News Tidbits 10/22/16: Seal of Approval

22 10 2016


1. In yet another twist in the 201 College Avenue saga, the project will be moving forward. The Board of Zoning Appeals sided 3-1 with the city Zoning Director and denied the Planning Board’s consideration that the building be considered illegal due to facade length. According to a report from former Times reporter Josh Brokaw (now operating as an indy journalist),  the board was swayed by arguments of time and ambiguity in the code. Brokaw’s reading makes it sound like there’s still some raw feelings between staff and board. The way to solve the most pressing issue would be to clarify the code based on the facade debate, and have the common council ratify those changes over the next few months. All in all, the Form District code works pretty well, and a number of projects have been presented without big discussions over semantics. But in the case of 201, it’s clear that the CAFD wording and imagery could use further refinement, so that everyone is on the same page. With 201 resolved, now is a good time to do that.

Dunno what the completion date will be offhand (August 2017 would be a breakneck pace, but we’ll see). Neighbor Neil Golder has refiled his lawsuit, but the case isn’t especially strong.


2. Also getting underway this week is the renovation of the former Pancho Villa restaurant at 602 West State Street into the West End branch of Elmira Savings Bank. This is quite a bit earlier than initially planned – Site Plan Review docs suggested a July-December 2017 construction/renovation. Edger Enterprises of Elmira will be the general contractor for the 6,600 SF, $1 million project, which is expected to be completed in March 2017.


3. The Dryden town board has approved 4-1 the concept of the Evergreen Townhouses plan for 1061 Dryden Road just east of Varna. This means that they accept a PUD can be appropriately applied for the site, but the project will need to submit a formal, more detailed development plan before any final approvals will be considered. One of the major changes that is being requested is a 15-foot setback between the property line and the units at the southeast side of the parcel (25-36), so expect those to get a little trim off of the rear side (the dissenting vote, Councilwoman Linda Lavine, was because she preferred a 25-foot setback). If the setback and the other stipulations are accommodated, its chances of approval are pretty good. Developer and local businessman Gary Sloan has 270 days to submit detailed plans for review.

Meanwhile, Tiny Timbers will be up for Dryden Zoning Board of Appeals review in early November. Since an internal road will be used to access some of the home lots, the town board will be viewing the site as an “Open Development Area” (ODA), which by Dryden’s definition is development with no direct road access. The town board will hold their public meeting on the 20th to approve the ODA, the planning board’s acceptance on the 27th. The ZBA is the last or second-to-last step in the approvals process (not sure offhand if the town will need to vote again to give a final approval).


4. The senior housing next to the BJ’s in Lansing might finally be moving forward this spring. Dan Veaner has the full story here at the Lansing Star. The issue stems from working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine what parts of the land can and cannot be developed – delineating the wetlands, basically. Apparently, the wetlands were created by an overflowing culvert back when the mall was built in the 1970s. But regardless of how they were created, the USACE deems they have to be protected, especially since it developed into a rare wetland environment called an “inland salt marsh”. Since then, it’s been back-and-forth on units – I’ve heard as few as 9 and as many as 18. A portion of the wetlands would still need to be relocated. The PDA boundaries were changed slightly by the board at the request of developer Eric Goetzmann earlier this month to accommodate the USACE determination. The tax break Goetzmann received to build BJ’s is contingent on the senior housing getting built, though at this point, one has to wonder just how much this wetlands tangle has cost him. Hope it was worth it.


5. From the sound of it, the Maplewood Park DEIS public hearing was fairly positive. Many of the neighbors are pleased with the changes, although some are still opposed to the density or have concerns about traffic. In response, it’s worth pointing out that the commute of Maplewood’s residents will almost entirely be bus, bike and foot during normal business/school hours, and its convenience to bus routes and services will also help minimize overall traffic impacts. As for density, well, if you want Cornell to house its students and reduce the burden on the open market, promoting density on the existing Maplewood site may result in a more sustainable, more cost efficient project if planned properly, with less of a neighborhood impact than building several hundred beds on an undeveloped parcel elsewhere (since the Maplewood site has been inhabited in some form since the 1940s, the growth in density would not be as prominent – about 490 beds, vs. 872 beds).

Should readers feel inclined, comments are still being accepted by town planners up until October 31st. The materials and submission email can be found here.

6. It looks like there were a couple big sales in the local real estate market this week. The first one was the Tops Plaza in big box land, just south of Wegmans. National retail developer DDR Corp. sold the property to another large firm, NYC-based DRA Advisors LLC, for $20 million on the 18th. The sale included three addresses – 710-734 South Meadow, 614 South Meadow, and 702 South Meadow – The Tops Plaza, The smaller strip to its south (called Threshold Plaza), and the pad parcels like Chili’s and Elmira Savings Bank. Perhaps the most notable part of this sale is that it’s slightly below the total assessed value of $20,941,000. However, DRA picked up the property as part of a bundle sale of 15 shopping centers in Western and Central New York, so maybe it was a bulk discount, or compensating for weaker properties.

The other big sale was between a long-time local landlord and a newer, rapidly growing one. The Lucente family (as Lucente Homes) sold 108, 116, 202 and 218 Sapsucker Woods Road to Viridius LLC for $1.276 million on the 18th. According to county records, each is a 4-unit building built in the 1970s and worth about $275k – meaning, Viridius just acquired 16 units for a little above the $1.1 million assessed. Viridius’s M.O. is to buy existing properties, do energy audits to determine what needs to be done where to maximize energy efficiency, disconnect them from fossil fuel heating and energy sources, install pellet stoves, heat pumps and the like, renovate/modernize the properties, and connect the more efficient house to a solar grid or other renewable energy sources. If Sustainable Tompkins were a developer, they’d look like Viridius.

7. This last one isn’t so much a big sale, but worth noting for future reference – 126 College Avenue sold for $510,000 on the 19th. The buyer was an LLC at an address owned by Visum Development’s Todd Fox.

