with an office out of suburban Rochester, is in charge of general construction.

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Photos from April 5th:

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News Tidbits 6/20/15: Big and Far, Small and Near

20 06 2015

Cornell Tech Passive Residential Building
1. In something not Ithaca but Ithaca-related, it seems like Cornell’s New York City-based Tech school is having quite a good week. Cornell announced that construction began earlier this month on a $115 million residential building at the Cornell Tech campus. the 26-story, 270′ tower is being built to passive house standards, the largest passive house building in the world.

According to an article in the New York Times –

“That means the building is able to maintain a comfortable interior climate without active heating or cooling systems, through the use of, among other things, an airtight envelope and a ventilator system that exchanges indoor and outdoor air. In climates like that of New York, however, standards allow small heating and cooling systems.

Making the Roosevelt Island tower airtight — creating what is essentially a giant thermos — was one of the biggest challenges, said Blake Middleton, the principal in charge and partner at Handel Architects, the building’s designer.”

The 350-unit, 530-bed building will house mostly graduate students, with some research staff and faculty also living in the tower. The apartments, designed by Handel Architects of NYC, are due to be completed sometime in 2017.

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As noted at Curbed, to celebrate the groundbreaking, partner/developer Forest City Ratner released new renders of “The Bridge“, the tech incubator building on the right that looks like and ice cube cleaved into two pieces. As one might imagine, the new renders come with token florid language and eye-rolling descriptions (“an ecosystem of companies”). The Bridge, designed by New-York based Cornell alums Weiss/Manfredi, is being designed to LEED Silver standards, which is still better than about 99.5% of Ithaca. Construction permits were filed in January.

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Last but not least, the $100 million Bloomberg donation, to name the first building “The Bloomberg Center”. The Bloomberg Center, designed by Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, will also open in 2017. To date (i.e. about three years since inception), philanthropy to the tech campus has totaled $685 million – and absolutely none of them care where you think the money would be better spent. Cornell hopes to raise $ 1 billion ($1,000,000,000) for the school by 2021.

For comparison’s sake, all of Cornell, Ithaca campus, Weill and Tech, raised $546.1 million in donations in 2014, and $474.9 million in 2013.

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2. Now to go from something big and far away to something small and local.  It’s been a while since we’ve heard about DiBella’s, the Rochester-based sub sandwich chain that had been eying Ithaca last November. They’re back, and the proposal has has some pretty substantial tweaks.

The building itself is still about the same size (~3,400 sq ft), but the design of the building has been reworked to a brick facade with an asymmetrical door/window configuration. The building is now contiguous with the main shopping strip, no longer isolated from the rest of the stores by a driveway. No decisions are expected to be made at the June Planning Board meeting, it’s more of an update for the board as to what’s going on, and to solicit input.

Marx Realty of NYC is developing the pad property, and local architect Jason Demarest (brother of STREAM Collaborative’s Noah Demarest) is handling the design.

3. Shifting out to Dryden now; I don’t tend to write much about Dryden, since a lot of the local development is limited to single-family homes in semi-rural areas (and separately, bad things happen when I write about Dryden).

First, Dryden village. The village has seen quite a jump in population in the past couple of years thanks to the opening of the 72-unit Poet’s Landing affordable housing complex (affordable here meaning that it’s income restricted and rents range from the $600s/month for a 1-bedroom to about $900/month for a 3-bedroom). At least as far back as 2010, a second phase, at the time a 72-unit senior apartment building, was planned by Rochester-based developer Conifer LLC.

Glancing at the village’s outdated webpage, there were meetings in October about phase II. A little searching online shows the negative SEQR determination (meaning no major adverse impacts expected) was issued in February of this year. The determination announcement says that 48 more apartment units are planned for the land directly west of the current complex. The Poet’s Landing facebook page says that funding wasn’t allocated for the expansion this year, but they are hopeful for 2016.

