News Tidbits 12/2/17: The Changing Calculus

3 12 2017

1. Perhaps the big news of the week is that Visum Development Group’s project for 311 College Avenue (the Nines restaurant and Bar) was revived after negotiations with the seller moved in a favorable direction. This time around, it appears that Visum is bringing something close to an “A” game proposal; Jagat Sharma is still the architect of record, but Visum’s VP for New Market Development, Patrick Braga, had a heavy hand in the design work and historical research. The designs produced are more historically inspired and embrace some of the elements that make the old fire station attractive to the public – the first floor doors will pull up like garage bays or slide open to create a sort of open-air loggia on warm days, and a cornice element is retained. Floor to roof will be about 66 feet according to the Times’ Matt Butler, and still contain about 50 1-bedroom and studio apartments as well as 750 SF of retail. For the record, he and I did a bit of collaboration on describing the architectural features before we ran our respective stories.

The sketch plan had a kinder reception from the Planning Board this time around, if still cautious. Even though John Schroeder made it clear he would never accept any plan for The Nines, he said something to the effect of, if this design were proposed for any other MU-2 in Collegetown, he would have no problems with it whatsoever. The rest of the board did a quick poll to see if the other members would at least entertain a proposal, and no one else said no, so the project is considered active.

Now, things can get a little awkward from here. The city planning director, JoAnn Cornish, made it clear that they could move forward with design if they want, but there’s a risk that the property may get landmarked before they get approval. Speaking with the city historic preservation director Bryan McCracken the day after the article, he said that a decision on whether or not to move forward with the landmarking process would be on the agenda for the ILPC’s December meeting. If they move forward, it still has to go to Common Council. I had previously heard through the grapevine that the council was favorable to landmarking in the case of the Nines, but that was before Visum brought forward a new plan. The truth is, things are fairly unpredictable at the moment, and it’s a matter of waiting and watching how different stakeholders act and react.

2. I like Matt Butler, he has time to do the stories that I can’t. This time, a look into the plans for a centralized government facility at the site of the Central Fire Station on the 300 Block of West Green Street. That study is still active, under the guidance of Kingsbury Architecture and TWMLA, as is the second study for a combined Public Works facility. The appraisal process and estimates of cost are also still underway.

It’s kinda a given that this would have tremendous impacts, as noted in the Voice. A lucrative Collegetown site and other redevelopment sites would be on the market, and hundreds of workers and daily visitors would extend Ithaca’s core down State Street, which the city wants, considering it to be one of the few directions downtown can expand towards without compromising too much of Ithaca’s existing urban fabric. The ILPC would need to sign off on plans due to the fire station’s proximity to the “Downtown West” historic district (it actually contains the IFD’s parking lot for the sake of contiguous parcels), so “super-edgy hypermodern” probably isn’t on the table design-wise. The city also has to make a decision relatively soon – the current city hall (former NYSEG HQ, built 1939) and “Hall of Justice” (1920s, renovated/expanded 1964-66) are in need of major renovations.

3. Also on the visionary end of discussion are future plans (2020 onward) for Collegetown’s transit network. Here, it is often a delicate case of balance; it’s a dense, lucrative secondary core of the city, but parking and traffic are problems, as is the lack of infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists. One option being explored is a new bike lane up College Avenue that would eliminate 35 parking spaces (and was not well received), and the other is a more modest plan that largely keeps College Avenue as is, which many didn’t like either.

Perhaps the most interesting note from the article is that the city is examining the feasibility of expanding the Dryden Road garage by adding additional floors to the 1980s structure. The Dryden Road garage has the highest parking rates and a high occupancy, and is the most lucrative of the city’s four garages. The city is also looking at incentives for on-site parking, which to be honest, probably isn’t going to work in Collegetown for a number of planning and financial reasons (i.e. a developer will make a lot more from a rentable unit per SF, than from a parking space per SF).

4. Nothing much of note from the town of Ithaca Planning Board agenda. The owners of a former convenience store at 614 Elmira Road are seeking to perform minor renovations to the building for a bottle and can return (to be called IthaCAN & Bottle Return), and Maplewood is asking the town planning board permission to work on Saturdays in a mad dash to have the 872-bed complex ready for occupancy before August. Normally, renovations don’t need to visit the board, but the zoning for the Elmira Road requires a visit for each change of occupancy/use.

