News Tidbits 12/26/15: Do You Hear What I Hear

26 12 2015

1. Not as visible, but still important – Student Agencies Inc. has secured a $3 million construction loan from Tompkins Trust Company for a major renovation of its building at 409 College Avenue. Although details about the project itself are a bit scarce in the paperwork filed on the 18th, it is likely the eHub entrepreneurial space being built for Cornell students, faculty and staff. The eHub space will include space for PopShop (a space for student business planning and development), the eLab business incubator, conference space, mentors-in-residence, and basically all the physical space and things a budding businessperson would like to help them succeed.

According to a previous write-up by the Cornell Chronicle, the lab should be open later this Spring, with 10,000 SF on the second and third floors of 409 College Avenue, and 4,000 SF of space in Kennedy Hall on the Ag Quad. STREAM Collaborative of Ithaca will be the interior architect for 409 College, and Ithaca-based Morse Project Management LLC is the general contractor.

Now, this could be a great thing for Ithaca, because it leverages Cornell’s presence to foster business development. Sort of like a Cornell-centric Rev. And Rev, for what it’s worth, has had several successful associated firms in the past couple of years – Ursa Space Systems was named a STARTUP-NY partner and will be hiring 22 people, and Ithaca Hummus is looking at hiring 50 over the next five years. Even the Ithaca Voice grew from what was basically a one-person operation when it launched in June 2014 (hat-tip to Jeff Stein), to having several full-time staff as well as giving Ithaca a higher profile through viral hits like the Key West promotion and the Harry Potter Wizarding Weekend.

Anything that allows Ithaca to grow and diversify its economy is a great thing, and if it can utilize Cornell’s presence to help that cause, all the better.

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2. The Lansing Star is reporting that 2015 was a banner year in Lansing, with 200 single-family homes, apartments and townhouse in the works. Along with the 20 or so plans reviewed, the town is also looking at revising its Comprehensive Plan, and the town may even consider the adoption of form-based codes in certain locations such as the proposed and stalled Lansing Town Center.

One caveat I’d add is that the key word is reviewed, meaning approved. Not underway. The 102-townhome Cayuga Farms project still had major issues to work out with its proposed package sewer system. If one were to look at permits, it’d probably be 36 or so units with the Village Solars, and probably as many with scattered single-family homes and duplexes, which would make for an average-to-above average year – final 2015 values will be available from the HUD in March. The village could see a big boost from its usual single-digit permit total, if the Cayuga View project gets its construction permit this year.

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3. Speaking of Cayuga View, the price point came up at a Lansing village meetings, the minutes of which came online this week. Drumroll please—

The targeted price point is $1600/month for a one-bedroom, one-bath unit (of which there will be 12), and $2700/month for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath unit (of which there will be 48).

That’s quite a high figure. Applying the standard 30% affordability threshold, the targeted income bracket for seniors is $64,000-$108,000/year. That’s comparable, or a little more than, the Lofts @ Six Mile Creek. It also draws parallels to inner Collegetown projects like Dryden South, where rents will be $1350/bedroom. But those projects fall in traditionally high land-value areas.

If it’s financed, then a lender must believe there’s a market for it, and given the general difficulty in financing projects in this region, that really is saying something. Increased affluence and number of retirees moving in? Hoping to capture the older, richer Cornell faculty/staff crowd? Bad judgement? Who knows.

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4. In the briefest of blurbs, the Times’ Josh Brokaw, who I applaud for attending even the less interesting city Planning Board meetings, reports that the Tompkins Trust HQ has been approved, with a permit likely once they get a minor curb-cut issue worked out. The contentious Printing Press Lounge debate also received the Planning Board’s go-ahead, if not necessarily its blessing. Expect a late winter or early spring construction start with the Tompkins Trust HQ, with completion the following year.

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5. A couple of interesting developments for the Biggs Parcel in Ithaca town. According to the Times’ Jaime Cone (new writer, guys?), a member of the ICNA, Roy Luft, is prepared to make an offer for the Biggs Parcel that would preserve the vast majority of the land. Luft owns a 10-acre parcel to the south (street address 1317 Trumansburg Road). He proposes to take a non-wetland portion on the southern end of the Biggs Parcel, combine it with the open field behind his house, and pursue a cluster subdivision of homes intended as owner-occupied senior housing, which on the surface seems like a decent plan and location, given that owner-occupied senior housing is in demand and the land is adjacent to Cayuga Medical.

With this offer aired, the county, in a 4-1 vote, is giving the ICNA until January 15th to make an offer, otherwise they’ll put the land for sale on the general market. There is no assessment figure publicly available (though a new value has been determined); the ICNA says that’s unfair, while the county legislators have countered by saying not having the assessment value doesn’t stop the ICNA from making an offer, and that the neighbor group has already had a year and a half to make an offer.

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6. Once again, a double-feature house of the week. The theme of this week – high-end homes. Here we have home #1, 8 Pleasant Grove Lane in Cayuga Heights. The house has been mostly framed and the sides have been sheathed, but from the looks of the exposed roof trusses, if would seem that when this photo was taken a couple of weeks ago, the dormers still needed to be decked and the interior was still just stud walls and rough openings.

Design-wise, the home seems to fit in pretty well with its neighbors, which were mostly built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The property was purchased in 2012 for $132,500 by an LLC traceable to a coach for a Cornell athletics team. Previously, the lot had been owned by its Pleasant Grove Road neighbors, and was sold in an estate sale.

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7. House of the week #2. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see the one house under construction that seems to have the entire lakefront mansion community so utterly pissed off. For the record, this house on the Captains Walk cul-de-sac has been under construction for years – you can see it in the satellite imagery for Google maps, which dates from 2013. It also appears to be even larger than many of its million-dollar neighbors. Three-car garage? Check. Courtyard-type entry? Check. Windows have been fitted, the roof has been shingled and the exterior has been sheathed with Huber ZIP System panels. A spring finish would be a good guess. Records indicate a couple from Pennsylvania, the founders of a chain of assisted care facilities, bought the undeveloped parcel for $213,800 in 2013.