It’s not the best location; affordable housing developments often vie for land outside of developed areas simply because the land is cheaper, but the trade-off is that residents are often isolated, especially if they don’t have money to maintain a car. Here at least the village’s main drag is close enough that residents aren’t totally isolated. And any affordable housing in Tompkins County is welcome.

4. Meanwhile, in Dryden town, there are a couple of projects going on. One involves the construction of 8 duplexes (16 units) at a 5 acre parcel on Asbury Road. Working with that piece of information, there was only one parcel that met the provided description – a property just east of the Lansing-Dryden town line that sold for $30k last August to “SDM Rentals”. Scott Morgan is given as the developer in the town documents.

SDM Rentals does have at least one other recently-developed property, the Meadowbrook Apartments, a set of at least 7 duplexes at 393 Peruville Road in Lansing for which he received a $1,000,000 construction loan in 2013 (2 were built in 2010), and rent for $995/month. The ones on Asbury Road will probably look similar.

The town notes that although the SEQR is still being prepared, the site was already being prepped with dirt fill, resulting in not one but two stop work orders. Looking online, it appears Morgan has a history of being a problem for local government, including a case in Lansing town where he was using a broken-down school bus for a pig barn.

5. Now for project two, a multi-unit project at 902 Dryden Road. I’m just going to link to the Ithaca Voice article in an effort to save time. 15 units, (2 renovated, 13 new), 42 beds, and a $1.5 million investment.

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I plan on touching on a couple of other minor Modern Living Rental projects at some point, but we’ll save those for a slower week.

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6. This week’s house of the week feature is 318-320 Pleasant Street on South Hill. The rear portion (foreground) is an addition, a duplex with 3 bedrooms each. Exterior siding is nearly complete, though some housewrap and plywood is still visible on the south (front) wall of the addition. A peek inside the interior showed that the drywall has been hung-up, but final details like carpeting have yet to be installed (several rolls of neutral-colored carpets lay stacked on the floor).  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.

On a side note, the 200 Block of Pleasant Street must be one of the worst hills in the city. Walking it must be terrifying on icy days.

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7. The Old Library vote made quite a splash in this week’s news. With a 6-6 hung vote, everything’s up in the air. This is what I feared would happen.

There’s a couple of options to break this. Two legislators, Kathy Luz Herrera (D- District 2, Ithaca City/Fall Creek and Cornell Heights) and Peter Stein (D-District 11, Ithaca Town/East Ithaca), weren’t in attendance, and could call the measure back up for a vote. Herrera’s District is two blocks from the Old Library site, and Stein’s a retired Cornell professor, so although I shouldn’t be guessing people’s judgement, I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine which of the two projects they’ll be swayed by. But if either one of them decides they dislike all three options, or if they split their votes, then everything will be stuck in limbo. At that point, it’s anyone’s guess – the building could be mothballed, or given that its HVAC and utility systems are at the end of their mechanical lives, it could even be demolished as a long-term cost-saving measure.

If the county does decide in favor of one proposal, it’s still a long road ahead – ILPC approval, Ithaca city planning board approval, and a variety of other measures, which could break the winning proposal. Both projects have potential challenges – with Travis Hyde, ILPC or the Planning Board may try and whittle down its units, removing the density lauded by some legislators, and perhaps the project will no longer be financially feasible. With the condos, one starts with a building that’s had asbestos and air quality issues in the past – one bad surprise in the renovation, and the project could be jeopardized, or at least priced well above the quoted $240-$400k. There are a lot of variables in either equation, and since they can’t all be quantified, both will have their risks.

I’m just going to hope that someone is able to bring new life to the site. I don’t want to see two years go to waste.

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8. Almost to the end. Here’s your monthly look at the Planning Board Agenda for next Tuesday:

– No subdivisions this month, but there will be a 15-minute public comment period on the city’s new Comprehensive Plan.

