News Tidbits 10/17/15: Pressing the Issue

17 10 2015

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1. It looks like the Amabel housing development has another site plan. New pedestrian paths, a relocated community garden, and some substantial tweaks to the layout of the house, including a small access road for three homes near the southern termination of the loop road with Five Mile Drive (older plans here).

Marketing for the project hasn’t officially started, but New Earth Living LLC’s (Susan Cosentini’s) website does have interior renders for one of the proposed house styles, as well as an informational PDF. Plans call for Net-Zero energy efficiency homes, meaning that the amount of energy generated on site will power all the project’s energy needs. Example homes included in the PDF range from 1,184 SF to 2,083 SF – it looks like there will be four home models with alternate configuration options. Prices have yet to be announced.

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The Amabel project, proposed for 619 Five Mile Drive just southwest of the city of Ithaca’s boundary line, has been in the works for the past couple of years, a sort of grand follow-up to New Earth Living’s Aurora Street Pocket Neighborhood in Fall Creek. The project will have about 30 single-family homes at full build-out.

I know some of the more pessimistic readers here may call this suburban sprawl with a green sheen, but it’s a lot better than a cul-de-sac.

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2. The village of Lansing sent off their updated Comprehensive Plan to the county planning department this week for review and approval. Now, planning should be the village’s forte, since the village of Lansing was founded in the 1970s as a backlash against the construction of commercial and residential properties along Triphammer and Route 13, including what’s now The Shops at Ithaca Mall. The plan was last updated in 2005, and draft of the new plan can be found here.

The village seems to note with some distress that although population growth has slowed, traffic has continued to increase (due in large part to significant growth in Lansing town; many town residents pass through the village to get to employment centers in Ithaca). North Triphammer Road has already been widened, but there are concerns about the ability of infrastructure to handle further traffic increases. The village also notes a strong rise in the 55+ population, as well as the same affordable housing issues that plague Ithaca and much of the county; in Lansing’s case, the median household income can afford a $171,000 home by their estimate (2.5 x $54,721 = $136,800 qualifying mortgage, + 20% down-payment), but the average house in Lansing costs $258,000 (affordable to a household making ~$82,500; note all the numbers are 2010 values). The plan also shows that fair market rent in Lansing increased 64.1% from 2005-2015, meaning that unless a renter had an annual wage increase of 5.8%, they paid more of their income towards housing year after year.  29.4% of homeowners and 39.1% of renters pay above the HUD’s 30% of total income threshold for affordability. The village is concerned it will price aged residents right out of their homes.

In an effort to combat the growing problem, the village wants to focus new housing along main thoroughfares with easy bus access and bike infrastructure, and is aiming for smaller homes and apartments geared towards aging-in-place and senior communities. The village notes that 500 to 600 units of housing could potentially be developed over the next few decades (note Lansing averages ~10 units per year), mostly on the large, low-density home lots near the lake. These would almost certainly be geared towards the highest income brackets, but the benefit of greater supply might relieve pressure on other homes.

On the business end, the village would also like to encourage Cornell to relocate back-office and research operations to village sites. There’s also a push for senior-oriented businesses and a possible rethinking of the malls, not an uncommon thought in this age where malls are struggling and dying off.

There are arguably two senior developments planned that already fit their “want” category – the 12 senior units planned for the Lansing Meadows PDA (the ones planned next to BJ’s on Oakcrest Road), and 62 senior units for the CU Suites site on Cinema Drive (photo from last week above). Other residential growth will be fairly “organic”, with new homes built at the whim of owners and mom-and-pop builders. A new commercial medium-traffic zone along Hickory Hollow Drive might open some more business opportunities; as for Cornell, they seem to be more focused on their East Hill Village plans, but research park tenants are always a possibility.

The village plans to update its comprehensive plan again by 2025.

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3. On the topic of plans, here’s a progress report just released by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency regarding its five-year plan.

If you wanted another reason why housing in Ithaca is so expensive, the plan alludes to it here:

“A spike in local construction costs has delayed the start of construction on a planned four-unit first-time homebuyer project and a public facilities project that will improve a public recreational area. We anticipate these projects moving forward once they have been able to close their funding gaps.”

The four-unit homebuyer project is the townhouse project planned by INHS for 402 South Cayuga Street (shown above). INHS director Paul Mazzarella said the project was due to receive bids last month, and if they were within INHS’s budget, it would start construction. It hasn’t started.

