News Tidbits 4/11/19

12 04 2019

1. Chances are very good that the county legislature will approve the purchase of the former orthodontics office on the 400 Block of North Tioga at their meeting next week. At least two subcommittees are recommending it, the feasibility study came back with reasonably positive results, and there appear to be no significant hurdles to moving forward. Representatives of the neighborhood sent in a letter with 25 or so signatories requesting the county build or deed away some land to build affordable housing on the Sears Street (rear) frontage of the lot, which is something the county is actively exploring but has yet to make a firm commitment to. It could range from townhouses, to three single-family homes, to two duplexes and a single-family home, to nothing, so 0-5 units, but the city and neighbors would appreciate at least a few homes to maintain neighborhood character. It’s doubtful the county would build the housing, but could deed lots to INHS or another affordable developer for the purpose of building out.

In terms of the project dimensions, there’s still a lot to be sorted out. The new office building could range from 32,000 SF to 46,000 SF, 3-4 floors, and 25-42 parking spaces. The historic building at 408 North Tioga may be renovated and repurposed for county offices, or sold off as-is. Concept site plans can be seen on the county website here. The vote on the evening of the 16th will only be for the county to purchase the property, and not to choose which development scenario is preferable. To be specific, there are actually three votes planned, one after another – the vote saying the environmental impacts are mitigated, the vote saying that the project is a public resource project exempt from zoning, and the vote to purchase.

The timeline on this project is very quick as local projects go. The county plans to break ground on the office building by this July, and have it occupied by the end of 2020 (this probably means HOLT Architects has concept drawings ready to go right now). The renovation or sale of the historic neighbor would also occur by December 2020. The housing, if any, would be a third phase after the other two components are completed.

The county estimates the total cost of a possible eventual project (designed to LEED Silver standards) to be $18.55-$19.55 million.  That estimate includes new building development ($12.8 to 14.5 million), land acquisition, and related renovation to 408 North Tioga, for which they would allocate $1 million for the 3,800 SF building. The initial acquisition costs would be covered by general county funds re-allocated in an amended Capital Program, and although it’s not clear in this agenda, it seems likely a municipal bond issue would be used to cover the construction costs.

Quick aside, it turns out the county did conduct a feasibility study back in 2011 to see if they could repurposed the Old Library into a county office building. That study, also conducted by HOLT, found that because of the library’s open atrium and unusual layout, the renovation costs made the project infeasible. It’s actually cheaper to build new than it would have been to rebuild the old library’s interior.

2. The Carpenter Business Park development held another community meeting in its quest for a PUD, and the Times’ Edwin Viera described it as “a firm shakedown”. The project has garnered some controversy as it had to shift to above ground parking (the result of soil tests indicating that the soils were in poor condition as they are along much of Ithaca’s West End) and no longer conformed to the site zoning. First ward council member Cynthia Brock made several swings at it for height, density, and the placement of affordable housing on the northern end of the site, for which she has made clear she will not support the PUD request. This is not a surprise, as Brock has not been circumspect with expressing her dislike of any proposed residential uses for the site. Her ward colleague George McGonigal likewise expressed concerns, and the fifth ward’s Laura Lewis noted concerns about traffic – there would be three access points to the 411,600 square-foot project.

Quick refresher – PUD stands for “Planned Unit District”, or as I often call it on the Voice and here on the blog, “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) zoning”. A project need not follow zoning code if it offers certain community benefits. The city recently expanded it for certain non-industrial properties, with Common Council now getting to vote on projects alongside the planning board to determine if community benefits are worth the variance from the legal zoning for a site.

3. It’s been almost two years since it was first proposed, but the mixed-income 46 South (formerly Hamilton Square) project is inching forward in Trumansburg. The Tburg Planning Board is down to the nitty-gritty at this point, exterior finishes, plantings, parking and fencing. The zoning variances have been approved, though the number of parking spaces per unit was bumped up from 1.2 to 1.4 spaces per unit to satisfy zoning board concerns (there will be 144 parking spaces on-site). According to the Times’ Jaime Cone, there was spirited debate over the use of wood trim vs. a lumber composite material (Trex), which is wood fiber mixed with plastic, the plastic cousin of fiber cement. There are still some lingering concerns from the board, but it’s possible that preliminary approval for the project could be granted in May.

