The Maplewood Redevelopment, Part I: History and Planning

28 08 2017

Being as large and complex as it is, it was hard to figure out a way to present the Maplewood project clearly and coherently. After some thinking, it seems the best combination of clarity and detail will be to split it into three sections. This section, Part I, will be an overview of the site history and project planning. Part II will examine and break down the site plan with all of its contributing structures. Part III will be the regular construction update, which will be bi-monthly just like all the others.

Quick primer note – Maplewood Park was the name of the old complex. The new one is just called “Maplewood”. With the shorthand for Maplewood Park being Maplewood, it can get confusing.

Let’s start with the background. Love it or not, Cornell University is one of the major defining organizations of the Ithaca area. It employs nearly 10,000 people and brings billions of dollars in investment into the Southern Tier, Tompkins County and Ithaca. That investment includes the students upon which the university was founded to educate.

Traditionally, neither founder Ezra Cornell nor first university president Andrew Dickson White were fans of institutional housing. Their preference was towards boarding houses in the city, or autonomous student housing (clubs, Greek Letter Orgs, etc), where it was felt students would learn to be more independent. This mentality has often underlain Cornell’s approach to housing – it’s not a part of their primary mission, so they only build campus housing if they feel it helps them meet academic and institutional goals. If many potential students are opting for other schools because of housing concerns, or the university is under financial strain because it has to subsidize high housing costs in their scholarships, then Cornell is motivated to build housing in an effort to improve its situation and/or become more competitive with peer institutions.

With that in mind, being one of the top-ranked schools in the world means that, in the historical context of the university’s goals and plans, new housing is rarely a concern. Cornell will update housing in an effort to be more inclusive and to improve student well-being, but with labs, classrooms and faculty offices taking precedence, building new housing is rarely an objective. Only about 46% of undergrads live on campus, and just 350 of over 7,500 graduate and professional students.

From 2002 to present, Cornell has added 2,744 students, with a net increase in Ithaca of about 1900. The net increase in beds on Cornell’s Ithaca campus during that same time period is zero. While Cornell did build new dorms on its West Campus, they replaced the University “Class of” Halls. 1,800 beds were replaced with 1,800 beds. In fact, the amount of undergraduate and graduate housing on campus had actually decreased as units at Maplewood Park and the law school Hughes Hall dorm were taken offline, either due to maintenance issues, or for conversion to office/academic space. When the announcement for further decreases came in Fall 2015, I wrote a rare Ithaca Voice editorial, and even rarer, it brought Cornell out to the proverbial woodshed for poor planning and irresponsibility.

To be fair, while Cornell was the guilty body, removing housing isn’t a problem on its own. It’s when the local housing market can’t grow fast enough to support that, that it becomes a problem. The Tompkins County market is slow to react, for reasons that can be improved (cumbersome approvals process) and some that can’t (Ithaca’s small size and relative isolation poses investment and logistical hurdles). In the early and mid 2000s housing was added at a decent clip, so the impacts were more limited. But housing starts tumbled during and after the recession, and it was unable to keep up. As Cornell continued to add students in substantial quantities, it became a concern, both for students and permanent residents.

By the mid-2010s, Cornell was faced with financial strains, student unhappiness and worsening town-gown relations, all related to the housing issue. As a result, the past couple years have become one of those rare times where housing makes it close to the top of Cornell’s list of priorities.

In weighing its options, one of the long-term plans was to redevelop the 17-acre Maplewood Park property. The property was originally the holdings of an Ellis Hollow tavern keeper and the Pew family before becoming the farmstead of James and Lena (sometimes Lyna) Clabine Mitchell in the early 1800s. In 1802, James was passing through from New Jersey to Canada with plans to move across the border, but stopped in the area, liked it, and bought land from the Pews, then moving the rest of his family up to Ithaca. Apparently there’s a legend of Lena Mitchell attacking and killing a bear with a pitchfork for eating her piglets. Many of the home lots in Belle Sherman were platted in the 1890s from foreclosed Mitchell property.

