Harold’s Square Construction Update, 12/2017

31 12 2017

Grab a cup of coffee or tea for this one, it’s a long introduction.

Touching on a familiar topic again, downtown and urban living has enjoyed a revived interest in the past fifteen years, and coincident with moderate but steady economic growth in Ithaca, it has created plenty of opportunities for those with assets and expertise. Succeeding in those opportunities is a slightly different story – money and a strong project team are important, but some projects have an easier go of it than others. Harold’s Square has experienced substantial obstacles in its long pre-construction period, but thanks to developer David Lubin’s flexibility and tenacity, as well as an accommodating local government and growing market, it has surmounted those challenges and is now underway.

The first version of Harold Square at 123-139 The Commons was proposed back in October 2012. At the time, the plans called for first-floor retail, a few floors of office space, and 60-70 apartments on the upper floors of the 11-story building. The Sage Block (Benchwarmers) and W.H. Miller Building (Home Dairy) would be renovated, while three less historic buildings would be taken down to make way for the new development. The estimated price was $30 million and the plan was to have the 126,000 SF building finished by summer 2014. At that time, the building would have needed a fairly substantial zoning variance – the entire site was CBD-60, and it reached about 135 feet.

With the exception of the first-floor retail and Sage Block renovation, none of the other details have remained the same. However, the five major design iterations have all been by the same architect – CJS Architects (formerly Chaintreuil | Jensen | Stark Architects), with offices in Rochester and (later) Buffalo.

Lubin already had some familiarity with the project site – one of the storefronts to be removed used to be home to Harold’s Army Navy Store, a business started by his father and expanded to sixteen locations across the region. These stores were closed in the late 1990s as Lubin chose to focus on his development project and other business endeavors, like his computer recycling business. Harold’s Square is a nod to his father’s store, and the famed Herald Square of New York City.

The project design was critiqued and reviewed thoroughly over the next ten months, which also produced the first major set of design changes – in fact, if you’re googling Harold’s Square without prior knowledge, images of this version, v02, turn up enough that even many current agencies and organizations (and even the posters on the construction fence) treat it as the final design. The 2015 image from the contractor’s website, Taylor the Builders, is shown above. It did away with some of the less-liked design features of v01, but retained a clean, contemporary profile with a curtain wall of glass, and terracotta panels that extended to the roof canopy. During this period, plans to acquire the W.H. Miller Building were dropped.

This was the version that was approved in August 2013, and received CIITAP tax abatements two months later in October 2013. It had 162,750 SF, with basement utilities/storage, ground-floor retail (20,670 SF), three floors of office space (56,855 SF) and 46 apartments on floors 5-10. The eleventh floor was a 5,000 SF penthouse for tenant use. The price tag was about $38 million.

At this point, post IDA approval, we kinda enter a publicly dormant period. Publicly, apart from the occasional reassurance from Lubin that the project was still alive, and the re-application for approval permits since those expire after two years, there didn’t appear to be much going on. Behind the scenes, it gets a little more interesting.

The project was having trouble securing a construction loan, and that was for a couple of reasons. For one, Lubin (as L Enterprises LLC) was having trouble securing a major office tenant, and office space made up about a third of the building. No one had any concerns about the apartments since the residential market was (and still is) strong, and retail is not hard to sell when it’s on The Commons, but office space is a different matter altogether. The demand for new space is modest, and often custom built for a tenant, rather than speculative space to be filled by tenants after it’s complete. So if we’re being fair but critical, the project team made a fair gamble but ended up overestimating the market for office space. Unless that space was spoken for, there would be no financing.

Re-examining the mix of uses, Lubin decided to revamp the project when seeking re-approvals in August 2015 – two floors of office space would be replaced with apartments. The first mention of this actually came through the New York Times, followed by the Voice and the Ithaca Times. With the drop in office space, the number of apartments jumped to 86. This also required some design changes, which were going to be reviewed by the city in Fall 2015. My notes show August 2016 ended up being the review date. We’ll call this version 3, v03.

Now Harold’s Square was 180,090 SF, with basement utility/storage space, ground-floor retail, second floor office space, and ten floors of apartments. The project had grown from 11 to 12 floors, but the height was nearly the same since residential floors have lower floor-to-ceiling heights than Class A office space. The total unit count was now 108, with 40 micro units (all the rage these days), 30 1-bedroom units, and 38 2-bedroom units. This version was approved in September 2016. By the time the project was up for re-approval, the city zoning had changed such that 140-foot buildings were allowed on-site, so no further height variance was needed.