The basic project specs have stayed the same in recent revisions – a mix of 17 market rate for-sale homes, 10 affordable for-sale townhomes, six affordable rental townhomes and 40 affordable rental apartments, plus a nursery school. The school, designed by HOLT Architects,has been redesigned to invoke a “barn” aesthetic.

While this may very well come to fruition, this contentious and drawn-out process was effective at repelling other potential developers in the village, so in a way those opposed still got some of what they ultimately wanted. The mixed-income housing may be approved, but it seems very unlikely anyone else will be taking interest in building much in Trumansburg for a while.

4. Normally the Times’ Edwin Viera does a good job as their go-to guy for real estate reporting, but the headline on this piece is a little misleading: “Old Library, Arthaus projects will have to try again for tax abatements”. They weren’t rejected. The IDA was only supposed to review applications this month, the vote is scheduled for next month.

That noted, there is still useful information in his article. We now have some potential rent figures for Arthaus: $737/month for a studio at the 50% area median income (AMI) price point, to $1,752 for a three-bedroom at the 80% AMI price point. At 124 units, the project would be the largest single addition to Ithaca’s affordable housing scene in over 40 years.

As expected, the 66-unit Library Place project garnered the lion’s share of attention and public criticism. Most were opposed, but a few members of the public spoke in favor. I had heard a rumor that Frost Travis offered to set aside three units for 80% AMI, but have yet to confirm. Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick did expressed some reservations with the project for its lack of affordable housing – the CIITAP mandatory affordable housing policy became law shortly after the CIITAP application was filed, so it fell into a legal grey area that the city didn’t want to fight a legal battle over. Travis Hyde also plans to pursue an abatement for Falls Park in due course, and that would have to have an affordable housing component.

5. Quick note – the College Townhouses project at 119-125 College Avenue has a construction loan on file with the county. $18.3 million, courtesy of NBT Bank of Norwich. That’s a heck of a lot than the $10 million estimate first reported when the project first went public. The project unit count is revised upward slightly, from 67 units to 72 units, still a mix of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. The unit breakdown is not listed in the loan document, but previously the full occupancy would have been about 90 residents if one per bedroom or studio. Co-developer Phil Projansky signed the loan, which notes that he, John Novarr and any other investors involved have put up $4.47 million towards development of the project.

NBT Bank is a regional bank with a limited Ithaca presence but a major player in other upstate markets. This is their second major project they’ve financed in Tompkins County, the first being a $33.8 million loan for Harold’s Square.

6. The Maguires have reason to be optimistic in Lansing. While the review process has taken longer than anticipated due to concerns over lighting and signage, the village planning board looks likely to sign off on their new 25,235 SF Nissan dealership at 35 Cinema Drive.

7. Dear diary – the Common Council was “excited” and “praised” a project, according to my Voice colleague Devon Magliozzi. One hopes that bodes well for INHS’s Immaculate Conception School PUD application. As previously noted, the project hosts a number of community benefits, including 78-83 units of affordable housing (at least four owner-occupied),  the sale of the former school’s gym to the city for use as a community gym by the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, office space for family and children’s social services group, special needs housing and the renovation and preservation of the Catholic Charities building, which would continue to be used by the organization. The board also praised the outreach by INHS in designing the site, reducing the school addition from five floors to four at neighbors’ request (INHS was able to compensate the loss of housing elsewhere on the site).

This is a good sign, but the city has never issued a major PUD. The only two recent PUDs were the Temporary Mandatory PUDs (TMPUDs) on the West End and Waterfront, which were used in effect to stop the Maguire Waterfront dealership, and the Cherry Artspace, which was incidentally roped into it. Those were 2-8 and 8-2 votes respectively, a denial and a approval. The fact that a rather pedestrian 1,900 SF building in an industrial area got two “nay” votes leads me to be cautious until the ICS documents are signed and filed.