126 College is a 2-story, 6-bedroom house that might have been attractive long ago, but someone’s beaten it with an ugly stick and paved much of the front lawn (growing up near Syracuse, we called paved front lawns “Italian lawns”, with my uncle one of the many offenders). The purchase price is a little below the asking price of $529k, but more than double the assessment. Zoning at the property is CR-4 – up to 50% lot coverage, 25% green space, up to 4 floors and 45 feet in height, a choice of pitched or flat roofs, and required front porches, stoops or recessed entries. This is the lowest-density zone for which no parking is required. The city describes the zoning as “an essential bridge” between higher and lower density, geared towards townhouses, small apartment buildings and apartment houses.

Granted, not everything Visum/MLR does is new, some of their work focuses on renovation. But given the location, and given that frequent design collaborator STREAM had “conceptual” CR-4 designs on display during the design crawl earlier this month, it’s not a big stretch of the imagination.


8. Interesting agenda for the city planning board next week, if nothing new. Here’s the schedule:


1. Agenda Review                6:00
2. Privilege of the Floor         6:01

3. Subdivision Review
A. Project:  Minor Subdivision           6:15
Location: 404 Wood St.
Actions: Consideration of Final Subdivision Approval
A minor subdivision to split a double-lot in Ithaca’s South Side neighborhood into two lots, one with the existing house and one that would be used for a new house or small apartment building. A variance for an existing rear year deficiency of the house would need to be approved (the rear deficiency wouldn’t be affected by the new lot which is on the east side, but it’s a legal technicality).
B. Project:  Minor Subdivision             6:25
Location: 123 & 125 Eddy St.
Actions:  Consideration of Final Subdivision Approval
Collegetown landlord Nick Lambrou is planning subdivision of a double lot to build a new 2-unit, 6-bedroom house designed to be compatible with the East Hill Historic District. CEQR has been given neg dec (meaning, all’s mitigated and good to proceed), and zoning variances for deficient off-street parking have been granted.
C. Project:  Minor Subdivision                6:35
Location: 1001 N. Aurora St. (Tax Parcel # 12.-6-13)
Actions:  Consideration of Final Subdivision Approval
One of those small infill builds, this proposal in Fall Creek takes down an existing single-family home for two two-family homes on a subdivided lot. The design has been tweaked, with more windows, a belly band, more varied exterior materials, and additional gables to provide visual interest.

4. Site Plan Review

A. Project:  City Centre — Mixed Use Project (Housing & Retail)           6:45
Location: 301 E. State/M.L.K., Jr. St.
Applicant: Jeff Smetana for Newman Development Group, LLC
Actions:  Declaration of Lead Agency  │ Review of Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), Part 2

The 8-story mixed-use proposal for the Trebloc site. Comes with one letter of support, and a letter of opposition from Historic Ithaca, who have previously stated they will oppose anything greater than four floors on State Street, and six floors overall.
B. Project:  Amici House & Childcare Center            7:15
Location: 661-701 Spencer Rd.
Applicant: Tom Schickel for Tompkins Community Action (“TCAction”)
Actions: No Action — Review of Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), Parts 2 & 3
C. Project:  Four Duplexes                               7:30
Location: 607 S. Aurora St.
Applicant: Charles O’Connor
Actions:  Declaration of Lead Agency  │ PUBLIC HEARING  │ Review of FEAF, Part 2
MLR’s four-building, 8-unit plan for South Hill. Comes with a letter of neighbor support saying the scale is appropriate.
D. 371 Elmira Rd. (Holiday Inn Express) — Approval of Project Changes      7:45
The debate over the Spencer Road staircase and rip-rap continues.
E. 312-314 Spencer Rd. — Satisfaction of Conditions: Building Materials   7:55
F. 119, 121, & 125 College Ave. (College Townhouse Project) — Update        8:05
Novarr’s 67-unit townhouse project geared towards Cornell faculty. No decisions planned, just an update on the project. Keeps your fingers crossed for some renders.
G. Maplewood Redevelopment Project — Planning Board Comments on Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS)     8:20
The city’s deferred judgement to the town, but the board can still have their say. The comments will be recorded and addressed as part of the EIS review process.
5. Zoning Appeals                          8:35
• #3047, Area Variance, 123 Heights Court

News Tidbits 6/4/16: A Stormy Summer Start

4 06 2016

1. We’ll start this week off with a follow-up on the 201 College Avenue debate. All discussions of planning philosophy noted, one solid request, as reported by Josh Brokaw at the Ithaca Times, was to try and reduce the bulk from the College Avenue side, if not necessarily the building footprint. The above drawing was submitted by STREAM Collaborative’s Rob Morache earlier this week, with a cover letter describing the changes here. The modification reduces the building by 2 bedrooms, to 74, which to go by Todd Fox’s comment in the Times article, puts the project at the borderline of financial feasibility. The middle still pops out a little because that’s where the fire stairs are located. Some minor details were changed with the accent panels, and recessing the windows slightly on the south and west facades. For the record, the panels are Nichiha and Allura fiber cement, with painted metalwork and fiberglass window sashes.

Although now outdated, a shadow study for the previous design has since been uploaded by the city. There are two versions, with and without neighboring building shadows, here and here respectively.

Expect further detail refinements; the building is set to go in front of the Design Review Committee Tuesday morning.


2. WSKG did a segment earlier this week on micro-apartments, with an interview with Frost Travis and the Carey Building project wrapping up on East State Street. A few details worth noting from the segment – 5 of the 20 rental units (which range from $1,225/month for the microunits to $2,699/month for a high-end penthouse 2-bedroom) are already spoken for and the building’s not even finished yet. For some reason, Monica Sandreczki says there will be about 35 residents at full occupancy, which is a big stretch since there are 16 micro-units and 4 two-bedroom units – going one person per micro-unit and bedroom, a better estimate would be 24.

The news piece also notes that the 201 College project contains micro-apartments – which is true, given that the building is 44 units and 74 bedrooms, and at least the early plans had a number of split-level 410-670 SF studio units.


3. And 401 Lake Street will bite the dust. The Common Council voted 8-1 last Wednesday night to have structure demolished and the tax-foreclosed properties be designated as parkland. Cynthia Brock (D-1st) voted against the measure and preferred a sale for tax reasons, and her ward counterpart George McGonigal (D-1st) argued that the city was destroying historic working-class housing, though he ultimately supported the measure. Brock did take a whack at new affordable housing in the city, commenting that INHS is getting $75,000 for each townhouse, and Habitat for Humanity getting $75,000 for a duplex even with its volunteer labor, when there was a potential, cost-efficient opportunity for affordable housing designation with this unit. Josephine Martell (D-5th) seemed to be the strongest proponent for demo, stating that the unique potential to enhance the Ithaca Falls Natural Area should be taken every opportunity of. The city bought the tax-foreclosed property from the county; the background on that is on the Voice here.

