News Tidbits 11/18/2017: Fears and Hopes for the Future

18 11 2017

1. Here’s an interesting sale – a 62.1 acre parcel on Troy Road sold for $380,000 on the 13th, less than half the original asking price. The buyer, “Troy Heights LLC”, is registered to the same address as Giora and Limor Fix, a semi-retired husband and wife couple who have acquired a number of rental properties around the area over the past decade, with 43 or so units worth something in the ballpark of several million dollars (units are marketed by the Fixes under the name “Homes-for-you Rental Properties”).

The Troy Road property is intriguing because there was a development proposal floated there a few years ago. Rural Housing Preservation Associates LLC had proposed a 130-unit combination of middle-market single family homes, townhouses and small apartment buildings for the site back in 2014; it started as 206 units, the town and neighbors complained it was too big, the project was whittled down to 130, and then the proposal was cancelled by September 2015. Using cluster zoning, the project could have built out 145 units in the low-density residential (LDR) zone, since the town’s cluster zoning allows 2.3 units/acre. STREAM was in charge of the project design, and some of the renders of the never-built apartments can be found here on their website.

So here is a log lot, bought by folks involved in local real estate and with significant assets, under the name “Troy Heights”, which sounds like a project title if anything. I reached out to Giora Fix, and he was kind enough to respond:

“[C]urrently we do not have any concrete plans to develop Troy Road. Once we have them I will be happy to share with you.”

So something to keep an eye on, though it might be a while.

2. Here’s a piece of news from the Times’ Nick Reynolds. With regards to the police consolidation debate, the city wants to have the headquarters downtown on Green Street (likely in that proposed centralized government facility floated for the Central Fire Station site), while the towns would prefer something near the current BPW on the north end of the Northside neighborhood, which offers easy access to Route 13. Consolidation is still a rather unlikely prospect at this time, and there’s little enthusiasm from the more rural parts of the county. But it sounds like the sheriff is keen on killing the city’s ideas before they take off.

3. Bad jobs month for the state, good for Ithaca. The Ithaca metro (Tompkins County) added 1,800 jobs (all private sector) from October 2016 to October 2017, bringing the total to 67,800. The 3.2% increase was the largest gain by percentage in the state over the time period. Unfortunately, the state as a whole lost 11,900 jobs last month, which falls even more to 14,600 jobs when taking away those added by the public sector (government jobs). A study from the Federal Reserve Bank last month notes that upstate economic growth in general has been losing steam over the past year, with exceptions for Ithaca and Albany. New York City is performing reasonably well.

While it’s well and good that Ithaca is doing well, I have concerns about the recent tax reform bill going through Congress. With the potential hit to SALT deductions and the taxation of graduate student tuition waivers, I could see significant negative impacts on the local economy. Given that most communities have property taxes in the range of $2500-$4000/$100,000, a cap of $10,000 as proposed by the House would hit many middle-class and upscale neighborhoods hard. A typical home in Ithaca city is worth about $230,000-$270,000 range at this point, and with about $3779 per $100,000 in property taxes, that means that homeowners with properties valued over $265,000 will take a financial hit, close to half of the homes sold. The Senate’s version removes the SALT deduction completely, affecting all local home buyers. Either case would be a severe blow to the home buying market.

Another concern is the taxation of graduate student tuition waivers as proposed by the House plan. Speaking from experience, I had a waiver that saved me about $14,000/year at the public university where I did my master’s. In my case, seeing that taxes would have cost an extra couple thousand in theory, though the doubling of the standard deduction might have limited its impact on me. A Cornell graduate student is looking at $20,800-$29,500, and could see a tax bill larger than any savings from the standard deduction increase. The Senate version does not tax tuition waivers. Another, lesser factor to consider is that the student loan interest deduction for borrowers on-time with their payments would be eliminated.

On a final note, Cornell’s endowment would be taxed an extra 1.4% under the House bill, as would any college whose endowment is worth more than $250,000 per full-time student. Cornell’s endowment is $6.8 billion, and the school has 23,016 students across all campuses as of Fall 2017. That is over the allowed cap of $5.75 billion as calculated by the bill’s guidelines.

The long story short is that Cornell recruitment takes a hit, as does its endowment, and that could impact current employment as well as future hiring. Politics aside, these “reform” bills are definitely a cause for concern from Ithaca and Tompkins’ economic standpoint.

4. A separate note not so much economic, but something many Ithacans care about – the House bill takes away the historic building rehabilitation tax credit. The renovation of 310 West State Street that I reported in the Voice earlier this week would be off the table without them, and the building will likely be demolished if the credits are eliminated. So the impacts aren’t just economic, but perhaps aesthetic as well.

5. This is looking to be a very quiet late November. For the first time in over a year, the town of Ithaca has cancelled two planning board meetings in a row. Meanwhile, in the city, the only “old business” reviews are final site plan approval for the 601 South Aurora duplex, and final approval for the Brindley Street Bridge replacement.

