News Tidbits 11/14/15: To Plan or Not to Plan

14 11 2015

It’s another slow week. There was no PEDC meeting in Ithaca city, and no new projects hit the airwaves. But there might be some interesting things moving forward.

1. The Lansing Star has an insightful interview this week with newly elected Lansing town supervisor Ed LaVigne, who unseated incumbent Kathy Miller for the seat. From a development standpoint, it’s very interesting. From the interview, it sounds as if, given the possible loss of their biggest taxpayer, the $60 million Cayuga Power Plant, he kinda wants to throw the door open to developers in an attempt to soften the blow of its closure. In Lansing, there was a political divide when it came to planning – the Democrats wanted a full-time planner, but the Republicans wanted a part-time planner. The budget item for a full-time planner was eliminated along town board party lines, 3-2, and Lansing is currently served by part-time planner Michael Long.


“That’s why it’s so critical to start moving some dirt, getting things built.  One of the things I’ve already told developers is that Lansing is in business.  How can we make you more prosperous?  We believe in prosperity.  And if you’re prosperous we all will benefit.  I don’t care how much money they make.  I hope they make more money than they ever dreamed of, because if they put their money in Lansing, Lansing wins.”

If I didn’t know where the quote was coming from, I wouldn’t believe it was from an elected official in Tompkins County. Most local officials are very measured in their comments on growth, if they welcome newcomers at all.

Just as a thought exercise, Lansing builds about 25 houses per year per HUD SOCDS, and a variable number of apartments, which right now is a few dozen per year thanks to the Village Solars project off Warren Road. Take about $300k per house, and $6 million for each major phase of the Village Solars, and one gets $13.5 million in new development. Not factoring in additional infrastructure or service costs or taxes from commercial/industrial construction, it would take four and a half years to make up the tax revenue lost from the closure of the power plant.


Of course, development in Lansing is tricky – without sewer, houses have to be on at least one acre of land. After all the busted dreams with the town center proposal, the town will be more likely to stick with conventional suburban development and rural homesteads. On the one hand, Lansing has given a yes to development. On the other hand, the question of “smart” growth is still up in the air, and it’s not looking good.

By the way, the photos, which are a few weeks old, are of homes underway on Lansing’s Oakwood Drive. Cardamone Homes is the builder. The top one is for sale for $670,000.


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2. There’s nothing too exciting in the agenda for the Ithaca town planning board meeting next Tuesday. There’s a couple of legal clarifications required, one for a single-family home subdivision, the other to let Brookdale (formerly Clare Bridge / Sterling House) move forward with their 32-unit expansion project. The town planning board will also be reviewing some solar panels and changes to the sign law. Really, about the only noteworthy thing on the agenda is an open, informal discussion on College Crossings. After have a few months to take a deep breath, the developer, Evan Monkemeyer of Ithaca Estates Realty, would like to discuss what needs to be done in order to make the project fit with the town’s comprehensive plan, while keeping his plans economically feasible. A copy of the letter is below:


This is potentially a major opportunity for the town to show good stewardship. Ideally, the two sides will find a common ground that meets the town’s goal for a less auto-centric, mixed-use South Hill, while allowing the developer to move forward. A tax abatement isn’t going to fly with the IDA let alone the planning board, but there are other options that can be considered – density, height, and setbacks come to mind. The town’s comprehensive plan considers the site “TND [Traditional New Development] High Density” – one of the few high density spots in the town. The plan recommends 8-16 units per acre as an average (it’s a 3.75 acre site, so picture 30-60 units), and 10-20% open space. A project in a TND-HD area should be dense, transit-oriented, porous and walkable. The door is open, not only to the town, but members of the public interested in helping find that common ground (looking at you, Form Ithaca). It should be an interesting chat.


3. Local architecture firm STREAM Collaborative held an open house last Friday, and for those unable to attend, they shared photos online.

Look closely and you’ll find a copy of a conceptual build-out of the Chain Works District, which is still going through environmental site assessment (the ESA document is said to be tens of thousands of pages). The South Hill Business Campus is to the upper right, so the top of the image is directed south. Note that there’s nothing formal, and even the renovation of buildings 21, 24, 33 and 34 has yet to reach the boards (rumor mill says the renovations might start in 2017). But it’s great eye candy.

