News Tidbits 12/2/17: The Changing Calculus

3 12 2017

1. Perhaps the big news of the week is that Visum Development Group’s project for 311 College Avenue (the Nines restaurant and Bar) was revived after negotiations with the seller moved in a favorable direction. This time around, it appears that Visum is bringing something close to an “A” game proposal; Jagat Sharma is still the architect of record, but Visum’s VP for New Market Development, Patrick Braga, had a heavy hand in the design work and historical research. The designs produced are more historically inspired and embrace some of the elements that make the old fire station attractive to the public – the first floor doors will pull up like garage bays or slide open to create a sort of open-air loggia on warm days, and a cornice element is retained. Floor to roof will be about 66 feet according to the Times’ Matt Butler, and still contain about 50 1-bedroom and studio apartments as well as 750 SF of retail. For the record, he and I did a bit of collaboration on describing the architectural features before we ran our respective stories.

The sketch plan had a kinder reception from the Planning Board this time around, if still cautious. Even though John Schroeder made it clear he would never accept any plan for The Nines, he said something to the effect of, if this design were proposed for any other MU-2 in Collegetown, he would have no problems with it whatsoever. The rest of the board did a quick poll to see if the other members would at least entertain a proposal, and no one else said no, so the project is considered active.

Now, things can get a little awkward from here. The city planning director, JoAnn Cornish, made it clear that they could move forward with design if they want, but there’s a risk that the property may get landmarked before they get approval. Speaking with the city historic preservation director Bryan McCracken the day after the article, he said that a decision on whether or not to move forward with the landmarking process would be on the agenda for the ILPC’s December meeting. If they move forward, it still has to go to Common Council. I had previously heard through the grapevine that the council was favorable to landmarking in the case of the Nines, but that was before Visum brought forward a new plan. The truth is, things are fairly unpredictable at the moment, and it’s a matter of waiting and watching how different stakeholders act and react.

2. I like Matt Butler, he has time to do the stories that I can’t. This time, a look into the plans for a centralized government facility at the site of the Central Fire Station on the 300 Block of West Green Street. That study is still active, under the guidance of Kingsbury Architecture and TWMLA, as is the second study for a combined Public Works facility. The appraisal process and estimates of cost are also still underway.

It’s kinda a given that this would have tremendous impacts, as noted in the Voice. A lucrative Collegetown site and other redevelopment sites would be on the market, and hundreds of workers and daily visitors would extend Ithaca’s core down State Street, which the city wants, considering it to be one of the few directions downtown can expand towards without compromising too much of Ithaca’s existing urban fabric. The ILPC would need to sign off on plans due to the fire station’s proximity to the “Downtown West” historic district (it actually contains the IFD’s parking lot for the sake of contiguous parcels), so “super-edgy hypermodern” probably isn’t on the table design-wise. The city also has to make a decision relatively soon – the current city hall (former NYSEG HQ, built 1939) and “Hall of Justice” (1920s, renovated/expanded 1964-66) are in need of major renovations.

3. Also on the visionary end of discussion are future plans (2020 onward) for Collegetown’s transit network. Here, it is often a delicate case of balance; it’s a dense, lucrative secondary core of the city, but parking and traffic are problems, as is the lack of infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists. One option being explored is a new bike lane up College Avenue that would eliminate 35 parking spaces (and was not well received), and the other is a more modest plan that largely keeps College Avenue as is, which many didn’t like either.

Perhaps the most interesting note from the article is that the city is examining the feasibility of expanding the Dryden Road garage by adding additional floors to the 1980s structure. The Dryden Road garage has the highest parking rates and a high occupancy, and is the most lucrative of the city’s four garages. The city is also looking at incentives for on-site parking, which to be honest, probably isn’t going to work in Collegetown for a number of planning and financial reasons (i.e. a developer will make a lot more from a rentable unit per SF, than from a parking space per SF).

4. Nothing much of note from the town of Ithaca Planning Board agenda. The owners of a former convenience store at 614 Elmira Road are seeking to perform minor renovations to the building for a bottle and can return (to be called IthaCAN & Bottle Return), and Maplewood is asking the town planning board permission to work on Saturdays in a mad dash to have the 872-bed complex ready for occupancy before August. Normally, renovations don’t need to visit the board, but the zoning for the Elmira Road requires a visit for each change of occupancy/use.