6. So technically, the Request for Proposals went out for the Green Street Garage site. A site tour for interested applicants is scheduled for December 4th, applications are due by January 23, 2018, and no timetable is given for the selection of the preferred developer. The applications are to include a cover letter, application form, description of project team members with relevant experience, proof of ability operate in NYS, good reputation, financial status, marketing plan, tenant management plan, conceptual designs, financing plan and demonstrated capacity to obtain financing, purchase price, project schedule, community impact benefits statement, schedule, and specific concerns (acknowledgement of site issues and plan to resolve them). A $500 application fee is also required.

Obviously, Ithaca Associates LLC has a huge leg up on the competition, since they not only have a plan fleshed out, they own the ground lease under the eastern end of the garage that everyone else would have to negotiate to obtain. About the only legitimate opening to another developer would be for the western and central portions of the garage, though the city’s requests make it such that anyone else interested had better be thinking big with housing, parking, and other site uses. Saying you’d leave things as-is would be an immediate disqualifier. Unless Fox or Lubin are dreaming up multi-story apartment buildings, it isn’t likely many developers will entertain this RFP. This really feels like it’s just the city stalling for time so they can fully absorb the immensity of the 365-unit, $118 million “Village on the Green” proposal.





News Tidbits 11/11/17: It’s Back

12 11 2017

1. One of the reasons for the lull in weekly round-ups has been the lack of smaller news items to fill it with. A few larger items made it into Voice articles, but there wasn’t much of a middle ground between “expand into article” and “not newsworthy”. I’m happy to take comments here about Voice articles, although the blog is intended to cover topics that may not be ready for a full write-up.

As noted in the Voice, there isn’t much before the city of Ithaca at the moment. A sketch plan for infill rental housing at 209 Hudson Street is likely dead in the water as a result of the new South Hill Overlay, and a modest infill plan calls for a duplex at 601 South Aurora on the corner with Hillview Place, which can only be an improvement from the informal parking lot currently there. The modular unit design is thoughtful (varied materials, plenty of windows) if unexciting, and the sidewalks are a plus. The units are physically structured as townhouses, but technically they aren’t, since townhouses are defined by International Building Code as strings of units of three or more.

Meanwhile, things are so slow in the town at the moment that they cancelled their last Planning Board meeting. Before that, the only notable item on the agenda was the Cayuga Ridge renovation, which is primarily internal. Their October Building and Codes Department report indicates a single two-family home was approved, in the Cleveland Estates housing subdivision; virtually all of those duplexes have been intended as student housing.

2. If there is one town that is rather busy next week, it would have to be Lansing. The surface facilities for the new Cargill mine shaft are up for final approval at the Planning Board meeting next Tuesday, more discussion is expected about the Milton Meadows affordable housing plan at the town center, and a couple of minor projects (communications tower, illuminated free-standing sign) are up for review and vote. Neither Cargill not Milton Meadows appear to have changed significantly since their last presentations.

Also scheduled is review of public comments regarding the Comprehensive Plan, which cover several topics, with the most frequent being the Bell Station zoning (park vs. lakeshore low density) and some individuals unhappy with the potential for mixed-use or residential development near their homes or farms. Joe Wetmore has a pretty thorough critique, ranging from unrealistic expectations to discomfort with what he calls “segregated housing” based on income and age. Going political for a moment, I suspect if it weren’t for many progressive town and village boards rushing to join the Article 78 on Cargill, with less than careful thought and discussion of Cargill’s blue-collar workers and their family/friends, Wetmore would be an incoming town councilman (and to be fair, he may end up winning when the absentee ballots are counted and tallied next week).

3. Over in Dryden, just about everything is good to go with Modern Living Rentals’ 42-unit rental complex planned for 802 Dryden Road, next to the Cornell arboretum. The November tweaks were for lighting, landscaping and sidewalk details. The designs of the townhouse strings were reworked in October to include three different designs, to be used twice each (six buildings, seven units each, 42 units/108 bedrooms total). While the materials remain the same, the designs differ substantially in roof lines, architectural detailing and fenestration pattern. At this point, no one would mistake for a recycling of 902 Dryden as they started off as; John Snyder and his team have had the chance to express themselves, and the designs are contemporary and visually interesting. It looks like final approval will be coming potentially soon, which will permit a Spring 2018 – Summer 2019 construction time-frame.

Other than that, the town is reviewing another Tiny Timbers subdivision, this one for 1540 Ellis Hollow Drive. Similar to its counterpart just down the street at 1624 Ellis Hollow Drive, the long, narrow lot would be serviced with an internal driveway for five homes with a little over an acre each, and the rear (northern) 5 acres would be granted a conservation easement, to remain natural space and help protect the Fall Creek watershed. The original plan was a deed restriction, but the town’s conservation board is pushing the easement so that future owners of the land can’t just lift the restriction. They also requested an S-shaped driveway because they feel the slope is greater than Dolph states; an S-shape would also throw the plans out of whack, so let’s see what happens.

On a final brief note, review and discussion is ongoing for a pair of solar arrays off of 2243 Dryden Road, one of 1.3 MW and one of 2 MW.