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4. House of the week. Since I hit this house a couple of times while it was underway, I figured I would include a couple shots of the finished 3-bedroom, 1,276 SF home at 203 Pearl Street in Ithaca’s Belle Sherman neighborhood. Oddly enough, the builders, Gil and Naama Menda of 201 Pearl, used the same exterior trim colors as on the Belle Sherman Cottages a block away.

The lot is the result of a subdivision approved by the city during the spring; 203 Pearl had previously been combined with 201 Pearl and used as an in-ground swimming pool, which was filled in at some point.

1325 Taughannock Boulevard Construction Update, 11/2015

11 11 2015

Single-family homes tend to be more of a featurette on Ithacating, rather then full-fledged posts of their own. Then again, most homes aren’t multi-million dollar lakeside mansions.

Looking at the house underway at 1325 Taughannock Boulevard in the town of Ulysses (pulling off of the road is a bit harrowing, given that it’s a 55 MPH zone on a narrow road with marginal visibility), the roof has been sheathed but not shingled, and Kingspan Green Guard Raindrop 3D housewrap drapes the exterior of the building. The black material on the roof looks like felt paper (also known as tar paper), which helps protect the roof from water that may get under the shingles form ice melt of gusty winds, and protects the asphalt shingles from resins in the wood decking. Felt paper also increases a roof’s fire rating and helps keep the house dry in case of rain during the construction period. Windows have been fitted, and masonry work on the chimney is underway. The timber frames stand out against the housewrap, but the actual finishing materials (wood, with wood and concrete or stone trim) should complement the timber frames nicely.

As previously reported, a construction loan for $2.25 million was filed on August 13th, with Tompkins Trust Company providing the financing. The property was previously home to two smaller lakeside cottages. the two small houses once on the properties have been demolished. The homeowner is a New York senior investment banker with ties to Cornell. The house is expected to be completed by May 2016.

New Energy Works, the project architect, specializes in timber frame structure, with offices in suburban Rochester and Portland, Oregon (the Pacific Northwest and the Appalachians are two of the most popular parts of the country for timber frame homes; in New York, it’s often coterminous with “Adirondack Style“). Locally, New Energy Works designed the Namgyal Buddhist monastery on South Hill, and the Ithaca Foreign Car (Ithaca Volvo) building on West State Street.

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Boiceville Cottages Construction Update, 11/2015

9 11 2015

It looks like construction has started in earnest on the last phase of the Boiceville Cottages. All the concrete slab-on-grade foundations have been poured, with the blue exterior insulation to be covered later by a little backfill. Atop the foundations are utility connections and wood sill plates, which is where the wood stud walls will go. From a quick walk-through, it looks like rough framing and sheathing has begun on at least three of the cottages, and that all the units to be built in this final phse will be stand-along cottages. According to the Boiceville Cottages facebook page, the last septic tank was installed last week.

Without knowing too much about Caroline’s tax base, this is arguably the largest residential tax-contributor to the town, if not the largest tax-contributor to Caroline period. The current phase calls for 17 units at a cost of $2.2 million, $2,098,479 of which goes towards hard construction costs (materials/labor). The cottages are part of the 75 unit addition approved by the town of Caroline back in 2012. Altogether, those 75 units have hard construction costs of $7,477,671, according to construction loan documents filed with the county. The 2015 assessed value for the property was $10.3 million for 122 units in 2015, and that number is likely to climb a couple million higher in the next year or so.

The Boiceville Cottages began with a first phase of 24 units in 1996/1997, with a second phase of 36 units ten years later. Now, a few things have been tweaked along the way, because the build-out no longer matches the 2012 construction documents – some triplet cottage clusters on the engineer’s map have been replaced with “gatehouses” and quadruplet cottage clusters during build-out. For the longest time, I’ve been using 135 units as the total (24+36+75), but given this statement from their facebook page, it looks like the final count will actually be 140 units. The Boiceville Cottages expansion will finally wrap up its years of construction next summer.

Apart from some early concerns about site drainage, there haven’t been too many objective issues with the project. Subjectively, some love the bright colors, others can’t stand them. Heck, even Simon St. Laurent gives them a little appreciation on the “Living in Dryden” blog.

For those interested in visiting the cottages, they sit on 37.7 acres on either side of 300-334 Boiceville Road, just west of the hamlet of Slaterville Springs. Rents range from $1,050 for a studio to $1,750 for a three-bedroom gatehouse unit. Most of the units are 1 and 2-bedroom cottages, built in clusters of three, with a few “gatehouse” rowhouses that offer studios and 3-bedroom units. The cottages fall in the 850-1050 SF range.

