City Centre Construction Update, 12/2017

21 12 2017

As with the Hilton Canopy Hotel under construction just across the street, City Centre is in the middle of foundation work. Steel forms with plywood facing have been erected and braced along the perimeter of the building footprint. In fact, it looks like the project team is using the same Symons Steel-Ply system being deployed at the Canopy site. The piles have been driven and the foundation slab is poured. The team is slowly making their way to the steel frame of each pile, encasing it within forms before pouring the concrete, letting it cure, and then removing the forms to reveal a concrete/steel column ready for vertical additions. The elevator cores and stairwell columns are also on the rise. – the elevator core facing East State Street appears to be the furthest along.

We finally have a named general contractor, and like the architect for the City Centre team (Humphreys & Partners of Dallas), its a new entrant to the Ithaca area – Purcell Construction Corporation, with offices in Richmond, Virginia and Watertown, New York (an hour’s drive north of Syracuse). It appears that they have plenty of experience with multi-story towers and large structures, which is no doubt an asset for the project team.

As I previously said, as structural steel takes height here and with the Canopy and Harold’s Square, downtown Ithaca is going to look like one big advertisement for TCAD.





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.





City Centre Construction Update, 8/2017

21 08 2017

Ithaca is fortunate to have a downtown area with strong residential demand and relatively low commercial retail vacancy. Unlike many communities in upstate New York, its downtown area is ahead of the curve when it comes to attracting and capitalizing on investment. Apart from a few communities of similar economic strength (Saratoga Springs, Beacon), most regional cities are only just starting to re-invest in their downtrodden downtown cores.

It’s important to keep in mind that Ithaca was on a similar destructive path during the 1960s and 1970s. Like many cities, it was experiencing flight to the suburbs, competition from malls and shopping centers on the fringes, and general disinterest and loss of investment downtown. In an attempt to spur development, the city commenced with urban renewal plans that, among other things, routed Green Street through an urban block to create the tuning fork in the late 1950s, and in the mid and late 1960s, the city seized multiple 2-5 story ca. 1900 structures on the 300 Block of East State Street via eminent domain, demolishing them with the intent to sell the land to Ithaca Savings and Loan for a new bank branch and office building.

Things didn’t pan out as planned. After the bank pulled out, the now empty triangle of land bounded by South Aurora, East State and East Green Streets was used as a parking lot for construction crews, before finally being sold in 1973 to the Colbert family, who developed the Trebloc Building on the site. Originally planned at two floors, it opened in 1974, a one-story, brutalist-lite structure that was not a good fit and certainly not the transformative plan the city sold voters on a decade earlier. But, the city was desperate. They would take what they could get.

In the following decades, Ithaca’s economy remained relatively stable compared to its peers, thanks in large part to the colleges – staff counts increased to pick up some of the losses from manufacturers moving out of state or abroad, and students helped buoy the service sector. Ithaca’s downtown saw some investment in the late 20th century, but more importantly, most of the historic properties that survived Urban Renewal were now generating enough interest to avoid the wrecking ball.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, the idea of spin-offs and start-ups was starting to take off, and with Cornell serving as a sort of research incubator, it led to a modest but well-paying and growing high-tech sector. Add in an increasing trend towards college towns as a lively alternative to retirement communities, and Ithaca found itself with a growing economy. Coincident was a resurgent interest in urban living; Ithaca’s sleepy but intact downtown was poised to take advantage. It was still a risk in the 2000s, but through effort and luck, public-private projects like Cayuga Green and Seneca Place have paid off.

At this point, the initial “pioneer” projects have opened and demonstrated market strengths and weaknesses. Commercial office space is lukewarm at best, but rentals are hot. With a continued resilient, growing economy, developers were now scouting opportunities on their own. This was encouraged by the city, which upzoned several downtown parcels in 2014 to drum up interest. As part of this upzone, the Trebloc site was rezoned from CBD-60 to CBD-120, raising the maximum height from 60 feet to 120 feet, while permitting 100% lot coverage (excluding setbacks) with no requirement for on-site parking.

The first formal proposal to come along was State Street Triangle in April 2015. Texas-based Campus Advantage initially proposed a 12-story, 240-unit, 600-bed apartment building with first floor retail. The units were intended towards the student market, and Campus Advantage saw the property as an ideal location to draw in both Cornell and IC students.

Unfortunately, this development attempt pretty much checked off every box for what not to do. It was very large by Ithaca standards, officially student-oriented, the original design was mediocre at best, and according to city officials and staff, the developers came in with a condescending air, like the building was a gift and the city could only be so lucky. This stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition. Complaints included the size, the parking, the tenant mix, the design, and the developers were taken out to the proverbial woodshed for being out of touch “outsiders” who were simply going to profit off the city.

