News Tidbits 5/4/19

4 05 2019

1. Generally speaking, when the opposition is opposed to the aesthetics rather than the purpose, then a project is in good shape for IDA approval. That looks to be the case with the Vecino Group’s Arthaus project. The 124-unit all-affordable (50-80% area median income) project at 130 Cherry Street will be seeking IDA approval for an abatement at the May meeting, after hosting its public hearing this month (minutes here). As noted by the Ithaca Times, apart from complaints about it being too big or ugly, there wasn’t much in the way of opposition to the premise of the project, which is what the IDA is more interested in. As far as the IDA is concerned, aesthetics are something to be handled by the Ithaca Planning Board; if it’s okay with the PB, then it’s okay with them. Chances are pretty good that the abatement will be granted. The abatement is worth about $3.73 million towards the $28.8 million project.

2. It may have taken two tries to get the zoning variance approved, but Habitat for Humanity is moving forward with its redevelopment and new builds at 1932 Slaterville Road in the town of Dryden. The existing 19th century farmhouse will be renovated into a four-bedroom home, a first for the local chapter. The land will be subdivided into two additional one-acre parcels for a new three-bedroom home on each lot, about 1,100 SF each. Each home will cost about $70-$75,000 to build, and the goal is to have them ready for occupancy by mid-2020.

Habitat homes are typically sold to families making under 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), or about $36,000/year. The homes would have built with a combination of professional contractors and volunteer labor, including 350+ hours of “sweat equity”, where the future homeowners actively work as members of the construction crew. In a market starved for affordable housing, every little bit helps.

3. We don’t tend to see many big commercial or industrial buildings listed for sale (if in part because there aren’t many), but it looks like the TransAct Technologies building at 20 Bomax Drive in Lansing is now for sale. Now, before anyone gets nervous, the business isn’t going anywhere; they’ve always leased the space since the building opened in 1998 and have a triple-net lease.

A triple-net lease means the tenant pays everything – insurance, maintenance and real estate taxes (formally, net insurance, net maintenance and net real estate taxes on the leased asset – the three nets).  As a result, the rent is substantially lower than it otherwise might be. It may not be all that lucrative, but the property ends up being a fairly safe investment (though with a lot of fine print to determine who pays for things like if a tornado hits or the foundation cracks), generating a modest amount of rent and functioning like an inflation-protected bond, but guaranteed by the lessee rather than the government. All the better when the tenant is stable and signed on for the long-term as TransAct has been.

For just under $6 million, the buyer gets a fairly new industrial building on 7.54 acres with 18,066 SF of office space, 55,759 SF of warehouse and manufacturing space, and the security of a long-term tenant. This will not be an exciting sale, but it’ll be interesting to see who the buyer is. Warren Real Estate is the seller’s agent, and the offering description with financial data is here.

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4. A little bit of soapboxing. I’ve been seeing and getting some messages to this effect lately. First, I’ll note that the first comment is a bit disingenuous. That’s the highest-priced three-bedroom unit. To quote the range of prices from the Ithaca Times:

“Affordable in this case will include rents for people making 50-80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI), which means that rents for studios will be between $737 and $1180 per month, to 1,095 and 1,752 [per month] for a three-bedroom apartment, the highest price.”

Anyway, the comments tend to be to the effect of “this isn’t affordable enough, so I can’t support it”. That’s a textbook case of letting the perfect getting in the way of the good. Here is a project with 124 affordable housing units, with 40 of the units set aside for formerly homeless youth and families with on-site supportive services from TC Action. It would do a lot of good to have this project available to the community.

Honestly, the argument feels like the next evolution of the arguments against affordable housing in general. Now that it’s firmly ingrained that there is a lack of affordable housing in Tompkins County and it does negatively affect the community, the next step is to say, essentially, that nothing is good enough. From a pragmatic stadnpoint, since these projects aren’t something banks and credit unions will fully finance because of the lack of a sizable return on investment, it falls to NYS to award grants. The state will not dispense larger tax credits to make a unit drop from 60% AMI to 30% AMI, that’s up to the developer to make up the bigger financial gap. To do that, either they add in higher-priced units to compensate, or the project doesn’t happen. Which is probably the end goal for many of the complainers anyway. It’s kinda like saying you’re available for a date, but only to those who are millionaire PhDs.

Anyway, weigh each project on its merits. But set reasonable goals.