Ithaca’s a small labor pool, so you either truck in labor from elsewhere and incur the wrath of construction unions, or you go local and pay a premium. But even then, with the relative burst in activity as of late, the local pool is getting tapped out and that’s driving prices up. Non-profits like INHS don’t have a lot of wiggle room in their budgets, and city government just won’t build if they can’t get affordable bids for infrastructure work. It also impacts programs that provide low-cost home repairs to those with low and fixed-incomes, because those low-cost repairs are no longer low-cost, and fewer people are able to be served.

One could one look at this as either a reason to limit approvals (which the construction trade unions are opposed to) or introducing more out-of-town labor to the market (which the trade unions are also opposed to). Stuck between two metaphorical rocks.

So long story short, in a region where the cost of housing is climbing dangerously fast, the city has a lot of work left to do meeting its affordability goals, with many actions/programs falling well short of annual numbers needed to meet the 5-year goal statistics. Hopefully some progress will be made in the upcoming year.

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4. The mayor has dealt State Street Triangle a serious blow by announcing his opposition to the State Street Triangle, first reported on his facebook page and picked up by every news outlet in town, Svante Myrick cited the student housing focus and massing concerns for his opposition (he explicitly stated the height, 11 stories and 116 feet, was appropriate for its location, the 300 block of East State Street in the heart of downtown Ithaca). This is a big setback because apart from his social influence, the mayor sits on the county IDA, which is the governing body that votes on tax abatements.

A couple of the outlets have reached out to Campus Advantage, which is busy trying to formulate a response. They’ve hired a PR firm for whenever they’re ready. It could be the end of the project, it could still go on, it could be drastically altered. The chips have been tossed into the air, let them fall where they may.

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5. House of the week. This week, a trip out to Maple Ridge in Dryden. Maple Ridge is a housing development within the village that had the unfortunate luck of launching right before the Great Recession. After struggling, it’s been picking up in the past couple of years with five houses built since 2013. This modular home is the “Cayuga Lake” model offered by American Homes in Dryden. The pieces have been assembled and fastened together on top of the poured foundation, and some finish work has started. The uncapped foundation section is most likely a future garage. Modular homes tend to move through construction pretty quick, and this one will likely be finished in time for the holidays.

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6. The county and city hosted a meeting discussing possible waterfront re-development plans for the NYS DOT site on Thursday night. Three plans were presented, two mixed-use commercial and residential, and a third that the Journal describes as just being “hotel”, but given the 7.66 acres on site, is probably mixed-use with a hotel component.

The third option is a little bit of a throwback because the city long-saw the waterfront as prime for a hotel. But the market has shifted towards downtown and Route 13, and with the market adding new hotels at a pretty good clip over the next few years (Marriott, Canopy, Holiday Inn Express), a hotel in that area is pretty unlikely. Local lawyer/developer Steve Flash proposed a five-story hotel on Inlet Island in 2007, but in the days before the waterfront zoning allowed five floors, the project was opposed and shelved.

An initial cost of the move is being pegged at $14 million, but it isn’t clear if a potential buyer would pay that directly, or the county/city, who then get reimbursed by a buyer. $14 million is quite an amount, but given the site’s potential, it’s feasible (but don’t expect any outside-the-box thinking; a developer will want to minimize risk since they have to make such a huge initial investment).

If anything is clear, it’s that, contrary to the opinion of at least one speaker at the meeting, most folks would like the snow plows and road salt stored somewhere else.

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6. I don’t comment on politics. I don’t comment on candidates. But I will comment on issues. And, probably no surprise to readers here, I find it worrisome when anti-development candidates come forward.

By and large, development in Ithaca isn’t happening “for the sake of development” like in the 1990s, when the local economy was mired in recession. It’s happening because the Ithaca area has added 6,000 jobs in ten years, mostly in healthcare and education. Cayuga Medical Center has added over 500 positions in 10 years, and while Cornell’s direct employment hasn’t changed much, the university has added nearly 2,500 students. That has created demand for thousands of units, but when combined with the slow pace of development within the county over the past decade, the result has been a critical housing deficit.

This is one of the major reasons behind the current affordable housing crisis – high demand, plus insufficient increases in supply, have resulted in very low vacancy rates and have made it a seller’s paradise when it comes to housing.

If you plan on selling your house or rental property and retiring to Florida in the next couple of years, you’re in for serious bank! Everyone else, whether through rents or increased tax assessments, ends up with a much greater burden. Housing costs are a big player in how Ithaca became the 8th most expensive city in the country.

