News Tidbits 4/12/19

13 04 2019

1. Here’s a story of a clever use of space – Therm Inc. has recently expanded its facility on South Hill, and stopped leasing space from the nearby South Hill Business Campus as a result. That left an 18,870 square-foot hole to fill in Suite 30.

The site’s business manager, Linda Luciano, had had artists inquiring for a space, but never something that small enough to fit their needs. This vacancy was a chance to try something new, to build little studio spaces within the larger open floor plan of the warehouse space. It’s worked out well. Extremely well, as Ithaca Times editor Matt Butler reported this week as the Times feature article. Segment below:

” ‘A few studios’ turned out to be a severe underestimation of how many Ithaca artists desperately wanted their own studio space. With a calculated proposal for six studios in hand, she went to the building’s owners to lay out her vision, and they were receptive. Luciano then set about contacting artists who had previously reached out to her about renting space, meanwhile losing sleep over fears that she wouldn’t be able to find tenants for the studios and would have to start over with a new plan.

“I started calling people on my list, and we planned an open house,” Luciano said. “Before we could have the open house, they were all rented. That’s when I said ‘Oh my god.’”

It hasn’t slowed down since that initial wave, either. Seeing the success of the first push in October, Luciano and building owner Andy Sciarabba came up with a plan to add four more studios to the original six, deeming it Phase Two. Those four sold immediately in December, before they were even built. The same went for more units that were proposed in January. After the final phase, which is currently underway, Luciano plans for 27 more studios constructed in the former Therm space, with a much-requested gallery space included. Those are scheduled to be finished and opened in August; half of them are already leased…”

To put this in perspective, there are eighteen now plus a small kitchen and lounge space, and the addition will provide 27 more studios and a gallery space. The new build has so far taken over about a third of Therm’s old space, so the addition will likely the fill the rest of it out. The studios are a few hundred square feet each and rent for $275-$450/month depending on size (the price includes water/AC/electric/heat, with free parking), and leases are 12-month. I had not heard of anything trying this on a large scale, but it appears to be working out very well for the South Hill Business Campus, which hopes to spruce up the exterior to draw a little more attention to “Artist Alley”. It gives artists their own spaces outside of home, it offers collaboration between studios, and this seems to have tapped into a critically underserved market.

For those who want to call dibs on the last studios before they come onto the market next summer, the contact webpage is here. If you want to check them out in person, the address is 950 Danby Road.

2. Touching real quick on a pair of Dryden projects in the early stages. The “Mill Creek subdivision” is quite frankly a monstrosity in size. This is a 908-acre property on Caswell Road just west of the village of Freeville, and the plan would be to subdivide it into 39 home lots. No further subdivisions would be allowed, only single-family homes would be permitted, and it’s not clear if the developer is pursuing conservation zoning – per planning board minutes, it seems that the lots will be plated and the road laid out, and then sold parcel-to-parcel to custom builders.

If the owner did want to build, they have the expertise to do so – a deed check shows this property is owned by the Lucente family, who run Lifestyle Properties and have built out thousands of housing units in Tompkins County since the 1950s. The unimproved land is valued at $1,132,600, about $1,250/acre, and has been in their possession since 1954, so this doesn’t appear to be a rash decision.

Doing the math and removing a small amount for internal loop road still gives over 20 acres per lot, these properties would be very large and potentially expensive, because with improvements, that much acreage will be worth more and it will add up quickly. Maybe it’s a bit out of character for this blog, but this proposal actually seems rather worrying from an environmental and infrastructure perspective. Density in urban areas tends to draw the most attention, but these lots could potentially have much bigger impacts because of the amount of natural space that would be consumed by a sprawling high-end housing development.

As for the medical facility at 2141 Dryden Road, it sounds like it will be a two-story facility, and while they suggested parking in the front, the board requested to move it to the back (a couple handicap spaces in front are okay). There was some concern with its choice of locations (the board would much prefer the office be located in the village or a more built-up area) and curb-cuts/traffic impacts.

3. For the creative types: the Collegetown Small Business Alliance is sponsoring a contest to design streetlight banners for the neighborhood, like the ones on the Commons. The plan is to make up fifteen of them and have them hanging for two years. Here are the design criteria:

Designs that are timeless will be favored. Avoid using trendy colors, fonts that may fall out of taste.

– Collegetown is at the intersection of the Cornell campus, student life, and the Ithaca community, and as such, designs should be inclusive of all of the following groups: Cornell students, Collegetown businesses, and the City of Ithaca.