8. On that note, the CDBG and HOME fund disbursals are posted. INHS would get $200k of the $350k requested for the ICS project. The other economic development and housing-related submissions were also mostly or fully funded. Most of the public service ones were not.





119-125 College Avenue (College Townhouses) Construction Update, 3/2019

21 03 2019

No recent online presence for John Novarr and Phil Proujansky’s 119-125 College Avenue project, the College Townhouses (which, as covered in the summary page, were townhouse-like until the fire code was changed). The south building is fully framed, a steel frame with gympsum sheathing, a more expensive design but also fireproof. The north building is framed up to the first-floor (the basement is partially above-grade), but the elevator core is topped out, and Welliver’s construction team planted left their mark with an American flag perched at the top. If it’s like it’s neighboring a couple blocks away, the sheathing will get a roll-on waterproof barrier, and perhaps metal rails and clips for installation of fiber cement and zinc panels.

The project, intended for visiting Cornell faculty and staff (so far, there are no online apartment postings to support of refute that plan) will bring 67 units/90 bedrooms to the market, and still looks to be on track for an August 2019 opening.

Quick aside – is everyone clear that it’s Novarr and Proujansky who are planning that Collegetown megaproject? There are so many rumors flying around that even the beat cops are asking my editor at the Voice about it. The project has been delayed twice, but is supposed to make an appearance before the city Planning Committee next month.

There have been some very scary rumors about this project, and one of the big problems right now is that these rumors aren’t being refuted because everything is “a secret”, no one really knows what the truth is. Only JoAnn Cornish, the city Planning Director, has been willing to put anything on the record, and even then it was just a brief description. Since January, this project has managed to be the worst-kept development secret in Tompkins County, which arguably Novarr and Proujansky could try to blame on the mayor for his State of the City address, but really if they had wanted him to not say something, they would have said something to him or said something themselves. I give Newman Development and Scott Whitham a lot of credit for “taking the bull by the horns” and issuing a press release about City Centre before rumors could circulate. I think this project would have benefited from a similar approach.

It’d be one thing if it was a relatively modest proposal. If we were talking about 119-125 College Avenue, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But with this megaproject being described as a $600 million endeavor, there are multiple real estate and related business decisions around the city and county that are in a holdover pattern because everyone’s heard about “John and Phil’s plans” but no one knows what’s going on, not to mention community groups fearing the worst. We’ll see if the big reveal gets delayed again, but for a lot of reasons, I really hope not.





119-125 College Avenue (College Townhouses) Construction Update, 12/2018

16 12 2018

The CMU (concrete masonry unit) elevator/stairwell cores are being assembled for Novarr and Proujansky’s Cornell visiting faculty and staff housing at 119-125 College Avenue. The North Building’s core tower is complete and capped with an American flag courtesy of Welliver (who are proudly displaying their involvement with Cornell’s North Campus Residential Initiative on their homepage, and is co-developed by Novarr and Proujansky). It’s kinda intuitive from the east tower, but workers work their way up along the inside, using the steel girder in the center. The plastic sheeting offers some basic weather protection as the cinder blocks are mortared and laid into place in a running bond pattern. These cores give an idea of how tall the finished buildings will be, though keep in mind the lowest exit/entry opening is the basement, which will be built out and backfilled up to ground level as construction progresses.

One of the reasons why the hot gossip swirls around Novarr’s Collegetown plans is that he enjoys a very close relationship to Cornell, so if the university determines it wants to do something Collegetown, they can turn to someone who has a lot of developable property and a strong relationship with the school. Rather than deal with the potentially damaging public blowback of a tax-exempt property, Novarr and Proujansky keep it on the tax rolls and create a welcome degree of separation. Most of their properties are fully taxed – the Breazzano, which serves an academic function rather than ancillary function like housing or student services, has a PILOT agreement for fifty years.

Apart from the excavated sites and elevator cores, the concrete foundation work (footers, slab pours, foundation walls) is ongoing, mostly at the south building. It doesn’t look like the north building is quite as far along, even though the elevator core is complete.