The funds for the demolition, estimated at $25,000, will come from the sale of IURA land to the Hilton Canopy project. That measure was approved 6-3, with Brock, McGonigal and Graham Kerslick (D-4th) opposed. With work on the Lake Street Bridge currently underway, demolition is not expected for at least a few months.

There was a thought exercise regarding the selling the falls’ parking lot to INHS for development of 3-9 units of affordable housing; it’s an interesting idea, since 401 and the adjacent are right next to the Falls, but the 0.55 acres of city property adjacent to the Lake and Lincoln Streets intersection is still over 200 feet away at its closest point.

4. The rare bit of news out of Enfield. A $612,000 building loan was issued by the Bank of Greene County to provide funds for renovating and expanding the volunteer fire station at 172 Enfield Main Road.

Give that Enfield issues no more than a handful of new construction permits each year, it’s about the only other thing going on apart from the Black Oak Wind Farm debate. One would think that arguments like “the wind does not blow as much as it used to” would be easily shot down and things would move forward, but instead it’s Marguerite Wells, the project manager for BOWF, getting raked over the coals. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I do feel bad for her.

5. In case anyone was wondering – county planner Megan McDonald says the Denter housing study will be publicly available by late July.


6. Here’s something intriguing from the county’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee agenda – a proposal to “Prepare airport land for future development“, seeking $500,000. None of the money comes from the county; it appears to be dependent on grants, or an interested developer. Which, given the fact that this shows up in budget docs going back to 2014, doesn’t exactly seem to be generating many queries.

The parcels are described as the “Cherry Road and Agway parcels”, which must be owned by the county since they want to lease out the land – but checking the deed records of parcels adjacent to the airport, there’s no record of an Agway in any of the deed histories. The parcels may be related to the properties in the airport business park feasibility study, shown above and awarded to the team of Clark Patterson Lee and Camoin Associates this past winter.

7. It’s unusual to see Cornell buying property these days, but this Friday, the university purchased the house at 1250 Trumansburg Road on Ithaca’s West Hill for $157,000. The house is a 19th century fixer-upper on 1.21 acres – Cornell owns the land surrounding it, some of which is being subdivided off to build the Cayuga Meadows affordable senior housing project. The house is assessed at $215,000, but the real estate listing notes it needs some work, and it’s been off and on the market for five years.

Several years ago, Cornell expressed intent to develop the 35 acres it owns into a mixed-use complex with a hotel institute, housing, offices and medical services, but the only part of the plan that ever really moved forward was Conifer’s project. I haven’t seen the plans in years, but I remember the early plans (there were a couple versions) were very sprawly; six, eight years ago, walkability was not as valued as it is now.

By buying the house, Cornell reduces its need to work around a neighbor and can incorporate the property into potential plans. This purchase would seem to suggest that Cornell still has strong interest in developing the rest of the West Hill property at some point. In the meanwhile, Cornell might rent it out while the school figures out what it wants to do with the acreage.

20160522_151346 20160522_151417

8. House of the week. From the outside, 228 West Spencer Street is almost done, and the interior is fairly far along as well, with finishing work underway. Architect Noah Demarest says the house will be put up for sale in a few weeks, if everything goes as planned.

The Chain Works District DGEIS, Part One: Introduction

20 04 2016


Chain Works is, without a doubt, the single largest project currently being considered in the Ithaca area. It’s a very large project in terms of square footage, in terms of cost, in terms of length of build-out. Being such a large and important, it needs to be examined carefully – it could help propel Ithaca’s economy and ambitions to a higher quality of life, or it could serve as 95 acres of dead weight.

Between March 29th and May 10th, the city is receiving public comments on the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement, the DGEIS. The city’s website appears to be outdated, but the Chain Works District website is up to date – any comments readers might have, any questions or concerns, are submitted to the City of Ithaca Planning Board as lead agency for environmental review. UnChained Properties LLC, the developer, offers a blank form here, or if one prefers, comments can be sent directly to Ithaca senior planner Lisa Nicholas at

What a DGEIS does is evaluate the potential impacts of growth on local resources and facilities, such as traffic, water supply systems, utilities infrastructure, social and aesthetic impacts. The DGEIS, which will need to be finalized, is part of New York State’s Enviromental Quality Review (SEQR, pronounced “seeker”) and a necessary precursor to any planned/contemplated construction and development of the site.

So, the DGEIS main body is 422 pages, with about 3 GB’s worth of appendices. Although 45 days is allotted for public comment, not a whole lot of people want to read through 422 pages, but the table of contents allows people to jump around if there’s one or two thing they’re more keen to read about. A link to the DGEIS is offered by project partner Fagan Engineers here, but you might need to submit an email and name before being able to see it.


So, basic details, per the “Description of Action”:

Chain Works District Project is a proposed mixed-use development consisting of residential, office, commercial, retail, restaurant/café, warehousing/distribution, manufacturing, and open space within the existing 95-acre Site which traverses the City and Town of Ithaca’s municipal boundary . Completion of the Project is estimated to be over a seven-to-ten year period. The first phase, referred to henceforth as Phase I, will consist of redeveloping four buildings generally located at the northernmost and southernmost ends of the complex of existing buildings. These first four buildings are approximately 331,450 square-feet (SF), and will house office, a mix of office and residential, and industrial uses. Subsequent phases of development will be determined as the Project proceeds and will include new structures to complete a full build-out of 1,706,150 SF.

So, just based off that, anything that gets developed, is as the market and NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allows. If the market isn’t amenable or the cleanup plan isn’t approved, don’t expect the plans to move forward all that fast, if at all. If the market is good and the DEC signs off on plans, expect the build-out to be on the shorter end of the 7-to-10 year time-scale.