Consider these banners as creating a brand and identity of Collegetown as a whole.

Submissions must be a 24″ x 60″ image, 300dpi, with a legible “Collegetown” on the image. May include photographs, graphic designs, or scanned images. No inappropriate content. Submission are due by 11:59 PM on Tuesday April 16th, and are to be submitted here. First places get $125 and their design on the flags, second place $75, and third place $50.

4. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but there are some unusual LLC formation notices in the Journal classifieds. 628 West Seneca Street LLC, 625-27 West Buffalo Street LLC, 629-631 West Buffalo LLC, and 205 North Fulton LLC have all been created in the past couple of weeks. They are a parking lot, an apartment house, a one-story commercial building (Emmy’s Organicsm which they will vacate for larger digs in then ear future), and another one-story commercial building (Superior Glass) respectively. They are all owned by the same guy (Robert Bond).

The LLCs are all registered to the address of Alternatives Federal Credit Union across the street at 125 North Fulton, which is a little worrying because AFCU bought 634 West Seneca a few years ago and tore it down for a parking lot. It would be very unfortunate if they decided to take down more buildings for surface parking, given that this is an area the city’s trying to build up. It’s also not clear what might happen to the Rhine House in such a situation. Anyway, it’s something to keep an eye on.





News Tidbits 4/11/19

12 04 2019

1. Chances are very good that the county legislature will approve the purchase of the former orthodontics office on the 400 Block of North Tioga at their meeting next week. At least two subcommittees are recommending it, the feasibility study came back with reasonably positive results, and there appear to be no significant hurdles to moving forward. Representatives of the neighborhood sent in a letter with 25 or so signatories requesting the county build or deed away some land to build affordable housing on the Sears Street (rear) frontage of the lot, which is something the county is actively exploring but has yet to make a firm commitment to. It could range from townhouses, to three single-family homes, to two duplexes and a single-family home, to nothing, so 0-5 units, but the city and neighbors would appreciate at least a few homes to maintain neighborhood character. It’s doubtful the county would build the housing, but could deed lots to INHS or another affordable developer for the purpose of building out.

In terms of the project dimensions, there’s still a lot to be sorted out. The new office building could range from 32,000 SF to 46,000 SF, 3-4 floors, and 25-42 parking spaces. The historic building at 408 North Tioga may be renovated and repurposed for county offices, or sold off as-is. Concept site plans can be seen on the county website here. The vote on the evening of the 16th will only be for the county to purchase the property, and not to choose which development scenario is preferable. To be specific, there are actually three votes planned, one after another – the vote saying the environmental impacts are mitigated, the vote saying that the project is a public resource project exempt from zoning, and the vote to purchase.

The timeline on this project is very quick as local projects go. The county plans to break ground on the office building by this July, and have it occupied by the end of 2020 (this probably means HOLT Architects has concept drawings ready to go right now). The renovation or sale of the historic neighbor would also occur by December 2020. The housing, if any, would be a third phase after the other two components are completed.

The county estimates the total cost of a possible eventual project (designed to LEED Silver standards) to be $18.55-$19.55 million.  That estimate includes new building development ($12.8 to 14.5 million), land acquisition, and related renovation to 408 North Tioga, for which they would allocate $1 million for the 3,800 SF building. The initial acquisition costs would be covered by general county funds re-allocated in an amended Capital Program, and although it’s not clear in this agenda, it seems likely a municipal bond issue would be used to cover the construction costs.

Quick aside, it turns out the county did conduct a feasibility study back in 2011 to see if they could repurposed the Old Library into a county office building. That study, also conducted by HOLT, found that because of the library’s open atrium and unusual layout, the renovation costs made the project infeasible. It’s actually cheaper to build new than it would have been to rebuild the old library’s interior.

2. The Carpenter Business Park development held another community meeting in its quest for a PUD, and the Times’ Edwin Viera described it as “a firm shakedown”. The project has garnered some controversy as it had to shift to above ground parking (the result of soil tests indicating that the soils were in poor condition as they are along much of Ithaca’s West End) and no longer conformed to the site zoning. First ward council member Cynthia Brock made several swings at it for height, density, and the placement of affordable housing on the northern end of the site, for which she has made clear she will not support the PUD request. This is not a surprise, as Brock has not been circumspect with expressing her dislike of any proposed residential uses for the site. Her ward colleague George McGonigal likewise expressed concerns, and the fifth ward’s Laura Lewis noted concerns about traffic – there would be three access points to the 411,600 square-foot project.