While there were some proponents, they were not many. The developers tried to make amends with a more appropriate design by STREAM Collaborative that reduced the size and scale, offered to make a donation to the city’s affordable housing fund, and broke up units to appeal to non-students, but the damage was done. When it became clear they would seek a tax abatement as most downtown projects do, the mayor, who is generally pro-density and pro-downtown, spoke out against it. Behind the scenes, a local developer was preparing to file a lawsuit if the city dared to approve the project without asking for a long, expensive Environmental Impact Statement first.

Meanwhile, the Colberts were in talks with a different developer, Newman Development Group (NDG) of Vestal. While not as large as Campus Advantage, Newman had previous experience in Downtown Ithaca, co-developing the Seneca Way mixed-use project with Bryan Warren a few years earlier. In fact, NDG’s forte is suburban shopping plazas and student housing; at the time, their only urban non-student residential project was Seneca Way. But, they knew Ithaca through experience. They knew what the city did and didn’t like, and watching Campus Advantage flounder not only gave them an opportunity to swoop in, it was an additional opportunity to watch and learn.

By December 2015, the purchase option CA had on the site had expired; and when they went to renegotiate, the Colberts were not interested, and decided to go with NDG. In January 2016, State Street Triangle was officially cancelled.

City Centre was officially announced in a press release in June 2016. From the start, it avoided the mistakes that plagued Campus Advantage. The announcement came not as a leak in the Journal, but in a press release to all three Ithaca news outlets, which gave an air of transparency and limited speculation. The initial design by Texas-based Humphreys & Partners Architects was well-regarded. The project would be non-student market-rate, with studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units. Instead of no parking at all, 71 (later 72) spaces would be located under the ground floor retail in a subterranean lot. The turn lane from Aurora onto State would be maintained, rather than lost to an expanded plaza.

With this approach, opposition to City Centre was much weaker – many critics saw this as a fair alternative. There were some complaints, like from Historic Ithaca, who were against any building with more than six floors; but overall, the reception to City Centre was much more favorable. The key changes through the municipal review process was to try and make the building less massive and less like State Street Triangle, as both had similar massing, and a visual focal point on the corner facing the Commons. The project team achieved this through setbacks and bump-outs to create more facade variation, and reducing the building to eight floors. Other details that were revised include additional street-level windows and the cornice of the curved primary facade. City Centre received preliminary approval in January, after the zoning board signed off on a rear setback variance. Final approval was granted in February. The original design can be seen here, and the final design is here.

The details of the final plan are confusing to the point of frustration – no one seems to agree on the exact figures (if anyone reading this could provide them, it’d be appreciated). The range of figures call for a 217,671-218,211 SF (square-foot) building on 0.76 acres, with 10,600 SF of ground floor retail and 8,700 SF of amenity space (gym, lobby, computer room, lounge, rental office) and 2,000 SF of utility space. On the upper floors are 192 apartments, or 193 – the square footage and unit details are all over the place. Once source says 63 studio, 73 1-bedroom, 57 2-bedroom units – another says 193, with a breakdown of 56 studio units (506 SF), 94 1-bedroom units (598-725 SF) and 43 2-bedroom units (907-1,370 SF). 68-72 parking spaces will be built in a one-story underground garage (without the garage, square footage is 186,966-187,536 SF). Building height has been reported as 85 feet, 106 feet and 111 feet, which is probably just a technical difference due to the slope of the site.

The total hard cost for the project is estimated at $32.8 million, and combined hard and soft costs come in at $52.7 million. The project was granted an enhanced tax abatement in April 2017. This was not without some opposition from residents who felt it was inappropriate to give an abatement to market-rate housing, and some landlords. Downtown business owners and interest groups were generally in favor.

Construction is expected through at least Spring 2019, although the numbers have been a bit inconsistent, with some paperwork suggesting 2020. The disagreement stems in part from the start date for the 20-month construction period, and whether that includes demo/site prep or not. It will be steel frame construction with brick veneer and a few shades of Nichiha fiber cement panels. The building will use electric air-source heat pumps and have a 7.5 KW rooftop solar array.

The project team includes NDG, Humphreys & Partners as architect, Whitham Planning and Design LLC as the team representative and point of contact for the review process, and T. G. Miller PC for civil engineering and surveying work. Rochester’s Morgan Management will be in charge of leasing. NDG is in a major expansion mode on the residential side at the moment, with a 320-bed student housing project under construction in Oswego, and a 120-unit general market project underway in Binghamton.

At the moment, the former Trebloc Building is no more, having been fenced off and demolished earlier in the summer. Excavation for the parking garage and 26″ thick concrete mat foundation has yet to begin. About 400 construction jobs are expected to be created, and as part of the abatement agreement, at least 25% (100) will be local labor.