Related infrastructure work for the Project will include: (1) removing select buildings to create courtyards and a network of open spaces and roads; (2) creating pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular connections through the Site from South Hill to Downtown Ithaca; (3) improving the existing roads within the Site while creating new access points into the Site; (4) mitigating existing environmental impacts from historic uses; (5) fostering the development of a link, the Gateway Trail, to the Black Diamond Trail network; and (6) installing stormwater management facilities, lighting, utilities, and plantings.

No big surprises – some buildings in the interconnected complex will come down, shared road concepts will dominate the internal transportation system of the neighborhood, the site will be more fully integrated into South Hill and trails, and usual site details like stormwater plans and landscaping are going to be incorporated into the project.

Given its complexity, the project team is pretty broad – eleven organizations, from the Ithaca, Elmira, Corning and Rochester areas. Local firms include STREAM Collaborative, which helped draw up the design standards and rezoning, Randall + West for more rezoning work, and Brous Consulting, which is handling public outreach. UnChained Properties is headed by David Lubin of Horseheads (suburban Elmira). From what I’ve been told, project development to-date has cost somewhere around $2 million dollars.

Likewise on the approvals – the project will need something like fifteen approvals from a dozen different government groups and agencies.


Let me share an introduction and summary comparable but maybe more approachable than theirs – a background primer on why this is happening can be found on the Voice in my introduction article here, and Mike Smith’s summary article here.

Much of Chain Works reuses what was once the Morse Chain / Emerson Power Transmission (EPT) factory, which employed thousands from the 1900s, up until the last workers were let go and the facility shut its doors in 2011. During the mid 20th century, industrial processes used chemicals and compounds that are known to be toxic – Trichloroethylene (TCE) being the best known, but also heavy metals and oils. These not only affect the site and its building, they’re also in the soil and groundwater of South Hill.


The site is classified as Class 2 Superfund site, which the DEC describes as “a significant threat to public health and/or the environment and requiring action”. While EPT is responsible for clean-up, they’re only responsible for the bare minimum (the industrial standard, what can be safely exposed to for 8 hours) unless otherwise specified by a proposed reuse, in which case they have to clean to a higher standard like residential use.

So that leaves us at present – a vacant 95.93 acre, 800,000 SF industrial site split between municipalities and with varied terrain and conditions. One of the most basic goals of CWD is to get the city and town to rezone the land to allow a mix of uses – PUD/PDZ, which give flexibility in site development based off of standards the developer, the city/town, and in this case NYSDEC mutually agree to.



So, in the PUD/PDZ, one of the broad takeaways is that each of the four form code has its own design standards – height, width, window-spacing, setbacks and most physical details, even signage. Unlike typical zoning, it’s the appearance that is more thoroughly managed, not the use. Those can be found in detail here. The design standards utilize what’s called LEED ND (Neighborhood Development), design standards created for large-scale green, well-integrated and sustainable development. A gated community it ain’t.

The goal of these design standards is to mitigate some of the adverse impact the new and renovated buildings will have on the community – promoting alternate transit reduces traffic, limiting floors and floor heights reduces visual impacts, and so on.

Build-out falls under four general form zones: (1) CW1- Natural Sub-Area, 23.9 acres of old woodland to be limited to passive recreation. (2) CW2- Neighborhood General Sub-Area, 21.2 acres of townhouses, stacked flats and similar moderately-dense development, mostly in Ithaca town; (3) CW3- Neighborhood Center Sub-Area, 39.7 acres of mixed-use, in a combination of renovated and new buildings towards the northern end of the property in the city, and (4) CW4, Industrial Sub-Area, a 10.3 acre zone for industrial uses in existing buildings at the Emerson site. The site borders Route 96B, single-family and multi-family homes, natural areas and steep terrain.

About 0.91 acres will be subdivided off and maintained by Emerson for active groundwater treatment. The other 95.02 acres would be sold to UnChained Properties.


The re-development is fairly multifaceted. Some buildings will be renovated, a few will come down, a couple will receive additions, an quite a few others, like those in the all-residential CW2 zone, will be brand-new. Specifically in Phase One, four buildings – 21, 24, 33 and 34, will be renovated.

In Part Two, we’ll take a closer look at the neighborhood design standards and detailed plans for Phase One.




News Tidbits 4/9/16: A Slippery Situation

9 04 2016



1. The town of Ithaca had their first substantive meeting about Cornell’s Maplewood Park Redevelopment, and later this month, the city of Ithaca will have their take on the 4.5% that sits within their boundaries (picture a line up Vine Street – that’s the city line). According to documents filed with the city, approvals from them will only be needed for one building. Application/SPR here, cover memo from Whitham Planning and Design here, Part I of the Full Environmental Assessment Form here, and narrative/drawings here.

From the SPR, the schedule as already been shifted slightly to an August 2018 completion rather than July – they also threw out a $3.67 million construction cost that doesn’t make much sense offhand. Edit: It looks like it’s just a basic estimate of 4.5% of the total project cost of $80 million.

The biggest change so far is a revision of the site plan. In response to community meetings, Cornell shifted smaller 2-3 story stacked flats and townhouses closer to the Belle Sherman Cottages, pulled back a couple of the larger apartment buildings, and added a new large apartment building to the southeast flank. Cornell has its goal of housing at least 850 in the redevelopment, so all design decisions revolve around accommodating those students with their families, while coming up with a design the community can live with.

The city will vote at its April meeting to defer Lead Agency to the Town of Ithaca, which will leave them with the ability to provide input, but the town board will be the ones voting on it.

2. It’s not often that a project gets undone by a single public commenter at a meeting. But the Journal’s Nick Reynolds got to experience such a momentous occasion at the town of Ithaca’s planning board meeting. He documents it on his Twitter account.

Someone that I didn’t cover because it wasn’t especially news-worthy is Cornell’s plan to replace the Peterson Parking Lot at the intersection of Tower and Judd Falls Roads with a cutting-edge 100% porous paved lot and a Cornell-created soil designed to promote rapid growth of trees in high traffic areas (a new island would be built in the middle of the lot). Basically, an eco-friendly, less-invasive parking lot, if there ever could be a thing.

Then Bruce Brittain, the Forest Home community historian, completely undid the plan with a contour map. Generations ago, the property was filled with debris and garbage, even old construction trucks. And while there may be a parking lot on it now, a porous lot, which would be heavier when watered, is liable to collapse right onto the Plantations below. Meaning, no porous lot, no green showcase. Back to the drawing board Cornell.