Schickel Construction is headed by Bruno Schickel of Dryden, following in the footsteps of generations of Schickels living and building in Ithaca. In some circles, Bruno Schickel is better known as the husband of the famous columnist Amy Dickinson.

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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.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

3 11 2015


A little less fact and a little more opinion with this week’s Tuesday post.

I postponed what I originally had planned because of a few things coming together at once. One, a post from Kathy Zahler at the Dryden Daily Kaz alleging ageism at work in the 4th District county legislature race, and this piece on the ever-evolving character of New York’s East Village from the Sunday New York Times.

In the 4th District race, you have a 19 year-old candidate, and a 56 year-old candidate, both Ithaca natives. Reading their views on the issues, one can’t find a whole lot of differences, but the “he’s just a kid” type of comment raises its ugly head. I don’t claim to know why people vote the way they do, nor do I feel it appropriate to do endorsements. People will vote how they want. But it would be a real disappointment if age were being used as the deciding factor.

It reminds me a lot of an Ithaca adage that people want Ithaca to look and feel exactly as it did when they moved here, or felt most in their element here. Which ties in pretty well to this NYT piece from last Sunday.

“When I asked nostalgic people to name the street’s golden era, they cited a range of years — often falling between 1960 and 1982, but sometimes 1945, or 1958, or 2012.”

Likewise, everyone has their own idea of Ithaca’s “Golden Era”, and when it ended. For many of the city’s oldest or most conservative residents, and for many older folks in the surrounding towns, it was when the Commons opened in 1974/75. It has just as much to do with the Commons itself as what the Commons represents – when Ithaca turned leftist. Up until the early 1970s, the city and county were run by Republicans. But, due mostly to the large influx of largely singleminded faculty at IC and Cornell in the late 1960s and 1970s, and a trend towards rentals in the city (then as now, students/young voters tend to be more liberal), the area started voting more and more Democrats into office. The last Republican mayor of Ithaca (Bill Shaw) left office in 1983. The last alderperson (Bob Romanowski), 1993. The national trend towards the right didn’t help, as Northeast Republicans generally trend to the moderate side. The Commons was a product of Democrat Ed Conley’s administration, and it’s often seen as a congregation site for social activists and crunchy boutique stores – head shops, organic specialty items, and the like. So it’s not hard to imagine why the Commons receives so much criticism, because for those who saw Ithaca’s best days as Republican ones, its opening signified the beginning of the end.

You could go down any street and get a variety of numbers – for the more blue-collar folks, the end of the Golden Era might be 1983 (when Smith-Corona shut down most operations and BorgWarner Morse moved to Lansing), 1986/87 (when Ithaca Gun moved out), or 2011 (when Emerson Power laid off its last local staff). For those who have clung to the misguided image of Ithaca as a small town where nothing bad happens, the Ellis Hollow murders in 1989, or the stabbing death of IPD Officer Padula in the line of duty in 1996, might be when Ithaca’s Golden Age came to a close, and it became to them an alien, dangerous place. Still others will say Ithaca’s Golden Age closed when Wal-Mart opened (2005), when Cornell turned to the lake for its cooling needs (2000), or this year, when Moosewood decided to go national.

The point is, Ithaca’s “Golden Era” ended at a different time for everyone; for some it’s still going.  That’s because the community is always changing, evolving, remaking itself into something different from what it was.

“If you’re complaining about the East Village, or New York in general, being dead, I think it’s worth considering the possibility that, yes, it is over — for you. But for plenty of others, the city is as full of potential and magic as it was in 1977. Or 1964. Or 1992. Or whenever you last walked down the street and felt like it belonged only to you.”

One of the things that I find bothersome is when one prefaces a comment with “I was born here in 1953/I moved here in 1977/I bought my house in Fall Creek in 1983…”. It doesn’t make one more “correct”, it doesn’t mean one’s opinion should have extra weight. For a community that prides itself on being so cosmopolitan for its size, bragging about the decades one has been in one place suggests insularity and close-mindedness. It’s like saying the community isn’t allowed to change without one’s explicit permission.

My exposure to it is mostly from the perspective of development. Almost always, it’s how they’ve lived here for decades, and something will ruin the character of a neighborhood. People don’t like anything that impacts the feel of a place, which can be something major like the physical appearance of a new house or apartment building, or something more subtle, like the type of resident moving in. But as communities go, character was never intended to be a static object. That’s why you’ll have a building built in 1926, next to a pair of houses built in 1880, just west of an office built in 1972, and across the street from a building built in 2005.