The city of Ithaca’s Planning Board memo is short as well, just the long-brewing plans for a garage-replacing addition to 115 The Knoll in Cornell Heights. The 1950s garage will be replaced with a 4-bed, 2-bath addition for Chesterton House, an all-male Christian interest group Sophia House, an all-female Christian group.  It appears the design has changed very little if at all since the plan first became public in May. The $349,900 addition, designed by STREAM Collaborative, would be built in the Spring and Summer of 2018 for an August opening. (Correction: Chesterton House is next door and owned by the same group. The project is for Sophia House. Thanks to Lyn for catching that.)

5. Local developers Steve Flash and Anne Chernish (d/b/a Rampart Real LLC) will be taking on a partner in the 323 Taughannock project. The couple sold a $203,000 stake in the 8-townhouse plan to Arnot Realty of Elmira (d/b/a 323T LLC) on the 22nd. For Flash and Chernish, it gives them a much bigger partner with experience and connections to contractors; for Arnot, it gives them a toehold in the buregoning Ithaca market, their first step into the city. The deed explicitly states this is a joint venture.

6. So this is interesting. On Friday 12/1, an LLC purchased an industrial/office building at 37-40 Elm Street in Dryden for $260,000. The property was built in the late 1980s and is about 25,000 SF, with a warehouse, manufacturing space, office space and three apartments.

The buyer was an LLC, but the LLC filing address traces back to 312 Fourth Street in Ithaca, a 13,800 SF complex of buildings and warehouses home to the All Stone & Tile Company, Ithaca Ice and Strawbridge & Jahn Construction. So either someone is growing out of space and the others are staying, or they are all moving. If they are all moving, that could be an opportunity. Zoning is B-4,  which allows a very wide variety of business and residential uses. Zoning is 4 floors/40 feet maximum height, 50% lot coverage, but being on the tip of the Waterfront/West End corridor, my suspicion is that the city could be a bit flexible with zoning variances for density and/or affordable housing. The only places one finds B-4 zones are the fringes of downtown, so it’s not well-suited for big projects, but there’s room to explore options. Of course, the electrical substation next door isn’t ideal, and the property isn’t even up for sale, but this is worth keeping an eye on.

7. So, there’s no real avoiding it this week – the tax bill in Congress. It really hurts Tompkins County. I did my one and only tweetstorm to cover some of the issues, and most of it still holds. Two last-minute changes softened the blow between then and now. One was the inclusion of the Collins amendment to reinstate a $10,000 cap on SALT (State and Local property tax) deductions, since the original Senate bill had no deduction. The other was raising the endowment from colleges with an endowment of $250,000/student, to those with $500,000/student. Cornell’s is about $310,000/student (6.8 billion/22,300 students). For the record, it wasn’t done to protect Cornell, it was done to protect conservative Hillsdale College after an amendment to give it an exclusive exemption failed. At least 30 schools were still hit, and this detail has to reconciled with the House Bill’s $250,000/student figure.

So apart from the SALT and college impacts I had already noted, one thing that got missed was that the bills allow prohibit schools from taxing out tax-exempt bonds to fund construction. For Cornell’s plan to add 2,000 beds, this is a problem.

So let’s just overview this real quick – a bond is a fixed-income investment in which an investor loans money to an entity, which borrows at a fixed or variable interest rate for a fixed period of time. When you buy a bond, you hold the debt for that entity. Most investors typically have some proportion of bonds in their portfolio – they typically are more stable investments than stocks, though the returns are typically less. Their relative safety is why financial planners recommend a higher proportion of bonds as one gets closer to retirement. The riskiness of a debtor not paying back is given by their bond rating. Cornell’s long-term debt rating is AA, which is very good, high-quality investment grade.