News Tidbits 12/12/15: Money Money Money Money

12 12 2015

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1. Time to do a little rumor-killing. There’s been some confusion as to whether or not the Hilton Canopy is actually happening, since it was supposed to have started construction by this time and it hasn’t. There was also an article in the Ithaca Times that suggested that construction costs much higher than original estimates had caused the project to be cancelled.

Well, the project has definitely been delayed, but it looks like it will still be moving forward. According to a utility easement resolution at the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s Economic Development Committee (IURA EDC) meeting, a project financing commitment has been secured and the developer of the Hilton (Neil Patel of Lighthouse Hotels LLC) is planning a construction start in the first quarter (Jan-Mar) of 2016, which would suggest a mid-2017 opening.

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2. Also in financial news, INHS looks to have secured grant funding that will allow it to move forward with its 210 Hancock project in the next four months, according to INHS Executive Director Paul Mazzarella. The grants were officially awarded in an announcement from the governor’s office on Tuesday. $3.6 million will come from the state’s Housing and Community Renewal program, $500,000 from the state low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program, and $1.03 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s LIHTC program. In total, the award is valued at $5.13 million, about a quarter of the estimated $20 million development cost. The project has received about $17 million in grants and tax credits to date.

The money awarded covers only the rental units – 54 apartments in the four-story mixed-use building, and five townhouses. The seven owner-occupied townhouses remain unfunded.

The apartments, which include a 30-child low-income daycare facility and commercial office space for non-profits, will welcome their first tenants in Summer 2017. They will rent from 27% to 105% of local median household income, depending on the unit. Descriptively, it’s a mixed-income project with residents’ incomes ranging from $25,000-$60,000 per year.

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3. From the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, there are a few things of note this week –

A. The city seems to be looking towards greater encouragement and flexibility with redevelopment of waterfront parcels by making WF-1 and WF-2 zones Planned Unit Developments (PUDs). What a PUD does is allow greater flexibility in uses and design by removing or loosening zoning constraints on site use, and being more accommodating to mixed-use projects (the Chain Works District proposal is a PUD, for example). Previously, PUDs could only be applied to industrial sites. The other stipulation, however, is that the applicant would have to work with the Common Council to determine appropriate development of the site.

The Waterfront Zoning allows up to 5 stories and 100% lot coverage. The PUD will give flexibility beyond that, dependent on what the Common Council is comfortable with for a given site and proposal.  So if Applicant X shows up with a huge apartment building or a big industrial building, it’s probably not going to get very far. But if it’s well designed and has affordable units? Maybe the council will grant a little more density or another floor. It depends on a developer showing up with something that they feel offers some kind of community benefit and fits with the Comprehensive Plan, and whether the Common Council agrees with the developer’s reasoning.

There is great potential in the waterfront – those views can fetch a premium (i.e. higher land values, and more tax dollars), it’s far enough removed from the colleges that students would be unlikely residents, and many of the properties are underutilized, with only marginal public benefit.  So potentially, if someone wants to work with the Common Council (one can count on at least 8 or 9 of the 10 being willing to cooperate), there could be some benefits in the long-term.

B. The Commons first-floor active-use zoning ordinance looks to be heading for a Common Council vote in January. More about that ordinance here, Item 5.

C. That damned backyard chickens thing again. Only this time, it might be moving forward with a pilot program involving 20 families.

D. Per the Times’ Josh Brokaw, expect incentive/inclusionary zoning to be up for PEDC review in January.

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4. Hey look, this week’s eye candy. Tompkins Financial Corporation’s proposed downtown Ithaca Headquarters at 119 East Seneca Street will be reviewed for final project approval at this month’s Planning Board meeting. As part of that, here’s the final project design, part of the final Site Plan Review submission here.

From the front, it looks like some of the window layout has changed on the top floor and southwest corner, and there are fewer sunshades above the windows. There’s a third tree in the planting plan, and there’s variation in the cladding materials on the west wall facing the DeWitt Mall.

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In fact, it’s the non-primary facades that have changed the most, with different (and generally lighter-colored) brick and aluminum panels when compared to the previous rendition. Although there’s less glass than before, the lighter colors and greater variation in materials de-emphasize the bulk from the perspective of its townhouse neighbors at the rear. The 7-story, 110,000 SF commercial office building should begin construction in early 2016 with an eye towards completion the following spring.

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5. There was quite a sale on Ithaca’s West End last Friday. Nine properties outlined in red on the map above – 106, 108, 100 and 116 North Meadow Street, 607, 609 and 611 West Seneca Street, and 602 and 604 West State Street – were sold for $1,725,000 to Elmira Savings Bank.

Now, there are a few reasons why this is worthy of attention. For one, banks don’t typically shell out almost two million dollars without some kind of plan. For two, Elmira Saving Bank has been moving forward with expansion plans in the Ithaca area in hopes of capitalizing on the growing local economy. For three, there has been a lot of development in this neighborhood as of late – the Iacovelli Apartments (2013) and Planned Parenthood (2014) are right across the street, and it’s worth noting that the 18,000 SF HQ for Alternatives Federal Credit Union (2002) is on the other side of the block.

The properties are currently home to parking lots, several older, non-historic houses (most in poor condition) and a two-story 4,500 SF commercial building previously home to the Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant. The restaurant building had been on the market for $699,900.

The zoning here is all WEDZ-1a. West End Zone 1a allows for 2 to 5 story buildings, 90% lot coverage in the case of large assemblages such as this, and no off-street parking requirement. That means these parcels have a lot of potential. The previous owner had been rumored to be planning a mixed-use building on some of the properties, but nothing official ever came forth.

Two phone calls were placed to Elmira Savings Bank’s headquarters in Elmira, and two voicemails were left, but neither received a response. But these properties are definitely something to keep a close watch on over the following months.

6. That 9100 SF store being developed on the corner of East Shore and Cayuga Vista Drives in Lansing that was mentioned last week (here, Item 4)? It’s going to be a Dollar General. Not sure if that’s better than the auto/tire store speculated last week.

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7. Lest it be forgotten, it appears Lady Luck and some state bureaucrats smiled at the Southern Tier this week, awarded the region one of the three $500 million prizes of the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, known colloquially as the Upstate “Hunger Games”. Rochester/Finger Lakes and Syracuse/Central are the other $500 million winners. Seven regions competed, and the four losers will receive $80-$100 million for their priority projects. The money will be paid out in five annual installments of $100 million. A copy of the Southern Tier’s plan is here.