Project information and history can be found here.





119-125 College Avenue (College Townhouses) Construction Update, 9/2018

16 10 2018

A little late in coming, but better than nothing at all.

119-125 College Avenue is developer John Novarr’s attempt to add something to Collegetown that’s not explicitly student housing. The plan is housing for Cornell faculty and staff, ideally visiting faculty who are in need of housing close to the university.

Most developers would probably have played their cards a little more conservatively in Ithaca’s most student-focused and most expensive neighborhood, but Novarr and his partners, doing business as the Novarr-Mackesey Development Company, have assets worth in the few hundreds of millions, so they can afford to be a little adventurous. Among Novarr’s local holdings are 1001 West Seneca Street (the Signworks Building), the Casa Roma Apartments, the Breazzano Center (on a fifty-year lease to Cornell), 312 College Avenue and the crown jewel of his holdings, Collegetown Terrace. he’s entering his mid 70s, but has no intent on slowing down; with the Breazzano wrapped up, work has commenced on 238 Linden Avenue and 119-125 College Avenue.

The first official word of this project was leaked, in a way. It was listed in July 2016 as a potential project to be sponsored for a Restore NY state grant. At the time, only a site outline was available, the plan was estimated to cost about $10 million, and the project was looking at an October 2016 site plan application with a Spring 2018 completion.

It was very early in the timeline; in fact, the sale of the existing three apartment houses hadn’t even closed yet. The three boarding houses dated from the late 19th century. A historical analysis by Bero Architecture stated that the white Queen Anne-style house at 119 College Avenue was built as a boarding house in the early 1890s, the white Italianate-style house at 121 College Avenue was built as a personal residence in the early 1870s, and the stucco-coated house at 125 College Avenue was constructed as a personal residence in the 1870s. The three properties fell under the same ownership in the 1960s, and had been owned by the Hills family for over forty years before their sale to a Novarr-associated LLC in July 2016. According to the deed filed with Tompkins County, the sale price was $4.75 million, far more than their combined tax assessment of $1.655 million.

The project has since its inception met the requirement of the zoning for the site – the three continent properties are CR-4, which allows up to 50% lot coverage, 25% green space, up to 4 floors and 45 feet in height, a choice of pitched or flat roofs, and requires front porches, stoops or recessed entries. This is the lowest-density zone for which no parking is required. The city describes the zoning as “an essential bridge” between higher and lower density, geared towards townhouses, small apartment buildings and apartment houses.

The original plan, first presented in October 2016, consisted of three buildingsthe two buildings at the front of the parcel were designed to emulate rowhouses, and a third building located in the rear of the property would have contained garden apartments. The two rowhouse buildings and rear apartment structure would have been separated by an internal courtyard, and terraced modestly to account for the site’s slope. Counting basement space, the built space would have come in at 49,278 square feet. The 67 units were a combination of studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. The project was called the “College Townhouse” or “College Townhouses”, but strictly speaking, these weren’t townhouses, the buildings only resembled townhouses by having multiple entries and stoops. The design incorporated a modern motif with glass expanses and a few different shades of colored metal and fiber cement panels.

The proposal made it through planning board review with only minor changes – for example, to give a little more visual interest, the squared-off bay windows were replaced with curving glass. The approvals process was fairly straight-forward, with site plan approval granted in January 2017.

This is where things go off the beaten path. The site had already been cleared (Novarr often seeks to clear sites before he has approvals, something that has caused consternation before), and then…it remained quiet. A vacant patch with only a temporary fence and only patchy meadow grass. This was not going to plan.

The issue turned out to be the result of revisions to the New York State Fire Prevention and Building Code. The revisions, passed in November 2016, prevented construction of buildings taller than 30 feet in the presence of above-ground power lines. It just so happens that above-ground power lines pass in front of the site. The code also made the rear garden apartment building illegal because it couldn’t be reached from the street by aerial apparatus. City staff weren’t aware the code changed until after site plan approvals were granted, someone dropped the ball on communicating the changes. The College Townhouses project no longer met code because the code had changed, and so the project team had to seek a variance from the state in November 2017, under the advisement that the power lines on College Avenue were likely to be buried in the next couple of years anyway. The argument win the state over, so it was back to the drawing board.