Like many of the Mitchell lands, it looks like the property was sold off around 1900 – a Sanborn map from 1910 shows a brick-making plant on the property along the railroad (now the East Ithaca Rec Way) and not much else for what was then the city’s hinterland. It’s not clear when Cornell acquired property, but by 1946, Cornell had cleared the land to make way for one of their “Vetsburgs”, also known as Cornell Quarters. The 52 pre-fabricated two-family homes were for veterans with families, who swelled Cornell’s enrollment after World War II thanks to the GI Bill. Once the GIs had come and gone, Cornell Quarters became unfurnished graduate housing, geared towards students with families, and international students.

The Cornell Quarters were meant to be temporary, and so was their replacement. In 1988-89, the university built the modular Maplewood Park Housing, with 390 units/484 beds for graduate and professional students, and an expected lifespan of 25 years. The intent was to replace them with something nicer after several years, but given Cornell’s priorities, and housing typically not among them, it fell to the back burner. As temporary units with marginal construction quality and upkeep, poor-condition units were closed off in later years, and capacity had fallen to about 356 beds when the complex’s closure was announced in May 2015 for the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

Cornell had long harbored plans to redevelop the Maplewood site – a concept schematic was shown in the 2008 university Master Plan. After weighing a renovation versus a rebuild with a few possible partners, the university entered into an agreement with national student housing developer EdR Trust to submit a redevelopment proposal. The partnership was announced in February 2016, along with the first site plan.

The core components of the project were actually fairly consistent throughout the review process. The project would have 850-975 beds, and it would be a mix of townhouse strings and 3-4 apartment buildings, with a 5,000 SF community center to serve it all. The project adheres to New Urbanist neighborhood planning, which emphasizes walk-ability and bike-ability, with interconnected and narrow streets, and parking behind buildings rather than in front of them. Energy-efficient LEED Certification was in the plans from the start.

 

However, the overall site plan did evolve a fair amount, mostly in response to neighbor concerns raised through the review process. Many residents on or near Mitchell Road were uncomfortable with multi-story buildings near them, so these were pulled further back into the complex, and late in the process the remaining Mitchell Street multi-story buildings were replaced with very-traditional looking townhomes with a smaller scale and footprint. More traditional designs were also rolled out for the pair of townhouse strings closest to Worth Street, since neighbors noted they would be highly visible and wanted them to fit in. The building planned in the city’s side was also pulled inward into the parcel early on due to neighbor concerns – it became an open plaza and bus stop. The university was fairly responsive to most concerns, although the most adamant opposition didn’t want any multi-story units at all, and really preferred as few students and as few families as possible.

For the record, that is every site plan I have on file. Go clockwise from top left for the chronology. So from beginning to end, there were at least five versions made public. The final product settled on 442 units with 872 bedrooms, with units ranging from studios to 4-bedrooms.

It’s also worth pointing out that the town of Ithaca, in which the majority of the property lies (the city deferred the major decision-making to the town), had a lot of leverage in the details. The town’s decades-old zoning code isn’t friendly to New Urbanism, so the property had to be declared a Planned Development Zone, a form of developer DIY zoning that the town would have to review and sign off on. Eventually, the town hopes to catch up and have form-based code that’s more amenable to New Urbanism. The town also asked for an Environmental Impact Statement, a very long but encompassing document that one could describe as a super-SEQR, reviewing all impacts and all mitigation measures in great detail. The several hundred pages of EIS docs are on the town website here, but a more modest summary is here. If you want the hundreds of pages of emailed comments and the responses from the project team, there are links in the article here.

Some details were easier to hammer out than others. The trade unions were insistent on union labor, which Cornell is pretty good about, having a select group of contractors it works with to ensure a union-backed construction workforce. Also, at the insistence of environmental groups, and as heat pumps have become more efficient and cost-effective, the project was switched from natural gas heat to electric heat pumps, with 100% of the electricity to come from renewables (mostly off-site solar arrays).