The average Tompkins County legislator is well into their 50s; the county’s average age is 30. Some might see a 19 year-old too young for office, I see a kid with a lot of potential and desire to work for his community.

“Walking along St. Marks Place now, I see young New Yorkers having their moment, living their own Technicolor years. To afford to be here in 2015, they may have trust funds or three jobs or their bedroom may be a friend’s brother’s couch in Ridgewood. Yet here they are at midnight, breaking up with their first boyfriend on the same corner where ’50s poets went to jazz concerts, ’60s radicals handed out fliers, ’70s punk rockers skulked on stoops, ’80s artists plotted their assault on the art world and ’90s skateboarders did kick-flips….Who understands the soul of any place? Who deserves to be here? Who is the interloper and who the interloped-upon?”

Ithaca is always transforming. People are born, they grow up, they age, they die, they move in, they move out. New thoughts awaken and old ways of thinking fade to the background. Change will happen, welcomed or otherwise. But at least if it’s welcomed, there’s the opportunity to guide it.




News Tidbits 10/31/15: The word of the week is “No”

31 10 2015


1.  We’ll start off with about the only affirmative news this week, that of the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board Meeting last Tuesday. The tweaks to the now 79-room Holiday Inn proposal at 371 Elmira Road were approved, and the project expects to have building permits in hand next week, according to the Times‘ Josh Brokaw. When I spoke to the development company’s president, he said “the project is already underway”, but it seems he meant demolition permits for the existing buildings, rather than construction permits. Expect a construction update sometime next month.

Also approved was the new north wing for the Hotel Ithaca at 222 South Cayuga Street in downtown. A tweak of the facade, glazing and balconies was enough to placate the board into approving the revisions for the $9.5 million, 90-room project, which replaces a two-story wing dating from 1972. The north wing will have the potential for another three floors, and on the other two-story wing, the long-awaited Conference Center may come to be if financing plays in developer Hart Hotels’ favor. The Buffalo-based company hopes to start construction early next year and have the new wing ready for its first guests in Fall 2016.


Meanwhile, in the strike column is the proposed jazz bar at 416 East State Street just east of downtown. According to the Cornell Daily Sun, a decision is being deferred until updated, more thorough information is provided regarding sound attenuation of bar patrons gathering outside the building while getting their fresh air or nicotine fix. Neighbors have mounted substantial opposition to the project for being out of character and for parking concerns, but the planning board has played neutral, receptive but cautious. The project is a legal use and will not change the square footage of the one-story warehouse/office building, but will need zoning variances.

2. The county had discussion, but made no judgements on the Biggs Parcel next to Cayuga Medical Center. The county is mulling plans to sell the parcel on the open market after years-long and heavily-fought plans to sell it to affordable housing developers NRP and BHTC fell through on the discovery of extensive wetlands on-site in 2014. As written about in the Voice this week, the county wants the 25.52 acres of land (previously valued at $340k) back on the tax rolls, while the neighbors and some other West Hill residents, under the umbrella of the Indian Creek Neighborhood Association, want the county to hold it as “public woodland”. The county has countered (time and again) the land has no use for the public.

Depending on which account one chooses to follow (ICNA’s or the county’s, the two vary on the details), the county’s Government Operations Committee is giving the neighbors one month to come up with a viable alternative for the land. The ICNA wanted an RFP for land preservation, but the county’s planning commissioner, Ed Marx, says the county doesn’t have time to write-up another RFP. They also pushed for subdivision of the land, which the planning department is also discouraging. The county has wanted the ICNA, Cayuga Medical or BHTC to buy the land, but no one’s made offers.

To this semi-trained eye, the only “happy” solution would be for the ICNA or someone sharing its interests to buy the property for the re-assessed value and arrange to donate it to an organization like the Finger Lakes Land Trust. The county gets their tax money, and the neighbors get to keep the land undeveloped. Outside of that option though, either the neighbors are going to feel shorted, or the county’s tax watchdogs will be up in arms.

EDIT: And now I’ve been informed that the land would be tax-exempt if given to the land trust. So there’s no happy solution unless a private landowner buys it agrees to not develop it. Which, given the property tax, is not very likely.