The city of Ithaca’s Planning Board memo is short as well, just the long-brewing plans for a garage-replacing addition to 115 The Knoll in Cornell Heights. The 1950s garage will be replaced with a 4-bed, 2-bath addition for Chesterton House, an all-male Christian interest group Sophia House, an all-female Christian group.  It appears the design has changed very little if at all since the plan first became public in May. The $349,900 addition, designed by STREAM Collaborative, would be built in the Spring and Summer of 2018 for an August opening. (Correction: Chesterton House is next door and owned by the same group. The project is for Sophia House. Thanks to Lyn for catching that.)

5. Local developers Steve Flash and Anne Chernish (d/b/a Rampart Real LLC) will be taking on a partner in the 323 Taughannock project. The couple sold a $203,000 stake in the 8-townhouse plan to Arnot Realty of Elmira (d/b/a 323T LLC) on the 22nd. For Flash and Chernish, it gives them a much bigger partner with experience and connections to contractors; for Arnot, it gives them a toehold in the buregoning Ithaca market, their first step into the city. The deed explicitly states this is a joint venture.

6. So this is interesting. On Friday 12/1, an LLC purchased an industrial/office building at 37-40 Elm Street in Dryden for $260,000. The property was built in the late 1980s and is about 25,000 SF, with a warehouse, manufacturing space, office space and three apartments.

The buyer was an LLC, but the LLC filing address traces back to 312 Fourth Street in Ithaca, a 13,800 SF complex of buildings and warehouses home to the All Stone & Tile Company, Ithaca Ice and Strawbridge & Jahn Construction. So either someone is growing out of space and the others are staying, or they are all moving. If they are all moving, that could be an opportunity. Zoning is B-4,  which allows a very wide variety of business and residential uses. Zoning is 4 floors/40 feet maximum height, 50% lot coverage, but being on the tip of the Waterfront/West End corridor, my suspicion is that the city could be a bit flexible with zoning variances for density and/or affordable housing. The only places one finds B-4 zones are the fringes of downtown, so it’s not well-suited for big projects, but there’s room to explore options. Of course, the electrical substation next door isn’t ideal, and the property isn’t even up for sale, but this is worth keeping an eye on.

7. So, there’s no real avoiding it this week – the tax bill in Congress. It really hurts Tompkins County. I did my one and only tweetstorm to cover some of the issues, and most of it still holds. Two last-minute changes softened the blow between then and now. One was the inclusion of the Collins amendment to reinstate a $10,000 cap on SALT (State and Local property tax) deductions, since the original Senate bill had no deduction. The other was raising the endowment from colleges with an endowment of $250,000/student, to those with $500,000/student. Cornell’s is about $310,000/student (6.8 billion/22,300 students). For the record, it wasn’t done to protect Cornell, it was done to protect conservative Hillsdale College after an amendment to give it an exclusive exemption failed. At least 30 schools were still hit, and this detail has to reconciled with the House Bill’s $250,000/student figure.

So apart from the SALT and college impacts I had already noted, one thing that got missed was that the bills allow prohibit schools from taxing out tax-exempt bonds to fund construction. For Cornell’s plan to add 2,000 beds, this is a problem.

So let’s just overview this real quick – a bond is a fixed-income investment in which an investor loans money to an entity, which borrows at a fixed or variable interest rate for a fixed period of time. When you buy a bond, you hold the debt for that entity. Most investors typically have some proportion of bonds in their portfolio – they typically are more stable investments than stocks, though the returns are typically less. Their relative safety is why financial planners recommend a higher proportion of bonds as one gets closer to retirement. The riskiness of a debtor not paying back is given by their bond rating. Cornell’s long-term debt rating is AA, which is very good, high-quality investment grade.

Now, in the case of non-profit schools, typically the tax-exempt bonds are issued with the approval of local and state authorities. The project to be financed by the bonds is determined by the school. The school does its internal approval of the project and bond plan, and the project it goes up to the community for planning board/environmental review. Once approved, the school chooses an approved issuer of bonds, often a state or local development authority (ex. The Dormitory Authority of NYS). A working group is put together to establish a timetable and structure for the bonds, and once the bond structure is settled and reviewed for issues, a public hearing is held on the bond issue, so that any issues or concerns are made clear before issuance. Barring no problems, the government signs off on the tax-exemption for the bond issue, a closing date is established and the bonds are marketed and sold, mostly to banks and big investment firms. The received funds are disbursed to pay for the project.

