Bank Tower Renovation Update, 12/2017

28 12 2017

Not everything can or should be new construction. Today, it’s a look at the Bank Tower renovation on the Ithaca Commons.

Bank Tower, a seven-story building located at 202 The Commons, dates from 1932, with two two-story additions from the mid-1960s. It suffered from a common issue with older office buildings – as they age, they become less suitable for the needs of today’s businesses. Reasons cited include smaller and less flexible floor plates, fewer amenities, less sustainable and ecologically-conscious structures, accessibility, and utility concerns (telecommunications/integrated wireless networks). A look at your typical office photo gives some insight to the changes –  rows of desks and file cabinets gave way to cubicles and desktops, and in many places those too are being replaced with portables and open office formats. That means that the owner either invests in significant updates to keep a building competitive to its newer peers, or letting it slip downmarket – from Class A (premium/prestige), to Class B (mid-market) and Class C (below-market) space.

However, the first question any owner asks when deciding whether or not to renovate is, will it be worth the investment? In the case of Bank Tower, that answer wasn’t clear. Over the past several years, Bank Tower had lost a number of tenants – law firm Miller Mayer moved into renovated space in the Rothschild Building, which left two floors vacant, and Bank of America sold its local presence to Chemung Canal Trust Company in 2013, which moved out of the building under acrimonious circumstances in the spring of 2016. The average office building is about 90% occupied, and Bank Tower was clocking in with far less than that.

It’s also important to look at the larger trends in the local market. In Ithaca’s case, office space is typically small-scale, and very little is built without a tenant already in mind. Ithaca’s economy is growing steadily, but since meds and eds just build their own space, and tech jobs tend to be “asset light”, the demand for rental office space isn’t growing much. Also, with Tompkins Trust Company building a new headquarters a couple blocks away, which would consolidate several rented spaces into their spacious new digs, it looked likely that there would be a glut of office space by the end of the decade.

The Fane Organization had purchased Bank Tower in 1997, and was well aware of the market’s challenges. They were also aware of the hot apartment rental market. The first plan, announced in July 2016, called for a $4 million conversion of Bank Tower into 32 units of housing with 51 bedrooms (mostly 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units). Renovations typically don’t require planning board review, but any exterior changes, or changes visible to the inside from the outside, would require Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council (ILPC) approval, since the building sits in the Downtown Historic District. John Snyder Architects has been retained to design the new interior floorplans. In accordance with the city’s zoning, the first floor has to remain an “active use”, generally retail or commercial services, but some traffic-generating public and community options are permitted.

Around Spring 2017, rumors began to circulate that the residential conversion plan had been cancelled, and that the Fane Organization was in negotiations with a potential tenants. Those rumors panned out when CFCU Community Credit Union announced plans to move into a renovated Bank Tower next year, renting the building for use as their new headquarters. The credit union, established in the 1950s, has ten locations and about 184 staff, and has been in an expansion mode over the past several years. The move is expected to relocate 30 employees to downtown Ithaca from the current HQ in suburban Lansing, and create 20 new jobs as the credit union continues to expand.

According to a press release, the fourth and fifth floors will retain a traditional layout, while floors three, six and seven will move to an open-office format. CFCU will host a service branch on the ground floor. New windows, communications systems, and high-efficient utilities will be installed in the building. The sixth and seventh floors appear to be spec space, with tenants TBD.

On the ground and second floors, it appears the lobby area is being opened up to give it a more spacious feel, and interior demolition work continues, given the rubble chute off the side of 111 North Tioga Street.


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One response

29 12 2017
Ex-Ithacan

Gotta give props to Fane for the renovation into office space. Always thought it’s a sold looking building.

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