I wrote about Ithaca’s plans for its share on the Voice here. The first year projects alone will have a range of impacts, ranging from job creation and training to municipal construction projects to quality of life projects like museum expansions. Potentially, it could result in hundreds of jobs in Tompkins County, financial capital for several major projects, and make the area more attractive for investment for both local and external entities. As these projects move forward, they’ll receive their due write-ups here and on the Voice.

Of course, the key things are that the community can manage this monetary award, and that someone can track and guide these projects to completion – something the Southern Tier has struggled with, when one looks at the result of previous, much smaller awards.

8. The state’s just shoveling money into Ithaca this week. The New York State Office of Community Renewal (part of the state’s HUD equivalent, the Homes and Community Renewal agency) has awarded $500,000 towards the rehabilitation of the Masonic Temple at the corner of East Seneca and North Cayuga Streets in downtown Ithaca.

The Masonic Temple was built in 1926 and designated a local historic landmark in 1994. The property is owned by Ithaca Renting Company (Jason Fane), who purchased the building from the Masons in 1993. Fane’s never been a fan of the historic designation because the ILPC can be expensive and onerous to work with, nearly everyone else hasn’t been a fan of his long-deferred maintenance of the 90-year old building (if you have ever wondered why that CIITAP rule was added about an applicant being in building code compliance with all their other properties…now you know). A few years ago, Fane had not been shy in his interest in demolishing the building.

After rejecting a purchase offer to turn the building into a community center and space for the New Roots charter school, Fane decided to go the preservation route earlier this year and apply for a grant to renovate the interior and add an elevator to the building to make it ADA-compliant. This would make the building much more marketable to commercial tenants, many of which have shunned the 17,466 SF building. Fane laid out a few different options this past summer, including one where four commercial spaces (rental, office, restaurant) would be created. Based on the grant announcement, it looks like that will be the option pursued.

The Downtown Ithaca Alliance backed the application, as did the Common Council by unanimous vote at their July meeting.

The renovation will cost at least $1 million, and according to the grant announcement, seeks to start construction in summer 2016. Expect more info when it hits the ILPC and Planning Board at a later date.

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9. House of the week. This week, INHS’s new 2-bedroom, 1150 SF single-family home underway at 203 Third Street in the city of Ithaca’s Northside neighborhood. The house is framed, roofed and sheathed. Siding (Hardie board?) and trim is being attached on the sides, and one can expect a nice gracious porch to be attached once exterior materials are installed on the front. A home of the design was previously built at 507 Cascadilla Street.

203 Third Street was a vacant that the city seized in a tax foreclosure in 2011. It was transferred to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, who sold it to INHS for $17,000 in December 2014. The process is pretty similar for a lot of the home lots that INHS builds on – the non-profit buys dilapidated or vacant properties from the IURA, which they build or renovate into affordable single-family and duplex houses. In the case of 203 Third Street, INHS competed for the site, outscoring Habitat for Humanity’s submission in an IURA examination of proposals.

As with all INHS homes, this one will be sold to a buyer of modest means, which means someone making at or a little less than the county’s median household income of $53k/year (I think 80% of MHI is the low bound offhand, so about $42k/year). The houses will be a part of INHS’s Community Housing Trust, limiting the price it can be sold for and requiring that if put up for sale, it is sold to another family of modest means. It may just be one house, but it will mean a lot to one family.

Claudia Brenner is the architect, with Rick May Construction and Mike Babbitt in charge of construction (thanks to Claudia for the builder info).

 





News Tidbits 11/30/15: It’s like the 1990s All Over Again

30 11 2015

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1. I want to start this oddly-timed roundup with a big thanks to the readers and commenters who encouraged me to write last Monday’s op-ed. If it wasn’t for you guys, I would have held off. I’m not looking to make waves, but there is a significant, valid concern over Cornell’s housing shortage, and it merited a rebuke.

I also want to thank you guys because the emails I received (about 10 separate readers) were pretty much offloading on how much they hate Cornell, which completely missed the point the article. Worse still, one went into a rant on not only students, but on how much they hate racial minorities, and a second went off into a density rant (followed by stomach-churning quote “if nurses, police and teachers can’t afford to live here, they shouldn’t be living here”). If I thought they were representative of Ithaca for even a moment, I’d hang up my keyboard. But I know that there are good people like the readers here, who are more thoughtful, knowledgeable and arguably less crazy.

So, with all that noted, here’s the actual news – someone familiar with the Cornell Campus Planning Committee wrote in to say that the Maplewood replacement is expected to have 600-700 beds, and that the committee is still hopeful for an August 2017 opening, which would mean it would have to presented fairly soon (that would still leave a year-long gap in housing, but better late than never). They also acknowledged that “Cornell didn’t do such a good job” with planning for a possible housing shortage, which although not an official statement, seems as good of a justification for Monday’s piece as any.

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2. Then there was the other piece that dovetailed the affordable housing setbacks last week – Greenways, INHS’s 46-unit affordable owner-occupied townhouse project in the East Ithaca neighborhood, is being abandoned. A part two article with some hard data is being planned. There’s no real silver lining here. It’s Cornell land and the university could potentially revive it, but there’s no indication that will ever happen.

It’s just been a crappy week for housing affordability in Ithaca.

3. Over in Collegetown, several rental homes are being offloaded at once. The properties, 120-134 Linden Avenue, consist of six student apartment houses, with a listed price of $6.5 million. A check of the county website indicates the properties are assessed at $2.75 million, and a cross-check of the Collegetown Form Zoning shows most of these properties are CR-1 (the southern two homes) and CR-3 (the four northernmost homes). CR-1 is the least dense zoning, and CR-3 is a little denser, but mostly maxed out by the existing properties. In short, the code suggests significant redevelopment is unlikely, so the price seems to be based off of potential rental income.

The Halkiopoulos family currently owns the properties, which make up a sizable portion of their multi-million dollar Collegetown portfolio (they’re one of the medium-sized landlords). The Halkiopouloses’ M.O. has been to buy single-family homes and convert the property to student rentals, rather than building their own apartment buildings. It seems likely that the high price indicates they’ll go to one of the other big landlords, or to someone with really deep pockets looking to break into the Collegetown market.

