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

19 09 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point of the article remains that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Site improvements, 416-418 East State Street416-418 East State Street is currently home to an underused 7,600 SF office and a connected manufacturing/storage building. The house dates from the 19th century, with various additions as recent as the 1970s. According to plans filed with the city, an LLC linked to Argos Inn architect Ben Rosenblum has plans to convert the old manufacturing space into a bar and storage space, with renovated offices and a 2 bedroom apartment in the original house. The project will include an accessory parking lot, revised landscaping and handicap access. Area and setback deficiencies have resulted in the need for a zoning variance, but a parking variance won’t be required because the bar will have after hours parking across the street at Gateway Plaza. The building itself won’t change dimensions, but the change in use triggers the city zoning laws.

There have been substantial concerns expressed about this project – neighbors are vociferously opposed to a bar, citing noise problems and concerns about smokers, and the county planning department is not a fan of the traffic and parking arrangement. The city will need to examine this project carefully.

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

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

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

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


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6 responses

20 09 2015
Cornell PhD

I find it strange the SST even initially announced it was marketing to students – they would have rented in a building marketed to anyone anyway, but explicitly announcing themselves as a student rental seems to have drummed up unnecessary opposition.

At the very least, it would have made sense to note that the majority of renters would probably be Cornell professional students, like those renting at a similar new-build off-campus property, Collegetown Terrace. Claiming the renters would be students in general seems to have put people in the mindset that they’ll be mostly undergrads.

That said, it’s baffling how many people don’t seem to realize that 1) most students living downtown are grad students, 2) regardless of who lives there, downtown is flooded with IC undergrads at night anyway, and 3) Cornell undergrads probably wouldn’t live there; downtown is off their radar. These seem to be pretty well-established demographic patterns locally…

20 09 2015
B. C.

I agree completely. From a public relations standpoint, they’ve botched this project at several points – for saying it would be student housing is one. For two, they downplayed the planning board’s comments after the sketch plan, which has made the board less-than-supportive. Three, they said they were pursuing CIITAP long before they filed anything, which gives people time to get pissed. Four, they didn’t really engage the community until the hastily-scheduled meeting they did a few weeks ago. They’ve been trying to re-position their approach, but they’ve been slow on the uptake and it’s hurt their chances.

And my anecdotal evidence goes with your experience – I never knew a single Cornell undergrad that lived downtown (I had one classmate who subleased at Cityview for a summer and that was it). Anything east of Schuyler Place was pretty much non-existent. I did, however, know several grad students who lived in downtown.

20 09 2015
Ex-Ithacan

So you’re saying if I hit the lottery big I might still have a chance to build on the Trebloc site?

LOL

BC, seeing the #9 fire station possibility reminded me of the 304 College Ave proposal from Avramis across the street.. Any word on that one?

20 09 2015
B. C.

With 304? Nothing that I’ve heard about.

edit – I did check the Avramis’ website though, and they rented out the houses that would be torn down through May 2017. So if there’s something still planned for the site, it’s not going to happen for a while.

21 09 2015
drill deep

Thanks for the update.
The landlords I have spoken to tell me that students are not too keen on Collegetown Terrace because it is a terrible walk to campus made even worse in winter. Like the proposed Trebloc site, it is near a bus stop. That said it doesn’t look like CTown Terrace has trouble filling rooms. So I wonder if Campus Advantage is making assumptions? Build it and they will come I suppose.
I wish them luck.

26 09 2015
News Tidbits 9/26/15: Trying to Keep Tabs | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] small-scale development (1 & 2-family homes) in the past few years, and that Petrillose finished work on duplexes in Ithaca town, a couple rental units seems […]

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