That’s getting taken away by this tax bill. That means any future bonds will be taxable, and have a much higher interest rate. Borrowing just became more expensive. A 30-year AA tax-exempt bond might be 2.76%, and a taxable bond 3.37%. That might seem a small difference, but a 2,000 bed project is on the order of $200 million (recall Maplewood is 872 beds and $80 million). So we’re talking millions of dollars more that Cornell will now have to pay to make those dorms happen. It opens up a distinct possibility that the project could be scaled back and/or delayed, which impacts the overall housing market. Probably the federal SALT tax cap is going to hurt much more.

Really, this bill was practically designed to decimate real and perceived enemies of politically conservative groups as much as it was designed to help billionaire donors and corporations. Poorly conceived, ignoring multiple non-partisan analyses and relying on overly optimistic projections, hastily put together and shoved through, blowing the debt trillions higher and immediately or eventually raising taxes on tens of millions. This is every cartoonish stereotype of Republicans amplified in one piece of legislation.

I don’t like to get political, but I’m a registered Republican, and have been my whole life. As a pragmatic never-Trump moderate, I joke that I’m a New York Republican and a Texas Democrat. When one writes about government red tape, the Cargill Mine, and Ithaca’s progressives attacking affordable housing, it tends to reaffirm beliefs.

But hell, this tax bill is throwing every principle out the window with this bill, causes a ton of damage to a place I care about, and with a morally deficient and unstable president at the helm, I can’t do it anymore. I mailed off the form today to become an independent. After this, I just can’t see myself voting Republican again, not for a long time.


The Government Campus

3 09 2016

5-1-2012 120

The idea of a government campus in Ithaca is very intriguing. It offers big opportunities, and potential pitfalls.

A copy of the funding request can be found here. The $150,000 study comprises two components – the first would combine the Collegetown Fire Station (No. 9), Central Fire Station at 310 W. Green Street, the Police Headquarters on E. Clinton and City Hall into one site on the property of the Central Fire Station. The second combines DPW Streets and Facilities and DPW Water and Sewer into one location.

Given the very profound impact this would have on the city, there’s been relatively little news about it. I cued my colleague Mike Smith in to it, and he did an interview with Planning Director JoAnn Cornish, which led to two articles. The spark notes are that the current condition of some of these properties is poor, so the city is looking at which to consolidate and/or build new, and which to renovate. The money is left over from the study looking into moving Station No. 9 and designing a replacement (apparently, it only cost $80,000 of the $500,000 allotted), so this is the planning department’s shout of carpe diem. The Common Council has given strong support to doing the consolidation study.

Let’s make it clear – there is no commitment anything will happen. Nothing may change at all, Station No. 9 may still move to Maple Avenue while everything else is left as is, or the consolidation plan might actually get carried out. But if they have the money and time, it’s worth exploring the possibilities.


Study one, the “government campus”, involves a space needs assessment for programming and staff, concept site plans, and cost estimates for new facilities. The study will also offer appraisals for existing buildings and discussion of selling these properties:

  • City Hall and the adjacent parking lot to its east
  • The Collegetown Fire Station
  • The Police HQ, but not the Courts Building
  • The Western 1/3rd of the Green Street Garage

Each has its opportunities. The western third of the Green Street Garage has some of Ithaca’s most accommodating zoning for urban projects – CBD-140, a 140-foot building with no parking requirement. When the garage was rebuilt several years ago, only the central section was structurally redone. The western section is nearing 50 years old, so without major renovation, it will be nearing the end of its safe useful life. The early plans for Cayuga Green called for a larger garage on Green Street, so another floor or two on the remaining two thirds is not impossible.

Meanwhile, Ithaca has never been particularly attached to its city hall – the building was built for NYSEG in 1939, and the city bought the building in 1964, demolishing its old city hall for the Seneca Street Garage not long after. In the mid 1980s, the city attempted to sell city hall so that it could be bought by a private owner and leased out to the county, all part of an effort to keep the Department of Social Services downtown – the city failed to persuade the county legislature, which moved DSS out to West Hill until the Human Services Building opened on the 300 block of West State in 1998. Demolition would face significant opposition, but conversion to housing could be a safe option for a hypothetical new owner.

The Collegetown Fire Station is prime real estate. It’s MU-2 zoning (six floors, no parking) in the heart of Collegetown at 309 College Avenue. Given that 201 College sold for $2.65 million, and 215 College sold for $5.3 million, there’s little doubt the city could fetch a multi-million price here. An RFP would have to be cognizant of the fact that the site itself is best-suited to student housing, because not only would its price be limited by other means, non-students may not be comfortable living in a location that’s 95+% students. There could be a provision for housing fund payments or off-site affordable housing at an appropriate location.