4. A couple folks might be concerned this week after Jason Tillberg’s latest piece about Ithaca’s deflating economy. But there’s a caution light before this data is taken to be hard truth. Frankly, the BLS estimates suck.

A lot.

The numbers are subject to big revisions. Case in point, here are the pre-revision and post-revision 2013 and 2014 data:

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It’s not uncommon for the numbers to be changed by thousands, because it’s based on a random sampling of non-government multi-person employers. 500,000 are sampled over the whole country each month, but only about 55 of the 3,300 or so orgs in Tompkins and Cortland Counties are included in the Ithaca metro sample (Cortland’s jobs numbers are included with Ithaca’s because jobs are measured by Combined Statistical Area [CSAs]. However, Ithaca is considered a separate metropolitan area [MSA] from the Cortland micropolitan area [µSA], so population stats are always distinct). The overall trend of the selected orgs is then applied to a base number. For places like Ithaca where the local economy is dominated by a few employers, random sampling isn’t the best approach because it misses crucial components of the local economic picture. But the BLS sticks with its current approach for consistency’s sake across regions and time periods.

During the first quarter of each year, the BLS conducts a full analysis and re-analysis of data going back the last three years. The general rule is, the data from three years ago is very good, the data from two years ago is okay, and the data from the previous year is…very, very preliminary. Tompkins County hasn’t had any large layoffs reported the state’s WARN database this year, and the only major retail closings recently have been A.C. Moore and Tim Horton’s.

In short, don’t let it keep you up at night, and wait until March before passing judgement on the 2015 economy.

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5. Over in Dryden town, the townhouse project proposed by local firm Modern Living Rentals (MLR) at 902 Dryden Road in Varna is a little smaller – 13 units and 40 bedrooms, versus the previous 15 units and 42 bedrooms; these numbers include the duplex with 6 bedrooms that currently exists on the site. Meanwhile, the procession of hate continued at the latest town meeting. The arguments are the same as before. To the earlier, larger proposal, some town councilpersons had given a tentative positive response, while at least one was opposed to the original proposal (in Dryden, the Town Board votes on projects rather than the Planning Board). MLR hopes to request approval at the town’s December 17th meeting – if approved, the construction period is planned for January-August 2016.

For those interested, the Stormwater Plan (SWPPP) is here, revised Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) here, revised site plan here, project description courtesy of STREAM Collaborative here. No new renders, but presumably it still looks the same in terms of materials and colors.

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6. Next up on the suburban tour, the fighting over the Biggs Parcel in the town of Ithaca. The Indian Creek Neighborhood Association (ICNA) presented a plan for the property – and the plan is, maybe we can find a way to force the county to keep it, but if not please don’t sell the land to anyone who will build on it. All the county wants is to sell the land so it pays taxes, and the ICNA plan seems to have failed to really address that point. Tompkins officials countered by saying that they’re not keeping it and that if the ICNA cares about this parcel of land so much, buy it. There was then some back and forth about doing a new assessment to account for the developmentally-prohibitive wetlands on site – in other words, decreasing its current $340,000 assessment, with the exact amount to be determined by the county assessment department. At 25.52 acres, of which some is still developable, the price will likely stay above six figures.

So the county’s doing its new assessment, because all it wants is to sell the land so that someone is paying taxes on it. Meanwhile, the ICNA has taken to venting on their web page, angry that the county still plans to sell, and that they may have to actually buy the land in order to dictate its future use.

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7. To wrap up a thoroughly depressing week, a couple of demolitions by neglect. 327 West State Street and 404 West Green Street will both be demolished by the end of the year, according to the Ithaca Times. Both are older, likely century-old structures, but too far gone to be salvageable. According to county records, the City Health Club, which abuts and owns both properties, purchased 404 West Green in 1987, and 327 West State Street in 1993. The porch on 404 came down sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and the only change since then was painting the plywood on the boarded-up door and windows. County photos suggest 327 was in bad shape but possibly occupied up until 2000 or so, and steadily grew worse from there. Offhand, the procedure is to bill the owner for the demo. 404 West Green is B-2d zoning, 327 West State is CBD-60. But don’t expect any redevelopment anytime soon.

Hmmm…bad economic news, projects being cancelled, decay and demolitions in the city and fighting over suburban projects. For Ithaca and Tompkins County, it’s like the 1990s recession all over again.





News Tidbits 9/12/15: Some Projects Lose Mass, and Some Hold Mass

12 09 2015

1. We’ll start this week off with a little bit of economic development news. According to paperwork filed with the Tompkins County IDA, CBORD, a Lansing-based software company, wants to move out of its digs in the Cornell office park by the airport, and into a new larger facility in renovated space in the South Hill Business Campus next to Ithaca College. CBORD would lease 41,000 SF of space with five year options to renew. All 245 local employees would be moved into the renovated space, which would be finished by the end of May 2016 and designed by local architect John Snyder.

The project is expected to cost about $3.7 million. No new jobs are stated in the application.

Assuming SHBC’s website is up-to-date, no contiguous spaces are currently large enough for the tenant, so either the internal space will be split up, or some other tenants will be jostled around to make room for CBORD.

As for the abatement itself, CBORD is requesting a sales tax abatement, one year in length, with a value of $296,000, about 8% of the project cost. It doesn’t appear to have made any waves at Thursday night’s meeting, so what;s likely to be a low-key public hearing and approval vote will be coming in the pipeline.

Also at the IDA meeting, final approvals were granted for tax abatements on the 209-215 Dryden project by John Novarr in conjunction with Cornell. and for INHS’s 210 Hancock affordable housing development in the city’s Northside neighborhood.

2. Another small infill project seeks approval from the city’s planning board and the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). 525 West Green Street, located on the edge of the South Side neighborhood, is currently home to a 4-unit apartment house. Local developer Todd Fox of Modern Living Rentals (MLR) is seeking to build a 4-unit, 4-bedroom apartment house at the rear of the property, where a clapped-out garage currently stands. The units would be rentals, but this far from Cornell and Ithaca College, the target market is likely to be permanent Ithaca residents – single professionals would be a good guess.