 





News Tidbits 7/8/17: Watching the Fireworks

8 07 2017

1. A pair of major downtown projects are starting to get a move on site-prep and demolition. The Trebloc Building has been torn down to make way for the 187,000 SF, $32.9 million City Centre project.

Photo from C. Hadley Smith Collection

For a bit of historical perspective, the Trebloc Building was a sort of monument to municipal desperation. Up until 1967, the site housed several 2-5 story buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then along came urban renewal. The city had made plans to demolish the buildings and sell the lot to a bank tenant, who would build a new office and help revitalize the city’s run-down downtown. But after demolishing the building, the potential bank tenant never followed through on its original intent, and the city spend years trying to sell the lot, which was used for makeshift parking in the interim. Finally, they found a buyer in the Colbert Family doing business as the Trebloc Development Company. The Trebloc Building was originally planned to have two floors, but financial troubles had reduced it to one before it finally opened for business in 1974.

One could argue that nothing quite represented the nadir of Ithaca’s downtown quite like the struggling, unloved and unlovely Trebloc Building did. There are some buildings worth fighting for, and even some mediocre ones that come down with a bittersweet sentiment. This was neither.

Perhaps unhappily for downtown businesses, City Centre will be under construction for quite some time; adjusting the estimate given to the IDA, late 2019 or even early 2020 is possible.

Meanwhile, just a couple blocks west, Harold’s Square is also gearing up for demolition of 123-135 East State Street. Unlike the Trebloc teardown, Developer David Lubin will be deconstructing the existing structures, so that their components can be re-used (the process will be managed by Finger Lake Re-Use). I’ve always been kinda partial to the green tile on the former Race Office Supply, so hopefully that goes to a good home. 137-139 East State will be renovated as part of the Harold’s Square project. Harold’s Square, a 180,000 SF building with a hard construction cost of $32.6 million, is expected to take about 18 months, opening in Q1 2019. Dunno why City Centre’s construction schedule is a year longer, although with the underground garage, the project is a little larger (211,200 SF), and more structurally complex. It could also just be a very generous estimate.

2. Tompkins County will be hosting a meeting at the Museum of the Earth on July 19th at 7:30 PM to discuss plans for the Biggs Parcel on the town of Ithaca’s portion of West Hill. As covered previously, the 25.5 acre parcel, which has something of a long news history, has been for sale since last summer, but without any firm offers, the county ended its realtor contract and has been trying to figure out with to do with the property. Although there are some streams and wetlands, there are some development possibilities; neighbors have been pushing for it to be a county-owned natural preserve, but the county wants an option that will pay taxes, whether that be a multi-family development, private estate or otherwise.

While the county did not identify this parcel as a high environmental protection priority, they are busy working with Finger Lakes Land Trust to protect a 125-acre property in Caroline, and there are ongoing discussions regarding a 324-acre property in Dryden.

3. As with nearly every sizable project in Tompkins County, the Inn at Taughannock expansion is being met with some resistance from neighbors. As relayed by the Times’ Jamie Swinnerton, arguments cited include traffic, view sheds, size, neighborhood character (which seems a bit weird, given there’s not much of a neighborhood nearby), and most frequently, noise, which the town could help resolve by asking for an acoustical counsultant’s report like what Ben Rosenblum submitted in Ithaca for his cancelled proposal for a jazz bar at 418 East State Street. The addition, which calls for a new restaurant, event space and five guest rooms, would create about 25 jobs if built and opened as planned. The often-joked but actually rarely-seen email calling me a “thoughtless corporatist” arrived in the inbox after the first write-up, which indicates this fireworks show may not be over for a little while.

4. In a bit of a weird hang-up, the Heritage Center project attempted to give itself a formal name, but the name was shot down by the County Legislature. The proposed moniker of “Tompkins Center for History and Culture” was defeated in a 7 yes -3 no vote (8 yes votes required) because a few of the legislators felt there hadn’t been enough time to gauge community reaction. Personally, I thought “Tompkins County Heritage Center” was fine, but to each their own.

5. Thankfully, the county’s endorsement of the Housing Strategy was unanimous. This is but a baby step in solving the county’s housing woes, but it’s an important step. The county now has a sort of guiding document to help address issues in adding and improving the local housing stock.

There are a few key things that the county will need to adhere to when moving forward. First is working with communities to identify suitable areas for development, and making updates to infrastructure and zoning to guide developers towards those properties instead of far-flung, natural areas where acquisition costs are low and there are fewer neighbors to contend with. Second is bridging the affordability gap – some of this can be done by encouraging new housing at market-rate, but the county will need to be constructively engaging and reliable when helping affordable housing plans apply for grants or exploring tax incentives to help make their proposals feasible.