A. 210 Hancock will be giving an update on its plan and up for recommendation for the Board of Zoning Appeals for parking (64 spaces vs. 84 required) and height variances (46.5 feet vs. the legal 40 feet). Quoting the pre-prepared document, “The Board strongly recommends granting the requested variances.”

B. An update on DiBella’s as described above

C. Tompkins Financial Corp’s Headquarters will be open for public comment, determination of environmental significance (SEQR negative/positive), and preliminary approval for both phases

D. 215-221 W. Spencer will be reviewed for Declaration of Lead Agency (Planning Board agrees to conduct of State Environmental Quality Review)

E. “Collegetown Housing Project at Dryden and Linden – Update”. A.k.a. whatever John Novarr’s planning for that five-building stretch of Dryden and Linden he just deconstructed. Readers might remember this site was part of his Collegetown Dryden project proposed last July, but there’s no indication if it’s a revision of that, or a totally different approach. The one thing that is constant is the zoning – MU-2 for the three properties on Dryden and 240 Linden, and CR-4 for 238 Linden. Neither zone requires parking, MU-2 allows six floors and necessitates mixed-use (often interpreted as ground-floor commercial), and CR-4 does not have mixed-use requirements but the height is limited to four floors. Expect an urban-friendly six-story building fronting Dryden with a four-story setback on Linden.

F. “State Street Triangle (Trebloc) Mixed-Use Project – Update” Anything could happen. Height decrease, site redesign, fewer units, major design changes…we’ll just have to wait and see how the 11-story, 600-bedroom tower has evolved given the initial recommendations of the Planning Board.

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9. We’ll end this week on a happy note. Shen Properties LLC plans on launching their Simeon’s rebuild shortly; first and second floor restaurant space for Simeon’s, and five luxury apartments. The exterior will be a near-replica of the original facade of the Griffin Building, but the interior will be renovated to hold an elevator and a sprinkler system. In a quote to the Journal, property manager Jerry Dietz says to look for a reopening in the very late 2015 or early 2016 timeframe.





Village Solars Apartments Construction Update, 6/2015

19 06 2015

Out in Lansing, the first phase of the Village Solars Apartments is starting to allow tenants to move in. Building “A” looks to be substantially complete, with tenant vehicles parked in the gravel lot, and a guy preparing a grill session out back. The unvarnished wood siding was a bit of a surprise, but it goes well with the natural color tones of the siding. Building “B” in the middle is due to receive its first tenants around July 1st, and building “C” on the east end might be planning an August 1st move-in date, based off the dates in the rental advertisements. These dates have been pushed back from the May and June dates that were noted back in the February post, and those had already been a push back from original dates in March and April. Further pushbacks are unlikely, if only because the developers risk losing out on the large and lucrative student market, which revolves around the start of the fall semester in late August.

Building “B” still has some sheathing showing, but is quickly attaching the remaining exterior trim, and building “C”, which is the same configuration as “A”, is still bare sheathing and waterproof wrap, but all of the windows and doors have been fitted. Without looking inside, I’d imagine “B” is polishing up the last interior finishes, while “C” is still installing appliances, flooring and the like. Interior rough-in probably wrapped up during the spring.

Judging from the revised Craigslist postings, Lifestyle Properties has had some success with filling the units, with some of the floor plans sold out. The one-bedroom units will rent for $1050-$1145, two-bedroom unis rent for $1235-$1369, and three-bedroom units will rent for $1565-$1650. Prices vary a little depending on what floor the unit is on, the higher up the more it costs.

Currently, some of the land has been cleared for the next phase (2 and possibly 21, which have 41 units and 10 units respectively). I checked with someone familiar with the project to ask when phase two would begin construction, and they said that there’s been talk of starting the second phase, but he wasn’t sure when it would start.

The Village Solars apartments are a large apartment complex located in the town of Lansing off of Warren Road near the county airport. The complex takes its name from what the Craigslist sales pitch calls “their passive solar design and energy saving features”. The four-phase project calls for an initial build-out of 174 apartment units, with a second addition yet to be approved that would bring the total number of units over 300. With the third phase of Collegetown Terrace yet to start, this is currently the largest residential project under construction in Tompkins County.