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3. Farm Pond Circle is still for sale. Only now, it’s on the market for $125,000, $30,000 less than the original listing. As previously written here back in March:

“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. Mayor Myrick made some thought-provoking comments (or provocative, depending on your view) in a phone interview with the Times’ Josh Brokaw about State Street Triangle. For one, the inclusionary zoning topic has come up again, something likely to make an appearance in his second term. And for two, calling for a distinctive “pillar” with fewer units, and smaller units sizes to appeal to a wider, non-student part of the market. As previously stated, the 11-story height isn’t the issue.

I wrote about inclusionary zoning as part of an interview with Community Planner Lynn Truame in the Voice – it can be done one of two ways, either saying a builder/developer can’t build anything without having units or paying into a fund, or by giving them an extra incentive, like reduced permit fees, being able to build one floor higher or a reduction in parking requirements if they include affordable housing. Most opt for the latter approach.

The pros are an integration of affordable units into market-rate developments and a supply of affordable housing. The cons are that, if handled the wrong way, it can stop all development, affordable and market-rate, and on the other end of the spectrum, if the benefits are too generous than it can reduce the supply the affordable housing by tearing down older, lower-cost buildings in favor of new higher-cost ones with a small number of affordable units. In sum, nothing in an inclusive zoning ordinance can be taken lightly.

An inclusionary zoning program requires the support of neighboring communities so that developers don’t just skip to the next town over to escape the burden, and the program must be designed to encourage developers to build while ensuring there’s plenty of affordable units on the market. For example, here’s Burlington, Vermont’s ordinance:

“The program applies to all new market-rate developments of 5 or more homes and to any converted non-residential structures that result in at least 10 homes.  The affordable housing set aside is 15 to 25% of the units, depending on the average price of the market-rate homes – with the higher percentage placed on the most expensive developments.  The ordinance does not allow fee in-lieu payments or land donations, but will allow developers to provide the affordable housing off-site at 125% of the on-site obligation.  The ordinance provides a range of incentives including fee waivers and a 15-25% density and lot coverage bonus. Affordable homes are targeted to households earning 75% or less area median income (AMI) and rented at 65% or less AMI.  Developers can sale or rent the homes for more as long as the average of affordable homes sold or rented are at or below the target household income.  Affordable homes are price controlled for 99 years.

Burlington partners with a nonprofit – the Champlain Housing Trust – in the administration of its program and is able to minimize in-house administrative staff time for the program (committing only 10% of one full time employee). However, more funds are needed to support the monitoring and enforcement of affordable homes.”

So if this were Ithaca for the sake of equivalent example, let’s say a developer downtown is thinking of a 40-unit market-rate non-luxury apartment building, that maxes out the lot area and height of a currently-existing (hypothetical) zone. They would be able to build 46 units/15% larger as a bonus, but 6 units would have to be affordable housing. They could also build 46 market-rate units on-site, and build 8 affordable units off-site at a location okayed by the city.

The affordable units would be targeted at individuals making 65% or less of AMI, which in Tompkins is 65% of about $53k, or $34,500/year. Some units could be more or less affordable, as long as they average to 65% AMI. It stays that way for 99 years. The units would be managed by an organization like INHS.

Or, the developer could build a hotel, office, or non-residential building without giving up money or space for affordable housing, but they also get no zoning bonus. Burlington’s law isn’t designed to be a barrier for development, it’s designed to be an incentive to include affordable housing in new projects. However, there are definitely opponents to inclusionary zoning even among affordable housing advocates, who say that a revised and expanded Section 8 program would be more effective.

Note that Burlington’s law is just one example. No one ordinance fits all municipalities, and each community has its own aspects to address  – in Ithaca’s case, that means tailoring the inclusionary zoning for each neighborhood, determining what size and types of projects have to pay into the fund (because Cornell will probably file a lawsuit if it affects their projects), establishing affordability guidelines that encompass both poor and middle-income families, and whether fees can be paid into a housing fund in lieu of housing. What works in Downtown probably won’t work in Belle Sherman, and what works in Fall Creek wouldn’t be effective in Collegetown. It’s going to be an intensive design process.

So, back to the original question – is Campus Advantage willing to play? It’s not one that anyone can answer just yet. The Austin-based company is still determining their next move. The Times, as well as commenters on this blog, have raised the possibility that this might be the mayor playing politics to stave off his write-in opponent and the anti-development crowd that supports many of the independent candidacies. But, barring some left-field shocker on Tuesday, expect Myrick to be sharing more of his and his staff’s zoning ideas in the next couple years.