3. Here’s a little more information on the 5-story, 44-unit/76-bedroom apartment proposal for 201 College Avenue. SPR Application here, FEAF here, project narrative here, BZA worksheet here, drawings here , letter of discontent from Neil Golder here. Looking at the drawings, there have been some slight revisions, mostly with the College Avenue entrance and the materials and fenestration at street level. The SPR gives us a $6 million construction cost, and a proposed construction time frame of July 2016 – August 2017. Units will be a mix of 1 to 4 bedrooms (24 1-BD, 12 2-BD, 4 3-BD, 4 4-BD). While the project falls into the Collegetown Form District, an area variance will be required for a front yard setback from College Avenue, which the board feels will help the street be more like a boulevard.

The city planning board is expected to Declare itself Lead Agency for environmental review at the April meeting. Developer Todd Fox hopes to have approval by the end of the June meeting. STREAM Collaborative is the project architect.


4. This week’s eye candy comes courtesy of Noah Demarest and Todd Fox (yes, they seem to be getting a lot of mentions this week). It had occurred to me that while an image of the revised 902 Dryden townhouses had been presented at the meeting where it was approved, the town never uploaded the copy. Noah and Todd were kind enough to send me a copy of the image presented at the meeting, and gave their permission to share it here. 8 new units, 26 new bedrooms. The duplex building in the middle already exists, but two new units will be built opposite a shared wall. Two three-unit clusters will be built on the east side of the parcel.


5. It’s official as of March 28th. Construction permits have been issued for Conifer LLC’s 68-unit Cayuga Meadows project on West Hill in the town of Ithaca. Expect the first construction update, and a synopsis, when the first construction update comes around, which won’t be until mid-to-late May since West Hill projects get visits during odd-numbered months.

6. Just a couple minor city subdivisions to pass along. One, an application in outer Collegetown at 513-15 Dryden Road to separate the land into two parcels (513 and 515). The lot owner will then build himself a new house on the vacant lot. CR-1 Collegetown Form District, and it looks like no variances will be needed.

The other subdivision is on the city’s portion of West Hill. The property is a vacant lot that borders Westwood Knoll, Taylor Place and Campbell Avenue. The property owners, who live next door on Westwood, want to divide the vacant lot into two vacant lots to sell for single-family home construction. Once again, it looks like no zoning variances will be needed, just regulatory PB approval.

With the consolidation and realignment of 312-314 Spencer Road mentioned last week, this makes three subdivisions scheduled this month. That’s pretty unusual, as the city typically sees only one every 2 or 3 months on average.

7. Looks like someone made a tidy profit. Local landlord Ed Cope picked up 310 and 312 E. Buffalo Street for $885,000 on the 6th. 310 E. Buffalo is a 6-unit apartment building, 312 is a parking lot. The previous owner, a Philadelphia-based company, picked up the properties for $800,000 back in October 2014. So, $85,000 (+10.6%) for 18 months of ownership. The properties are part of the East Hill Historic District, where the Philly-based firm recently had a hell of an experience because the owners before them replaced the windows without notifying the city, and that was a big no-no as far as historic districts and the ILPC are concerned. They mandated the windows all be replaced with more historically-appropriate fittings. Hopefully that came up during the sales negotiations.

For what it’s worth, the parking lot is zoned R-3a – a 4 story building with 35% lot coverage. Since it’s in a historic district, a hypothetical proposal would likely look a lot like its neighbors.

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8. And another big sale this week, on Friday – the house at 210 Thurston sold for $2.5 million to the Alpha Chi Omega sorority. The house had been on the market since last November for $2.75 million. This actually sold relatively quick, given its large size and fairly unique nature. The seller purchased the property for $677,500 in December 2011, and renovated the property for use by the Cornell wrestling team.

Alpha Chi Omega has occupied the house at 509 Wyckoff Road for a number of years, but did not own the property – the owner, who picked up the property in 1971, is a business partner of Kimball Real Estate.


A Construction Tour of a Net-Zero Energy House

6 04 2016

A couple of weeks ago, Noah Demarest was kind enough to give a tour of the new net-zero energy single-family house underway at 228 West Spencer Street in the South Hill neighborhood.

Most readers of the blog will be familiar with Noah Demarest’s name – he’s the head architect of STREAM Collaborative, which has been involved in projects like 902 Dryden Road, 201 College Avenue, State Street Triangle and the Franklin proposal for condos at the Old Library site.


Noah’s a little more involved in this project than most – he’s in charge of the build-out, and the cost of construction is coming out of his own pocket. Local landlord Ed Cope is a silent partner in the project, having purchased the land from the previous owner for $15,000 last February. The sale came with a different set of house plans, and the unique topography and constraints of the site made it such that the BZA had to approve virtually any new construction proposed on the parcel – Noah drew up plans for a different design, and those were later accepted by the board.


You can see how that unique site topography plays in here. The framing, sheathing (ZIP system), roofing and panelling of the house was done by local company Ironwood Builders. With much of the exterior work completed, activity has shifted largely to the interior spaces, which Noah is doing with his own construction team.


My initial impression was that they were going for an exposed wood trim look similar to the framework of Tudor-style houses, but Noah says the trim will be painted the same color as the fiber cement siding. The shingles are a nice, Craftsman-style touch.

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First photo is looking down, second is looking up. The house, just under 1,000 SF, has living space on three levels – the kitchen and living room will be on the second floor, and a bedroom and bathroom are on the first and third floors. This will be put up on the market for sale once it is ready – not a rental. Noah envisions this being the type of house that would be great for a young couple or even a deep-pocketed grad student.

By the way, just mentioning for the sake of acknowledgement – I’m not a fan of ladders.

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As work moves closer to completion, a porch pergola will be built here.

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This will be a net-zero energy house, meaning zero net energy consumption – what gets taken from the grid also gets returned to the grid. In the case of this home, an off-site set of solar panels will offset the energy that is taken from the grid. The house will also achieve a very high degree of energy efficiency. One of the ways that’s being accomplished here is the use of an air source heat pump, which transfers heat from outside to inside a building (and vice versa) via a refrigeration compressor and condenser. The system can absorb heat from the outside air and transport it into the home, and can work in reverse during the summer, absorbing heat from inside the home and transporting it outside.