4. Looking at what’s on the market this week, here’s something for the deep-pocketed investor/landlord who wants to start with an all-new, low-maintenance building. 6-unit 707 East Seneca Street is on the market for $2,999,000. The 6,469 SF apartment building was built just two years ago, after developer Todd Fox bought city surplus land that was once a playground for the closed East Hill Elementary, deeded to the city in 1982 and promptly forgotten for decades until potential liability risks convinced the city to put it up for sale. Each unit is three bedrooms, and according to the advertisement, it generates over $220k in revenue each year, which is not shabby.The property is assessed at $1 million.

It’s a bit surprising that Fox would want to part with a nearly-new building with solid rental potential, and it makes me curious if the funds would be used to fund other Visum projects planned or approved. While Fox did take a financial hit from the cancelled 311 College Avenue project, the amount invested was far less than the sale price for 707 here.

5. Also worth noting, though it’s not good news – The Computing Center’s plans to build a new 4,600 SF headquarters appear to be over. The building site and the approved building plans at Lansing’s 987 Warren Road are up for sale. $499,000 gets you 1.57 acres, the plans, and a single-family home on the eastern end of the property that generates $2,000/month. The project had received an $85,084 tax abatement for the $1.394 million project, which was expected to create six new jobs. For the record, any buyer would need to re-apply for an abatement; the one granted will go unused. At least offhand, it looks like they may have added the jobs (retain 14, add 6, and the website shows nineteen plus the retired founder, and two job postings), but it’s uncertain – they acquired a competitor (Sherpa Technologies) in September, which increased staff to 22. Based off the time of the listing, with the acquisition of Sherpa they may have just led TCC to go a different direction with a new headquarters. What will be, will be.

6. According to construction loan documents filed with Tompkins County, the new 11,180 SF Rite Aid being built at 79 North Street carried with it a $2.71 million price tag. Chemung Canal Trust Company, an Elmira-based bank with branches in Tompkins County, is providing the loan to Dryden Group LLC/Ellicott Development. Ellicott, a major developer out in Buffalo, will be using an in-house contractor team to build out the retail space.

A couple of emails came in asking if this would be a Walgreen’s. On paper, that’s a no – everything filed and documented says Rite Aid, and this was confirmed with the town planning staff. However, Walgreen’s is in the process of acquiring 1,932 Rite Aid stores (leaving Rite Aid with 2,600), and closing several hundred stores that are within close proximity to existing Walgreen’s. It’s possible that the existing Dryden Rite Aid is one of those to be “shut down as part of the sale” as the new Rite Aid-turned-Walgreen’s is being built on the north end of the village. Keep an eye on it.

7. Quick little side note – Ithaca Associates LLC, the development team behind the $110 million Green Street Garage project, is apparently in talks with INHS to manage its affordable housing component. That’s according to Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) meeting minutes. So they are serious about meeting the city’s demand for affordable housing with some undetermined percentage of the 365 units. Heck, 60 or 70 units would be a sizable contribution, should it pan out, and it would make the project more palatable since it would clearly have a mixed-income aspect to go with its mixed uses.

8. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission will be taking up discussion again on the Nines, though they are less than pleased with the recent 5-5 tie vote the Common Council had on the Chacona block, broken by the mayor’s vote against historic designation. For me, the fascinating part was having someone like Cynthia Brock, typically opposed to greater density, speak in favor, while pro-development councilors like Ducson Nguyen and Seph Murtagh voted in favor of historic designation. So, it was an unusual breakdown of votes that I would not have predicted, although I had heard before the meeting that it would likely be a close vote.

There is no doubt that anything Student Agencies submits will be scrutinized extra closely, especially if they try to maximize square footage or incorporate design features that don’t mesh with neighboring structures. It’s fair to say that while they lucked out with being allowed to redevelop, the resentment already stirred up means anything proposed will be starting behind the proverbial eight ball, and they would be wise to really put their best foot forward and not rush plans.

Interestingly, it looks like someone, likely but not confirmed to be the Reach Project social service group, plans to submit concept designs for the carriage house that once stood behind the house at 310 West State Street. This is a historic district, so any designs for the drug treatment and potential safe heroin injection “harm reduction” site would need to be approved by the ILPC.

It’s been amusing and a bit excruciating to see some of the comments on the Voice – some people are all about historic buildings; but it tortures them to see these venerable structures used for what they see as a less-enlightened cause than a high-end B&B or boutique office. If zoning laws (and higher authorities, in this case) okay it, so be it. Many historic buildings have humdrum or low-brow histories as factories, home businesses or tenements, and to say they can’t be used for something permitted just because it seems icky is not only illegal, it denies part of the historical element.

7. Intriguing, though I have questions – the city is looking at expanding the use of PUDs from beyond the few industrial zones to city-wide so long as properties are 2 acres. They’re also looking at expanding CIITAP to allow 1-story industrial and waterfront projects, as well as an affordable housing component of 20% on all residential or mixed-use projects with residential components of 10 units or more.

The PUD plan comes on the heels of the new Waterfront zones, which allow residential uses on a greater number of parcels, and is in fact the recommendation of the Waterfront Working Group (WWG), a 17-member group of staff and public who reviewed planned zoning changes to the Waterfront. The city planning staff are amenable, though they suggest a minimum acreage of 2 acres.