The Village Solars are being developed by local company Lifestyle Properties. Lifestyle is run by Steve Lucente of the Lucente family, who have been major builder/developers in Ithaca since the 1950s. No word on the architect. Upstate Contractors of Syracuse appears to be handling the construction work.

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News Tidbits 6/13/15: Things that make you go Hmm

13 06 2015

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1. We’ll start this week’s round-up with the 800-pound gorilla in the room – the Old Library decision. The general, non-partisan rundown can be found in the article I did for the Voice. Rather than rehash that, I’ll give my own thoughts and opinions here.
In what should be no surprise to anyone, there’s a lot of acrimony flying around. The unavoidable problem here is that everyone has a different expectation for the site. To be honest, I was a little surprised that the Travis Hyde proposal was the winner. The Cornerstone and Franklin proposals were running about even when it came to public sentiment – many of the Voice commenters were stressing the need for affordable senior housing, just like the county did in the RFEI. Others used online petitions to push for the condos and saving the old library, but I personally felt that that was always going to be a stretch simply because the condos are a double-edged sword; they’re a needed commodity, but that “air of elitism” associated with the sale of a public asset for high-end homes would hound the legislators all the way to the voting booth.

The truth is, the RFP was designed to be unattainable, and I called it out for that last fall. There was no way a project was going to incorporate all the things it requested. Franklin couldn’t renovate the building and make their units at the affordable level. Cornerstone was able to make their units affordable but wasn’t as environmentally friendly as the others (it also requested a large PILOT). And I guess Travis Hyde was in the middle. Which on that 0-5 scale they used to score the projects, gives a simplified sort of 5-0 (2.5), 0-5 (2.5), 3-3 (3). With unrealistic expectations, of course the legislators were going to be disappointed, and they set up everyone else to be disappointed too. But the thought of holding onto a vacant building with its mechanical systems at the end of their useful lives, ready to put the county on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in replacement costs, is probably the worst option out there.

TL;DR: There was going to a large contingent angry with the legislature’s decision, whatever it was. It’s times like this I wonder if the county should’ve just sold the site to the highest bidder.

Just for the record, because the three proposals were so different, and I thought all of three of them were good community assets, I honestly didn’t have a favorite. I had a slight preference towards DPI early on, but when they dropped out I became neutral about the whole process. But it’s only the Franklin supporters that are accusing me of subversively undermining them in the Voice write-ups, and it’s making me really cold to their cause.

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2. From the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) agenda, more talk this week about removing the setbacks from Nate’s Floral Estates (more on that in a moment), and a Memorandum of Understanding that both the city and Cornell will be chipping in $100k from their affordable housing funds to help finance INHS’s 210 Hancock affordable housing project (specifically, the 53 apartments – the 12 for-sale townhomes are being financed separately).

As covered by Jeff in the Voice, concerns have been raised that the site is unfit for new development due to the possibility of environmental contamination. Nate’s is partially on the site of the old city landfill, and has been for 40 years. But concerns raised by Ithaca city councilwoman Cynthia Brock, Ithaca town board member Rich DePaolo, and environmental activist Walter Hang have tabled the zoning change for now until the Department of Health can re-review their previous correspondence on the park’s expansion and determine if the extra 30 feet is safe to build on. The expansion may still happen, and we’ll just have to wait on the DOH’s decision before any zoning changes move forward.

On a separate note, there’s this line from the March minutes, which are rolled into the agenda for approval:

Alderperson Brock would like to see an increase in owner-occupied housing in the City. She does agree that affordable housing is needed, but the need is for “for sale” housing.

The last I checked, Ithaca is the 11th most expensive city in the country for rents as a proportion of income. The city needs affordable housing, for-sale housing, and affordable for-sale housing.