Now, in the case of non-profit schools, typically the tax-exempt bonds are issued with the approval of local and state authorities. The project to be financed by the bonds is determined by the school. The school does its internal approval of the project and bond plan, and the project it goes up to the community for planning board/environmental review. Once approved, the school chooses an approved issuer of bonds, often a state or local development authority (ex. The Dormitory Authority of NYS). A working group is put together to establish a timetable and structure for the bonds, and once the bond structure is settled and reviewed for issues, a public hearing is held on the bond issue, so that any issues or concerns are made clear before issuance. Barring no problems, the government signs off on the tax-exemption for the bond issue, a closing date is established and the bonds are marketed and sold, mostly to banks and big investment firms. The received funds are disbursed to pay for the project.

That’s getting taken away by this tax bill. That means any future bonds will be taxable, and have a much higher interest rate. Borrowing just became more expensive. A 30-year AA tax-exempt bond might be 2.76%, and a taxable bond 3.37%. That might seem a small difference, but a 2,000 bed project is on the order of $200 million (recall Maplewood is 872 beds and $80 million). So we’re talking millions of dollars more that Cornell will now have to pay to make those dorms happen. It opens up a distinct possibility that the project could be scaled back and/or delayed, which impacts the overall housing market. Probably the federal SALT tax cap is going to hurt much more.

Really, this bill was practically designed to decimate real and perceived enemies of politically conservative groups as much as it was designed to help billionaire donors and corporations. Poorly conceived, ignoring multiple non-partisan analyses and relying on overly optimistic projections, hastily put together and shoved through, blowing the debt trillions higher and immediately or eventually raising taxes on tens of millions. This is every cartoonish stereotype of Republicans amplified in one piece of legislation.

I don’t like to get political, but I’m a registered Republican, and have been my whole life. As a pragmatic never-Trump moderate, I joke that I’m a New York Republican and a Texas Democrat. When one writes about government red tape, the Cargill Mine, and Ithaca’s progressives attacking affordable housing, it tends to reaffirm beliefs.

But hell, this tax bill is throwing every principle out the window with this bill, causes a ton of damage to a place I care about, and with a morally deficient and unstable president at the helm, I can’t do it anymore. I mailed off the form today to become an independent. After this, I just can’t see myself voting Republican again, not for a long time.

 


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6 responses

3 12 2017
CornellPhD

Am I correct in noting the irony of having eliminated parking minimums in Collegetown and then wanting to add in incentives for parking later (I know it’s a matter of opt in and opt out, but it’s interesting how quickly the goal seems to have shifted)?

The Nines redesign is very interesting. The response from the Council seems to indicate that a lot of the historical significance argued for in the landmarking debate probably really came down to the fact the building is a traditional design (like the acclaimed new design). It’ll be a shame to lose the patio space for some historicist pastriche, in my opinion. What’s interesting here is the clear ability of the powers that be to demand better architecture in Collegetown, whatever the style. Wish that had been known before we got the cinder block special on Eddy Street.

4 12 2017
B. C.

It’s not great optics, but the old approach with mandatory parking was impractical, since most student “commuters” are within walking distance to Cornell and car ownership by the student body has declined at a rapid pace since 2000 (see: 2012 Randall/West study below). The issue seems to be more focused on the difficulties businesses have in Collegetown, especially since the city mandated street-level active uses and now needs to encourage those storefronts to be occupied.

On another note, the biggest change with the new Collegetown Design Guidelines set to be approved in the next couple months is that cinder blocks (CMU, more accurately) can no longer be used for exterior faces.

https://www.scribd.com/document/120864261/Collegetown-Parking-Study-Ithaca-New-York-published-by-Randall-West-July-2012

3 12 2017
Karl Madeo

I appreciate your updates and analysis (particularly interesting on the tax plan) as always,…and applaud your party registration change.

4 12 2017
B. C.

To be honest Karl, I really agonized over it, and was very hesitant to say something here since I try to avoid partisan takes, and most individual planning / development issues are insulated from political concerns. But it had weighed on me all weekend, and I really just needed to get the disappointment and frustration off my chest.

4 12 2017
Frost Travis

Hi Brian,

Great work as always. Just wanted to correct one factual error: my friend Steve Flash is married to Elena Flash. I don’t know who the partners are in Rampart, LLC, but Elena is Steve’s wife.

Regards,

Frost

Frost Travis Travis Hyde Properties (607) 273-1654

4 12 2017
B. C.

Oof. Fixing now.

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