According to Noah, the system tends to be somewhat less efficient in extremely cold weather (-10 F or so; at that point it becomes difficult to extract usable heat energy), but is otherwise very capable for providing heating and cooling needs. Appliances will be all-electric, no gas.


The house is also very heavily insulated – 2.5 inches of foam, with the fiber cement siding on top of that.

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These last couple shots are from the bottom level – bathroom plumbing is in the process of being installed in the basement bathroom unit. The plan is to have the house ready for sale later this year.

One of the things that I personally am looking forward to is that Noah plans on making the costs of construction available to the city, as an example of what construction costs tend to look like for infill on an inner-city parcel. Having more examples to rely on, and a clear description of cost per square foot, gives the city more information to help guide its approach to planning and development. Noah noted during the tour was that the zero net-energy aspect is a relatively minor component in the expenses of the project.


News Tidbits 1/30/2016: A Doozy of a Week For All the Wrong Reasons

30 01 2016

I’m not going to lie – this was a rough week. For those who like old buildings, the city tore down 404 West Green and 327 West State this week. For those who are consider themselves eco-activists, Black Oak wind farm is on life support. State Street Triangle is likely cancelled, the Printing Press Lounge is off the table, Cornell continues to pour most of its attention on its new New York City campus, and a grocery store and a downtown shop are closing their doors and putting people out of work. There have been better weeks for news round-ups.


1. State Street Triangle isn’t dead per se, but it’s indefinitely stalled. I think the best headline goes to the Ithaca Times since they’re the most accurate. From chatting with planning consultant Scott Whitham, who’s involved with the project, it sounds like the impasse is the result of Campus Advantage wanting to pay less for the site since they can’t build as large of a project, which would decrease their revenue. The contract for the land purchase from Greenstate Properties/Trebloc Development (Rob Colbert) was up for re-negotiation after the December expiration, but neither side wants to budge on what they feel the price should be. So nothing can move forward without a deal between the two parties. I reached out to Colbert Wednesday, but the secretary paused for a minute and then said “he’s, uh, busy in a meeting, care to leave a message?” So he’s probably not going to say anything further.

Could it move forward? Possibly, it could be revived if a deal is made. But as things are, it’s stalled and it’s outside the control of any community group or government authority. It’s definitely a shame from the standpoint of Ithaca’s worsening housing crisis because it’s less that will be entering a market flooded with students, people moving here for work, and wealthy retirees who have apparently decided this is the Asheville of the north. And given the battles of “structural racist gentrification” and “uncivilized crime-producing trouble-making affordable housing“, where everything is accused of being one or the other, I’m not especially hopeful at the moment.


2. Now for something that is definitely dead in the water – The Printing Press Lounge. Developer Ben Rosenblum had wanted to put a jazz lounge in a 7700 SF industrial warehouse at 416 East State Street, but neighbor objections to noise and traffic proved a little too much for the Board of Zoning Appeals, whose members appeared unlikely to support necessary variances for the vacant facility. So the developer pulled the lounge proposal, but the office space and apartment are still under consideration.


3. Also from the same phone conversation as State Street and Printing Press – the Canopy revisions were approved, so at least there’s a good chance that will be breaking ground this Spring. The Chain Works review schedule was also approved, although given the couple emails from the Voice article, the public review period is going to be groan-inducing. One of the letters commanded that nothing should be done there and it should be kept as is because it encourages traffic and “its density is ruining Ithaca”. They might have meant size, but density is a buzzword at the moment. Apparently, they also overlooked the fact that it’s already built and won’t be fully cleaned of toxic chemicals until a reuse plan is in place. The development team will have to respond to all of these comments, perceptive or not.

4. In real estate sales, an LLC in suburban Corning picked up the former Tim Horton’s and Cold Stone Creamery space on Elmira Road. 0.74 acre 407 Elmira sold for $640,000 on January 22nd. A little research into the rather exotically-named “Armiri LLC” shows that they were previously registered at an address home to an Econo Lodge, and that the owners have about 70 or so other LLCs related to hotels and the hospitality industry. A little more digging, and the owner turns out to be Corning-based Visions Hotels, a developer of suburban chain hotels with locations from Albany to Buffalo. So if I were to make a guess, the five-year old Tim Ho’s building won’t be long for this world, and a suburban hotel is likely to rise in its place in a couple years. But we’ll see what happens.

5. Meanwhile, just up the road, Maines will be shutting down their store at 100 Commercial Avenue. The 26,146 SF building was built for the Binghamton-based grocery chain in 2010. February 7th will be the last day. Although there don’t seem to be any figures online, the move will likely put at least a couple dozen people out of work. A phone call and email to Maine’s asking for employee totals and reasons for closure were not returned.


6. Let’s talk about money. The construction loan docs for Collegetown Terrace Phase III were filed with the county this week. The price? A cool $39.25 million, from PNC Bank. That’s just for 247-unit, 344-bed Building 7. Previously Valentine Vision Associates LLC (John Novarr/Philip Proujansky) received $50 million on 8/22/13, $50 million on 7/1/2014, and $50 million on 11/20/14. Do the math out, and $189.25 million in loans is a lot of money. Then again, this is also a 1,200+ bed project.

The latest loan docs require an opening by fall 2018, but expect it to be about a year sooner than that, August 2017.


7. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council has approved the Chapter House plans. All that’s needed at this point are the Building Department permits, which are technical and just require that everything will be built up to code. Things are looking good for that February construction start.


8. Something to look forward to at next month’s Planning Board meeting – further discussion of Cornell’s renovations to Hughes Hall. Planning Board Presentation here, drawings here, Site Plan Review application here. KSS Architects, with offices in Philadelphia and Princeton, will be in charge of design. KSS has been to Cornell’s campus before, having designed some of the Hotel School additions and part of the previous phase of law school renovations. Local firm TG Miller is handling the engineering work. The project is expected to cost $10.2 million and construction would go from June 2016 to July 2017.