With the proposed CIITAP change, the reasoning makes sense, although its effectiveness is questionable. Industrial construction is locally limited and is usually build-to-suit for a specific client. There’s also a strong preference to less dense areas with easy access with lower land values, like Lansing or Dryden. More power to the city I guess, I just don’t see it being utilized. As for the housing component, the intent is good, but the issue always ends up being an issue of “moreness”. Developers often have to build bigger to re-balance expenses and revenue within mixed-income structures. This can make it tougher for them to get financing since it’s a larger, more costly build-out (a bigger financial risk, all other things being equal). Residents in turn balk at a bigger project with the traffic, aesthetic changes and other impacts it creates, not to mention some still instinctively sneer at affordable housing, mixed-income or not. It’s not an outright deal-breaker, but it is something to keep in mind.

The PUD can be troublesome since it’s a sort of “DIY zoning”, which would make existing rules pointless and a lot of upset voters if allowed without some big stipulations. 2 acres would limit many projects in the core of the city, but if you happen to be, say, a major landowner along the Waterfront or in the vicinity, like Guthrie or Cayuga Medical Center, it’s basically a red carpet invitation, as it allows them to set the bounds for a project. Notably, neither of those two fall within CIITAP’s boundaries, so while they wouldn’t be eligible for the tax abatement, they also don’t have to worry about the affordable housing component if they choose to do something with housing in the mix.

 





City Centre Construction Update, 10/2017

26 10 2017

As described in the Voice summary, City Centre is digging deep.

“Unlike the Hilton Canopy, City Centre will have a basement, or more specifically, a 71-space underground garage. The plan here is to use a mat foundation, which is a shallow foundation that doesn’t make use of piles or pile drivers. The company that did the geotechnical report for City Centre reported that a 26-inch mat foundation was feasible based on soil borings, and would be less expensive than a deep pile foundation like the one being used for the Canopy. So basically, excavate some trenches, build some big footers with a lot of rebar, and pour a 26″ concrete slab. Support columns will transfer the weight of the building through the garage and into the slab beneath.

Going past the site right now, excavation work continues, with timber lagging, steel H-beam soldier piles, and steel tieback anchors that extend underneath the streets. The whole point is to reinforce the soil, because no one wants East State or South Aurora Street collapsing into the construction site. Foundations can be complex and time-consuming, and the building may not rise above street level until sometime late in the winter or early next spring. Occupancy of the eight-story mixed-use building won’t be until 2019. According to a construction loan filed with the county this week, M&T Bank is lending $47.9 million to Newman Development Group to complete the project.”

On a hunch while exploring Newman’s project-specific websites, I was able to find City Centre’s website. Morgan Communities of suburban Rochester will be the site manager, and is apparently also hosting the webpages; they’re live, but you can’t find City Centre on their search page yet.

Units will range from a 508 SF studio unit, to a 2 bed/2 bath 1319 SF units with coveted Commons views. Apartment features include quartz countertops, electric stove, microwave, dishwasher, and stainless steel appliances. On-site amenities include fitness center, “E-Lounge”, bike storage, controlled access, optional garage space rentals, electric car charging stations and furnished apartments if requested. Dogs and cats will be allowed. Rents have yet to be listed, though they’re expected to be on the medium-high side (premium, not luxury). The webpage touts Summer 2019 occupancy, which seems to be a split of the Spring 2019 and November 2019 dates used previously. Inquiries are being taken to CityCentreIthaca@morgancommunities.com, if you know someone planning that far ahead.

On another note, while poking around the geotechnical report, it turns out that early plans called for the entirety of the first floor to be occupied by a 19,900 SF “Target Express“, the smaller urban cousin to the Target general merchandise retail chain. This had to have been early on, because the parking had a much different configuration than the formal site plan, with an East State Street entrance vs. the South Aurora entrance in all the later revisions. With only nine stores as of mid-2016, Target is pretty selective about new Target Express locations. Why it was removed from City Centre is unclear.





Press Bay Court (108-114 West Green Street) Construction Update, 10/2017

25 10 2017

The tagline used on the Voice was “Press Bay Alley is as quirky as Ithacans like to think they are.” But it’s not just a quip. Press Bay Alley and its upcoming sibling, Press Bay Court, are unusual developments.

Completed in 2014, spaces at the micro-retail plaza on West Green Street range from a 160 SF barbershop to a 2,000 SF confectioner. Other tenants include a novelty store, a cafe, a circus school, an herb/spice shop, a high-tech workshop and electric bikes. Around Halloween, it becomes Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. It’s an eclectic development by any regard.

Micro-retail is a growing retail trend that offers a unique niche product or a very limited selection of convenience products and services. A shop like Amuse or a service like Ithaca Generator may not need a large space to achieve its business goals, and can save on rental expenses with a limited footprint, compensated by being in a high pedestrian-traffic areas, in this case a couple blocks from The Commons. Similar examples include Memphis’s Edge Alley and Denver’s Dairy Block.

Granted, Ithaca is smaller than Memphis or Denver, but the underlying dynamics of active-use blocks and high foot traffic are present nevertheless, and businessmen John Guttridge and David Kuckuk of Urban Core LLC identified a potential market for the concept in Ithaca. Seeing an opportunity in the former printing press and garages of the shrinking Ithaca Journal, Urban Core, who had recently bought the Journal Building, decided to move forward with a renovation and see if they could make the concept work locally. The risk seems to have paid off, as Press Bay Alley is fully occupied.