5. As reported by Dan Veaner at the Lansing Star, developer Eric Goetzmann is seeking changes to the senior housing to be included as part of the Lansing Meadows project. The primary changes are making Lansing Meadows Drive into a one-way street (thus allowing it to be slightly narrower while still able to host on-street parking), and making each duplex into a triplex – three senior housing units per string, for a total of thirty. As a result, the units will be slightly smaller, though still two-bedroom apiece. The two end units in each building will be 1252 SF with a 395 SF garage. The center unit will be 1114 SF with a 251 SF garage. The third change is that Goetzmann and his project team want to amend the approvals to allow the sale of units in the future (the initial plan still calls for market-rate rentals).

This comes with a set of issues that need to be sorted out. The project has to be complete by July 2020 as required by the village in their approval resolution. The village planning board now has to consider the proposed amendments and consider whether they constitute a major change from the approved Planned Development Area (PDA, the village’s DIY zoning). Doing so would either cause the plan to be delayed and violate the resolution, or if declined for further consideration, the resolution would likely trigger a lawsuit between the village, Goetzmann, and the county IDA, who granted an abatement to Lansing Meadows. If they say the changes are minor in the context of the PDA, then construction is expected to start as soon as the amended PDA is granted (May 13th at the earliest).

The plan is to build the northern triplexes first, and then the southern units. The planning board’s not a fan from an aesthetics perspective, but the village’s code officer that the northern half is more elevated, so this reduces stormwater risks. With construction underway and loose soil on the site, if built later the exposed northern half could result in runoff and flash flooding downhill, into the southern half and its new homes. The commercial component on the east side of the property cannot legally be built until all residential units are completed.

It’s been nine years since this project was first pitched, and most stakeholders just want to get this project out of their hair. It’s not clear when that will happen.





News Tidbits 1/18/2019

19 01 2019

It’s been a while. Let’s start with the bad news first; projects that have been cancelled over the past month, or are on the ropes.

1. Heading over to Lansing, the Lansing Senior Cottages is dead. The project, which was developed by Beer Properties in conjunction with Hunt Engineers, had been reduced in size from the initial proposal, from 108 units to 97 units, in 84 buildings (71 single-family, 13 two-family) on about 40 acres. In order to move forward as a pocket-neighborhood housing development (houses closer together than permitted under a medium-density residential zone in the village), it would have needed a Planned Development (PDA) designation from the village of Lansing.

The Planning Board has eight criteria to establish a PDA, and felt that the project didn’t meet four of the criteria (maximum choice in ownership types and occupancy tenure, convenience in location of non-residential facilities, efficient use of land, and desirable change in environment), and was therefore insufficient to merit a PDA. Their vote to deny the PDA also killed the project, since the design isn’t possible in Lansing’s medium-density zone. The density is the legal, albeit at the maximum allowed, which in sewered areas is 20,000 SF (0.46 acres) per single-family, and 25,000 SF (0.57 acres) per two-family. But the law states they have to be on their own, non-clustered lots, with setbacks, minimum road frontage and so forth. In other words, a conventional suburban subdivision.

The site was originally approved for just such a project, the high-end, three-phase, 31-lot Millcroft development, of which only the first phase was ever platted and prepped before the Great Recession kicked in and the market for very large, very expensive homes shrank. The Bush family limited homes to 2,500 SF or greater, and with half-acre lots selling for $80,000, it was clearly geared toward high-end homes, but they lack the combination of acreage or lake views that are the usual prerequisites of Lansing’s $500k+ home sales. Well over a decade later, and the thirteen home lots still have yet to be fully built out, and interest has never been strong. Three of the four recent home sales here sold under assessment, which is a rarity in Tompkins; last year, it was less than ~6% of properties.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Millcroft land went up for sale in 2017. When the Bush family sold a purchase option to the Beers, it was taken about as well as a stick to the eye, and Millcroft Lane residents strongly opposed the 800-1,200 SF senior cottages. In theory, the remaining eighteen lots in the subdivision are still an option, or another layout could be submitted; but a developer is not legally obligated to build houses as big or expensive as the first phase if the Bush family agrees to remove the covenants, which the Beer cottages proposal shows they very are open to.

As for the Beers, it’s a shame the plan won’t move forward, as senior rentals (and senior for-sale, more crucially) are an underserved market in Tompkins County. Potentially, other locations in Lansing or elsewhere might be suitable and more open to cluster-style senior cottages, but after sinking tens of thousands into this proposal, the Beers are unlikely to submit something else in the near future.