5. Speaking of zoning, the city is mulling over a zoning tweak to make buildings on the Commons have mandatory active street-level uses. A copy of the memo is here, Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) here, county memo here,  copy of code revision here. It seems like an easy sell from both the angle of developers and the city, but the steps to codify it are only now underway.

It will be similar to inner Collegetown’s MU-2 zoning. Permitted are stores, restaurants, banks, entertainment venues, public assembly areas, libraries, fire stations, and anything approved by the Planning Board on a case-by-case basis. The last part comes into play because the Finger Lakes School of Massage proposes a student-staffed massage parlor on the first floor of the Rothschild’s Building. Not included – schools, certain office lobbies and apartment/condo lobbies. But most building owners moved to active-use on the Commons a long time ago. The public hearing will be November 19th.



6. Looks like there are still some hang ups with the Storage Squad and 902 Dryden projects out in Dryden, according to the town’s latest meeting. For the Storage Squad project, it has to do with their concerns with a stream that showed up on a DEC map in 1940 but hasn’t appeared since (they have to prove doesn’t exist, and proving it requires DEC acknowledgement). The business owners were also concerned about spending $30k on a Stormwater Pollution Protection Plan, with the possibility that the town may have them redo it at no small price.

Now, the Dryden town board is feeling a little heat right now because there have been accusations the town isn’t doing enough to help small businesses, allegations the “rainy day” fund’s depleted, and there’s a 13% tax levy increase planned, none of which sit well with voters. Plus. lest anyone forget, elections are coming up. So it’s perhaps with those things in mind that the town board is making an effort to try and help the owners of the Storage Squad before they throw in the towel. They invited them to the town’s meeting on the 29th to discuss the SWPPP further, and we’ll find out if it was fruitful.

Also, the 13-unit, 39-bedroom (15 units/42 bedrooms if you count the existing duplex) 902 Dryden project was berated by its potential neighbors once again. There are a couple comments attacking the potential students that would live there, but most seem to be against the location and concerns about flooding. Then you have the guy who called it a cancer.

One speaker says that residential development is a tax burden on the town, but really that depends on the type of housing – infill lots and denser acreage can be cost-efficient. New, low-density “greenfield” housing requires more pipes, power lines, new roads…infill has much of that already in place, and less acreage per unit can yield greater cost efficiencies. Plus, the commercial development the speaker touts also requires police and fire, and indirectly schools for its employees’ families. Yet, he didn’t offer a single word of support for the Storage Squad proposal.

Then the talk turns to taxes, and a guy references how we took land from Native Americans, Socialism will cause our nation’s collapse, and how Muslims are trying to institute Sharia Law. Now, how does one type those town board minutes and keep a straight face?

7. One last no for the week, this one for the Phi Mu sorority from Cornell. I still have a soft spot for the histories and houses of Greek Letter Organizations (GLOs), although I’ve happily aged out of college life.

The sorority (technically a fraternity), which arrived to Cornell’s campus last year, had intended to buy the $725,000 house at 520 Wyckoff Road, but the village board shot down the change of use required. Noise, traffic and “detriment of character” were cited as reasons not to let the ca. 1924, 3,473 SF home be used for group housing.

The Ithaca Journals’ Nick Reynolds offers this passage in his write-up:

Following the decision, the board broke protocol and began a philosophical dialogue between its members and the public.

Board member Sean Cunningham suggested the village has become anti-change and anti-sorority, and was at risk of “burying their heads their heads in the sand” to the point where the village wouldn’t be able to maintain its quality of life from an unwillingness to change.

Jeff Sauer, of 107 Overlook Road, offered the residents’ stance:

“The issues brought up tonight were the right issues,” Sauer said. “It’s not that we’re opposed to change; we’re for managing change.”

Historically, the neighborhood of Cornell Heights, split between the city and the village, has been fiercely opposed to any change of uses, let alone new buildings. Cornell sued residents in the 1980s, and won, over a similar issue. The university had planned to move its 15-member “Modern Indonesia” research program and literature collection from 102 West Avenue to a house on Fall Creek Drive, but neighbors convinced the city of Ithaca that it would greatly damage the neighborhood’s character. The state supreme court disagreed.