Taxes were a bit more delicate, but ended up being a boon when it was decided to pay full value on the $80 million project. It was a borderline case of tax-exemption because Cornell would own the land and EdR would own the structures, and lease the land for 50 years; but Maplewood Park was exempt, so it could have been a real debate. Instead, EdR said okay to 100% taxation, which means $2.4 million generated in property taxes on a parcel that previously paid none. Some folks were also concerned if the schools could handle the young child influx, but since Maplewood Park only sent about 4 kids to the elementary school on average, and the new plan would send 10 students when the school has capacity for another 26, so that was deemed adequate.

On the tougher end, traffic is a perennial concern, and Cornell wasn’t about to tell graduate and professional students and their families to go without a car. Streetscape mitigations include raised crosswalks, curbing, and landscaping, EdR is giving the town $30,000 for traffic calming measures (speed humps and signage) to keep the influx of residents orderly and low-speed. A new 600,000 gallon water tank also has to be built (planned for Hungerford Hill Road).

One of the thorniest issues were the accusations of segmentation, meaning that Cornell was falsely breaking their development plans up into smaller chunks and hiding their future plans to make the impacts seem smaller. This has come in the context of the Ithaca East Apartments next door, and the East Hill Village Cornell is considering at East Hill Plaza. However, neither were concrete plans at the time, and still aren’t – to my understanding, Cornell had some informal discussions about Ithaca East but decided against it early on in the process. And they only just selected a development team for EHV.

In the end, many of the concerned neighbors and interest groups were satisfied with the changes, and actually lauded Cornell and EdR for being responsive. The EIS was formally requested in May 2016. The Draft EIS was accepted in August 2016, public meetings on it were held in October, and the Final EIS was submitted at the end of October. After some more back-and-forth on the details (stormwater management plan, or SWPPP), the Final EIS was approved right before Christmas and the project was approved in February 2017, starting work shortly thereafter for an intended August 2018 completion. With the wet summer, the project managers asked for a two-hour daily extension on construction (8 am-6 pm became 7 am -7 pm) to meet the hard deadline, which the town okayed with a noise stipulation of less than 85 decibels.

Rents for the project, which include utilities, wireless and pre-furnished units, are looking to range from $790-$1147 per bed per month, depending on the specific unit. Back of the envelope calculations suggest affordability at 30% rent and 10% utilities, for 40% of income. Cornell stipends currently range from $25,152-$28,998, which translates to $838-$967/month.

On the project team apart from Cornell and Memphis-based EdR are Torti Gallas and Partners of Maryland, New Urbanist specialists who did the overall site plan and architecture. Local firms T.G. Miller P.C. and Whitham Planning and Design are contributing to the project as structural engineer and public relations representative respectively. SRF & Associates did the traffic study. Although not mentioned as often, STREAM Collaborative did the landscape architecture for the project. The general contractor is LeChase Construction of Rochester.

So that’s part one. Part two will look at the structures and site plan itself. And then with part three, we’ll have the site photos.





News Tidbits 6/5/17: The Return, Part III

5 06 2017

1. The Ithaca Gun site is almost in the clear, according to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The state is proposing a “no further action” status for remediation of the Lake Street site along Fall Creek gorge, where the factory maintained a presence from 1885 to 1986. Testing the guns with lead bullets for decades had the unfortunate result of contaminating the gorge with toxic levels of lead and heavy metals, and the area has been under remediation in some form for almost 20 years. The first round of cleanup for the Superfund was from 2002-2004, but insufficient cleaning resulted in a second round of cleaning in 2014. A third round to excavate more contaminated soil along the steep slopes of the gorge was undertaken by the federal EPA over the past couple of years.