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Plans drawn up by prolific local firm STREAM Collaborative call for a 2-story, 2,360 SF “carriage house” building designed to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood, although quite honestly no one would be able to see the new building unless one were looking down the driveway. A landscaped rear parking area for 8 vehicles would replace the current 4-car lot behind the existing building.

According to Site Plan Review documents, construction cost is estimated at $300,000, and construction would take place from November 2015 to July 2016. Area variances are required from the BZA since this building partially occupied space reserved for the rear setback, but according to the SPR the variance has already been granted.

Readers might recall that MLR has been a very busy company as of late – although relatively new to the Ithaca scene (MLR was established in 2010 by then-recent college graduates Charlie O’Connor and Todd Fox), the company has developed the 6-unit 707 East Seneca apartment building, a duplex at 605 South Aurora, and is currently going through the approvals process for solar-powered townhomes out in Varna. The duo also partnered with local real estate businessman Bryan Warren to purchase the Collegetown Bagels at 201-207 North Aurora Street.

As for the project itself, 525 West Green Street is perhaps the largest example of the carriage house trend Ithaca has been seeing lately, where old garages or unused rear lot spaces are being developed into small, detached apartments, typically no more than studio or 1-bedroom size. Other examples include 201 West Clinton, 607 Utica,  and new this month, a studio apartment proposed for a former workshop/garage at 701 North Aurora. Arguably, one could throw New Earth Living/Sue Cosentini’s Aurora Street pocket neighborhood in there as well.

Given that these properties are modestly-sized, rarely visible from the street, and provide rental income to property owners who in most cases live on the same lot, they seem like an appropriate way to increase density without upsetting Ithaca’s character balance.

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3. Briefly in blurbs – according to the agenda for Ithaca town’s Public Works Committee (PWC), the town will be looking at sanitary sewer access for a potential development along Troy Road. Now, before anyone gets their blood pressure raised, this most likely has nothing to do with the 130-unit project that was mothballed a few months ago. But, there have been rumors of smaller-scale plans for one of the parcels that comprised the now-subdivided property. The development radar has been turned on, and if anything shows up, you’ll see it shared here.

4. Staying in Ithaca town for the time being, the town’s planning board has but one project on their agenda for next Tuesday – a new parish center for St. Catherine of Siena Church in the Northeast Ithaca neighborhood.

Yes, even in Ithaca, one of the least religious metros in the country, famously home to a school that pastors derided in fiery philippics 150 years ago for daring to not affiliate itself with a Christian denomination or enforce mandatory church attendance, churches can hold their own.

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Plans call for a new 10,811 SF parish center at 302 St. Catherine Circle, on what is currently part of the church parking lot. Once built, the current parish center, a one-story, 10,275 SF jumble of boxes and corridors, would be demolished and replaced with parking spaces. Richard McElhiney Architects of NYC is the project architect, and a bit of an unusual choice since the firm doesn’t have a presence or previous work up here.

In an assessment by Ithaca town planner Christine Balestra, concerns were noted about a phased parking plan for the church while construction is underway, and minor requests for landscaping details (plans call for two fountains). Other than that, it doesn’t look like this is going to make any waves during the approvals process.

5. Over in the town of Danby, plans are underway to convert a former clothing design and warehouse facility into a mixed-tenant business center. Docs filed by STREAM Collaborative’s Noah Demarest on behalf of owner David Hall call for modifications of a Planned Development Zone for the property at 297-303 Gunderman Road. Danby’s PDZ is not unlike the city’s PUD and town of Ithaca’s PDZ, where the form and layout is regulated rather than the use. The original PDZ for the property dates from the mid-1990s.

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The “Summit Enterprise Center” would be anchored by National Book Auctions currently on Danby Road, Blue Sky Center for Learning (a company that provides support and therapy for autistic individuals and their families), and New Moon Harvest, a food and beverage maker. Additional office, warehouse and industrial/food production space would be available to potential tenants. The existing 21,000 SF building and landscape would not be significantly changed, although future plans for a 4,147 SF addition and parking lot are noted.

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6. Speaking of PDZs and PUDs, I did take the opportunity when I spoke to David Lubin last week to ask how things were going with the Chain Works District development. Here’s what he said:

“Chain Works District is continuing. We’re working with the state and Emerson, investigating the site and making sure all the remediation plans are readied and approved. There will be public hearings. It’s a slow process. We will need DEC approval for the residential uses. We hope to obtain city approvals [for the draft environmental impact statement] this year.”

There’s no doubt the project will take time. With complicated topography, environmental issues, 800,000 SF of planned development space and two municipalities, it’s arguably the most complicated tax parcel in all of the county, if not the region. Readers may stretch their memories back and remember that the first phase will consist of the renovation of buildings 21, 24, 33 and 34 into mixed-use and manufacturing space. Ithaca Builds (come back Jason, Ithacans need someone with your knowledge) provides a detailed run-down here.

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7. Courtesy of Maria Livingston at HOLT Architects, here’s a render of the renovation HOLT is undertaking for its new headquarters at 619 West State Street. Gone are the rather dated-looking decorative parapets, and in comes a clean, modern design with a mix of wood, brick and steel facade materials. HOLT’s 30 employees will occupy most of the new space in the  net-zero energy structure, but there will be space for two other tenants (one of which has already been claimed).

HOLT is spending about $900k on the renovation, which is due to be complete next March. Tompkins Trust Company is providing the financing, and local company McPherson Builders is in charge of general construction.

A copy of the official press release, and an interior render, can be found on HOLT’s blog here.

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8. We’ll wrap up this work with a topic at the tip of everyone’s tongue – State Street Triangle. Architects Kelly Grossman of Austin, Texas and Noah Demarest of STREAM have worked to redesign the project so that its massing is less imposing and its design a little more varied. Specifically, it now looks more like several buildings built next to each other with varying setbacks and heights, rather than one continuous mass – the change is especially prominent on the 300 Block of East State, where the most concern was raised.

The developers held a community meeting Thursday night (pro tip for Campus Advantage – next time, give more than 30 hours’ notice), which has been covered by the Journal here and the Voice here. That the developers scheduled their own community meeting outside of the confines of city hall is laudable.