Cornell Heights and Cayuga Heights have been used as a textbook study in Blake Gumprecht – The former, for which this blog is named after, was founded as an elite faculty and businessmans’ enclave. But after the Alpha Zeta fraternity was donated a house in 1906 (for which the developer threatened legal action to no avail), and Cornell built the all-ladies Risley Hall in 1912, the local elite turned their noses and mostly turned tail for Cayuga Heights, selling out to Greek organizations but making deed restrictions in their new community to keep them from moving in. Cayuga Heights refused annexation in Ithaca by 1954 in part because they didn’t wish to attract students, and even prohibited a restaurant from opening for fear it would attract students as well. While the village isn’t as virulent as it once was, the sorority never really stood much of a chance. One long-term problem may be that if the existing GLOs do ever sell their properties, it’ll be to Cornell and Cornell only, where the use will be maintained, but the taxes won’t.

Well ladies, better luck next time around. You could always ask Cornell about those houses on University Avenue.

9. PSA? Sure.

Vote. Local elections matter. Your vote on Tuesday could make the difference for a lot of things –  for another 210 Hancock, waterfront development plans, zoning changes, or if a future downtown project gets an abatement. It will play a role in whether Ithaca, the county and other govs make an effort on affordable housing. Tuesday’s decisions will affect the city and county’s decisions.

Polling sites here, sample ballots here.

A Long Voyage Ahead for The Waterfront

27 10 2015

The NYS DOT property is probably the next big, Old Library-type project facing the county in the upcoming couple of years. There’s a lot to consider in a possible move of the DOT to Dryden, and subsequent sale of the site to a chosen developer. For that, the county paid $78,000 to Fisher Associates to conduct a feasibility study, the results of which are shared below.

The feasibility study examined multiple angles – environmental, physical, market and financial factors. It has to, because without a through examination of the site, the county could under-price themselves, or vice-versa, there may be fewer or no offers, should buyers think the site’s a poisoned chalice.

But let’s start with the initial disclaimer – things are years out. The Old Library site issued an RFEI in November 2013, and a preferred developer was only named in August. Plus, everything is still dependent on a DOT move, which will have its own schedule if it happens. All things considered, although the county has generously offers 2017 as a construction start date, it’ll probably be the end of the decade if not the 2020s before any soil starts to turn, assuming there’s an interested developer.

So let’s start with a look at the site’s history and environmental concerns. According to Fisher Associates’ Environmental Site Assessment (ESA, link here), the property was virtually unused until the NYS DOT bought the land and starting building their facilities on it in 1958. There were petroleum tanks underground, but they were removed and the land re-mediated in 2004, and now the only tanks on-site are above ground, and in good condition. Some concerns still exist with salt brine tanks, debris in the inlet, and materials from when the DOT used a septic system, before it was hooked up to the city sewer. None of these appear to be potential deal breakers, just things worth noting.


Perhaps surprisingly for a waterfront property, the vast majority of the site isn’t in the 100 or 500-year flood zone. Most of the site is elevated just enough to avoid flood risk.

Empire GeoServices of Cortland conducted the geotechnical report and site soil analysis. Looking at the soil conditions, being next to the water poses some limitations. Most of the lower elevations of the city suffer from poor, water-logged soils, which are soft and compressible near the top – in a few cases, shallow spread foundations, typically the cheapest option, have been damaged by excessive soil settling, so those are not recommended. Deep, pile foundations, like the ones used at the Lofts @ Six Mile Creek (micro-piles), Marriott (caissons) or some of the big box stores, are a safe option because they go down to more solid soil layers, but they’re more expensive. Shallow mat foundations can also be used in place of shallow spread foundations, but they’re also more complex and expensive, and are really only suitable for “light buildings” with less pounds for square inch. A mat foundation was used for Cornell’s new rowing center.

Long story short on the soils, it means that whatever is built will need a complex foundation, and its likely that whatever gets built will be priced at a premium. The study tacks on an extra 10% to the cost for townhouses and mixed-use buildings.

In the study, there are three plans considered – a hotel plan, a multifamily/townhouse “preferred” plan, and a maximum density plan. The site plan PDF is here, for you kids following along at home.


The hotel plan imagines a 124-room hotel (midsize in the Ithaca market) with 6450 SF of commercial space. The plan includes 10 townhouses and 52 multi-family units in the 850-1200 SF range. There are 286 parking spaces, as required by zoning – 1 for each hotel room (124), 1 per 100 SF of commercial space (64), 2 for each townhouse (20) and 1.5 for each apartment-type unit (78). 1 Space for 100 SF commercial space is fairly generous to drivers – the ITE trip generation manual shows most commercial retail to be well below that threshold, with only service outlets like fast-food joints, coffee shops and bars exceeding the 1 space/100 SF value.