To quote: “Based on the results of the investigations at the site, the interim remedial measures and post-IRM screening that have been performed, the NYSDEC is proposing No Further Action as the remedy for the site…Periodic site inspections and reporting, which include additional removals of lead shot as needed, will ensure continued protection for the environment and public health.”

Note that this only impacts the part of the site that was donated to the city as parkland. A separate remediation plan has been crafted by Travis Hyde Properties as part of their plans to build 45 units of housing on the former factory site, the “Ithaca Falls Residences“. The completion of work on the city land would allow THP to put the finishing touches on their plan, and potentially move forward with their long-incubating housing proposal.

2. There was one detail that was initially missed when going over the failed candidacy of Lisa Bonniwell to the village of Lansing Board of Trustees. While her family’s housing development, the “Heights of Lansing”, has been in perpetual stall with only about 22 of the 80 units built since approval in 2005 (and the last townhouses in 2011-12, shown above), they do plan to start work on another “six-plex” string of luxury townhouses this year – Bonniwell cast blame on the gas moratorium for the holdup. Gives them something else to focus on after their lawsuit over the Park Grove Apartments re-zoning down the road, in which the courts decided in the village’s favor.

The existing units are 3 bedrooms, 2,297-2,400 SF and sell for about $350,000-375,000. Expect the next batch to be fairly similar, though with different exterior details – each string’s exterior finishes are unique.

3. Sticking with Lansing, the Cayuga Farms townhouses are planning some modest changes – the buildings will be smaller, which will allow 20% green space and the construction of a community clubhouse. There will still be 102 units with 3 bedrooms each, 1500-1800 SF, in the upper-middle (“premium”) market segment. The plan has been held up for years while trying to find appropriate ways to address wastewater/sewage, initially floating a pricey Orenco modular site-specific plan. However, with the likelihood of a sewer main being routed up North Triphammer Road in the near-future, that would render the sewage treatment issue a moot point and allow the already-approved project to move forward with permit requests.

4. Nothing too exciting with the local planning boards at the moment. The town of Ithaca is reviewing adjustments to the Westview subdivision that would allow homebuilder to have building permits open for more than two houses at any given time, and to allow him to build houses from different project phases (locations) so long as they have road frontage, sewer and water. Apparently the 2004 stipulations have created a headache with his newest home lots.

Meanwhile in Ulysses, the town planning board will be reviewing plans for additions to the Taughannock Inn at 2030 Gorge Road. The rather whimsical structure designed by architect Jason Demarest would add a “gatehouse/stable”, with five guest rooms, a check-in area, a bar and dining space, ice cream parlor, tent space, reflecting pools and whatever else that makes it sort of romantic events center for weddings, banquets and reunions. The 1870s inn will receive a new cupola, and the projects needs several zoning variance and a noise law revisions so that they can create to 90 dB until 1:30 AM.

5. Lansing’s 1020 Craft Road was picked up by an LLC tied to a construction company out of Endicott for $615,000 back in April, so that was was a strong indicator that something was planned. That plan looks like a gut renovation and 4,410 SF in additions, as well as a paved and landscaped parking lot. Pyramid Brokerage is already advertising professional office space in the 10,500 SF building, which was built around 1980 and used for manufacturing (sheet metal fabrication), and it was looking pretty run down by the time it was purchased. The lease is for $18.00/SF, with a minimum available space of 5,250 SF, which would be a pretty good sized office. Depending on the finishes though, it might have appeal for those looking for a suburban location with easy parking – CFCU’s headquarters is next door, and several other firms are housed in neighboring buildings.

6. The county released its report of potential tax foreclosures. The long story short is that if property taxes aren’t paid, the county may seize a property (courtesy says they give a couple warning first), which may then be sold by the county at auction to pay off the back taxes, or it may be given to a municipality if the community wants it, or it may be withheld completely if it is deemed to have special ecologic value (biodiversity, wetland, “Unique Natural Areas”, etc.)