Quick refresher – PUD stands for “Planned Unit District”, or as I often call it on the Voice and here on the blog, “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) zoning”. A project need not follow zoning code if it offers certain community benefits. The city recently expanded it for certain non-industrial properties, with Common Council now getting to vote on projects alongside the planning board to determine if community benefits are worth the variance from the legal zoning for a site.

3. It’s been almost two years since it was first proposed, but the mixed-income 46 South (formerly Hamilton Square) project is inching forward in Trumansburg. The Tburg Planning Board is down to the nitty-gritty at this point, exterior finishes, plantings, parking and fencing. The zoning variances have been approved, though the number of parking spaces per unit was bumped up from 1.2 to 1.4 spaces per unit to satisfy zoning board concerns (there will be 144 parking spaces on-site). According to the Times’ Jaime Cone, there was spirited debate over the use of wood trim vs. a lumber composite material (Trex), which is wood fiber mixed with plastic, the plastic cousin of fiber cement. There are still some lingering concerns from the board, but it’s possible that preliminary approval for the project could be granted in May.

The basic project specs have stayed the same in recent revisions – a mix of 17 market rate for-sale homes, 10 affordable for-sale townhomes, six affordable rental townhomes and 40 affordable rental apartments, plus a nursery school. The school, designed by HOLT Architects,has been redesigned to invoke a “barn” aesthetic.

While this may very well come to fruition, this contentious and drawn-out process was effective at repelling other potential developers in the village, so in a way those opposed still got some of what they ultimately wanted. The mixed-income housing may be approved, but it seems very unlikely anyone else will be taking interest in building much in Trumansburg for a while.

4. Normally the Times’ Edwin Viera does a good job as their go-to guy for real estate reporting, but the headline on this piece is a little misleading: “Old Library, Arthaus projects will have to try again for tax abatements”. They weren’t rejected. The IDA was only supposed to review applications this month, the vote is scheduled for next month.

That noted, there is still useful information in his article. We now have some potential rent figures for Arthaus: $737/month for a studio at the 50% area median income (AMI) price point, to $1,752 for a three-bedroom at the 80% AMI price point. At 124 units, the project would be the largest single addition to Ithaca’s affordable housing scene in over 40 years.

As expected, the 66-unit Library Place project garnered the lion’s share of attention and public criticism. Most were opposed, but a few members of the public spoke in favor. I had heard a rumor that Frost Travis offered to set aside three units for 80% AMI, but have yet to confirm. Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick did expressed some reservations with the project for its lack of affordable housing – the CIITAP mandatory affordable housing policy became law shortly after the CIITAP application was filed, so it fell into a legal grey area that the city didn’t want to fight a legal battle over. Travis Hyde also plans to pursue an abatement for Falls Park in due course, and that would have to have an affordable housing component.

5. Quick note – the College Townhouses project at 119-125 College Avenue has a construction loan on file with the county. $18.3 million, courtesy of NBT Bank of Norwich. That’s a heck of a lot than the $10 million estimate first reported when the project first went public. The project unit count is revised upward slightly, from 67 units to 72 units, still a mix of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. The unit breakdown is not listed in the loan document, but previously the full occupancy would have been about 90 residents if one per bedroom or studio. Co-developer Phil Projansky signed the loan, which notes that he, John Novarr and any other investors involved have put up $4.47 million towards development of the project.

NBT Bank is a regional bank with a limited Ithaca presence but a major player in other upstate markets. This is their second major project they’ve financed in Tompkins County, the first being a $33.8 million loan for Harold’s Square.

6. The Maguires have reason to be optimistic in Lansing. While the review process has taken longer than anticipated due to concerns over lighting and signage, the village planning board looks likely to sign off on their new 25,235 SF Nissan dealership at 35 Cinema Drive.

7. Dear diary – the Common Council was “excited” and “praised” a project, according to my Voice colleague Devon Magliozzi. One hopes that bodes well for INHS’s Immaculate Conception School PUD application. As previously noted, the project hosts a number of community benefits, including 78-83 units of affordable housing (at least four owner-occupied),  the sale of the former school’s gym to the city for use as a community gym by the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, office space for family and children’s social services group, special needs housing and the renovation and preservation of the Catholic Charities building, which would continue to be used by the organization. The board also praised the outreach by INHS in designing the site, reducing the school addition from five floors to four at neighbors’ request (INHS was able to compensate the loss of housing elsewhere on the site).