2. A little further north in the town of Lansing, a pair of projects are struggling. The 102-unit Cayuga Orchard Apartments project is up for sale from WB Property Group of New York City, as is a 28-lot subdivision, Cayuga Way, which was intended for high-end homes. Cayuga Orchard is asking $3.1 million for the 30.5 acres and plans, though the seller has stated interest in a Joint Venture partnership if a potential buyer is interested and willing to negotiate. The ad briefly states:

“30.5 acres, now approved for 102 units, approved to tap into municipal sewer. Open to JV or to sell outright Located in prestigious town of lansing, best in class schools, 15 min from Cornell University Extremely long approval process for multifamily.”

To be fair, the town of Lansing is one of the easier municipal approval processes in Tompkins County, though an uncertain and red-tape-filled process has been cited as both a barrier to affordable housing and housing development within the county.

The Cayuga Way ad, also from WB Property Group, is for either all 28 lots or by the lot:

“All approved for 28 lot subdivision, roads/improvements are in. Best piece of land remaining in the prestigious Lansing area on “the hill.” All wooded lots. 15 minutes from Cornell University, Downtown Ithaca, and Ithaca and Lansing High Schools.”

Price on request, also called price on application (POA) can be done for several reasons – market fluctuations, a fear of influencing other properties if higher or lower than expected, and more questionably, a chance to size up buyers to see how much they can afford. Presumably, a buyer seeking 1500 SF homes here wouldn’t want to pay as much as someone thinking 3000 SF. Joint ventures are also being considered for this project.

For a town hoping to develop its way out of the continued decrease and likely loss of what was once its largest taxpayer, this isn’t good news. But we’ll see if a partner or buyer comes along.

3. This one was a bit surprising. The Dryden town Zoning Board of Appeals shot down a 3-lot subdivision at 1932 Slaterville Road. The plan was for Habitat for Humanity to buy the property, create two more lots and renovate the existing dilapidated 150 year-old farm house, all three of which would have been sold to qualified low-income families who put in the “sweat equity” to help build and renovate.The variance was needed for a flag lot, because with the land acquisition and renovation costs, the project only penned out financially with two more lots.

On paper, that actually seems like a slam dunk. I thought it would be smooth sailing after Dryden’s Planning Board, which is advisory but tends to be less pro-development than Dryden’s other board, had recommended the variance be approved; in fact, David Weinstein, one of the planning board’s most stringent members, was very supportive, citing the desperate need for affordable housing and feeling its 1-acre per lot density was appropriate for the area. But then the Zoning Board of Appeals runs out with this:

It’s like they’re talking about two totally different proposals. I’d also like to point out that describing affordable owner-occupied housing as “there would be an undesirable change of the neighborhood, which is not in the character of the neighborhood, and could possibly have detriment to the neighborhood” is a really tasteless and poor choice of words.

With the denial of the variance, the project is dead. That’s unfortunate for Habitat, who due to logistical difficulties had to cancel their previous project for four townhomes at 402 South Cayuga Street. As for the $40,000 they were due to receive from the joint Cornell-city-count Community Housing Development Fund, it will go unused.

 

4. Emmy’s Organics is not moving forward with their Cherry Street project. The plan ran into trouble when initial geotechnical studies found that the soils may be in such poor shape on the site that they’re unable to reasonably support the concrete slab for a single-story industrial building, and not even stable enough to support a parking lot. The IURA hired a second geotechnical engineering firm (John P. Stopen Engineering) for $5,000, which found that it would be possible to build, but only if the top three feet of soil were removed, which would raise the project cost. The IURA was willing to consider a larger loan, but Emmy’s decided the project, which was on a tight timeline, was simply no longer feasible. The owners are now looking to build elsewhere, so not only is the $1.4 million project and its 5-10 new jobs are lost, it’s not clear where the firm will move and what’s going to happen with their existing 19 mostly living-wage jobs. It also puts the IURA in a spot because the undeveloped remainder of Cherry Street just became a lot less desirable for smaller light industrial projects like this one.

The project was to use $175,000 in NYS-administered Community Block Development Grant Funds (CDGF) for job creation for low and moderate-income households. These funds have to be allocated by the city by March 31st, or they have to be returned to the state. In a rush to use them before they lose them, the IURA is proposed to shift $49,000 towards lighting improvements in Titus Park, and $126,000 towards $290,000 in acquisition costs to buy the 9,100 SF Immaculate Conception gymnasium from the Catholic Diocese, for use in indoor recreation and presumably as part of the sale of the rest of the property to INHS. The IURA is not totally sure if either use qualifies for the funds, but they’re in a rush to find alternatives before the state takes the money back.