There doesn’t appear to be anything too exciting in this year’s batch. The city almost got some prime waterfront real estate at a bargain price last year, but the owner was able to pay the tax bill before the city could claim it. This year, we see several rural properties that the county would like to put deed restrictions on for stream buffers and conservation options, a pair of industrial properties in Caroline and Dryden, and a handful of single-family homes around the area. Nothing that looks especially tempting to the ambitious, although there are a handful of individuals who scoop these properties up at auction and then market them at a much higher price (with some success).





News Tidbits 6/3/17: The Return, Part I

3 06 2017

My apologies for the lack of a weekly round-up. My day job has been busier than usual, and the list of topics just kept growing, making it an even more daunting task. Gonna try and work through a few at a time until everything’s caught up.

1. Cornell and EHVP’s East Hill Village webpage has started to flesh out their Q&A regarding the mixed-use megaproject slated to replace East Hill Plaza. Here are a few details:

– Cornell wants to make it clear that all images to date, include the conceptual from the master plan above, are strictly conceptual and have little bearing on the final product. The more realistic and nuanced take is that Cornell has an idea of what they want and the program format they want it in, for broad concepts like housing capacity, commercial/research space and general urban planning. In terms of an actual layout or tenant specifics, they probably don’t have much.

– Perhaps in response to a Voice commenter and former Ithaca town planning board member who accused the university of segmentation (meaning, during environmental review they illegally broke up a project into phases to avoid a greater analyses and to downplay impact), the FAQ notes that they didn’t really have this fleshed out and it’s separate from Maplewood. Given the size, scale, that it’s a physically separated set of properties, and vague goals they’re walking into this with, that’s a fair statement. If this were, say, a replacement for Ithaca East, which borders Maplewood, it’d be a different story.

– The current thinking is to keep the main retail strip, which was requested at the first community meeting. However, they may take down a portion of it to create a through-street, and reconfigure/relocate the parking.

– They haven’t written off pursuing a PILOT or tax abatement. They are exploring an affordable housing component. Eco-features like solar arrays, heat pumps and net-zero structures are being considered.

– Meetings will continue through the summer, with concept plans prepared for the town by the fall. Construction on the first phase would begin in 2019. It will be multi-phase.

No second meeting has been posted yet, but keep an eye out for updates.

2. Making its round around local governments and news outlets is a recently-published study by local structural engineering firm Taitem that tells of good news for heat pumps, and maybe serve to county one of the town of Lansing’s arguments regarding the West Dryden natural gas pipeline. Although the firm is a promoter of green initiatives, their study indicated that financially, the technological advancement in heat pumps over the past several years has made them competitive with natural gas, although each has pros and cons. For smaller units, a 1,500 SF townhouse in the study, it was found that an air-source heat pump was slightly less in annual cost than a natural gas furnace – for a modeled 4,000 SF detached custom home, it was a few percent more. Ground-source pumps were more expensive (but slightly “greener” than air pumps), and propane was the most costly, as well as the biggest carbon emitter. Although contractors are still adapting to heat pumps, the cost is decreasing somewhat as their use spreads and familiarity grows.

However, not everything is roses, at least not yet. For large-scale commercial and industrial operations whose heating needs are substantially greater, it appears that heat pumps have yet to be competitive, and even Taitem’s Ian Shapiro acknowledges that’s likely the case at present. But while the pipeline will continue to be an issue for larger commercial enterprises, homebuilders and residential developers should be able to adapt without too much additional financial burden or risk.

For the sake of example, the Village Solars charged a modest premium on rents when they went with pumps a few years ago (due to installation costs rather than operating costs), but having a strong product makes up for the extra short-term investment, the costs will potentially balance out over a few decades, and frankly, it makes for good marketing in eco-conscious Tompkins County.

I’ll admit to being skeptical over the past few years, and I still have concerns for economic impacts like the MACOM decision, but at least from a residential construction standpoint, the Village Solars and this study are making a strong statement.