As part of the redesign, the number of bedrooms has been reduced from 620 to 582. Recent estimates have now priced the project at $70 million. The developer has expressed interest in designated some of the units as affordable housing, in what would be an example of the inclusive zoning that some city staff are currently looking into.

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The project is seeking a tax abatement, though the formal details have yet to be released. Rents would be between $980-$1,600 per month per person, and would include utilities, gym and other “all-inclusive services”. I suspect that a parking space in the Cayuga Garage is an added cost.

Speaking strictly for myself, the design is an improvement, though I have subjective quibbles – for instance, would a lighter color material make the north wall of 11-story middle section less visible from a distance, and would it be possible to give the blank walls more character. Balancing pros and cons, I also think the design of the Commons-facing corner looks tasteful and classy. The prospect of affordable units in the building is intriguing. If I was a planning board member, I’d ask to see material samples to make sure the building doesn’t end up looking cheap.

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Additional images of the updated design can be found on the city’s website here, and a written summary of the changes from project consultant Scott Whitham of can be found here.





“Fun Facts” About the Ithaca Workforce

21 07 2015

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A few weeks ago, I did an article for the Ithaca Voice about how wages in Ithaca are only slightly higher than peer communities in upstate, yet they pay a lot more in rent.

This article isn’t going to focus on that, although I could certainly add a few more pages (or at least fix the embedded graphs issue in the first article). This “topic of the week” piece is intended to be more of a “fun facts” about the Ithaca labor market.

The data comes from the Department of Labor here. All figures date from May 2014.

– The major category that employs the most people in Ithaca is no surprise – “Education, Training and Library Occupations”, with 15.49% of the jobs in the Ithaca metro (the BLS estimates this category to have 7,660 jobs locally, but that would suggest only about 49,430 jobs in the region when their numbers elsewhere say 70,000…make of it what you will). This turns out to be the highest percentage for any metro in the entire country.

This category, which includes professors, teachers, librarians and teaching assistants, averages pay of $80,700/year locally, versus $46,660/year nationally. Not only is Ithaca the metro with the largest percentage of educators and librarians, it’s also the one with the highest wages – Ann Arbor (U. of Michigan) comes in second with $79,500. Ithaca’s quintessential college town vibe is strong.

– The occupational category with the highest average pay is no shocker either – Physicians and surgeons, who employ about 80 people locally and average a pay of just over $233,000/year. The national average is only a little lower at $224,000/year. They are followed by the 40 or so dentists in the region making an average of $205,000/year (national average $167,000/year).
– On the other end of the scale, fast food cooks make the least – the 140 estimated by the BLS make about $18,680 per year. Food prep, delivery drivers and laundry workers all make less than $20,000/year on average, and amount to 1,380 workers. The median salary for all jobs in the Ithaca area is $52,020/year.

– Some other rankings where Ithaca comes in the top 10 of the nation’s 381 metros: professional chefs (8th highest concentration in the nation), microbiologists (7th highest concentration), psychologists (5th) and editors (4th – here’s looking at you, Jeff).

– Now here’s a fun category – location quotient. Basically, how many times more likely a certain type of worker is in a given area versus the national average. For example, my field, atmospheric and space scientists, has a location quotient of 107.36 for the Boulder, Colorado – in other words, atmospheric and space scientists are 107.36 times more common  in Boulder than the national average. This is why we have a joke in my field that Boulder is like Mecca for atmospheric scientists – you have to visit at least once before you die, otherwise you can’t go to Heaven.

So what fields have the highest location quotients in Ithaca? Economics professors (24.53), Physics professors (14,49) and Fundraisers (14.03). And yes, Ithaca has the highest concentration of people in those fields out of any metro area in the country. Now I know why Cornell is so persistent with its donation solicitations.





The Ithaca Economy, Part III: Ithaca’s Economic Health

27 05 2015

Part I looked at how in the past 25 years, Ithaca and Tompkins County had their keisters handed to them by a deep 1990s recession, but came out of the Great Recession of the late 2000s nearly unscathed. Part II provided a break down of job growth by BLS sectors – some sectors, like manufacturing and trade, have given way over the years to a workforce increasingly made up of engineers, scientists and social activists.

However, two big attractions have yet to be discussed – “Government” and “Education and Healthcare”. Those will be covered here in Part III.

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At left is the plot of jobs from 1990 to 2015 in the “Government” sector. Cue the sharpening of the pitchforks. Yes, the token government bureaucrat falls in this category. So do police officers, firefighters and military personnel. The sector shrank briefly in the early 1990s and has grown or held steady since. But in the 2000s recession, there’s an enormous boost – from November 2008’s 9,000 jobs to January 2010’s 10,300. The sector maxed at 10,400 jobs, over 15% of the local market, in October and November 2011. The annual average number of government jobs that year was 10,000, and it has fallen steadily since, with last year’s annual average total of government jobs being about 9,100.

Now the proverbial juggernaut, “Education and Health Services”. Cornell, Ithaca College, TC3, ICSD and other local school districts, as well as doctors, nurses and so forth. Just how much of the local economy does this sector comprise? I plotted it out in annual average proportions below.

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Since 1990, it’s climbed from about 45% of the total job market to 55% of the total job market. The colleges and university by themselves account for nearly 10,000 jobs. In the BLS plot, the sector shrinks a little in the early 1990s, but then it’s climbed ever since, though with a strong amount of seasonality as a result of the academic year.

Now back to the recession question. If Cornell cut hundreds of jobs, and IC didn’t really grow (according to their own reports), what helped cosset Ithaca from the economic maelstrom a few years ago? Why did it do so much better in the 2000s than the 1990s?

The other half of that economic sector. Healthcare.

It’s no big secret that healthcare has been a big grower in the county for the past several years. The local healthcare industry was essentially untouched by the 2000s recession. Cayuga Medical Center has added over 500 jobs since 2008. Baby Boomers are retiring in large numbers, and they expect a full suite of healthcare services; and while the Boomers are generally fleeing this state by the truckload for warm, low-tax locales like Florida, college towns with a high quality of life, such as Ithaca, are seen as a major draw in their own regard. As more boomers look to a community like Ithaca as an alternative to the golf course-and-shuffleboard crowd, it creates more healthcare job opportunities, which are spearheading job growth in the region.