The revised design, showcased in February 2018, removed the rear building, and reshaped the front buildings to be narrower and deeper, separated by a large courtyard that a fire truck can navigate. Access to the courtyard comes via a mountable curb. If the day comes that the power lines are buried (in 2020 or so), the plan is to turn the courtyard into landscaped green space. The decorative entry shown in the above rendering would be built after the power lines are buried. While the footprint was greatly altered, the plan kept the same design motif as before (the new design added stainless steel and zinc panels on the walls facing the courtyard, not unlike the similarly-designed 238 Linden project), and still includes 67 housing units (90 new residents, assuming one per bedroom). Revised approvals were granted at the end of February.

Just a little clarification edit here: the power lines were one issue, and the rear building was a second issue. Both had the potential to interfere with a fire truck’s ladder or lift, and with the result of changes in the code, not only did the rear building became illegal, the buildings were now also too tall for a block with above-ground power lines, 45 ft vs the 30 ft allowed. So the design team consolidated the three buildings into two structures, separated by a large courtyard that can be entered and exited by a fire truck – the truck can just pass under the lines now to reach the back of the property.

It has taken some time to finally get underway, but it looks like ground was broken around late August. Excavation was well underway by late September, with shoring walls in place (steel H-beams with wood lagging in between) to hold the adjacent soil in place.

Local landscape design firm Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architecture guided the apartment project through the review process, but the designer of the buildings is Princeton-based ikon.5 Architects, the same firm that designed Collegetown Terrace. Welliver is the general contractor for the project, which given the 12-14 month timeline of earlier reports, is likely looking at an August 2019 completion.





News Tidbits 11/5/16: Condemnation and Praise

5 11 2016

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1. The Maguire waterfront plan has been rejected. By an 8-2 vote, the Ithaca city Common Council voted to discontinue consideration of the state-of-the-art Ford/Lincoln/Nissan dealership, with most citing concerns about the project’s marginal or poor fit with the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for an urban mixed-use form of development in the Carpenter Circle area where this dealership is proposed. The votes in favor of the proposal, from the third ward’s Donna Fleming and first ward’s George McGonigal, cited ways it could be conceived as fitting with the plan (greener alternative, local business expansion), and challenges the site offers to the city’s urban plan (poor soils, trains, chemical storage, power lines).

Although this shuts down the current proposal, this may not be the last we hear from the Maguires or the Carpenter Business Park site. At the meeting, company President Phil Maguire offered a teaser, saying they may partially liquidate their land holdings to bring in mixed-use development that would share the CBP space with the dealership. Given the heavy alterations that would need to occur, the council decided to vote down the existing proposal and send a message that it doesn’t fit the city’s goals. However, the council said they and the planning department would expedite review of an amended proposal, should it come forth.

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2. If you’ve ever wanted some explicit discussion of the challenges of doing affordable housing in Tompkins County, here’s a great summary courtesy of the the town of Ithaca. Back in August, the town’s Planning Committee (of town board members, similar to the city’s PEDC Committee) met with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services Director Paul Mazzarella for a Q&A. The town is considering regulations for inclusionary housing, and after INHS’s Greenways project fell through, they would like guidance and input on to make an effective code that promotes affordable housing without killing all residential development. Here are some of the highlights:

– Ithaca is a market of smaller builders. Local developers aren’t able or interested in doing huge projects, and most outsiders don’t see Tompkins County as a big enough or profitable enough market to tap into. So that leaves it to smaller builders who don’t have scale efficiencies, and are inclined to build luxury housing because the return on investment is more likely (i.e. less risky). The strong local economy also means that the local construction labor pool is largely tapped out, and additional crews have to be imported.