3. Move this one into the “construction” column – Cayuga View Senior Living has secured a construction loan. The mixed-use, 60-unit senior housing project at 25 Cinema Drive in Lansing village has been in stall mode for a year as financing remained elusive. However, according to a construction loan filed on May 25th, Five Star Bank is loaning the Thaler family and their associates $10.88 million to make their project become reality. Along with the loan, the Thalers and their business partners will be putting up $1,796,450 in equity to move the project forward, bring total costs to $12,676,450.

Here’s a cost breakdown – individual figures are blocked out to avoid potential legal issues. But for the sake of illustration, here is the breakdown of the finances. Source of funds to the left, breakdown of hard and soft costs to the right. Breaking down the terms, we’ll start with the hard costs: easements are the legal right to use someone else’s land for your own use – often seen with utilities, they can also be used for private improvements like sewer, solar, paths or driveways/parking. Site improvements include landscaping, driveways, and drainage. Building Cons. costs are actual materials/labor expenses, and tenant improvements are the costs of fitting out retail space as part of a lease agreement. Lastly, general conditions are a catch-all for non-construction labor costs, including site management like porto-potty rental and temp utilities, material transport costs and project management – for this project, site management falls under the general contractor, Taylor the Builders of Rochester.

Soft costs include contigency (cover your rear allowance),  overhead developer profit (the amount needed to compensate the development team, which isn’t necessarily the exact same group as those putting up equity, for taking on this project), construction interest and LOC [Line of Credit] fees to the lender, and other line items that are either self-explanatory or too vague to ascribe. At $145/SF, the cost is a fair 10% less than a similar project in Ithaca city (offhand, 210 Hancock’s apartments are ~$160/SF), which can be explained in part by lower land costs and a less complicated site to work within, and to get in and out of.

Five Star Bank is a regional bank based out of Wyoming County in the western part of the state. They hold a few local mortgages, but this appears to be their first construction loan recorded in Tompkins County.

4. I’ll wrap up “Part 1” with a piece of interesting news – Cornell found a buyer for their printing facility and warehouse on Ithaca’s West End. According to a county filing on June 2nd, Guthrie Clinic is paying $2.85 million for the properties at 750 and 770 Cascadilla Street, which is over the asking price of $2.7 million. For that they get 3.12 acres, a 37,422 SF warehouse built in 1980, and a 30,000 SF storage facility built in 1988 and currently leased out.

Guthrie is a regional healthcare provider based out of Sayre, Pennsylvania – their premier facility is the 254-bed Robert Packer Memorial Hospital, which Ithacans might know as one of two locations someone is likely to be transported to in the event of a severe injury (the other being University Hospital up in Syracuse). For the record, Cayuga Medical Center has 204 beds.

Guthrie’s presence in Tompkins County includes some specialty offices and an existing 25,000 SF clinic at 1780 Hanshaw Road in Dryden. That building first opened in 1995, with an addition in 2000. Guthrie has been a building spree as of late, with a 25-bed hospital in Troy, PA that opened in 2013, and a 65-bed hospital in Corning that opened in 2014.

As for what they want to do on Ithaca’s West End, well, I’m working on figuring that one out. I’m hoping the Times writers who follow the blog will cut me some slack and let me try to unravel this one.

 





News Tidbits 6/4/16: A Stormy Summer Start

4 06 2016

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1. We’ll start this week off with a follow-up on the 201 College Avenue debate. All discussions of planning philosophy noted, one solid request, as reported by Josh Brokaw at the Ithaca Times, was to try and reduce the bulk from the College Avenue side, if not necessarily the building footprint. The above drawing was submitted by STREAM Collaborative’s Rob Morache earlier this week, with a cover letter describing the changes here. The modification reduces the building by 2 bedrooms, to 74, which to go by Todd Fox’s comment in the Times article, puts the project at the borderline of financial feasibility. The middle still pops out a little because that’s where the fire stairs are located. Some minor details were changed with the accent panels, and recessing the windows slightly on the south and west facades. For the record, the panels are Nichiha and Allura fiber cement, with painted metalwork and fiberglass window sashes.