The market issues with this plan are focuses on the hotel. A hotel was envisioned for the waterfront for decades, but being off by itself with only few nearby attractions (the trail and farmer’s market, not much else), it’s not as desirable as downtown, nor is the land as cheap as the Southwest suburban corridor. The feasibility study notes the waterfront might be a draw in the summer, but the weather the rest of the year would limit its appeal. With increased interest in living in the city, the hotel idea has had less allure in recent years. Still, the option was included for the sake of comment and critique. The study says a hotel would need 120+ room to support fixed costs (taxes, maintenance), and recommends a brand not present in Ithaca, like Hyatt or Starwood (Westin/Sheraton).


The multi-family/townhouse plan does away with the hotel and instead focuses more on residential. The plan is composed of 14,160 SF of commercial space, 46 townhouses and 84 multi-family units (130 units total). 356 parking spaces are provided.


The maximum density plan is as it sounds – the maximum legally allowed by zoning. The plan calls for 13,950 SF of commercial space, 137 multi-family units and 378 parking spaces.

Note that all three plans have a new indoor farmer’s market building, but that’s a separate development being spearheaded by the market.


Renderings make for great eye candy, but the emphasis is definitely not on the architecture here, because it’s a bit like predicting what new cars will look like in 2020. You know it will probably have four wheels, lights and doors, but everything else is just for show. Whoever buys it will come in with their own idea of how things should look (see Form Ithaca’s waterfront study for their take). For the sake of reference, a copy of the aerial renders of each layout is here.

Now for a financial summary (link), the feasibility in its essence. HR&A Advisors, who partnered with Fish Associates for the study, notes that development can work with a potential buyer’s bottom line, but it’s going to be expensive and the developer will seek to minimize risk as much as possible – there’s not much padding in the profit. There are few comparable products in the county to the site, which makes determining the market size, rents and level or risk somewhat more difficult than usual. The study assumes a 3-year, single-phase build-out.


The study assumes about $2.15/SF for a residential unit – in other words, a 1,000 SF unit (like a larger 2 bedroom or smaller 3 bedroom unit) renting for $2,150/month, similar to the Lofts @ Six Mile Creek or Gateway Commons downtown, which were used as comparables. Luxury housing, without a doubt. The waterfront commands a price premium, but the disconnection to the rest of the city could hinder rentals. Some condos/owner-occupied units are possible, but rentals would be the majority. Development costs range from $165/SF for a townhouse, to $215/SF for a multi-family unit, to $287/SF for the hotel. The value of a project ranges from $39-$45 million depending on plan, and with development costs taken into count, the land could sell for something less than $1,000,000 to $2.5 million. Over time, the project may generate $13-$22 million in tax revenue over 20 years, depending on approach.


The land itself will not sell for the price required to cover the DOT’s cost of moving, which will have to be underway before any sale takes place. The move is estimated at $14 million. This means that the city and county may have to chip in on upfront costs in order to get a good project in that will pay itself off via tax revenue. HR&A notes that an RFP should be flexible in its options, and be open to zoning variances that might improve a project’s chance of success.



For what it’s worth, Fisher associates also did a conceptual layout for a new DOT facility here.

According to the county, here are the next steps in the process:

  • A financial plan for the redevelopment of the Cayuga Inlet site that reduces the risk for private developers and generates revenue to support the move of the existing NYS DOT facility.
  • An analysis of the project’s impacts on infrastructure and utilities, the natural environment, neighborhood and adjacent properties, and the surrounding road network.
  • An estimate of the land value of as well as the individual components of the plan. The result will be an order of magnitude valuation of the site to better understand the project’s ability to attract private investment, support debt, and support a purchase price and tax revenue stream that could be used to advance the NYS DOT facility’s relocation.
  • A draft Request for Proposals (RFP) to solicit developers to redevelop the site.
  • An estimate of the ongoing direct fiscal benefits to accrue to the City of Ithaca and to Tompkins County, including real property taxes, personal property taxes, school taxes, sales tax, and other applicable taxes and fees.
  • A financial strategy for moving the DOT site with some combination of revenue from sale of the site, direct funding from NY State, and, possibly, a local contribution from anticipated tax revenues.

Expect that last one to be potentially controversial. The state might move slow but could be supportive, but the city will have to explain and hope that a possible initial investment in the DOT’s move to Dryden could pay off over subsequent years. Voters don’t always like long-term plans.


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