The third, and arguably the most controversial point here, is standing firm in the face of opposition. Many Tompkins residents are averse to new housing (or really, new anything) near them. For example, consider the Tiny Timbers plan recently announced for Lansing Town Center. The plan checks a lot of boxes – at $175-$225k, it’s fairly affordable owner-occupied new housing, with a smaller ecological footprint than many detached single-family homes. Yet, in the Voice comments, it was dumped on as both a glorified trailer park and unaffordable at the same time, and the neighbor who tried and failed to buy the property from the town to prevent development was trying to scare people from small house living (which at 1000-1500 SF, these aren’t really “tiny” houses anyway). The county should listen for the sake of good government, but after weighing the argument, unless a project is truly a detriment to a community’s quality of life, the county and local boards will need a firm backbone in withstanding criticism. It also helps if people who like a project give their two cents in an email or meeting.

So, good first step, but there’s a lot of work ahead. Fingers crossed.





News Tidbits 5/6/17: Starting Small and Dreaming Big

6 05 2017

1. The Evergreen Townhouses in Varna was hotly debated at the last town board meeting, per the Times’ Cassie Negley. Linda Lavine, one of the town board members, was particularly fierce in her criticism, calling the solar panels “useless”, and others in attendance expressed concern about appropriate room for amenities.

However, it also seems one of the phrases bandied about was that it wasn’t “family-friendly”. If you’re reading this and one of those folks, do yourself a favor and stop using that term. It’s an enormously baited phrase, historically used to fight affordable housing as a racist/classist euphemism, because people of a certain class or color were apparently less appropriate for families to be around. For an unfortunate example, it was a phrase used with the INHS 210 Hancock affordable housing plan in Ithaca. Think of it as the equivalent of a religious group claiming a TV show isn’t “family-friendly” because it has a same-sex couple, or feminists.

Although this project is market-rate, deciding whether or not something is “family-friendly” is subjective and potentially baited. It gives others the wrong idea on how to discuss the pros and cons of a project, which should be about features, or lack thereof. TL;DR, find a different phrase.

Oh, and on another note – Planning Board member Don Scutt. For someone claiming Dryden is getting an anti-business reputation, your work fighting the solar panels isn’t doing the town any favors. I don’t always (often?) agree with your mirror opposite and board colleague Joe Wilson, but at least I can say he’s consistent in his views.

Anyway, off soapbox. It looks like the public hearing was left open as the project may potentially pursue a modified plan of some form, so we’ll just have to see what happens.

2. The Trebloc property, future home of City Centre, has exchanged hands. 301 East State Street sold for $6,800,000 on April 28th. The seller was “Trebloc Development Company”, the company of developer Rob Colbert. The buyer was “City Centre Associates LLC”, a limited-liability entity created Newman Development. This brings the 8-story, 218,211 SF mixed-use project one step closer to getting underway.

3. A couple of news notes from the Tompkins County PEDEEQ (planning/dev catch-all) Committee meeting:

I. OAR’s transitional housing at 626 West Buffalo Street will be called “Endeavor House”.

II. The county is set to start work on its draft housing strategy. The annual goal figures through 2025 include:

–580 “workforce units” per year, of which 280 are rentals going for 50-100% area median income, and 300 would be for-sale, with 80 of those condos.

–student beds, either dorms or student housing developers, commensurate with enrollment growth

–special needs beds to those making 50% or less of AMI. No quantitative descriptor is given.

–350 units in the urban core, 50-100 in “emerging and established nodes”, 30 in rural centers and 100-150 in “other areas”, which includes suburban Lansing.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fmedia%2Fset%2F%3Fset%3Da.1518721884836040.1073741852.772959889412247%26type%3D3&width=500

4. 607 South Aurora Street is officially underway. Modern Living Rentals posted an update to their facebook page showing site prep for their infill residential project in the city of Ithaca’s South Hill neighborhood. The four new buildings will be two-family units with three-beds each (24 total), similar to those recently completed at 125 and 139 Old Elmira Road. If the statistics are correct, the existing house will be renovated into a two family house – the banner suggests a 4-bed unit and a 2-bed unit to bring the total to 30 beds. This project will get a full write-up later this month, and its progress will be tracked as it heads for an August completion.

5. Looking at the city of Ithaca’s projects memo, it doesn’t look like anything brand new will be coming up. The formal review process is set to begin on Visum Development’s 232-236 Dryden Road project. I’m kinda confused on STREAM’s project description because it references both 191 bedrooms and 206 bedrooms, and some of the numbers don’t match the parenthetical figures -for example, thirty-seven (42) bike spaces. Going off the FEAF, it looks like the number of beds has in fact been increased to 206. The construction timeframe is August 2017 – August 2018, and it looks like both buildings will comprise one phase. Deep foundation, so apologies in advance to the neighbors who may be hearing a a pile driver this fall. The developer is exploring net-zero energy options.