Quick refresher, the plan is to renovate 4 floors of what were previously student dorms into academic office, admin and student organization space. Cornell anticipates about 200 construction jobs will be created, but nor more than 80 at any one time, and 20-40 on-site most days. No new permanent jobs, limited visibility, and minimal transportation/ground impacts will limit much of the customary Planning Board debate.


9. Meanwhile, New York City outlets are reporting on the progress of Cornell’s massive new tech campus in New York City. The Real Deal is reporting Snøhetta, an Oslo/NYC architectural firm, will design the Verizon Executive Education Building. The other three buildings underway are the Bloomberg Center, The Bridge, and CornellTECH Residential, which are the work of Morphosis Architecture, Weiss/Manfredi Architecture, and Handel Architects respectively.  300 students and 200 faculty/staff  will move into the new 26-story dorm by August 2017. Verizon paid $50 million for their naming rights, and billionaire former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg paid $100 million, making up a sizable portion of the $590.6 million donated to Cornell over the past year. Once the initial wave of construction is complete, it’ll be worth seeing how donations break down – years ago, MetaEzra noted that Weill Medical received an outsized proportion of charitable giving.

Not to go all conspiracy theorist, but there are times when Living in Dryden blogger Simon St. Laurent’s thought piece seems uncomfortably relevant.


10. At the county’s PEDEEQ Committee meeting Friday (PEDEEQ being the acronym for the unnecessarily long Planning, Economic Development, Energy, and Environmental Quality Committee; agenda here), the county did two things worth mentioning here. One, they awarded the $35,000 airport industrial park feasibility study to the team of Clark Patterson Lee of suburban Albany, and Saratoga Springs-based Camoin Associates. Two, they passed a resolution calling for “the Timely Development of the Black Oak Wind Farm” project in Enfield.

The Black Oak opposition really seems to have picked up momentum after one the major landowners involved with the project pulled out. Neighbors in the area are actively attacking the project by calling it a danger to human health and a destructive environmental menace financed by wealthy out-of-towners (a shot at Ithaca), and the wind farm’s executive board is struggling to address these accusations in the revised environmental review due to be completed in April. For the local eco-activist crowd, this is an unwelcome and unusual position to be in because more often than not, they’re the ones opposed to development. The county legislature, which has several green activists, is doing what they can by giving verbal support, and a subtle sort of wrist-slap to the opposition. Dunno if it will work, but we’ll see what happens this spring.


11. Here’s the sketch drawing for Elmira Savings Bank’s new West End Branch at 602 West State Street. It would appear the plans call for a modern addition to the north side of the building, and renovation of the rest of the two-story restaurant into office/service space. Local companies TWMLA and HOLT Architects are handling the design.

According to the Twitter feed of the IJ’s Nick Reynolds, the building plan was received well enough at the Planning Board meeting, but the rest of the plans call for demo of the other buildings, including the affordable housing that had some folks up in arms, for a parking lot. That didn’t go over very well. Demolition of low-cost housing for parking is going to be about as welcome as a Hitler costume at a bar mitzvah. Expect another trip to the board with some revised plans.

12. The Dewitt Park Inn is for sale for $950,000. Owners Tom Seaney and Nancy Medsker are selling the property they purchased for $320k in January 2012 and renovated into a high-end bed and breakfast. The two were vocal advocates for the popular though foregone Franklin/STREAM condo proposal for the Old Library site, although Medsker didn’t do the debate any favors when she decided to trash her rear neighbor, senior services non-profit and Travis Hyde project partner Lifelong in a letter to the Ithaca Journal. The county has the Dewitt Park Inn assessed at $575,000.

13. Nothing too exciting for the town of Ithaca planning board agenda next week. The town’s planning board will choose whether or not to sign off on the review schedule for Chain Works, and they have to re-approved plans for a smaller parish center at St. Catherine of Siena in Northeast Ithaca. According to the provided docs, the parish center has been reduced from 10,811 SF to 8,878 SF due to rapidly rising construction costs (seems to be a common refrain these days).



News Tidbits 10/10/15: Meeting With the Stakeholders

10 10 2015

1.There is nothing wrong with a little speculation. In a follow-up of sorts to the Voice piece about parking capacity in Downtown Ithaca, the Times’ Josh Brokaw did an interview of his own with city of Ithaca parking director Frank Nagy. Nagy believes that the 248-car estimate used by State Street Triangle is “way high”, but given that one of the refrains is that there’s not enough parking, they’d rather be safe than sorry.

More importantly, Nagy believes that the Seneca Garage only has about 10 years of life before a new garage will need to be built (the Seneca garage was built in 1972). The structural situation at Green Street is severe enough that the city may have to remove the end pieces and build up the middle section, which was renovated several years ago. The property is being reviewed, and with Tompkins Trust vacating office space on its ground floor as part of the move to its new HQ, the assessment is well-timed.

If the Green Street garage decides to go up rather than out, that leaves two very valuable properties that the city could sell to its benefit (financial, affordable housing, or otherwise). Both ends of the Green Street garage are zoned CBD-140, which offhand is the densest zoning in the entire city, 140 feet maximum height with no parking requirement. A zealous councilperson might try and change that post-SST, but as is, a rebuild of Green Street a few years from now could yield a lot of possibilities for downtown development. Put that in the notebooks for 2020 or so.


2. Speaking of future plans, we have the bike debate currently raging in the streets. Now, this is only tangential to my usual work, and I am not versed in the topic, so it’s nice to go in without preconceptions.

The city just finished work on Board of Public Works (BPW)-approved bike lanes on North Cayuga Street, specifically an unprotected bike lane on the east side (protected lanes were considered, but not approved). Although meetings gave due public notice, there were no letters sent to Cayuga Street residents informing them of the change, and a number of folks were caught off guard, including members of the city’s Common Council.

In the one corner, you have folks angry about the loss of parking, the inconvenience, and the danger it poses to the elderly. Unfortunately, you also have a council member describing biking-proponents in the same tone one would describe Albany lobbyists. The mayor has come out in favor of the N. Cayuga Street bike lane, although according to the Times, he’s not a fan of “resident-driven infrastructure”. It’s really a fascinating read from a planning perspective. – Times coverage here, Journal here.