With the space utilization issue worked out, the project was still seen as a sizable risk to potential lenders – it was at its inception the largest project proposed in downtown Ithaca since 2005’s Seneca Place, and Lubin had some experience with smaller projects, but nothing this size. Finding a partner to buy in to the plan would reduce the loan needed and add experience, making the project an easier sell to lenders. This is where McGuire Development, a major interest in the Buffalo market (3.5 million SF), came into play. They saw the potential in Lubin’s vision and the value in the Ithaca market, and agreed to buy in as a development partner. This appears to have been finalized in January 2017.

Fast forward to May 2017. With McGuire playing a role on the project team, major design iteration #4 (v04) removed the terracotta panels in favor of metal, and reconfigured the Commons storefront retail to use a common entrance, for “financial viability”. The enclosed atrium was removed and a mechanical penthouse added. It seems likely that McGuire wanted to ensure a certain return on investment. This version was approved without much further comment, except perhaps a bit of exasperation from city officials. Concurrently, the project team re-applied to the IDA for a revised tax abatement – the project’s price tag was now up to $42 million, and they were seeking revised, slightly more generous terms, which were granted with some grumbling. Complaints include a lack of explicitly affordable housing units, local labor concerns, and gentrification. The use of heat pumps and 60 kW of rooftop solar panels assuaged the sustainability crowd.

By October, the project was underway, courtesy of a construction loan from Norwich-based NBT Bank. The bank is a regional player with about 1.5x the assets of Tompkins Trust. This is new territory for NBT, which typically limits itself to single-family home loans in Tompkins, and has no service branches within county lines. The loan is for $33,842,000. L Enterprises and McGuire have each put up $5 million to cover the $43,842,000 cost of the project.

So here we are. The site has been cleared, and shoring and excavation by Paolangeli Contractor will take place over the next six weeks. After that comes ten days of pile driving, using a zero-resonance hammer to reduce vibration and noise – ostensibly, because is probably the second-most high-profile project site in the city after City Centre (which used the same method). Project completion is expected in Spring 2019. Sorry folks, but the Commons playground will remained cocooned and closed due to safety concerns.

The project team includes L Enterprises LLC (led by David Lubin) as lead developer, McGuire Development as co-developer, Taylor the Builders as the general contractor, CJS Architects, Fagan Engineers and Land Surveyors handling the application and civil/structural engineering work, and Brous Consulting for public relations. Those who want to follow the project without this blog as an intermediary can sign up for update on the project webpage here.

With the latest update on their webpage also comes the latest version of the project design, v05 – which doesn’t really affect the program space, but it does have several visual changes. The corner units now have exposed balconies vs enclosed rooms, the dark metal band on the top floor facing the Commons has been removed, and the retail frontage was reconfigured a bit on the Commons facade (the north module was stretched, one of the entry doors moved, and different fenestration patterns have been applied to some of the modules and the northwest face).

Pre-demo photo:



3 responses

1 01 2018
Patricia Dubin

Thanks for your blog. I’ve never seen anything like it before; very informative, detailed, useful and fun to read. I like the Harold’s Square video too.

Patricia A. Dubin 2002 Ellis Hollow Road Ithaca, New York 14850 Tel: 610-202-9667 E-mail: dubinpa@gmail.com

On Sun, Dec 31, 2017 at 8:00 PM, Ithacating in Cornell Heights wrote:

> B. C. posted: “Grab a cup of coffee or tea for this one, it’s a long > introduction. Touching on a familiar topic again, downtown and urban living > has enjoyed a revived interest in the past fifteen years, and coincident > with moderate but steady economic growth in Ithac” >

4 01 2018

I’m liking those new renderings.

6 01 2018

I’m glad the latest design seems to have given up on both the jarring postmodern asymmetry and the tired midcentury-modern “glass box covered in vertical concrete lines” look. The metal panels are a bit bland (I think the terracotta ones were better), and the storefront facades could use a little more color, but this looks like it will harmonize well with the existing Commons buildings. And, of course, I’m happy to see another massive tower full of apartments getting built.

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