News Tidbits 12/4/2016: Not Forgotten

4 12 2016

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1. It looks like the Old Library proposal will be coming up to bat one last time. Developer Travis Hyde Properties and its project team will present one last major revision at the January Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) meeting. Things are well behind schedule at this point, as the ILPC continues to take issue with the old library proposal – which at last check, has had seven separate designs proposed and shot down for one reason or another. The Times reports that senior services non-profit Lifelong is one again involved in the project, although it had never really left – they will control the community room on the first floor, and will receive the revenues generated from renting it to outside entities. The last iteration may once again include first-floor interior parking, since that was the sticking point at the October ILPC meeting – the plan for design #8 is to increase parking from the proposed 10 spaces, to 25-30 spaces. If the January concept is acceptable, or at least close to ILPC approval, Travis Hyde will pursue the 55-60 unit plan; otherwise, it’s over.

The county had hoped that the sale of the property would generate $925,000 at the outset, as well as future tax revenues; the current building’s mechanical systems are past their useful life and in need of replacement, a cost likely to exceed a million dollars. With no sale, and a perceived “toxic” site for development due to opposition both during the RFP stage and during this review process, the county and city will be in a less than enviable position if things fall through.

At the housing summit, the old library came up as a point of concern and contention; JoAnn Cornish, the city’s planning director, suggested at one that if the county had been willing to part with the property for a token $1, than the need to build up on the site wouldn’t be so great. I happened to be taking notes next to a county legislator and Old Library Committee member who muttered that that was a terrible idea and Cornish had no idea what she was talking about. Anyone looking for common ground is going to have a real hard time finding it.

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2. It looks like Cayuga Medical Associates’ plan for Community Heights is nearly good to go. Only a couple minor revisions were presented at the Cayuga Heights Planning Board’s meeting on the 28th – a rear (east) driveway, sidewalk work and a detention basin. Cover letter here, updated site plan here, and a letter noting a potential change in hosted medical specialties here. The $5.6 million medical office building at 903-909 Hanshaw Road is 2 floors and 28,000 SF (square-feet), of which 23,200 SF will be lease-able space. The initial presentation in March called for a 3-story, 39,500 SF structure. Two buildings, a one-story office building and a vacant drive-thru bank branch, would be demolished.

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3. Now for something that’s a little less certain – the 400-406 Stewart Avenue reconstruction. One can’t call it the Chapter House reconstruction, because there’s no certainty that that is what will happen. Nick Reynolds has the full story over at the Times. The Chapter House’s intended space on the first floor is being advertised by Pyramid Brokerage for $35/SF, double the bar’s rent from before the fire. The owner of the Chapter House referred to all this pre-development as a “money pit” as the building still has no anchor tenant, but he was still open to being a part of the rebuild. In short, it looks like we’re seeing some bickering between the developer and potential tenant spill out into the public domain, and we’ll see how it plays out.

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4. At the city planning board meeting last week, preliminary approval was granted to Charlie O’Connor’s four two-family homes at 607 South Aurora. City Centre also continued with its review, with comments focusing on sustainability and solar panels. Changes to the project are minor at this point, and we’re probably close to the final product at this stage. Amici House was also debated, with neighbors expressing concerns about the size, and uncertainty on whether TCAction can handle 23 homeless or vulnerable youth.

I’ll register a small complaint – the north stairwell of the residential building. I’d encourage TCAction and Schickel Architecture to explore using smoked or tinted glass to reduce glare, rather than bricking it in. It makes the building look cold and industrial, which seems just as unfriendly to neighbors as glare would be.

The board also went ahead with lead agency on Novarr’s College Townhouses project, and was shown brief presentation on two Visum Development Group projects, 126 College and 210 Linden. More on those here.

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5. The Times included a quick Collegetown construction rundown about a week and a half ago. Two quick addendums –
A. Still no plan for 330 College Avenue, since Fane did the development version of trolling by proposing a 12-story building in a 6-story zone, and was told there was “no way in hell” it would happen;
B. Nothing scheduled for 302-306 College Avenue, aka “Avenue 102”, until at least mid-2018. The rumor mill says the Avramis family, who proposed a two-building, 102-unit sketch plan in October 2014, are concerned about market saturation. Given Cornell’s plans to increase their enrollment by raising their incoming freshman class size from 3250 to 3500, it might be worth another look.

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6. The city has released the preliminary design guidelines from Winter & Company. The Collegetown guidelines are here, Downtown’s here. Although there are suggested rather than mandatory, in theory, a project team could use these guidelines to formulate plans that would be less likely to get hung up in the city’s project review process – one could call it “form-based code lite”. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking in here, but the guidelines do promote urban-friendly and contextual designs. These are draft open to public comment – those who would like to can send their thoughts to city planner Megan Wilson at mwilson*at*cityofithaca.org by December 15th. there are some differences between existing zoning and these guidelines (for example, setbacks) that will need to be addressed at some point – the revised drafts will roll out in mid-January.