This is a good sign, but the city has never issued a major PUD. The only two recent PUDs were the Temporary Mandatory PUDs (TMPUDs) on the West End and Waterfront, which were used in effect to stop the Maguire Waterfront dealership, and the Cherry Artspace, which was incidentally roped into it. Those were 2-8 and 8-2 votes respectively, a denial and a approval. The fact that a rather pedestrian 1,900 SF building in an industrial area got two “nay” votes leads me to be cautious until the ICS documents are signed and filed.

8. On that note, the CDBG and HOME fund disbursals are posted. INHS would get $200k of the $350k requested for the ICS project. The other economic development and housing-related submissions were also mostly or fully funded. Most of the public service ones were not.





News Tidbits 4/9/19

10 04 2019

1. Something to keep an eye on for potential future retail or hotel development – a pair of properties up for sale along the Elmira Street commercial corridor in the city of Ithaca. 363 Elmira Road is the former Aaron’s rent-to-own (which was a rather dubious enterprise, but I digress). After eleven years, they’ve called it quits and the site’s available for sale or lease from the Lama family of realtors. For $950,000, the buyer gets a 5,892 SF 1960s retail building and a 3,000 SF storage barn on 0.77 acres. The assessment is a more modest $525,000. This is probably too small for a hotel, but food retail or small box retail could make do here.

A little further down the road is the former Cold Stone / Tim Horton’s, which only survived a few years before the Syracuse franchisee threw in the towel on a dozen locations with hardly any notice back in November 2015. The property would later be bought by a suburban chain hotel developer out of Corning, Visions Hotels. The property for sale at 405 Elmira Road is the vacant lot next door, which is owned by the former owners of the Buttermilk Falls Plaza. For some reason, even though the plaza was sold over fifteen years ago, they held onto this 0.74 acre lot, and it was used for extra parking. The price is $465,000. The former Tim Horton’s is arguably too small for a standard chain hotel (60-80 rooms + parking), but if combined with this lot, development becomes much more plausible for Visions. Or, someone else may buy it for food-based or small box retail.

Both 363 Elmira and 405 Elmira are in Ithaca’s SW-2 zoning, which in practice is the city’s catch-all for suburban strip and auto-centric development. Residential would be unusual but legal. Zoning allows 5 floors and 60% lot coverage, though normally the development pattern is towards gobs of surface parking. Should some sales happen down this way, there will be an update.

2. We’ll stick to the real estate sales for the time being – INHS bought a small 0.11 acre vacant lot in Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood last week, and chances are, it’ll be the next standalone for-sale single-family home. The previous owners had used 511 South Plain Street as a double-lot, which came with their home next door when they purchased it in 1986. INHS paid $65,000 for the lot, which is a tidy return for a property assessed at $38,500, and above the asking price of $59,000, which is not uncommon in Ithaca’s rapidly appreciating inner residential neighborhoods. In this case, INHS is likely to do an appropriately-scaled (1100-1400 SF) home for sale to a lower middle-income family making 80-90% of area median income. Seems like a win for the neighborhood, given concerns about gentrification and appropriate development. Expect home plans to come out in the next year or two.

3. So 511 South Plain Street will likely be an example of small infill development, a development of modest scale on what’s currently a vacant lot. Small infill is a way of adding density and addressing some of the area’s housing issues in a way that is less jarring and more accessible to existing homeowners and local landlords. With that in mind, the Tompkins County Department of Planning and Sustainability will be hosting a workshop at the Tompkins County Public Library on Wednesday the 24th at 5 PM on Infill and Small-scale Development. The presentation by the Incremental Development Alliance is for those who are interested to learn about small-scale development and infill, explore ways to design laws to encourage infill with robust and easy-to-understand zoning and design codes, and give education and advice to those who might be interested in being developers of small-scale additions to the community fabric. Think less City Centre and more like 1001 North Aurora or Perdita Flats. It’s a free event, no need to RSVP, and video will be posted online afterward.

4. If you ever wanted to look at the nuts and bolts of a real estate development project, local businessman Gary Sloan has but made practically all of the financial figures available for his stalled 1061 Dryden Road project in the hamlet of Varna. The 36-unit, 84-bedroom project has been for sale for a while now, and has been reduced slightly in sale price, to $1.95 million. Based on these documents, it looks like the CAP rate is 6.25%.

CAP rate, or capitalization rate, is a measure to evaluate the potential return on investment for a real estate developer. It’s basically Net Operating Income divided by Property Asset Value (in 1061 Dryden’s case, the NOI is $824,167, and the PAV for the finished project is $13,190,000). For example, if I make $50,000 a year in net operating income on a $1 million property, my cap rate is 5%. In general terms, higher cap rates mean high potential return, but are generally seen as indices of higher risk projects as well.