If there are thousands of people coming here for work or retirement, and new housing isn’t there to absorb them, the wealthier folks moving in will simply pay a premium on what exists, and price out the existing working and middle class who can’t afford those premiums. Which some people are okay with.

Ithaca doesn’t need to “slow down” development, because that’s one of reasons why the affordability crisis is as bad as it is. What Ithaca needs is to be proactive about development, and generally it has been under Mayor Myrick. The city has actively worked to reformulate general guidelines like the Comprehensive Plan (first all-new plan since 1971!) and is starting work on part II, working on neighborhood-specific themes. Myrick’s government has also identified and maintained targeted development areas, like Collegetown’s Form Zoning and downtown density. The mayor has even come to bat for the $30k-$50k/year working class folks that “breed trouble” and need affordable housing, like with INHS’ 210 Hancock project.

Affordability is a long-term effort and a multi-pronged approach, by keeping vulnerable families in their homes, and providing new homes to accommodate the growing economy and population.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but hell, it’s a start. Sticking fingers in ones’ ears isn’t going to make the housing crisis go away.


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4 responses

18 10 2015
Cornell PhD

Point by point:

1. I guess I’m one of the whiny critics of suburban sprawl. While I like the New Urbanist design of this new development better than cul du sacs, making a neighborhood “walkable” doesn’t mean much when, to access goods, services, or work, you absolutely need to drive. I’m not categorically against greenfield development but I have a feeling if Ithaca city and town were more integrated we’d see zoning that integrated them more closely to the existing built environment of the city in turn.

2. Does Lansing want Cornell to move back office functions there solely for traffic-related reasons? Because wouldn’t these properties be tax-free? In any case this could mean more car trips generated, since offices on the Cornell campus are much more transit accessible for everyone not already living in Lansing (and maybe even for many people currently living in Lansing, since bus lines are mostly oriented toward Cornell and Ithaca).

4. Svante’s clearly populist opposition to SST is a huge gamble. He’s hoping he can head off potential opposition by looking like he’s not uncompromisingly pro-development (as some claim he is), and that the developers will come back with a new, scaled-back plan. If he winds up chasing them away, though, the ripple effects will be terrible for Ithaca (arguably they’ll be terrible on the housing front anyway if the number of units is substantially reduced).

6. The Journal has detailed renderings of the waterfront plan options: http://www.ithacajournal.com/story/news/local/2015/10/15/ithaca-waterfront-development-plans-highlighted/74028118/

I like the rowhouse designs, although I’m not clear on what the buildings immediately adjacent to the waterfront itself are supposed to look like. My question with this kind of density is…is there a plan (beyond the kind of workshop speculation that went on a couple months ago about transforming Rte. 13 into a boulevard) for mixed-use around here (other than the Farmers Market) where these people can walk to shop, work, etc.? If these things aren’t coordinated, dense residential development here is just going to generate ridiculous amounts of traffic in an otherwise already crowded and autocentric area.

20 10 2015
B. C.

2. Good point, seeing as Cornell’s back-office are tax-exempt (http://property.tompkins-co.org/IMOprivate/propdetail.aspx?Swis=503089&PRINTKEY=06300000010030040000). Reading through again, their desire for Cornell white-collar ops seems to be mostly for traffic and economic development purposes – encouraging people to live close to where they work, or spurring other, tax-paying businesses to relocate nearby.

4. There had been rumors for a while that Svante was concerned that if SST was approved and received a tax break as-is, the post-approval opposition would kill anything else in the pipeline for years. Ithaca has a habit of doing that – the election of Ben Nichols in the late 1980s and the moratorium after 312 College was approved in 1999 come to mind. As Ex-Ithacan mentions below, and as I’ve heard from some planners and community staff over time, the community is remarkably myopic when it comes to addressing the urban environment (some are more focused on the natural environment, others feel Ithaca is a small town, and yet others simply don’t like change, your “Ann Arbor ambers” [https://localwiki.org/ann-arbor/Amber-freezers]). In a depressing twist, some of the same folks who fight everything are the same ones getting priced out of the city by their actions.

20 10 2015
Ex-ithacan

I hope I’m wrong, but this could be the point where the development pendulum starts to swing the other way (against). It’s maddening to think so many citizens of one of the most educated cities can’t fathom that more housing development will bring down costs, and even raise quality for those in the lower income bracket. Is politics involved? Indeed it is.

20 10 2015
B. C.

As Gorman Beauchamp wrote in an analysis of development in Ann Arbor: “Ah, yes…where they vote left and live right.” (http://english110.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2009/12/american-college-town.pdf, pg. 63)

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