201 College Avenue Construction Update, 12/2016

18 12 2016

The Collegetown construction boom continues. In 2017, the city can expect at least five projects to open in the neighborhood, with a net gain of about 118 beds and $16 million in assessed tax value** – a two-family house at 123 Eddy Street; Cornell’s, 6-story, 76,000 SF Breazzano Center for its Executive MBA Program; the 5-unit, 28-bed 126 College Avenue;  the 9-unit, 36-bed 210 Linden Avenue; and lastly, the 5-story, 74 bed 201 College Avenue. Which has also been by far the most contentious one.

The project was first proposed in March – and from beginning to end, the only substantial change was a mild revision to its upper floors to create a setback as a modern deference to the Grandview House further up the block. That resulted in a loss of two bedrooms, dropping the plan from 76 to 74 beds.

For Todd Fox, who proposed the building through his company Visum Development Group, there wasn’t much room for revisions. He was going to, and paid, a premium on the property – $2.65 million, formally deeded in June by its previous owner, a small-scale local landlord who owned it for about seven years prior. The site held an early 1900s apartment house with three large spruce trees at the front, which became another source of contention during the debate.

To make the project financially feasible, he needed to build to the maximum 5 floors and 70 feet allowed by the site’s MU-1 zoning (the project would have been outright impossible before the 2014 CAFD zoning overhaul, due to the parking requirement), and building micro-units with mezzanines would make the project pencil out – the profit value of the vertical space was effectively maximized. Working with architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative, he proposed a fairly modern building with fiber-cement panels, woven bamboo boards and cedar accents.

However, one thing that did not factor in to the calculations was the neighbor of 201, 203 College’s Neil Golder. Neil is a 44-year resident of Collegetown, having moved in in 1972, and buying his house in the early 1990s. As the kitchen manager for Loaves and Fishes and a former Common Councilor for the 4th Ward, he’s well known among the Ithaca community and is well connected to its grassroots organizations, as well as the political movers and shakers. By any account, Neil and his late partner Kathy Yoselson are beloved stalwarts of Ithaca’s progressive scene. However, Neil has generally not been a fan of development, particularly Collegetown’s (with one notable exception – 307 College).

What 201’s debate boils down to is a clash of two strong personalities. Todd Fox, who is probably the most gung-ho and financially adept developer one will find in the city of gorges; and Neil Golder, who was determined as hell to stop the project planned for the house next door, which wasn’t just a development, it was a project that he deeply felt would be a major detriment to his quality of life. Hence, Neil launched the group “Save the Soul of Collegetown“, under the auspices of protecting all of Collegetown, but mostly as a personal vehicle to drum up support to battle Fox and his apartment building.

The point of this summary isn’t to summarize every detail. You can read the 580+ page summary from the city, or all the Voice articles here. But there are a few key plot points.

After review and a negative declaration of environmental significance (meaning, effectively mitigated), he project received preliminary approval in June, and the city and the planning board were promptly slapped with a lawsuit by Golder. The stated case was that the environmental assessment was inadequate and that the project needed an EIS. Although it was quite a stretch given past precedent, it did make the planning board quite uncomfortable. John Schroeder, a longtime board member who served with Neil on the council, did a very deep analysis of the 2014 zoning code and determined that the building may be illegal on technicality.

That technicality was about building facade length, and whether Bool Street was a primary facade – if it was, it would legally have been required to be two separate buildings for having too long of a continuous face to the street. The zoning code, however, illustrated that an approach with indents such as 201’s were acceptable, and the city planning department, in their pre-site plan review assessment and meetings with Fox, had signed off on the plan as legal and acceptable. And they maintained that it was acceptable. So there ended up being a battle between the planning board, which is appointed though knowledgeable community members, and the planning department, which consists of vetted city staff. These kinds of battles are extremely rare, and it is likely that 201 was the first in decades.

While this debate raged, the building far exceeded its intended start date of July 2016. As a result, the site went on the market, and the plans were cast into jeopardy.

Although Fox and his team wanted to avoid a trip to the Board of Zoning Appeals, it was determined by the board to be the only legitimate course of action. The BZA had to decide whether or not the project was legal. And, in a 3-1 decision in October, they decided it was legal, due to ambiguity in the code, and a lack of timeliness on the part of the planning board, as the legality was not considered until after months of review, after preliminary approval was granted. After the BZA ruling, work on the building began the next day.

No one walked away from this one looking good; One reader emailed in and compared it to a Clinton vs. Trump vote. The debate sent a chill down the development community, and created additional bitterness for some of the old-timers who felt Ithaca was selling out to developers and student interests. The planning department and board were also left with some resentment towards the other; now that the code has been clarified, one can hope further battles like this can be avoided.

Anyway, the building itself. Here are the floorplans. The mechanical room, a trash room, interior bike storage, gym and storage space occupy the basement. Four three-bedroom and four four-bedoom units (28 beds), with about 1,000 SF each, occupy the first and second floors. The third and fourth floors have micro-units, 16 of which will be about 392 SF studios, 8 of which will be 670 SF with two bedrooms, give or take a few feet for each (32 beds). The top floor has nearly the same layout as three and fourth, with eight micro-units of about 392 SF and 2 two-bedrooms of about 670 SF. However, the westernmost two units are studios, which have balconies and are about 400 SF each. So, 14 beds on the top floor, for a total of 74. The smaller units make use of mezzanine spaces and netting to increase usable space.

Fox’s rental company, Modern Living Rentals, is handling the leases. The units are currently listed from $1,670/month to $4,170/month, depending on size and location.

In the photos below, note that the excavated portion is only half of the building footprint – the basement only occupies the western half of the structure. The eastern half is slab-on-grade (Collegetown has more stable soils than most of the valley locations, so multi-story slab foundation buildings are feasible). The elevator core will be in the middle bridge of the “H”-shaped structure. Foundation forms are up and the concrete is being poured – through the fence, you can see one of the concrete footers already in place.

William H. Lane Inc. of Binghamton, who just finished up the Marriott downtown, is the general contractor for the approximately $6 million project, which is paying a premium to meet the opening date of August 2017.

**If you add in Phase III of Collegetown Terrace, which is on the fringe of what’s normally considered Collegetown, raise those numbers to 462 beds and $71 million.

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