So there’s the hypothetical conclusion – growth in several small sectors and government helped to offset losses in other sectors during the late 2000s recession, but the real difference between the early 1990s and late 2000s is the growing healthcare market created in large part by an older, retiring population. Health services buoyed the local economy even when Cornell and IC were financially stressed. These days, they all work together to bring job growth to Ithaca and set new record highs in local employment.

Now comes the gut check – does that conclusion make sense? The question was posed to local economists and economic development officials.

“I think your gut is not too far off.” Replied Martha Armstrong, Vice President and Director of Economic Development Planning for TCAD. “Certainly Upstate New York had a prolonged and deep recession in the early 1990s and real estate values took a huge hit, actually losing ground, which was uncommon nationally.”

“Yes, education and health held up well during the great recession, never declining in Ithaca. Ithaca didn’t get involved in the housing bubble or predatory lending. Once the recession ended. Hiring in health and education really took off. As for Cornell’s 700 job cuts [during the recession], that’s 2% of 34,500 jobs in the sector, ” explained Elia Kacapyr, the head of the economics department at Ithaca College and the operator of the Ithaca Business Index. “I can’t confirm it was health care and not education jobs that saved us. The employment figures are combined into one sector. I suspect it was education services. It seems to me education employment dwarfs health in Ithaca. Cornell, Ithaca College, TC3, K – 12.”

Unfortunately, there was no real consensus because the conclusion was unable to be thoroughly proven. A slight disappointment, but for what it’s worth, there is no doubt that Ithaca’s economy handled the latest recession well. Tompkins County is a rare economic bright spot in an otherwise depressed upstate economy.





The Ithaca Economy, Part II: A Jack of All Trades

26 05 2015

Part I provided a brief examination of how the 1990s recession had a deep and lasting impact on the Ithaca economy, while the late 2000s recession was a minor hiccup in comparison. Here in Part II, those recessions will be looked at in greater detail by examining the different occupational groups that make up the Ithaca economy.

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To see how the overall market changed, here is the plot of all the non-farm job sectors calculated, combined and tracked by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) from 1990 to 2015. 1990 gives a nice 25-year figure, and it’s also as far as the online data goes back.

There are ten economic sectors defined by the BLS, and all counts are rounded to the nearest 100. Not all of them follow the same pattern as the overall numbers, as seen in the four sectors below.

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Even with the substantial growth in the Ithaca economy, not all parts of the local economy reflect that. At top left is “Mining, Logging and Construction,” which in Ithaca is mostly construction and the Cargill salt mines in Lansing. Employment peaked at 1,700 in August 1990, fell during the economic doldrums of the 1990s, and has made a very gentle climb since the late 1990s, most likely due to population growth and the slow if steady rise in construction demand. Cornell’s recent budget problems could derail that rise.

At top right, “Manufacturing”, industrial makers and producers. Manufacturing peaked at 4,600 in October and November 2000. The woes in this sector match much of upstate – manufacturers closed or left the area for cheaper sites down south or overseas, like Ithaca Gun in 1986/87, NCR/Axiohm in the 1990s and Morse Chain in the late 2000s (Morse Chain shed 500 jobs in the late 2000s, which explains some of the plunge). Fortunately, companies like Borg Warner still maintain a strong presence, and there has been some growth lately thanks to firms such as Groton’s Plastisol and Ithaca’s Incodema.

Lower left is “Trade, Transportation and Utilities”. In this category is where truckers, warehouse workers, retailers, wholesalers and utility crews fall. This category peaked at 7,000 jobs twice, in January 2006 and January 2008, but has fallen closer to 6,000 jobs in the past year or so. The early 1990s dip is there, as is a dip during the late 2000s recession. Overall, the sector’s employment hasn’t changed a whole lot in the past 25 years.

Last image in the figure, at the lower right, is “Information“. Publishers, broadcasters, news agencies like the Ithaca Voice, telecommunications, movie makers, and so on. The category has never employed more than 800 people locally, and is at an all time low as of late (on a national level, the industry has shrunk by a third since the early 2000s). It doesn’t follow the recessions, but it’s a tiny portion of the Ithaca market anyway.

Okay, so these four either held steady or fell during both recessions, and are decreasing or holding steady while the overall local economy has grown. Let’s look at the next four:

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The big difference between the first four and these four is that we can clearly see that these industries have grown in the past quarter century, some more than others.

“Financial Activities” at top left includes groups like bankers, insurance agents, and real estate agents. While currently at its highest ever, it’s hit that watermark many times in the past decade. The industries fell by similar amounts during both recessions, but the late 2000s down-period was much shorter.

The “Professional and Business Services” sector shown at top right includes engineers, architects, veterinarians, scientists and other technical professionals not associated with academia or government. They definitely saw a substantial drop during the ’90s recession, and it mimics that decade’s lengthy downturn. The late 2000s recession is barely noticeable, just like the overall jobs picture.

Leisure and Hospitality” at lower left is easy enough to define – hoteliers, restaurants, and professional entertainers like musicians and artists. There’s been a big push in the hospitality subsector with new hotels in Ithaca opening recently and in the near future, but the job growth isn’t all too impressive, only a few hundred jobs during peak periods. Once again, this sector was deeply impacted by ’90s recession, and jostled though not seriously damaged by the 2000s recession.

The last category, “Other Services” on the lower right, is a catch-all. In this category the BLS includes mechanics, dry cleaners, nannies, social and environmental non-profits, clergy and lobbyists. Given this area’s strong social activism, there’s little reason to wonder why the jobs totals have steadily risen, even during the recessions.

These four probably played a role in Ithaca’s growth in the past 25 years – the city and county have transitioned from factory workers and tradesmen to engineers and non-profits. But I still have yet to touch on the two biggest categories, “Government” and “Education and Healthcare.” Those two, plus some ideas on why the 1990s downturn was worse than the late 2000s recession, will be presented in Part III.

 





The Ithaca Economy, Part I: A Tale of Two Recessions

25 05 2015

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Ithaca’s economy has been growing in the past 25 years. Like any market, it’s also had its share of ups and downs – in particular, a recession in the early 1990s and a recession in the late 2000s. Nationally, the early 1990s recession was mild, especially in comparison to the Great Recession of the late 2000s. The 1990s recession only lasted 8 months on a national level (July 1990 – March 1991) and GDP loss was -1.4%. The Great Recession was 18 months (Dec 2007 – Jun 2009) and a GDP loss of -4.3%.