With that under their belt, and with renovations to 121 West State partially completed (waiting on fit-out for a potential restaurant tenant), Urban Core has committed to a second phase of the project at 108-114 West Green Street. Currently vacant, 108-110 West Green housed Hausner’s Garage and a Chevy car dealership in the 1920s (see photo below), a DeSoto-Plymouth dealer in the 1940s, Ithaca Photo from at least the 1950s through the late 2000s, and from 2012-2017, McNeil Music. In the rear where D.P. Dough is (114), The Haunt nightclub called it home from 1969-1997 before moving across town.

What Urban Core’s latest plans would do is expand that “experiential” micro-retail mix eastward towards the corner of Green and Cayuga Streets, the Commons and the downtown core. The parking lot in front of D. P. Dough would be converted into a plaza much like Press Bay Alley’s, and the first floor of 108-110 West Green would be renovated into 5-8 micro-retail units facing the new plaza (the Green Street entrances would be retained), with 320-2200 SF per unit. The second floor would be renovated into four below-market rate one-bedroom apartments with 510-660 SF of living space, and the exterior masonry would be cleaned and repaired. The hawk mural will be preserved. New signage, bike infrastructure, curbing, sidewalks and a parklet are included in the plans. The total square footage in phase two is about 9,000 SF.

One of the more unusual quirks of Press Bay Court is part of the plaza would be convertible into an amphitheater/stage space for outdoor performances. So if some comedy improv group or local dance troupe wants to perform for an audience of several dozen, that’s an option. The next day, it might revert back to an outdoor seating space with movable furniture and display space for retail tenants. That weekend, it might host hungry or browsing festival goers spilling out from Press Bay Alley, which will be connected through the Press Bay Building. The space will be adaptable and multi-use, which will hopefully provide exposure for tenants.

Later plans call for renovations to the 15,000 SF Ithaca Journal (Market Bay) Building for an indoor arcade and second-floor office tenants, and a 2,400 SF new restaurant tenant in 121 West State Street, in the basement below The Watershed coffee lounge and bar. Ultimately, the goal is to build a thriving, synergistic environment where the businesses create a natural flow of customers and clients between the various shops and services offered on the block, and the outdoor space’s active uses contribute to and help sustain small local enterprises.

The project cost is estimated at about $900,000, most of which went into property acquisition. Financing comes from a Tompkins Trust Company loan, cash/equity, and a $200,000 low-interest loan from the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. One of the tenant spaces is being offered in the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s “Race for Space II” competition, with the specific unit to be selected by the winner.

At the moment, not much appears to be happening. The “cut-out” lines are a clever advertisement for the future micro-retail storefronts, while the parking lot is a pop-up park for the time being. According to Press Bay Alley’s Facebook page, “Urban Core popped up a temporary installation to experiment with several design elements and gather public feedback.” Previous plans called for a spring opening, but with the Restore NY Grant under consideration, the project may not start until the Spring, in which case this entry saves the trouble of writing one next March. However, the later start date might force changes to Race for Space II, which asked for the selected tenant to be ready to move in by spring 2018, the same time construction was pushed back to in order to be eligible for Restore NY funds.

 





107 South Albany Street Construction Update, 10/2017

20 10 2017

With the twin duplexes on the corner of Aurora and Queen completed, local developer Stavros Stavropoulos and his local contractor Northeast Renovations Inc. have been able to turn their focus towards building out 107 South Albany Street. At this stage, the spread concrete footers, also called formwork or footings, have been finished.

As in this case, footers are usually of concrete with steel rebar reinforcement that has been poured into an excavated trench and confined by wood forms. The purpose of footings is to support the foundation and prevent settling. The portion of rebar sticking out of the footers will be bent and wired into the foundation’s horizontal rebar, tying the two components together. I’m not sure if they simply filled in the basement of the old house or if they tore the walls out before bringing in clean fill and digging trenches for the new footers (I’d guess the latter for simplicity’s sake).

It looks like the outer footings for the ground-level common space (entry, bike storage, meter room) are at a slightly lower grade than the rest of the structure, so there might be two separate sections that comprise foundation, with one at a slightly higher elevation than the other.

The next steps involve a rebar grid being ssembled and tied per specifications, elevated a few inches from the ground by plastic rebar chairs that allow concrete to get underneath the steel rods. The concrete will be poured over the rebar, and as long as the bars stay in place, the new pour is left to dry into a solid, reinforced slab foundation upon which the building frame can be built. The building itself will have a wood-frame, so when it starts to rise, it should move at a pretty fast pace.

A summary of the project can be found here.





News Tidbits 10/7/17: Opportunities Come and Go

7 10 2017

1. The Inn at Taughannock expansion is no longer. The project, which called for a 2-story addition containing dining facilities, five guest rooms and facilities to support a 200-person capacity event center, was opposed by neighbors in Ulysses for being too large, the potential for noise, traffic, and for being out of character with the area. The strong disapproval played a big role in the town of Ulysses Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision to reject two of three building variances sought for the project, the exception being a cupola on the existing building. The board also permitted four of the six proposed signs.