Also of note, 323 Taughannock received some visual tweaks. Gone are the cute sprial staircases leading to the waterfront, and in their place are more standard treatments. The group of five will now have their balconies on the third floor instead of the second floor. The changes on the front are more subtle, with the window fenestration now centered on each unit, and the front doors rearranged (old version here). Overall, the design is still roughly the same, it’s just a revision of a lot of details. Worth noting, given the crap soils on Inlet Island these will be on a timber pile foundation designed by Taitem Engineering. 238 Linden Avenue, 118 College Avenue and Benderson’s 7,313 SF retail addition are up for final approval this month.

6. Meanwhile, from the ILPC, it looks like there are a couple of density-expanding projects planned in the city’s historic districts. The first will renovate a garage at 339 South Geneva Street in the Henry St. John Historic District (part of Southside) into a one-bedroom carriage house. It’s infill, the garage is non-contributing and the design is an improvement, and it looks like a good if small project.

The other is a renovation of a classic Cornell Heights Mansion at 111 The Knoll into group housing for “Sophia House”, a Cornell Christian organization for women. The men’s equivalent, “Chesterton House”, is next door. The plan calls for renovating the five-bedroom, legal for eight-persons house into a 15-bed home. Part of that would entail demolishing the 1950s garage, which is connected by a breezeway to the ca. 1910 house, and replacing the garage with a four-bed addition, still connected through the breezeway.

Both designs are by STREAM Collaborative, as are 232-236 Dryden and 323 Taughannock. Can’t fault STREAM for being good at what they do – if a developer wants modern like 201 College, they get modern. If one wants traditional like the above examples, Noah Demarest and his team can do that too. They know the market and what works in terms of design. Unlike many local architecture firms, STREAM’s business is almost completely in Tompkins County – they did some concept design work in Rome and Utica, and some of the Tiny Timbers kits have been sold outside the county, but otherwise everything else is in or close to Ithaca. Business is good.

harolds_square_v4_new_comparo

7. Admittedly, this is beating a dead horse, but Harold’s Square will eventually get underway. It appears the problem right now is that the tax abatement approved by the county is insufficient because of the increase in project costs (up 12% to $42.9 million), so the project team is heading back to the IDA to get the abatement revised (the Hilton Canopy did the same thing a few months ago). The project was previously approved for a 7-year abatement, but this time around they are seeking the 10-year abatement. Combined property, sales and mortgage tax abatement would come out to $5.089 million. New property taxes generated over the 10-year period would be $3.4 million (note that is on top of what’s already paid; IDA abatements use the current taxes as the baseline).

The office space and retail space look higher than previously stated (33k vs 25k, and 16k vs 12k), but it looks like that’s because the Sage Building renovations are included in the IDA numbers. The apartment count remains the same (108), although it looks like one 1-bedroom unit has been replaced with a 2-bedroom unit.

Two reasons are cited for the delay- issues with getting the office and retail space occupied, and a premium price on construction workers as a result of the increased local activity. The pre-development costs are clocking in around $800,000, so if it fails to get approval from the IDA’s board, that will be a pretty big cost to swallow.

Should it be approved, the construction timeline is stated as June 2017 through Q1 2019.

8. Just throwing this in for the sake of throwing this in – mark your calendars for May 17th, when Cornell hosts a forum about the new East Hill Village neighborhood from 5:30-7:30 PM at the East Hill Office Building at 395 Pine Tree Rd. The project website notes that it will start with a 30-minute presentation, followed by breakout groups to brainstorm what people do and don’t want included in the building plans – certain retail uses, housing components, general visions for the site. There will be more meetings over the next several months – the goal is an Autumn 2017 exhibition for the preliminary plans.





News Tidbits 4/15/17: Good and Bad Decisions

15 04 2017

1. It looks like the Lansing Meadows issue is being resolved. Village mayor Don Hartill has issued a sort of mea culpa for not sending the project to the Planning Board before inviting it to the Village board of Trustees, saying the Planning Board was caught off guard and it was his and the village attorney’s fault. So the project will visit the Planning Board with Hartill and developer Eric Gortzmann on hand to answer any questions the planning board might have. A workable solution is possible – the planning board isn’t necessarily opposed, they would prefer more housing but could be willing to hear out a commercial component so long as it’s set back from the road and screened from the homes by foliage. Optimistically, the cafe/diner and twenty senior housing units might be good to go within a month.

2. The Biggs Parcel is up in the air. There have been no offers since going on sale last July, and the contract with realtor CJ DelVecchio has expired. The county has decided not to renew while they weigh options. Options being weighed for the three-month hold include a smaller housing development on eight of the acres on the corner of Indian Creek and Harris B Dates Drive, and/or a solar farm, which may split neighbors between a low-intensity, eco-friendly project, and losing a portion of the woods so that the solar panels could operate. There is no plan for another Cayuga Trails-type project like what NRP proposed before the discovery of more extensive wetlands convinced them to cancell the project in September 2014.