For what it’s worth, bike lanes are a major part of walkable communities and reduced ecological impacts (carbon footprints). I feel like I’ve seen this type of argument play out from the perspective of development quite a bit – every new Collegetown or downtown building gets the “Ithaca shouldn’t allow big buildings/they’re ruining Ithaca/where are they going to park” argument, and the “Ithaca is not a small town/it promotes walkable communities/suburban sprawl is destroying Tompkins green space” counter-argument. The key problem with the bike situation seems to be a lack of communication between the BPW and Common Council (and residents by extension). Luckily, the planning board doesn’t quite have this problem – everything they vote on gets publicized, on this blog if not elsewhere.


3. The last hurdle for John Novarr’s 215 Dryden Road project has been cleared. The Board of Zoning Appeals approved variances from the Collegetown Form Guidelines – the corner isn’t chamfered or set back enough and the building only has one main entrance (the form-based code mandates an entrance every 60 feet of non-residential space). The owner of the house across Linden from the corner was the lone opposition speaker, and the BZA vote was 4-1, with Marilyn Tebor Shaw opposed. No reason for Shaw’s decision was provided in the article.

With all the approvals tucked away, all that’s needed is for the city to sign off on the building permit. Expect this one to be underway within the next month.

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4. Reader submissions are always welcome. The photos for this week’s “House of the Week” featurette come courtesy of Frost Travis. The house receiving the addition is 416 North Plain Street in Ithaca’s Washington Park neighborhood. The current owners brought the property in October 2014. County records give it a 1900 construction date, which is often a default for old and unsure; it appears on an 1889 map of the area, but was not yet built in the 1866 map.

The rear addition looks like it’s been underway for a while – the exterior has been framed and sheathed with plywood Huber ZIP system roof and wall sheathing, which uses seams and tape to save time vs. traditional sheathing such as Tyvek housewrap. There are some windows fitted into the rough openings, but there’s still plenty of work to do with closing up the exterior and interior utilities rough-in. Looking at the original house, the owners appear to be fitting smaller windows in place of the originals – two window cutouts on the north wall have been filled in with sheathing, and a new window has been fitted in a new opening. The front door and adjacent window are gone, one large rough opening in their place. The front roof above the door and window was slanted, but has been dropped to a flat roof as part of the renovation and addition. Presumably, the butter yellow vinyl exterior will be re-finished as construction progresses. With any luck, this one will be finished before winter comes.


5. What a quick turnaround. The Cornell Daily Sun first made mention of the Ag Quad renovation last week as part of its coverage of the Collegetown Neighborhood Council meeting. Now only a week after Cornell shared a glimpse at the cards in its hand, they’re playing them. The $9.6 million project will be broken down into two phases, one that focuses on infrastructure, and one phase on landscape improvements (and being that much of the infrastructure is underground utilities, phase one could be described as churning up the ground, and phase two is making the upturned dirt pretty again). The renovations, which are set to start next summer and run through 2017, will include additional emergency phones, a rain garden, and outdoor gathering spaces in front of Mann Library and Roberts Hall (upper right and lower left in the above render).

Too bad those temp buildings are still there between Kennedy Hall and Plant Science. If the Southern Tier wins that Upstate Redevelopment competition, I have an idea where the new Plant Science Commericialization Building should go.

6. Plans for 416 E. State have evolved since the bar was first proposed. Originally conceived as a general bar/drinking establishment, developer and Argos Inn architect Ben Rosenblum has faced substantial opposition to the project – neighbors are vociferously opposed to a bar, citing noise problems and concerns about smokers, and the county planning department was not a fan of the traffic and parking arrangement, which had after hours parking across the street at Gateway Plaza. Although the project doesn’t need planning board approval, it does need BZA approval – area and setback deficiencies have resulted in the need for a zoning variance. The building itself won’t change dimensions, but the change in use triggers the city zoning laws.


Representatives for Rosenblum and neighbors have met, and the compromise Rosenblum and his associates have proposed involves a lounge-type of establishment they’re calling “The Printing Press”, after one of the previous uses for the late 1940s warehouse. They’ll be going for an industrial/”speakeasy” aesthetic, and targeting the same older, more affluent clientele that patronizes the Bar Argos next door. Signage would be minimal, and exterior work limited largely to an accessory parking lot/handicap access, landscaping and a new coat of paint. Looking at the original plan vs. the revised plan, the bar no longer is in the rear corner, but moved closer to the building center so as to buffer the noise of patrons from disturbing neighbors. Parking will be shared and organized with the Argos Inn’s lot. For more info, cover letter here, renders here, vision statement here.

The new parking arrangement may assuage the county, and the low-key bar located centrally in the interior may be enough to satisfy some of the neighbors. But we’ll have to see the BZA’s reaction and what remaining opposition there is before anything is set in stone.



7. The Planning and Development Board has scheduled a Design Review Committee meeting to offer guidance and commentary on the styling of proposed buildings. While State Street Triangle isn’t on the agenda (yet), the Hotel Ithaca addition is. Renders here and here.

I’ve toned down my opinions over the years, but this…well, let’s just so those “sick burns” Nick Reynolds mentioned at the last planning board meeting were pretty well justified. I mean…yikes. The cross-hatched blank walls, the circular glazing, the “tourist trap” aesthetic. There’s an alternative being shown with small windows in place of the circular glazing, and rectangular facade hatching instead of the cross-hatching, but it’s not a great improvement. The board’s going to have a lot to say with this proposal.



8. I had hopes that for the first time in three years, a major project would go through the boards without complaint or opposition. Hopes dashed. The complainant against the 4-building, 12-unit 215-211 West Spencer Street project cites the loss of the city’s parking lot on the site, the narrow width of S. Cayuga Street (the “rear” road), traffic, and no neighborly interactions because it’s a rental that faces Spencer Street.


The kicker is, the letter-writer lives in an upscale Lansing subdivision. He rents out his 3-unit Cayuga Street property. The “house” that the letter claims used to be on the site is also misleading. It was a run-down multi-story apartment building (shown above in the photo from county records), demolished 12 years ago by the city, and turned into an informal parking lot that was never meant to be a long-term use. The land was sold by the city to Ed Cope for $110,000 last March.

I’m willing to entertain legitimate arguments and complaints to projects. But this isn’t one of them.