The city police station is a question mark. The zoning for the Police HQ and Courts building is B-1a, and the police parking lot is R-3b. R-3b is 4 floors, 40% lot coverage, a parking space for every unit or three bedrooms, whichever is greater. B-1a is nearly the same, but with 50% lot coverage, but the Courts Building could make selling a tough prospect.

Now comes the question of the Central Fire Station redevelopment, which occupies much of its site on West Green. A back-of-the-envelope for the police HQ, fire station No. 9 and City Hall is about 48,000 SF (assuming police uses make up half of the courts complex). The Central Fire Station occupies 17,000 SF. So you’re asking for a sizable multi-story building on top of what’s there, and not counting impacts like parking. The city would need to be careful, as South Side is one of the more affordable areas and the risk for displacement of low-income households is considerable. Any project would also have to go through ILPC consideration since it borders historic properties.


Study #2, the DPW consolidation, also offers opportunities. The study calls for a consolidation at a new location in Southwest Ithaca down by the box stores. It involves a space needs assessment for programming and staff, concept site plans, and cost estimates for new facilities. The city says it may also consider a shared facility with the town of Ithaca, or the county. In such a move, the city frees up space that it could sell on the North Side, and opportunities that could enhance redevelopment efforts on the Waterfront. The Northside area is also one of the new parts of the city where affordable housing is feasible and accommodated by neighbors, so mixed-uses with market-rate and affordable housing is plausible. The Pier Road area has high water tables which could drive up foundation (construction) costs, but Form Ithaca highlighted redevelopment potential at the site during their charettes.

Anyway, this is a lot of handwaving. Any work would be far, far off, probably well into the 2020s. A lot can happen between now and then – the economy tanks, priorities change, the sale of any property ends up a big debacle like the county’s Old Library redevelopment. It could make the city a lot of money in sale and taxes and help continue the downtown renaissance, or if done wrong it could end up being a burden that hurts taxpayers as well as lower-income households. But it’s certainly an interesting topic to explore.


Downtown Ithaca Wants to Look More Like Sweden

10 02 2010

These days, and “progressive” urban development scheme starts with a much publicized and criticized plan. Ithaca, being that little bastion of liberal progressiveness, launched its own plan 18 months ago, and now the Downtown Ithaca Alliance has decided to share the fruits of its planning process for public input. The original plan can be obtained here.

The plan is a vision for downtown Ithaca in 2020. Ignoring the fact they spent a year and a half to discuss a vision ten years away, the plan has some merits and some lovely little conceptual drawings. Which I’m convinced were designed by someone who has a fascination for modern Scandinavian architecture.

The plan itself asks for an additional 200,000 square feet of office space, 500 residential units and more pedestrian traffic for retail outlets in the downtown area. Fitting these components in, along with staying within the city’s rather stringent zoning, is no easy task. Some of the other assets the Alliance would like to see downtown are a combined city-county building, a teen activities center and a fixed-rail trolley line.

First of all, good luck with the trolley line. The original line that went up East State Street and behind Cascadilla Hall closed in 1935. Putting a new one in within the next decade is a pipe dream because of the sheer financial costs associated with infrastructure implementation. Long story short, no one has the cash to put in a new fixed-rail line.

Some of the desired developments I am quite fond of. The conceptual drawing above is for a parking lot near the Cornell Daily Sun Building on West State Street. It’s a great redevelopment that looks to be a mid-size residential or commercial structure that stands out, but not ostentatiously, from the streetscape. The architecture seems to be modernist/International style with a couple historical throwbacks such as the cornice on the background building. To be honest, something like that would fit in well with Weill Hall as a future building at Cornell.

Inversely, this I despise wholeheartedly. This is a conceptual drawing for the city-county building. I never cared for the whole “ooh, let’s be edgy and not align the windows” theme, which was used on the West Campus Dorms. It’s like architecture by first graders. The space is a current parking lot next to Ithaca City Hall, which is actually the brown brick building in back.  The idea of developing this lot, I give a big thumbs up. Right now, I’m glad this is only a conceptual drawing.

I cannot stress how much I am a fan of the redevelopment of the Trebloc Building. First, let’s see if I actually bothered to take a photo of the current architectural turd:

It was in the shot unintentionally. For perspective, I took this photo on the corner of the intersection shown in the conceptual drawing. This brick POS is in the middle of Ithaca’s downtown. This building was built in 1974 as part of the urban renewal era, and was originally meant to be 2 floors, but the developers then decided to not add the second floor. It has also been the sight of multiple concepts, such as this proposal by Andrew Wetzler. The DIA suggests a 100,000+ square foot office building for the site; if it occupied the full site, this translates to about four of five floors. I keep my fingers crossed this may be redeveloped someday.

