South Meadow Square Construction Update, 3/2018

23 03 2018

One doesn’t have to look far to see retail is taking in on the chin. Wikipedia has a well-sourced listicle of events in the “retail apocalypse“, as it’s been branded by the national media outlets. Several factors play into the spike in retail chain bankruptcies and closures across the country – the rise of Internet shopping (Amazon) and easy, cheap distribution, Wal-Mart and other megachains exerting economies of scale on other retailers can’t afford to sell as cheaply, younger generations buy less “stuff”, the United States simply has too much retail space.

For now, some retailers are more immune than others – those who focus on convenience and budget necessities (dollar stores), those who sell goods that are hard to ship (home improvement stores, wholesale clubs), and those who focus on experiences rather than items. However, even sectors that were once seen as safe as starting to feel the pinch – pharmacies and grocery stores, for instance.

With all that in mind, it seems a bit odd to be building new suburban “big-box” retail space, but Buffalo-based Benderson Development is doing just that at South Meadow Square at 742-744 South Meadow Street on the city’s southwest side. Benderson purchased the retail strip from the original developers (the Visnyei family) in 2009.

Development of Ithaca’s big-box corridor has always been contentious. Long ago, the area consisted of a few small auto-centric businesses and the county fairgrounds (hence Fairgrounds Memorial Parkway). During the mid and late 20th century, big box retail slowly made its way into the southwest part of the city – what’s now Finger Lake Reuse on Old Elmira Road was built as a grocery store in the 1970s, and parts of Ithaca Plaza next door date to 1950. Wegmans opened a store in the 1980s, and replaced with newer, larger store in 1997.

The 1990s was when big-box development pressure seemed to come to a head. Wal-Mart was stymied for years thanks to neighborhood opposition, and Target eventually gave up its plans and moved to Lansing. But, much to the city’s chagrin, the 1990s were difficult times economically – the tax base was in decline, state aid was in decline, and the local economy was mired in a deep recession. Somewhat begrudgingly, the Nichols (1989-1995) but especially the Cohen administration (1995-2003) began permitting large-scale retail development in the hopes of propping up the tax base and stemming the flow of dollars to suburban outlets in the suburbs, as well as Elmira and Cortland.

Many of the  city’s big boxes are result of that late 1990s/early 2000s wave. Wal-Mart (2005, expanded to a Supercenter in 2011), Home Depot (2003), the Tops Placa (2002). Some were all-new, others were extensive renovations and rebuilds. This particular retail strip at 742-744 is one of the latter – it had actually opened as a rather large 87,000 SF K-Mart in the 1970s (the 22,000 SF supermarket it shared a lobby with later became Staples), and was extensively renovated and in the mid-1980s and in more recent years. The K-Mart looked pretty dated when it closed in October 2011. Hobby Lobby filled some of the old K-Mart space in 2013, and in fall of that year, plans were drawn up for a pair of endcap expansions.

One was on the north end – 7,315 SF of retail space, next to the early 2000s 19,000 SF PetSmart. The other was a 14,744 SF south endcap that would be built were K-Mart’s garden center used to be. These plans were approved in November 2013, but then updates and revisions were proposed in 2014, when TJ Maxx and Five Below were announced to fill the remaining vacant space (21,770 SF and 8,209 SF respectively). At that time, the southern addition became 16,200 SF.

For one reason or another, Benderson decided to go back to the original plan (probably a potential tenant backed out) early last year, and asked for re-approval of the November 2013 additions – city approval is only good for two years. Unlike most parts of the city, the lack of nearby residents and general apathy towards big-box retail makes variances somewhat easier to receive; plus, a re-approval is typically a small matter – re-approval was granted in May. City zoning (SW-2, and PUDOD) is generous down here because the city keeps hoping someone will do walkable mixed-use, but the waterlogged soils make that difficult – you either build shallow, or quite deep, and quite deep requires a lot of height and square footage above ground to make up those construction costs.

Construction is going to be fairly standard – concrete slab foundation, steel frame, masonry walls, and probably some decorative entry bays and facade work. At the moment, excavation is underway for the footers of the foundation on the southern end, while the footers have already been poured and strengthened with rebar on the northern end. The Dryvit and brick veneer on the wall of Pet-Smart has been removed, and I think that’s mineral wool insulation underneath. Expect both of these to be finished towards the end of the year. I don’t have a project value offhand, but the existing plaza (128,582 SF) is $6.5 million, so 22,059 SF of new space is probably worth about $1 million or so.

As for tenants, your guess is as good as mine. We’ll see if Benderson can make it work in the age of the retail apocalypse. Benderson’s proffered choice of designers, Buffalo’s Carmina Wood Morris D.P.C., is the architect.

November 2017

January 2018

March 2018


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3 responses

23 03 2018
CornellPhD

Your precis to this makes me wonder how much longer the South Meadow retail corridor will last in its current state, and how Ithaca will make up the tax revenue (the reason it was permitted in the first place) when it’s gone.

23 03 2018
B. C.

With any hope, enough other projects will be coming online with new tax revenue to soften the blow. Ithaca is in a very different place than where it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

7 04 2018
News Tidbits 4/7/18: A Day Late and A Dollar Short | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] first is that it appears Benderson is expanding South Meadow Square again. Along with the pair of endcap additions underway, the Buffalo-based retail giant is looking to add a 3,200 SF addition to the west endcap of one of […]

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