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3. Fresh renders of the Tompkins Financial HQ. This one’s had some pretty substantial revisions from the initial bland brick box. A little more character and a more varied use of materials. More drawings here, cover letter here. This project’s just scooting right along, the applicants hope to have preliminary site approval granted at the June 23rd Planning and Development Board meeting. Construction is now expected to start in August and wrap up in February 2017.

A traffic study conducted by SRF Associates of Rochester determined that with only 20 employees moving from the suburbs into downtown, that the impact to the vehicular traffic on East Seneca (thousands of cars per day) will be negligible. A long-term increase in traffic is likely if other entities move into the rented space TFC vacates, but that’s well outside the scope of a traffic study.

The initial work calls for site clearing, demo of the existing drive-thru branch on site, then excavation down to the first sub-floor, thenceforth pile driving shall commence. It’s anticipated the sandy soils will make the pile-driving move along faster, but the other buildings nearby will necessitate temporary support installations during the excavation process.

On a related note, Tompkins Financial has filed an application with the IDA for a 10-year tax abatement. The application for the $35 million project (of which $28 million is for construction of the new building) states that the requested abatement would save the project $4.06 million in property taxes, and $2.112 million in sales taxes. New taxes generated and paid over the same time period would equal $3.782 million.

In the application, TFC states that it would be a few million dollars cheaper to build at “a generic rural site”, and in order to make downtown headquarters more financially acceptable, they decided to apply for tax breaks.

The application only suggests 6 new jobs over the next three years, paying $37k-$84k annually. Given previous estimates of 77 new jobs over 10 years, this lack of major job growth early on forces the later years to pick up the slack.

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Of course, we also have a render of the new drive-thru across the street, which is nice but not nearly as exciting.

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4. Sometimes I feel like I should do a random house of the week feature. Here we have a modular home being built on the 200 Block of Eastern Heights Drive in the town of Ithaca. It looks nearly finished at this point; permits for the home were filed back in March, so this one seems to have followed a normal building schedule with no major hangups.

Some modular homes are done on the cheap and look the part; others, like the Belle Sherman Cottages, do a great job with the finishes. This one may not look as great the Belle Sherman project, but it looks like a decent infill home for the Eastern Heights neighborhood. And it has great views to boot.

5. According to the town of Ithaca’s May 11th minutes, a developer has expressed interest in buying fire Station No. 9 at 309 College Avenue in Collegetown. An appraisal has been done and the City has hired a consultant to look into it. Fire Station No. 9 was built in 1968 to replace the original station, which is now The Nines. It sits in Collegetown’s densest zone, MU-2, so a potential replacement could be six floors with no parking requirement. There’s a lot to be looked at here, especially with the potential public safety impacts. But it’s something worth paying attention to over the next several months.

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6. It’s unusual in Ithaca to see real estate advertisements posted with speculative commercial build-out plans. The above computer drawing is from the online posting for the sale of 120-140 Brindley Street in the West End. The three smaller buildings already exist – the “Aeroplane Factory” on the right and the other two properties comprise ~18,000 sq ft of flex office space. The drawing also shows an unbuilt 3-story office building; I don’t know how serious plans were for it, but it’s probably just conceptual. The real estate ad itself notes that a live/work building is possible, as well as a 6-story building of 25,000 sq ft.  The 2.38 acre site’s for sale for $2.79 million.





The Ithaca Economy, Part III: Ithaca’s Economic Health

27 05 2015

Part I looked at how in the past 25 years, Ithaca and Tompkins County had their keisters handed to them by a deep 1990s recession, but came out of the Great Recession of the late 2000s nearly unscathed. Part II provided a break down of job growth by BLS sectors – some sectors, like manufacturing and trade, have given way over the years to a workforce increasingly made up of engineers, scientists and social activists.

However, two big attractions have yet to be discussed – “Government” and “Education and Healthcare”. Those will be covered here in Part III.