With denials noted, the plan at this point is mostly landscaping – clean fill (soil) to level out the south lawn for gatherings, construction of a stone fence wall and retaining wall, re-configuring a stairway and patio area, lawn seeding and stormwater facilities.

2. One door is closed, another potentially opens. For sale, a trio of parcels – 526 West Seneca Street, 528 West Seneca Street, and 209 North Meadow Street – are up for sale on the city’s West End. The listing from Pyramid Brokerage’s August Monkemeyer is short and to the point:

“Rare opportunity on prime signalized intersection in Ithaca’s commercial corridor. Corner location with excellent exposure, road frontage and heavy traffic 32,000 plus ADDT. Redevelopment site for multiple commercial uses.”

For the record, ADDT is a typo. It’s AADT – “Average Annual Daily Traffic”. The brochure is a little more in-depth, and says 39,000 AADT. The listing price for the collection is $1.5 million.

528 West Seneca is a recently renovated early 1900s 4-unit apartment house purchased by current owner Shawn Gillespie in 2003 and it has an assessed value of $200,000. 528 West Seneca is an early 1900s house converted into an office building. It was renovated in the 2000s, purchased by Gillespie in 2012 and is assessed at $220,000. 209 North Meadow, an 1880s single-family home, has seen better days. It was co-purchased by Gillespie in 2015 and is assessed at $50,000 due to its poor condition. All of the buildings are designed in the older vernacular style common to the Ithaca area (“urban farmhouses”), so they’re old, but the designs were cookie cutter for their time, and their overall historic value is limited.

Zoning is a mixed bag. The two with frontage on Meadow are WEDZ-1b, while 526 West Seneca is R-3b. R-3b allows 4-story buildings with up to 40% lot coverage, has parking requirements that vary depending on the type of residence, and is geared towards small apartment buildings. WEDZ-1b is one of the city rarer codes, general retail and office uses that allows 100% lot coverage on parcel with less than 50 feet frontage (209 Meadow in this case), and 90% otherwise. However, the maximum floor height is only two floors, and one story buildings have to have pitched roofs. Unlike its WEDZ-1a counterpart across the street, parking is required. Looking at the code, it seems like a recipe for suburban box retail in the heart of the West End, with the R-3b a possible site for additional parking. That doesn’t seem to mesh with the urban mixed-use direction the city’s been moving towards. Should it sell, and it looks noteworthy, there will be a follow-up.

3. The construction loan for Nick Stavropoulos’ 107 South Albany Street project has been filed. Tompkins Trust will be able to watch their latest loan agreement from just a few blocks away. The total loan amount is $1,110,346.75. A small local company, Northeast Renovation Inc., will be the general contractor for the 11-unit apartment building.

Subcontractors on file include Frank Belentsof of Bestway Lumber (Excavation), Brian Kehoe of Kehoe’s Concrete Concepts for foundation work, Albanese Plumbing LLC for plumbing/HVAC/sprinklers, Weydman Electric, Goodale Sprayfoam for insulation, Joe Alpert of Drywall Interiors for sheetrock hanging. Fabbroni Engineers is doing the structural engineering in partnership with architect Daniel R. Hirtler.

4. The city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board was less than enthused about 311 College Avenue, aka Visum Development’s mixed-use Nines replacement. From the sound of it, the board’s John Schroeder was liable to go apoplectic. At the least, it seems the board wants a feasibility study for the cost of moving the firehouse-turned-restaurant to another site. From a design perspective, the board would like for either the design to pay homage to the Nines, or to reuse some of its building materials.

In contrast, it was fairly smooth sailing for the other projects under review. The duplex at 217 Columbia and Lakeview’s 60-unit supportive/affordable housing project were approved, and INHS’s 13-unit affordable housing proposal for the 200 Block of Elm Street progressed despite West Hill neighborhood opposition.

5. To touch on that topic a little more, the Times’ Nick Reynolds did an in-depth piece looking at the “crisis point” in Collegetown. It’s worth a read. I don’t agree with some of the insinuations (Student Agencies’ renovation of ca. 1985 409 College Avenue is not an aesthetic threat to the block), but it’s worth a read.

The document that Schroeder and Tomlan wrote of buildings they wanted preserved was uploaded as a PDF, but it is no longer online. The only copy of the list is from this blog, in a post eight years ago, and an article from the June 16, 2009 Ithaca Journal. The list and the response highlighted in the Journal shows there was a real disconnection, and I doubt most readers agreed completely with either Tomlan or the property owners. Since the PDF was published and reviewed by city staff and board appointees, two of 31 structures, the Snaith House (140 College) and Grandview House (209 College), were historically designated, and rightfully so, as exemplary architecture of their period. The Larkin was just designated as well, and the Chacona Block (Student Agencies) will be before the end of the year. Both of them are attractive older structures that provide a positive aesthetic complement to the neighborhood.

