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.