3. The town of Ithaca has selected its firm of choice to conduct the economic development study and strategic plan for its Inlet Valey corridor southwest of the cityConsultEcon, Inc. of Cambridge, in partnership with Behan Planning and Design of Saratoga, was selected from six applications. Behan has previous experience in the area; in fact, they won an award for their work on the 2012 Varna Master Plan over in Dryden. The town will pay $30,000, and the state will pay $30,000 through its Empire State Development division. Although not state in the town agenda, I believe the time frame to perform and submit the study is six months.

According to Ithaca town’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan, the goal is to turn Inlet Valley from an auto-centric hodge-podge with no overarching character, to a semi-rural neighborhood with an agribusiness, “artisanal industrial”, and tourism focus, capitalizing on Ithaca Beer and the existing and proposed lodging. The Sleep Inn proposal submitted a potential rustic streetscape that gives an idea of the aesthetic the town seems to be going for.

4. From the PEDC, the Southside housing plan is ongoing, and the IURA has hired their new planner after Lynn Truame left for INHS. There was considerable discussion over the Waterfront rezoning, with general conceptual support, although the First Ward councilors are not fans of mixing housing with light industrial areas, or forcing businesses to compete with housing developers for waterfront sites. Councilwoman Brock (D-1st) was opposed to housing in the Cherry Street Corridor. The proposal was granted by vote the permission to circulate for review and comment, so there’s still time for thoughts and opinions to be contemplated and discussed.

5. On another note, many of the speakers at the PEDC meeting were there to speak out against the City Centre project at 301 East State Street, not because they didn’t like the building (well, most of them), but because it didn’t have affordable units, which they felt should be a requirement for abatements.

I support that to a degree, but I’m also aware that, all other things equal, the revenue loss from the affordable units has to be made up for somewhere, usually by passing the costs on to the other tenants. In that case, the city ends up with a lack of units for those with middle incomes. I like the idea of modestly more generous zoning as a tradeoff to the inclusionary housing component, but as a proposal, that didn’t go over so well – developers didn’t like it (because to build more they need bigger loans, so it hurts smaller developers), anti-development folks didn’t like it (because affordable or not, it’s more of what they don’t like), and there was significant uncertainty on whether it’d be effective.

The county IDA had its vote for the sales/mortgage/property tax abatements the following day, and they decided to grant the abatements 5-1, with legislator Will Burbank opposed. The 192-unit mixed-use project is expected to begin construction with the next couple of months, for an early 2019 completion.

6. Once in a while, you get a project so despised by neighbors, they decide to run for office as single-issue candidates – namely, to stop the project. That’s what happening in Lansing village. Mayor Donald Hartill and two incumbent trustees, Ronny Hardaway and Patricia O’Rourke, are being challenged in the May election by mayoral candidate Lisa Bonniwell and two trustee candidates, Gregory Eells and John LaVine. Their goal is to overturn the rezoning of the Park Grove property on Bomax Drive, which rezoned commercial/tech office space to multi-family, enabling a 140-unit apartment project to move forward with planning board review.

This is not the first time something like this has happened in Lansing. When the Lansing Reserve affordable housing project was proposed in 2011, two residents opposed to the project, Yasamin Miller and Brian Goodell, ran against incumbent trustees on a single-issue platform of stopping the project. They lost by 2:1 margins, but Lansing Reserve never moved forward, and since then the land has been bought by the village for park space.

Although in a Voice capacity I can’t formally take sides, I have big issues with the challenger’s platform. I’m not a big fan of the Park Grove as a project, but the rezoning makes sense. As the county’s airport business park study demonstrated, the demand for new commercial and industrial space is very limited, while from the Denter study, it is clear the demand for housing is quite strong (5,000 units in the next decade). It amazes me that the challengers are saying the project will lower property values in a village with substantial price appreciation and major affordability issues (but as noted by the Star, Bonniwell’s family developed the expensive and still incomplete Heights of Lansing project nearby, so she has a vested interest in limiting housing).

Not only that, in the interview with the Lansing Star, challenger LaVine suggests the village should look at eventually merging with the town of Lansing, which is completely contrary to the village’s formation in 1974 as a reaction to the mall, when residents demanded for stricter zoning that the town didn’t want to accommodate. The town has much looser zoning than the village. If voters think for one moment that the town wouldn’t seek to change zoning in the village to build up the tax base and cope with the likely loss of the power plant, they’re in for a rude surprise.

