City Centre Construction Update, 8/2017

21 08 2017

Ithaca is fortunate to have a downtown area with strong residential demand and relatively low commercial retail vacancy. Unlike many communities in upstate New York, its downtown area is ahead of the curve when it comes to attracting and capitalizing on investment. Apart from a few communities of similar economic strength (Saratoga Springs, Beacon), most regional cities are only just starting to re-invest in their downtrodden downtown cores.

It’s important to keep in mind that Ithaca was on a similar destructive path during the 1960s and 1970s. Like many cities, it was experiencing flight to the suburbs, competition from malls and shopping centers on the fringes, and general disinterest and loss of investment downtown. In an attempt to spur development, the city commenced with urban renewal plans that, among other things, routed Green Street through an urban block to create the tuning fork in the late 1950s, and in the mid and late 1960s, the city seized multiple 2-5 story ca. 1900 structures on the 300 Block of East State Street via eminent domain, demolishing them with the intent to sell the land to Ithaca Savings and Loan for a new bank branch and office building.

Things didn’t pan out as planned. After the bank pulled out, the now empty triangle of land bounded by South Aurora, East State and East Green Streets was used as a parking lot for construction crews, before finally being sold in 1973 to the Colbert family, who developed the Trebloc Building on the site. Originally planned at two floors, it opened in 1974, a one-story, brutalist-lite structure that was not a good fit and certainly not the transformative plan the city sold voters on a decade earlier. But, the city was desperate. They would take what they could get.

In the following decades, Ithaca’s economy remained relatively stable compared to its peers, thanks in large part to the colleges – staff counts increased to pick up some of the losses from manufacturers moving out of state or abroad, and students helped buoy the service sector. Ithaca’s downtown saw some investment in the late 20th century, but more importantly, most of the historic properties that survived Urban Renewal were now generating enough interest to avoid the wrecking ball.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, the idea of spin-offs and start-ups was starting to take off, and with Cornell serving as a sort of research incubator, it led to a modest but well-paying and growing high-tech sector. Add in an increasing trend towards college towns as a lively alternative to retirement communities, and Ithaca found itself with a growing economy. Coincident was a resurgent interest in urban living; Ithaca’s sleepy but intact downtown was poised to take advantage. It was still a risk in the 2000s, but through effort and luck, public-private projects like Cayuga Green and Seneca Place have paid off.

At this point, the initial “pioneer” projects have opened and demonstrated market strengths and weaknesses. Commercial office space is lukewarm at best, but rentals are hot. With a continued resilient, growing economy, developers were now scouting opportunities on their own. This was encouraged by the city, which upzoned several downtown parcels in 2014 to drum up interest. As part of this upzone, the Trebloc site was rezoned from CBD-60 to CBD-120, raising the maximum height from 60 feet to 120 feet, while permitting 100% lot coverage (excluding setbacks) with no requirement for on-site parking.

The first formal proposal to come along was State Street Triangle in April 2015. Texas-based Campus Advantage initially proposed a 12-story, 240-unit, 600-bed apartment building with first floor retail. The units were intended towards the student market, and Campus Advantage saw the property as an ideal location to draw in both Cornell and IC students.

Unfortunately, this development attempt pretty much checked off every box for what not to do. It was very large by Ithaca standards, officially student-oriented, the original design was mediocre at best, and according to city officials and staff, the developers came in with a condescending air, like the building was a gift and the city could only be so lucky. This stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition. Complaints included the size, the parking, the tenant mix, the design, and the developers were taken out to the proverbial woodshed for being out of touch “outsiders” who were simply going to profit off the city.

While there were some proponents, they were not many. The developers tried to make amends with a more appropriate design by STREAM Collaborative that reduced the size and scale, offered to make a donation to the city’s affordable housing fund, and broke up units to appeal to non-students, but the damage was done. When it became clear they would seek a tax abatement as most downtown projects do, the mayor, who is generally pro-density and pro-downtown, spoke out against it. Behind the scenes, a local developer was preparing to file a lawsuit if the city dared to approve the project without asking for a long, expensive Environmental Impact Statement first.

Meanwhile, the Colberts were in talks with a different developer, Newman Development Group (NDG) of Vestal. While not as large as Campus Advantage, Newman had previous experience in Downtown Ithaca, co-developing the Seneca Way mixed-use project with Bryan Warren a few years earlier. In fact, NDG’s forte is suburban shopping plazas and student housing; at the time, their only urban non-student residential project was Seneca Way. But, they knew Ithaca through experience. They knew what the city did and didn’t like, and watching Campus Advantage flounder not only gave them an opportunity to swoop in, it was an additional opportunity to watch and learn.