In Ithaca, these recessions played out a little differently.

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According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), after a peak employment of 53,100 non-farm jobs in October 1990, the economy sputtered and shrank, falling as low as 47,700 jobs in January 1992, and not surpassing the 53,100 high mark until October 1995. The first half of the decade saw no real growth in jobs numbers.  The Ithaca College Economic Index, which establishes a number based on local economic indices, further highlights the poor 1990s ecnomy. The way the index works is that the index value in January 1985 = 100; 101 means 1% growth since Jan 1985. The county grew at a rapid pace in the late 1980s, and the index was 135.32 in March 1989. But by March 1992, it was 115.75; the economy shrank 14.5%. The index wouldn’t go above 135 again until February 1999. By this measure, Ithaca and Tompkins County had a lost decade.

In contrast, the late 2000s recession had a pre-recession peak of 158.66 in January 2008, fell as low as 149.44 in March 2009, and a new all-time high was established in June 2010. The economy index contracted only 5.8% during the recession, and Ithaca recovered relatively quickly compared to many cities. The jobs total is hardly a blip, an averaged loss of 200 jobs in 2009 that were quickly recovered in 2010’s growth.

So, why the difference? That’s the $64,000 question. An oft-cited reason is that Tompkins County’s institutions of Higher Education are responsible – Cornell, Ithaca College and TC3 were less buffeted by the economic headwaters that made the recession as bad as it was. Cornell published a report in the late 2000s saying that its construction projects alone provided over 700 jobs. Visitors to the university and staying in hotels and eating at local restaurants was claimed to have created almost 800 jobs.

But the colleges were here in the early 1990s as well. And while Cornell eliminated 900 positions during the recession by retirement or layoffs, the job numbers suggest that other employers must have picked up the slack in employment.

One of the ways to try and figure this out would be to look at the breakdown in employment by sector as described by the BLS. Perhaps education didn’t play as much of a role in the 1990s recession, or other industries grew while Cornell’s rank were whittled down in the late 2000s. Part II will be examining the job sector breakdowns and running some calculations to see just what changed in the job totals, and when.





Dairy One and Binoptics Construction Update, 4/2015

14 04 2015

Neither one is especially pretty, but the local benefits are substantial.

Over on Warren Road in Lansing, two business expansion projects are underway just across the street from each other. The first one is the Dairy One project at 720 Warren Road.

A quick walk-by of the site shows that the exterior of the building is complete, finishes have been applied, and the grass landscaping has been seeded and covered with straw to protect it from the wind and birds. The new research center looks ready for its spring opening.

The new “Northeast Dairy and Food Testing Center” is a 50-50 collaboration between local firm Dairy one Cooperative Inc., and Chestnut Labs of Springfield, Missouri. The  17,000 sq ft building is a $3.5 million investment and will add 11 jobs at the outset, 3 through Dairy One and 8 through Chestnut Labs. 4 more jobs would be added over the following two years if all goes to plan.

According to the TCIDA report, Chestnut opted for Ithaca as its first satellite office because of a desire to expand into the Northeast and its proximity to Cornell. The design by Syracuse-based Dalpos Architects.

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Across Warren Road on its west side, the new addition to Binoptics is underway. Technically the address for Binoptics is 9 Brown Road, but the property sits on the corner of Brown and Warren Roads.

The plywood has yet to be sheathed and covered in exterior facade materials, but windows have been fitted into the new one-story, 2,800 square foot addition.  The addition is pegged at a cost of $7.7 million, mostly on new equipment. The design of the addition is by Rochester-based Architectura P.C., who also did the Cayuga Medical Associates Building just south of the Route 13/Warren Road intersection.

BinOptics, a laser developer and manufacturer, sees the addition as part of its plan to add 91 jobs over the next three years, including 35 jobs this year as the new addition is completed.

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Ithaca Jobs Numbers Revised – Vindication Feels Good

19 03 2015
I predicted between 69,600 and 70,100. Looks like I’m right, for now.
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March is an important month for the Bureau of Labor Statistics; it’s the month where the previous three years’ of data are revised. For Ithaca, it’s yielded some very interesting results.

First off, the 2013 numbers have been revised from a yearly average of 69,000 to an average of 69,400, a 2.8% increase or 1,900 jobs more than the 2012 averaged job total of 67,500. The 2012 data were not changed.

Secondly, the 2014 total job numbers have also been revised upward, from an initial estimate of 69,150 jobs, to 69,650 in the Ithaca area in 2014. The gain seems paltry compared to 2013’s gains. 250 jobs, a 0.4% increase.

Looking at the data more closely, the 2014 data is, at a glance, alarming – November 2014 lost 1,000 jobs when compared to November 2013. December 2014 lost 1,500 jobs when compared to December 2013.

However, these results aren’t the result of changes in 2014. The Voice looked at archived reports of the initial jobs numbers for 2013 and 2014, which we’ve included below (values shown are in thousands – for example, 69.0 equals 69,000 jobs).

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Now here are the revised 2013 numbers and 2014 numbers:

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For visual reference, here’s a line plot and bar plot of the numbers.
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The large drop last Spring has been erased. The drop of 1300 jobs last May is now a gain of 700. Pretty big difference. Spring 2013 job numbers decreased slightly in the revision.Summer employment values were also decreased in both years, which means there is more seasonality to the Ithaca employment cycle than previously estimated.

Fall 2013, by the BLS’s account, had tremendous job growth, with November and December 2013 now tied at 73,700 jobs, the record employment figures in the Ithaca metro. A revision such as December 2013’s, where 2800 more jobs were added, is highly unusual. It is because of this revision that the 2014 numbers look so poorly – compared to the initial fall 2014 values, they were actually increased a little bit, just not as much as 2013’s were.

So what can we expect from the 2014 numbers moving forward? Being the “freshest” data, there is a very good chance they will be revised again next March. For the sake of example, the 2013 numbers were initially 68,000 at the end of 2013, then 69,000 in the March 2014, and now 69,400. We will need to wait and see if the fall 2014 figures are adjusted, and by now much.