7. On the agendas, nothing too exciting this week. The town has a couple of telecom towers and a 600,000 gallon water tank for Hungerford Hill Road. Over in the city, it’s project review week, but zoning variances suggest another nicely-detailed garage from STREAM Collaborative (STREAM does really nice garages), a couple of home additions, and a new 1,695 SF house at 412 Worth Street in Belle Sherman designed by Jason Demarest. The property is a flag lot that straddles the city-town line, so it would be neigh impossible to do anything without a variance. Ulysses will just be discussing zoning, and the other towns and village will be doing their regular meetings later in the month.

 





News Tidbits 4/1/17: High Energy Debates

1 04 2017

1. There might be yet another potential hang-up with the Lansing Meadows project. Previously, developer Eric Goetzmann presented planned to the Lansing village Board of Trustees to densify the initial 12-unit plan and add a small retail component, such as a coffee shop, diner or similar gathering venue. The idea was well received, and so Goetzmann approached the planning board with 20 senior housing units and a small commercial lot TBD, where it was A) news to them, and B) not-so-well received.

According to the Lansing Star, the objection is not to the housing; in fact, the planning board said they’d prefer another four housing units rather than commercial. But they’re not comfortable with the sudden change, and Goetzmann’s looking at the additional costs of revised plans because the Board of Trustees and the Planning Board were not on the same page. It is kind of a weird situation, although not unprecedented (it bears some similarity to the 201 College debate in Ithaca city last year, where the Planning Department and Planning Board were not on the same page). The boards are supposed to meet in early April to retify their differences so Goetzmann knows what he can move forward with, hopefully by this summer.

Looking at the screenshot above, Salem R. LaHood of suburban Syracuse is the architect; apart from being a design partner for some high-end outlet malls, I can’t find much else on his resume.

2. The solar arrays planned in Dryden are getting are less-than-welcome reception, per Cassandra Negley at the Ithaca Times. The argument is pretty similar to the one often used on affordable housing – “we know it’s needed and we like it in concept, but we don’t want it anywhere near us”. But then far from one person is close to another; and it results in lackluster solutions, like affordable housing so far out that it’s isolated from needed goods and services.

One of the biggest sources of opposition is from family and friends of those interred at the Willow Glen Cemetery, which is the landscaped area south of the panels in the image above. Although many of the opposed do not even live in New York, let alone Dryden, it’s argued that the project is “sneaky back-room industrial solar” and will “destroy the atmosphere” (coincidentally, the land across the road from Willow Glen is zoned for and being marketed to roadside commercial tenants). It’s fine to be concerned, but looking at this particular site, the anger is a little overblown – there is sufficient room for a green screen of hedges and trees between the panels and the cemetery, which could easily be included as a stipulation as part of the approvals. Sustainable Tompkins is attempting to push back against some of the criticism, but on the balance, the public comment on the Dryden solar arrays is negative.

Let me approach this with an overarching view. Dryden is strongly opposed to an increase in natural gas (much to Lansing’s chagrin). Wind energy has been vociferously opposed just over the valley in Enfield, and Newfield essentially outlawed wind turbines. Solar panels are also being fought in Ulysses and Newfield. In Ithaca, there have been onerous battles over allowing panels on rooftops in historic districts. The energy to power homes and businesses has to come from somewhere; the preference seems to be for a sustainable option, rather than oil or gas piped in from Pennsylvania or beyond. Every choice is going to have its pros and cons – gas is cheap but environmentally unsound; wind turbines are tall and highly visible; solar panels need space for their cells. Frankly, a lightly-populated area on untaxed land owned by Cornell, which would then pay a PILOT fee for the solar panels, seems like a reasonable option. Someone has to step up and lead by example. Why not the town that fought fracking and won?

Anyway, the town pushed their meeting on the project back by one week to digest the onslaught of criticism. The meeting will be held at the town hall on Thursday April 6th at 7 PM.

UPDATE: The April 6th meeting has been cancelled and cannot be rescheduled until additional paperwork about the project has been received.

3. On the topic of energy, it looks like Cornell wants to move ahead with a trial run of its experimental geothermal project. Per the Times, the initial test phases of the “Earth Source Heating” project could take up to six years and $12-$15 million, which is a lot of money given that no one is certain if it will ultimately be a viable source of renewable energy. Some concern is being expressed that the project is too similar to fracking, but unlike the fracking process, where water is used to shatter shale beneath the surface to extract natural gas, the water used here is much lower pressure and kept in a closed loop, in comparison to fracking’s constant expansion of extraction sites. For the time being, the naysayers are assuaged, so now comes years of designing the project and permitting; an extensive Envrionmental Impact Statement (EIS) seems almost certain. ESH would be groundbreaking in more ways than one, if successful.