However, because different markets have different risks and amounts of risks, what is an acceptable cap rate in one area may not work in another. For office space for example, a cap rate of 3-4% in Los Angeles or New York would be sufficient, but for Phoenix it’s 6%, and Memphis 8%, because the stability and growth of the market isn’t as great. Also, CAP rates for multi-family properties are generally among the lowest in asset classes because they’re often the most stable. So CAP rate is a valuable indicator, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The rumor mill says that some local developers have checked the plans out, but no one’s put in any offers to buy. The project comes with a Danter housing report and an analysis of Cornell University enrollment growth, clear nods towards both the potential as general market housing and student housing. But for the time being, the future of this project remains up in the air.

5. As covered previously, the city of Ithaca is looking to do a parking study to figure out how much it needs over the next ten years, and ways to mitigate some of that growth in need. The Ithaca Times’ Edwin Viera has their take, and there are a couple of details worth noting – any work on the Seneca Garage will wait until the Green Street Garage Development is complete, frankly because Downtown Ithaca cannot handle both garages being out of operation at the same time. That would mean a late 2021 or early 2022 reconstruction or redevelopment of the Seneca Street Garage at the earliest.

An RFEI to gauge redevelopment interest among private developers will go out in the next six months, and from there the process would be similar to Green Street – see what comes back after a few months, host meetings for Q&A and public input, score plans and declare a preferred developer (if any) before jumping into negotiations and any potential sales or usage agreements. We’d be well into the 2020 timeframe for any preferred developer decisions, which comes before negotiation and planning board review. There likely won’t be that much time between approvals being granted and construction because the process will take a long time to go through. Some early ideas being floated in a rebuild are a ground-level bus depot, or street-level retail to make for a more active pedestrian experience. This is a long-term project, but the RFEI could be an interesting read when it comes out later this year.

OLD RENDER

NEW RENDER

6. Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services is considering a tweak to its plans for the Immaculate Conception school property. The biggest change would be that the two family house on the corner of West Buffalo and North Plain Streets would come down and be replaced with three townhomes – this is not set in stone, but intended to show a plausible “maximum density” option. The two single-family units on North Plain are replaced with a string of four townhomes as well. In short, the density plan creates three more affordable units, for a range is 78-83 units total. The range is because the commercial space in the school may either be 6,024 SF and 83 units, or 11,372 SF and 78 units, depending on demand. In either case, there will be 55 parking spaces internally and 37 on the street.

According to the Planned Unit Development Overlay District (PUD-OD) Application, the project would create 1.5 jobs directly in property management/maintenance, and will pursue a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement for the property, which is currently tax-exempt. A similar PILOT was used with 210 Hancock. The $25.3 million project would be complete by the end of 2021 – the rest of the filing is the same as the writeup on the Voice here.

7. It might be a bit petty to point this out, but the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) will be looking at giving their approval to some new murals, and as everything seems to do in Ithaca, two of the three have drawn negative attention. The Dryden Garage aikido mural received complaints that it promoted violence, while the sea life mural for the Seneca garage received complaints that the eel was off-putting, creepy and not appropriate because it wasn’t a native species. For the record, the third was an electrical box with a giraffe pattern, which a couple people called boring, but otherwise no one was upset about it.

Anyway, the PEDC is used to criticism of every flavor, and in the big picture, these are small complaints. Expect them to sign off, send to council for customary approval, and then look forward to the new art later this year.

8. The Common Council is expected to adopt the Findings Statement for the Chain Works District next month, which would be a big step towards approval of the project. A Findings Statement says that the plan is designed with reasonable mitigations acceptable to the city as representatives of public stakeholders, and it isn’t project approval, but it’s essentially an okay to begin applying for approval.

As part of the development process to obtain a PUD, Chain Works will need to submit at least one phase of firm development plans, and UnChained Properties LLC intends to submit Phase 1 of redevelopment to the Planning Board within the next month. Assuming it hasn’t changed, Phase 1 consists of the redevelopment of four existing buildings. Buildings 33 and 34 would be renovated for light industrial uses, Building 21 will be modernized for commercial office space, and Building 24 becomes a mix of office space and 70-80 apartments. Given that it’s been over five years since the project first made news, it feel a bit anti-climatic at this very late stage, but let’s be optimistic that a vacant, contaminated site may be brought back to safe, productive use.