– Mandated affordable housing tends to work best in expensive, hot markets where the Return on Investment (ROI) for the market-rate units is more likely – your Seattles, San Franciscos and New Yorks. Even there, it is often paired with incentives such as height or square footage. Mazzarella noted he doesn’t think the city’s voluntary program will work very well. One thing to note with mixed-income projects is that the market-rate units will often be higher priced to cover the cost of lower-priced units. Simplified example – say you’re building ten houses for a sale price of $250,000. To meet an affordable mandate you sell two at $200,000, but to still obtain adequate ROI, that $100,000 is going to spread among the other eight – so you have two for sale at at $200,000, and eight at $262,500.

– We talk about modular homes as lower-cost alternatives, and for rural locations they often are, due to materials and labor costs. However, INHS found that in their experience for sites in the city and town, the cost is comparable to stick-built, although at larger scales, cost efficiencies may be achieved (ex. the Belle Sherman Cottages).

Another interesting read is the committee’s September meeting with city historic preservation planner Bryan McCracken and Historic Ithaca’s Christine O’Malley about protecting historical resources. As it turns out, the city cannot designate an individual landmark without the owner’s permission, and historic districts require the approval of 60% of affected property owners.

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3. Seems like Tiny Timbers had a well-attended open house. On their blog, the Dolphs have shared a cross-sectional diagram of an exterior wall – beneath the hemlock siding and copper trim will be ZIP sheathing and polyiso (thermoset plastic foam) insulation. ZIP is everywhere in residential construction, polyiso less common – locally, it was used extensively with the Boiceville Cottages in Caroline. On the inside, one has sheetrock and bamboo flooring. Exposed hemlock posts and ceilings will complement the sheetrock.

Also being rolled out is a fifth home design, a larger two-bedroom, two-bath home with a hipped roof. Variety is the space of life, as the saying goes.

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4. It was exciting to finally see the release of renderings for John Novarr’s College Townhouses project at 119-125 College Avenue. Links to the Site Plan Review document, historical documentation and drawings can be found in the Voice write-up here. There have yet to be images released for the garden apartment building to be built at the rear of the property, but look for the same general design features as the rowhouses. As expected from ikon.5 Architects, the design is modern and glassy, and given the Facebook comments and a couple of emails that came in, some neighbors are less than happy about that. However, this isn’t a historic district, so long as it meets zoning regulations, Novarr is free to hire whoever he darn well pleases. As mentioned in previous write-ups, he had ikon.5 design his guest house, so this isn’t strictly a cost thing, he genuinely likes their work. It was a bit surprising but interesting to see the well-researched history of the three 19th century boarding houses currently on the property, and it makes me wonder if that was a requirement. Novarr’s proven to be accommodating in the past, perhaps he’ll deconstruct rather than demolish, and the salvageable parts can be reused.

The project team will meet with members of the Planning Board on Tuesday afternoon for Design Review – about the only thing that stands out at initial glance is the lack of windows or visual interest with the north face, barely noticeable in the rendering. That probably won’t fly with the board, but we’ll see if it gets changed up as it goes through review. City Centre, the 8-story Trebloc site redevelopment, will also undergo further design review at the meeting.

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5. The Chapter House is going to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) yet again. The changes are subtle and few, but the rules are the rules. A service door will be added to the west (rear) wall, the inset vestibule is being reconfigured a bit, and the third-floor dormer windows are being changed from double-hung to casement – meaning that instead of sliding up and down, they’ll open with a crank. The ILPC will vote on the changes in November, which will probably sail through without much debate, and hopefully, just maybe, quite possibly, the Chapter House project can get underway.

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6. A couple quick updates from the town of Ithaca Planning Board minutes – after some discussion and a bit of praise for the redesign effort, the board opted for timber-trimmed Design “A” for the Sleep Inn proposal on Elmira Road. The minutes from Maplewood’s EIS meeting were also uploaded, and it is rare to see this much positivity in discussion of a project – not to say there weren’t dissenters, but the alternative energy source and efficiency initiative, use of local labor, and softening of the design on Mitchell Street won most of the speaking audience over. Public comment closed on Halloween, and now the project team must respond to all the reasonable comments received as part of the review process.