4. It looks like the major hurdles to the Travis Hyde Properties Old Library redevelopment have been cleared. With the historic district Certificiate of Appropriateness granted from the city’s ILPC, it’s now a matter of going through site plan review – the developer is hoping for an expedited process that’s settled by May, which given the joint meetings between the Planning Board and ILPC, may be possible. The design review is already complete as is most of the documentation, so at this point, it’s just a matter of making sure there are adequate environmental mitigations in place. After that, it’s time for the county to draft up their docs for the $925,000 sale of the property, and hopefully THP can get the mixed-use project underway later this year. The 73,600 SF project will host 58 market-rate units for the 55+ crowd, community space administered by senior services nonprofit Lifelong, and 1,250 SF of street-front commercial.

5. The Tompkins County IDA held its public hearing for the City Centre tax abatements. As expected, the reactions were mixed. A couple of developers not associated with the project (Frost Travis and Todd Fox) came out and spoke in support, which is really great. For one, these guys are invested in the city and knowledgeable about the market, so they should have an idea on whether City Centre would be a welcome economic addition or detraction. For two, it’s nice to see members of the same real estate community standing up for each other. There are cases now and in the not-so-distant past where developers went out of their way to fight other projects, with the parochial scope that as few units as possible would mean as high rents (revenue) as possible. I’m not necessarily saying every project is great and they need to stick up for it, but it’s heartening to see some are taking a broader scope and speaking on behalf of the ones they recognize as beneficial to the community.

The detractors seem less upset about the project itself than the abatements, and there is the fundamental misunderstanding that taxpayers are “paying” for this project. There is no paying; it just phases in the new property taxes on top of the existing value and taxes for the parcel, rather than one big lump increase from the moment of completion. For the sake of example, if they’re paying $100,000 in taxes now, and a given project will bring it up to $1,000,000 in taxes, an abatement means they’ll still pay $100,000 until the site’s developed, then $200,000 right after completion, then $300,000 the following year, and so on until $1,000,000 (plus inflation) is attained. I’ve tried to explain this in the Voice, the Times has tried to explain this, but it’s still a problem.

6. Two Collegetown projects were brought to light at last week’s planning board meeting. 232-236 Dryden, a Visum Development project, would replace a large surface parking lot and rundown 30-unit apartment building with a 191-bed, 2-building complex. 238 Linden, a Novarr-Mackesey infill project, replaces a 10-bed, non-historic apartment house with 24 studio units in a townhouse-format structure designed by his favorite firm, ikon.5 Architects of Princeton. The target market is Johnson students, particularly Executive MBAs who may want to be closer to the university. One of the neat features is that the rear will have a treated “chameleon-like” surface that will change color depending on viewing angle, not unlike the pearl metallics used on some custom cars.

The plan is to have both 232-236 Dryden and 238 Linden underway late this year. Both are likely to have August 2018 openings, although 232-236 Dryden might be a two-phase project, with the second structure coming online in August 2019.

Keen readers will note that the Times has the sole coverage of 238 Linden right now, and this was not in the Voice; Nick Reynolds was at the meeting, I was not, and while I’ve been trying to get renders, I have yet to come through with one. I’d rather play catch-up than sacrifice integrity. I’ll follow up in the Voice eventually, but in the meanwhile, the blog is fair game because I make no money from it.

7. The town of Ithaca planning board looks to have a fairly quiet agenda for next week. Renewing some temporary modular structures at Cornell, construction signage for Maplewood, and An 11-lot subdivision on South Hill, “Ithaca Estates III” featuring Lilium Lane, Monarda Way and Rock Cress Road.

Unfortunately, it’s the Monkemeyer property, where the town has been entertaining ideas of a new urban neighborhood since its new Comprehensive Plan was passed in 2014. Evan Monkemeyer chose to revive a plan from 2010 for two cul-de-sacs off of a new arterial road that would cut through the property; and given the long-term build-out schematic shown above, there would be more cul-de-sacs to come, for a fairly conventional 1990s era suburban layout. Even though he’s apparently mowed the future roads in place on satellite, this doesn’t match up with the town’s Form Ithaca-inspired visions at all. The issue isn’t the housing, it’s the layout. The town’s planning push has been moving away from cul-de-sacs and towards connected streets.

Monkemeyer’s gone down this road before. It didn’t work out very well. Reviving a seven year-old plan that doesn’t fit with the town’s more recent Comprehensive Plan is not, and shouldn’t be, something that is going to sail through the planning board. Token future park space isn’t going to change that. Of course, then he’ll just whine to Rep. Tom Reed again. To Monkemeyer’s credit, the town has been taken uncomfortably long with formulating their new zoning code, it looks like some of the multi-year delay was the town’s fault over who was responsible for a water easement – but given the 6+ years since the issue was raised, it doesn’t appear he was pushing the matter much.