By December 2015, the purchase option CA had on the site had expired; and when they went to renegotiate, the Colberts were not interested, and decided to go with NDG. In January 2016, State Street Triangle was officially cancelled.

City Centre was officially announced in a press release in June 2016. From the start, it avoided the mistakes that plagued Campus Advantage. The announcement came not as a leak in the Journal, but in a press release to all three Ithaca news outlets, which gave an air of transparency and limited speculation. The initial design by Texas-based Humphreys & Partners Architects was well-regarded. The project would be non-student market-rate, with studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units. Instead of no parking at all, 71 (later 72) spaces would be located under the ground floor retail in a subterranean lot. The turn lane from Aurora onto State would be maintained, rather than lost to an expanded plaza.

With this approach, opposition to City Centre was much weaker – many critics saw this as a fair alternative. There were some complaints, like from Historic Ithaca, who were against any building with more than six floors; but overall, the reception to City Centre was much more favorable. The key changes through the municipal review process was to try and make the building less massive and less like State Street Triangle, as both had similar massing, and a visual focal point on the corner facing the Commons. The project team achieved this through setbacks and bump-outs to create more facade variation, and reducing the building to eight floors. Other details that were revised include additional street-level windows and the cornice of the curved primary facade. City Centre received preliminary approval in January, after the zoning board signed off on a rear setback variance. Final approval was granted in February. The original design can be seen here, and the final design is here.

The details of the final plan are confusing to the point of frustration – no one seems to agree on the exact figures (if anyone reading this could provide them, it’d be appreciated). The range of figures call for a 217,671-218,211 SF (square-foot) building on 0.76 acres, with 10,600 SF of ground floor retail and 8,700 SF of amenity space (gym, lobby, computer room, lounge, rental office) and 2,000 SF of utility space. On the upper floors are 192 apartments, or 193 – the square footage and unit details are all over the place. Once source says 63 studio, 73 1-bedroom, 57 2-bedroom units – another says 193, with a breakdown of 56 studio units (506 SF), 94 1-bedroom units (598-725 SF) and 43 2-bedroom units (907-1,370 SF). 68-72 parking spaces will be built in a one-story underground garage (without the garage, square footage is 186,966-187,536 SF). Building height has been reported as 85 feet, 106 feet and 111 feet, which is probably just a technical difference due to the slope of the site.

The total hard cost for the project is estimated at $32.8 million, and combined hard and soft costs come in at $52.7 million. The project was granted an enhanced tax abatement in April 2017. This was not without some opposition from residents who felt it was inappropriate to give an abatement to market-rate housing, and some landlords. Downtown business owners and interest groups were generally in favor.

Construction is expected through at least Spring 2019, although the numbers have been a bit inconsistent, with some paperwork suggesting 2020. The disagreement stems in part from the start date for the 20-month construction period, and whether that includes demo/site prep or not. It will be steel frame construction with brick veneer and a few shades of Nichiha fiber cement panels. The building will use electric air-source heat pumps and have a 7.5 KW rooftop solar array.

The project team includes NDG, Humphreys & Partners as architect, Whitham Planning and Design LLC as the team representative and point of contact for the review process, and T. G. Miller PC for civil engineering and surveying work. Rochester’s Morgan Management will be in charge of leasing. NDG is in a major expansion mode on the residential side at the moment, with a 320-bed student housing project under construction in Oswego, and a 120-unit general market project underway in Binghamton.

At the moment, the former Trebloc Building is no more, having been fenced off and demolished earlier in the summer. Excavation for the parking garage and 26″ thick concrete mat foundation has yet to begin. About 400 construction jobs are expected to be created, and as part of the abatement agreement, at least 25% (100) will be local labor.

 


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5 responses

21 08 2017
Ex-Ithacan

Bravo BC, great summary (including the historical background). Now let’s get this rascal built 🙂

21 08 2017
Karl Madeo

Thanks so much, Brian, for this excellent summary on this project. Really appreciate having the project history details in one place.

23 08 2017
CornellPhD

Good to see this one get underway. What of the Canopy though?

23 08 2017
B. C.

I honestly am not sure. The construction loan is filed, the land has been purchased, and they have an IURA loan that they are making regular payments on. But still no work. If I had to wager a guess, it’s that the contractor they had lined up didn’t work out, and they’re scrambling to find another that can do the job within budget.

26 10 2017
City Centre Construction Update, 10/2017 | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] (premium, not luxury). The webpage touts Summer 2019 occupancy, which seems to be a split of the Spring 2019 and November 2019 dates used previously. Inquiries are being taken to […]

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