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At left is the plot of jobs from 1990 to 2015 in the “Government” sector. Cue the sharpening of the pitchforks. Yes, the token government bureaucrat falls in this category. So do police officers, firefighters and military personnel. The sector shrank briefly in the early 1990s and has grown or held steady since. But in the 2000s recession, there’s an enormous boost – from November 2008’s 9,000 jobs to January 2010’s 10,300. The sector maxed at 10,400 jobs, over 15% of the local market, in October and November 2011. The annual average number of government jobs that year was 10,000, and it has fallen steadily since, with last year’s annual average total of government jobs being about 9,100.

Now the proverbial juggernaut, “Education and Health Services”. Cornell, Ithaca College, TC3, ICSD and other local school districts, as well as doctors, nurses and so forth. Just how much of the local economy does this sector comprise? I plotted it out in annual average proportions below.

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Since 1990, it’s climbed from about 45% of the total job market to 55% of the total job market. The colleges and university by themselves account for nearly 10,000 jobs. In the BLS plot, the sector shrinks a little in the early 1990s, but then it’s climbed ever since, though with a strong amount of seasonality as a result of the academic year.

Now back to the recession question. If Cornell cut hundreds of jobs, and IC didn’t really grow (according to their own reports), what helped cosset Ithaca from the economic maelstrom a few years ago? Why did it do so much better in the 2000s than the 1990s?

The other half of that economic sector. Healthcare.

It’s no big secret that healthcare has been a big grower in the county for the past several years. The local healthcare industry was essentially untouched by the 2000s recession. Cayuga Medical Center has added over 500 jobs since 2008. Baby Boomers are retiring in large numbers, and they expect a full suite of healthcare services; and while the Boomers are generally fleeing this state by the truckload for warm, low-tax locales like Florida, college towns with a high quality of life, such as Ithaca, are seen as a major draw in their own regard. As more boomers look to a community like Ithaca as an alternative to the golf course-and-shuffleboard crowd, it creates more healthcare job opportunities, which are spearheading job growth in the region.

So there’s the hypothetical conclusion – growth in several small sectors and government helped to offset losses in other sectors during the late 2000s recession, but the real difference between the early 1990s and late 2000s is the growing healthcare market created in large part by an older, retiring population. Health services buoyed the local economy even when Cornell and IC were financially stressed. These days, they all work together to bring job growth to Ithaca and set new record highs in local employment.

Now comes the gut check – does that conclusion make sense? The question was posed to local economists and economic development officials.

“I think your gut is not too far off.” Replied Martha Armstrong, Vice President and Director of Economic Development Planning for TCAD. “Certainly Upstate New York had a prolonged and deep recession in the early 1990s and real estate values took a huge hit, actually losing ground, which was uncommon nationally.”

“Yes, education and health held up well during the great recession, never declining in Ithaca. Ithaca didn’t get involved in the housing bubble or predatory lending. Once the recession ended. Hiring in health and education really took off. As for Cornell’s 700 job cuts [during the recession], that’s 2% of 34,500 jobs in the sector, ” explained Elia Kacapyr, the head of the economics department at Ithaca College and the operator of the Ithaca Business Index. “I can’t confirm it was health care and not education jobs that saved us. The employment figures are combined into one sector. I suspect it was education services. It seems to me education employment dwarfs health in Ithaca. Cornell, Ithaca College, TC3, K – 12.”

Unfortunately, there was no real consensus because the conclusion was unable to be thoroughly proven. A slight disappointment, but for what it’s worth, there is no doubt that Ithaca’s economy handled the latest recession well. Tompkins County is a rare economic bright spot in an otherwise depressed upstate economy.





The Ithaca Economy, Part II: A Jack of All Trades

26 05 2015

Part I provided a brief examination of how the 1990s recession had a deep and lasting impact on the Ithaca economy, while the late 2000s recession was a minor hiccup in comparison. Here in Part II, those recessions will be looked at in greater detail by examining the different occupational groups that make up the Ithaca economy.