This redevelopment concept is for the parking area/ back of the Ithaca Journal Building. It’s a residential proposal that fits in somewhat to current zoning; the downtown plan does propose some minor height changes on some parcels, about a dozen going from 60 to 85 feet if certain incentives, such as affordable housing, are met. Love the idea, could care less for the design. This building looks like something out of my nightmares.

In the past year or so, a proposal was submitted to the RestoreNY program to redevelop the one-story Night and Day Building into a five-story building. Well, the proposal wasn’t accepted, but the vision is still there. This conceptual design makes use of the false second floor and adds affordable housing to the structure. Hell, I give it a thumbs up. If only a developer could make the project feasible.

For perspective, we’re looking east from the Holiday Inn, towards the new parking garage. This is one of the largest conceptual proposals, for a site currently used by a couple of small businesses and part of Pritchard Autos (where I once went as part of a project on EPA mileages; the owner, a 70-something man named Bill Pritchard, was super friendly). The project gets away with being so large because it is next to a massive parking garage and a ten-story hotel, so massing is appropriate for this area.

They may just be visions, but I would be just as excited as the DIA if these were to become real proposals in the years ahead. One can only hope.

News Bits, 7/18/08

19 07 2008

Watch the hippies flip when they find out Walmart is proposing an expansion. It’s not like someone didn’t try to bomb it or anything. Oh wait:

(May 2005) Ithaca, NY: Federal officials say the package found last month behind the Wal-Mart in Ithaca was an improvised explosive device. It had a battery on the bottom and a kitchen timer on top. The Wal-Mart and surrounding businesses were evacuated and a bomb dog called in. Authorities destroyed the package by shooting it with a shotgun. It broke apart, but did not explode. Nine officers came in contact with a liquid from the package that forced them to be quarantine for a short time [1].

Also notable is the expansion of the Cayuga Place Condos (a reduction of units from 45 to 30, but an increase from six to seven floors).

And, from an article in the ithaca times about the Collegetown Vision statement:

…That’s everything,” said Mallis. “How the whole area is to be treated both in terms of new developing and preserving the existing character of the place. As you see in reading the vision statement, this is very important to a lot of people to preserve Collegetown, but at the same time to create opportunities for undergrad student housing in ways that do not continue to invade communities like Bell Sherman that have single family homeowners living in it. That will mean increasing densities along College Avenue, but also increasing densities in a way that are not at all like Dryden Road in the mid-80s where you had six story apartment blocks that were put up and didn’t do a lot for the quality of the place.”…

“…The goal for Collegetown is to have all buildings be mixed use, meaning that retail will be on the ground floor with a visibility from the street of 75% to avoid teeny tiny windows. If all goes well, once a developer is named who has a similar vision, there could be a retail store on the ground floor of an apartment building or office space. ” [2]

Well, the article is a little off on its years. Let’s go through a list and some dates of construction for the major apartment blocks of C’Town.

-Collegetown Plaza (the flatiron) was built in 1989.

-312 College Avenue was built in 1999 (and inspired the 2000 moratorium).

-Collegetown Court was built in 1980.

-The Ciaschi Block (where Stella’s is) was built in 1988. Collegetown Center was built in 1997.

-Sheldon and Casca were extensively renovated in the 1980s (1983-84). Sheldon gained one floor, Casca two.

-307 Eddy, The Fontana Building (Dunbar’s), 217 Linden, 301 Eddy, and 305 Eddy  are 4-5 stories, and were built in the late 1980s onward, 301 being the last in 2002.

-The building where Student Agencies is was built in 2000 to replace a four-story building that burnt down in 1998 [3]. The former building, the Rulloff’s Building and the CTB building (415 College) date from the 1800s (renovated at various points).

-More recently, the Starbuck’s building (404 College) was completed in 2005/06. And at 320 Dryden are the new Top-of-the-Hill Apartments, which are 4 1/2 stories.

The only building that falls into their categorization is the Eddygate Park Apartments building at 110 Dryden. The curved building was built in 1986.

(Collegetown in Sept. 1985 – courtesy of “Upsilon Andromedae” on flickr.)

So yeah…I’m really curious to see where they pulled that statistic from. and I’m looking forward to the final presentation by Goody Clancy.