The Palms dive bar was not high design or even mediocre design, nor was it much of a desired neighborhood attribute, at least to permanent residents; nostalgic perhaps, but not historic. Pushing a structure on nostalgia alone will likely not clear the Planning Committee, as Steve Smith and Cynthia Brock nearly demonstrated with the Larkin Building. Mary Tomlan wanted to preserve a bar when the owner wanted to retire and sell it to whoever would give him the most. Sounds familiar.

However, the difference between the Palms and the Nines is that the Nines has a more substantial history, the structure has historic significance as the original home of Fire Station No .9. With its outdoor patio, it adds an aesthetic quality by being setback from the street yet maintaining active use frontage. That is not economically feasible in Collegetown and hasn’t been for decades, but it made sense for a fire station that served the community for generations. If there’s a balance between giving way to the new and preserving the old, the Nines and Palms fall on different sides.

The Times article references a “stopgap” measure that is basically an indefinite moratorium. That’s not the answer either. Most Collegetown structures offer little historic value. The Nines is a rare case otherwise. Without protective regulations, it was always a potential development target. Or rather, it was more like a landmine waiting to be triggered.

6. Courtesy of STREAM Collaborative’s biannual newsletter, the Varna Tiny Timbers project has a name and website. “The Cottages at Fall Creek Crossing”, as the 15-unit single-family development will be known, has website at http://www.cottagesatfallcreek.com. It’s bare bones at the moment and the lots have not yet begun marketing and sales. The pocket neighborhood of for-sale 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom homes will be built on the corner of Freese and Dryden Roads, the potential walkable, mixed-use center of the hamlet should a traditionally-designed Varna ever come to fruition. According to the newsletter, STREAM collaborated with Tiny Timber owner Buzz Dolph on the branding, logo and website, as well as on the design of the buildings and landscape.

7. It pains me a bit to admit this, but the Times is killing it in local meeting coverage. Even worse, the Voice has been short-staffed this week due to illness. At the Common Council meeting last night, members voted to give the IURA the necessary permission to handle the Green Street redevelopment project, including the RFP and submission review, sales terms and environmental review. Vicki Taylor Brous, public relations representative for developer Dave Lubin and his Harold’s Square project next door, spoke against the plans and said the project may be illegal, but until proven as such, review and discussion of the Ithaca Associates plan and any other submissions will move forward.

On another note, landmarking of the Larkin Building at 403 College Avenue was approved 8-2, with Cynthia Brock (D-1st) and Steve Smith (D-4th) opposed. Also, in what can only help Lansing Republicans, the city voted to join in on the Article 78 to halt the Cargill project until an Environment Impact Statement is conducted. The DEC deemed it unncecessary, and the lawsuit argues Cargill got special treatment. The dicey part is that a long, expensive study puts 200 blue-collar jobs at risk, and the debate has become a successful rallying cry for local conservatives.

I’m not a political consultant, but I think if outspoken Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) loses next month, it’ll be because of the national environment and the ability of progressive groups to tap into that at the local level. And if he wins, it’ll be because he channeled and won over the blue-collar Cargill households and their supporters who feel overlooked or kicked around in this debate.

8. One of the the perks of development – the latest Ithaca city budget calls for no tax increase for the 95% of homeowners whose assessment did not go up this year (not because of the market, but because the assessment office cycles through different parts of the county on 2-3 year intervals). The city will bring in an extra $621,508 (2.8%) through property taxes, mostly from new development “closing” on assessments as they’re completed and occupied. From 2012 to 2016, the budget increased 5.2%, while taxes, notoriously high thanks to the large percentage of tax-exempt property, fell 1%. In his budget presentation (copy on the Times webpage here), Myrick stated that without the $131 million in development since 2011, taxes would be 6.9% higher.

One thing that is not made clear in the article is that Collegetown Terrace, one of those big contributors, doesn’t have a tax abatement or PILOT. That’s taxed at 100% value. According to assessor Jay Franklin, assessments for a given year are calculated for the state of a property on March 1st, and in Terrace’s case, Building 7 wasn’t finished. Now that it is, it can be assessed at full value for 2018, which will be an additional $20-$25 million in taxable property (using $22.5 million, it equates to $270,900 in city taxes, given $12.04 per $1,000 assessed).

That might be the biggest addition, but other recent completions are not inconsequential. Back of the envelope estimates here, but when the Breazzano Center and INHS 210 Hancock PILOTs first show up in 2018, they will generate an additional $52,000. Even with its abatement, the Hotel Ithaca will add about $21,600 in year one if its $15 million price tag is close to assessment, and that will increase to $216,000/year after seven years (the downtown Business Improvement District tax rate is $14.40/$1,000). Several other recently-completed downtown projects will also pay more as their abatements taper towards full property value. For example, just the 10% increase for the Marriott in 2018 equates to about $29,000. Smaller projects like 607 South Aurora, 1001 North Aurora, 602 West State, 215-221 West Spencer and 123-129 Elmira stand to add another $70,000 or so in tax revenue. So all these projects not only make a dent in the housing deficit or provide jobs, they also provide a buffer to challenging times with declining state assistance. While development does increase demand for services, projects that are close to municipal services and able to easily tap into existing infrastructure generally provide a net positive financial benefit to the community.