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To see how the overall market changed, here is the plot of all the non-farm job sectors calculated, combined and tracked by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) from 1990 to 2015. 1990 gives a nice 25-year figure, and it’s also as far as the online data goes back.

There are ten economic sectors defined by the BLS, and all counts are rounded to the nearest 100. Not all of them follow the same pattern as the overall numbers, as seen in the four sectors below.

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Even with the substantial growth in the Ithaca economy, not all parts of the local economy reflect that. At top left is “Mining, Logging and Construction,” which in Ithaca is mostly construction and the Cargill salt mines in Lansing. Employment peaked at 1,700 in August 1990, fell during the economic doldrums of the 1990s, and has made a very gentle climb since the late 1990s, most likely due to population growth and the slow if steady rise in construction demand. Cornell’s recent budget problems could derail that rise.

At top right, “Manufacturing”, industrial makers and producers. Manufacturing peaked at 4,600 in October and November 2000. The woes in this sector match much of upstate – manufacturers closed or left the area for cheaper sites down south or overseas, like Ithaca Gun in 1986/87, NCR/Axiohm in the 1990s and Morse Chain in the late 2000s (Morse Chain shed 500 jobs in the late 2000s, which explains some of the plunge). Fortunately, companies like Borg Warner still maintain a strong presence, and there has been some growth lately thanks to firms such as Groton’s Plastisol and Ithaca’s Incodema.

Lower left is “Trade, Transportation and Utilities”. In this category is where truckers, warehouse workers, retailers, wholesalers and utility crews fall. This category peaked at 7,000 jobs twice, in January 2006 and January 2008, but has fallen closer to 6,000 jobs in the past year or so. The early 1990s dip is there, as is a dip during the late 2000s recession. Overall, the sector’s employment hasn’t changed a whole lot in the past 25 years.

Last image in the figure, at the lower right, is “Information“. Publishers, broadcasters, news agencies like the Ithaca Voice, telecommunications, movie makers, and so on. The category has never employed more than 800 people locally, and is at an all time low as of late (on a national level, the industry has shrunk by a third since the early 2000s). It doesn’t follow the recessions, but it’s a tiny portion of the Ithaca market anyway.

Okay, so these four either held steady or fell during both recessions, and are decreasing or holding steady while the overall local economy has grown. Let’s look at the next four:

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The big difference between the first four and these four is that we can clearly see that these industries have grown in the past quarter century, some more than others.

“Financial Activities” at top left includes groups like bankers, insurance agents, and real estate agents. While currently at its highest ever, it’s hit that watermark many times in the past decade. The industries fell by similar amounts during both recessions, but the late 2000s down-period was much shorter.

The “Professional and Business Services” sector shown at top right includes engineers, architects, veterinarians, scientists and other technical professionals not associated with academia or government. They definitely saw a substantial drop during the ’90s recession, and it mimics that decade’s lengthy downturn. The late 2000s recession is barely noticeable, just like the overall jobs picture.

Leisure and Hospitality” at lower left is easy enough to define – hoteliers, restaurants, and professional entertainers like musicians and artists. There’s been a big push in the hospitality subsector with new hotels in Ithaca opening recently and in the near future, but the job growth isn’t all too impressive, only a few hundred jobs during peak periods. Once again, this sector was deeply impacted by ’90s recession, and jostled though not seriously damaged by the 2000s recession.

The last category, “Other Services” on the lower right, is a catch-all. In this category the BLS includes mechanics, dry cleaners, nannies, social and environmental non-profits, clergy and lobbyists. Given this area’s strong social activism, there’s little reason to wonder why the jobs totals have steadily risen, even during the recessions.

These four probably played a role in Ithaca’s growth in the past 25 years – the city and county have transitioned from factory workers and tradesmen to engineers and non-profits. But I still have yet to touch on the two biggest categories, “Government” and “Education and Healthcare.” Those two, plus some ideas on why the 1990s downturn was worse than the late 2000s recession, will be presented in Part III.

 








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