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7. Now that the county housing summit is behind us, I think that while there wasn’t any sort of huge breakthrough at the event, it was helpful to the community to have the obstacles and suggested goals shared with a large audience. Although, as county legislator Anna Kelles pointed out, it wasn’t necessarily a wide audience – renters, younger residents and lower-income individuals were not well-represented. At least for me, the big, exciting news was Cornell’s plans for new housing, which I will be writing about for the Voice later this week. While not perfect, the event did bring to light certain issues – NIMBYism can be a delicate topic in an audience like this, but one of the points that was stressed at the summit was, if you support a project, then let the governing body in charge know you support it and why. Heck, JoAnn Cornish was saying the city gets opposition emails from residents of California and Oregon. A little support from local residents, even students, reminds city staff and board members that there a variety of opinions.

I can definitely say that not everyone who attended was pro-development – after the woman behind me asked if I was a reporter (I said yes, for the Voice), she kept passing me notes like “since when did development bring property taxes down”, “developers are just in it for the money” and “Ithaca shouldn’t have to change”. I don’t think she liked my replies – the first one I wrote back a response about spreading the tax burden out with new infill development, the second I wrote “strictly speaking perhaps, but they don’t want to turn out a terrible product”, and the last, I perhaps unkindly wrote “[t]ell that to the families being priced out. Something has to change.” She got up and left shortly afterward.


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4 responses

5 12 2016
Jeremy Wallace

Thanks for the updates!

9 12 2016
Ex-Ithacan

I love the note passing story. You go BC!!! LOL

9 12 2016
CS PhD

That new render for the Old Library site actually looks pretty nice. The colors are warmer and friendlier, and they ditched the awful upside-down roof. It will be a real shame if it gets voted down again for some spurious, petty reason and the city is left with a rotting abandoned building in the middle of its downtown.

10 12 2016
Nancy Medsker

Hello Brian,

I own the house next to the Old Library at 308 N. Cayuga St, which was the Dewitt Park Inn, it is now a long-term rental property. I’d like to comment on a couple of things you wrote about the latest news on the OL. One is that the ILPC has been rejecting the HOLT/Travis proposals because they are too big for the site and haven’t had the proper setbacks. The TCL was warned about this potential conflict during the RFP stage but chose to ignore the requirements for size, scale, and mass in a historic district when they selected it. Now H/T has not responded well to the suggestions about this either.

In the first proposals the building was 73,000sf and at March 2016 joint meeting of the ILPC & Planning Board the majority of the members commented on the building mass being too large & too imposing. In June 2016 ILPC meeting, Lifelong was out of the plan, and the building presented was 86,000sf, because unit sizes increased. It is important to note that they were now working with one lot because they didn’t have the Lifelong property for parking. In July it was still 86,000sf and then at the October ILPC meeting it was back to 73,000sf, which was same size it as in March when they were told it was too big.

Is it any wonder that they can’t get ILPC approval just based on size, scale, and mass? The lack of an attractive design & suggested building materials have barely been discussed because of the setbacks & size needed to make this project compatible in the DPHD has not been properly addressed by the HOLT/Travis.

It could be easy for the ILPC to be pegged as the problem when, in realty, it is the developer not properly responding to the criticism in a productive way. I applaud Frost for trying so many times but if 57 units are financially necessary along with 25-30 parking units, I just don’t see how this can work. They design can’t go deeper because of engineered soil & water tables. It needs to be made clear that the ILPC has been trying and should be applauded for not approving a building incompatible in the Dewitt Park Historic District, even though there has been intense political pressure put on them to do so. The ILPC is a volunteer organization & does great work in preserving our historic districts and keeping them visually attractive.

Secondly, I don’t believe that the OL site will be considered ’toxic’ if H/T withdraws as many would welcome it with a sigh of relief. It would open the door for the project that should have been selected in the first place with Franklin/STREAM developing a condo project there. I’ve spoken with Doug Sutherland & Noah Demerest recently about this and both have indicated that they are still interested, but only if they don’t have to play games with the TCL again. I see 2 options here, one the TCL appoints them the ‘preferred developer’ or the building goes up for sale on the open market and F/S get right of first refusal. They would not respond to a new RFP.

Finally, it needs to be made clear that the up-zoning that the City did on that site is one of the reasons certain members of the TCL thought the H/T project could be made to work. Also, the meeting in January 2015 the ILPC gave positive responses to the H/T proposal but, remember, at that time it was presented as a toothpick model which made it difficult to judge it. The ILPC preferred the F/S project, as did the Planning Board & 7 members of Common Council.

Please feel free to contact me if you want to talk more about the Old Library. I was not in favor of H/T when they were selected and have tried to support them, but unfortunately, I don’t see how they can make it work at this point. The design team never contacted anyone in our neighborhood or the Dewitt Park Neighborhood Association to get input, which is unfortunate. I would love to see something happen to that building, we need housing and especially condos. The County has stopped doing any exterior maintenance on the OL and it an eyesore. This is the same County that wants to promote Cultural Tourism but chooses to ignore our the economic benefits of Historic Districts. The Carl Sagan site has not been picked up or raked this year. I rake the area next to my house because I can’t stand how horrible it looks. My civic duty I suppose.

I am also sending along an email that I created that explains the timeline of this project as a reference for those interested in it because it has gone on a long time and undergone many changes.

Thanks for all the work you do in keeping us informed of the development in our lovely Ithaca. I am on the Historic Ithaca Board and Advocacy Committee and your research makes our job easier.

Best, Nancy Medsker 607-227-1460

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