Meanwhile, the town of Ithaca is looking at a miniscule tax increase this year of 0.21 percent (1.57 cents per $1,000), and will benefit from the Maplewood project, which at $80 million and $6.66/1,000, will pay in the ballpark of $532,000 towards the town, its highway department and the inter-municipal fire department (the city also gets a small share, only 1-2%).

9. A couple of sales of note. A 28.07 parcel of land along Oakcrest Road in Lansing, which was touted for potential suburban housing development, was sold for $610,000 to a well-known Cornell professor and his wife. The price was a little over 90% of ask, not bad for land. From a close mutual friend, real estate development is not one of the buyer’s interests. So, less likely to be a development, but maybe a grand estate.

Meanwhile, south of the Shannon Park development, and on the southern edge of the image above, an LLC paid $480,000, slightly below assessment, for 731 Cayuga Heights Road, a well-maintained 1820 farmhouse on 12.55 acres. The LLC’s address is the same as the Pyramid Companies, owners (or recent sellers?) of the Shoppes at Ithaca Mall, which the land abuts to its east. Something to keep an eye on, for sure.

 

10. Looking like a slow week and month ahead. The city of Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission is reviewing a roofing project. Nothing new in the city project’s memo, though some supplemental documents were added for Bridges Cornell Heights’ 16-bedroom mansion proposed at 105 Dearborn Place. It and INHS’s 203-209 Elm Street plan are up for final approval at the end of the month, potentially leaving no projects for review before the city (311 College will be discussed, but not reviewed this month, and its future progress is uncertain). The town’s planning board meeting was cancelled.





607 South Aurora Street Construction Update, 9/2017

2 10 2017

Landscaped, occupied, done. Modern Living Rentals’ infill project at 607 South Aurora Street on South Hill adds another 25 beds to the market, in four new two-family homes and a renovated existing home.

Strictly looking at the project, it’s pretty unassuming. This armchair critic thinks these turned out nicer than the ones on Elmira Road, though a greater splash of color on the siding would have been nice. The brackets and full-length porch are welcome additions on the Aurora Street structure.

If someone had told me 217 Columbia’s two-family infill would cause such a stir, I would have been surprised, since it’s a small project, and this and the Elmira Road pair didn’t create much a stir during the review process. But sometimes, after multiple projects of similar format, all it takes is one more to stir up enough consternation to snowball into a full-blown controversy.

I’m not going to fault anyone there. MLR’s Charlie O’Connor saw an opportunity and went for it. He is arguably one of the most reticent developers in Ithaca, preferring unobtrusive projects that he hopes will create as little debate as possible. It’s kinda funny in a way, because although he’s a business partner with Todd Fox (Visum’s property management is handled by MLR), the two of them are near-opposites in that regard. He paid a fair sum for 217 Columbia Street, so he doesn’t want to walk away from the investment, but he’ll do whatever it takes to make the neighbors happy short of cancelling the project. At last check, there was a proposal to stipulate the two three-bedroom units would not be permitted to student renters, and that the building would be stick-built and designed to better fit with the older structures of the neighborhood.

On the other side, permanent residents have a right to be annoyed if the perceived balance between students and non-students starts to shift and harm their quality of life. The neighborhood, like many of Ithaca’s more walkable parts, has experienced significant upward pressure on housing prices, and rental infill units can be a double-edged sword because the individual property is priced out of reach for homeowners (for-sale infill would be a different story). Even with the owner-occupied properties, there’s a strong whiff of gentrification, turning what was once a blue-collar neighborhood serving downtown shoppers and Morse Chain into a hodgepodge of increasing number of student rentals, and more white-collar, deep-pocketed households.

Somewhat incongruous to all this is that Ithaca College’s student population has declined almost 10% since 2010, which would suggest less pressure for student rentals; however, many of the college dorms date from the 1960s, and the utilities systems need replacement – some are already on their last legs, and that may limit occupancy as they sputter into obsolescenceThe college and students are aware of the discord and are trying to address it gently; more extreme measures like curtailing the ability or capping the number of students who can live off-campus might create major blowback, something the college may be actively trying to avoid after last year’s turmoil. A new dorm or two would help, but even modular temporary dorms can cost a fair sum, and there is nothing planned in the short-term. A long-term question mark is the impact of the Chain Works District, but that’s a few years out at best.

Landlords should at least be cognizant of this tension (and the ones on South Hill tend to be a mixed bag, to be honest), because if things turn south and the college does take drastic measures, units are going to become much harder to fill at current monthly rates. Town officials and voters were unhappy with the quality and appearance of new housing built in the Birdseye View development and in the Pennsylvania-Kendall Avenue corridor, and that contributed to the push to curtail student housing in the town’s portion of South Hill.

The local community is not easygoing or forgiving. If you do crap work, crap will hit the fan sooner or later. Even if you do good work like 607 South Aurora here, it pays to be attentive and flexible.

While legal language is being prepared for an overlay that would prevent more than one primary structure on South Hill properties until a new neighborhood plan is developed (2-3 years minimum), 217 Columbia had already started review before that was considered, so in effect it’s grandfathered in, even if it hasn’t started construction before the overlay likely gets passed by PEDC this month and Common Council in November.