Although now outdated, a shadow study for the previous design has since been uploaded by the city. There are two versions, with and without neighboring building shadows, here and here respectively.

Expect further detail refinements; the building is set to go in front of the Design Review Committee Tuesday morning.

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2. WSKG did a segment earlier this week on micro-apartments, with an interview with Frost Travis and the Carey Building project wrapping up on East State Street. A few details worth noting from the segment – 5 of the 20 rental units (which range from $1,225/month for the microunits to $2,699/month for a high-end penthouse 2-bedroom) are already spoken for and the building’s not even finished yet. For some reason, Monica Sandreczki says there will be about 35 residents at full occupancy, which is a big stretch since there are 16 micro-units and 4 two-bedroom units – going one person per micro-unit and bedroom, a better estimate would be 24.

The news piece also notes that the 201 College project contains micro-apartments – which is true, given that the building is 44 units and 74 bedrooms, and at least the early plans had a number of split-level 410-670 SF studio units.

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3. And 401 Lake Street will bite the dust. The Common Council voted 8-1 last Wednesday night to have structure demolished and the tax-foreclosed properties be designated as parkland. Cynthia Brock (D-1st) voted against the measure and preferred a sale for tax reasons, and her ward counterpart George McGonigal (D-1st) argued that the city was destroying historic working-class housing, though he ultimately supported the measure. Brock did take a whack at new affordable housing in the city, commenting that INHS is getting $75,000 for each townhouse, and Habitat for Humanity getting $75,000 for a duplex even with its volunteer labor, when there was a potential, cost-efficient opportunity for affordable housing designation with this unit. Josephine Martell (D-5th) seemed to be the strongest proponent for demo, stating that the unique potential to enhance the Ithaca Falls Natural Area should be taken every opportunity of. The city bought the tax-foreclosed property from the county; the background on that is on the Voice here.

The funds for the demolition, estimated at $25,000, will come from the sale of IURA land to the Hilton Canopy project. That measure was approved 6-3, with Brock, McGonigal and Graham Kerslick (D-4th) opposed. With work on the Lake Street Bridge currently underway, demolition is not expected for at least a few months.

There was a thought exercise regarding the selling the falls’ parking lot to INHS for development of 3-9 units of affordable housing; it’s an interesting idea, since 401 and the adjacent are right next to the Falls, but the 0.55 acres of city property adjacent to the Lake and Lincoln Streets intersection is still over 200 feet away at its closest point.

4. The rare bit of news out of Enfield. A $612,000 building loan was issued by the Bank of Greene County to provide funds for renovating and expanding the volunteer fire station at 172 Enfield Main Road.

Give that Enfield issues no more than a handful of new construction permits each year, it’s about the only other thing going on apart from the Black Oak Wind Farm debate. One would think that arguments like “the wind does not blow as much as it used to” would be easily shot down and things would move forward, but instead it’s Marguerite Wells, the project manager for BOWF, getting raked over the coals. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I do feel bad for her.

5. In case anyone was wondering – county planner Megan McDonald says the Denter housing study will be publicly available by late July.

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6. Here’s something intriguing from the county’s Facilities and Infrastructure Committee agenda – a proposal to “Prepare airport land for future development“, seeking $500,000. None of the money comes from the county; it appears to be dependent on grants, or an interested developer. Which, given the fact that this shows up in budget docs going back to 2014, doesn’t exactly seem to be generating many queries.

The parcels are described as the “Cherry Road and Agway parcels”, which must be owned by the county since they want to lease out the land – but checking the deed records of parcels adjacent to the airport, there’s no record of an Agway in any of the deed histories. The parcels may be related to the properties in the airport business park feasibility study, shown above and awarded to the team of Clark Patterson Lee and Camoin Associates this past winter.

7. It’s unusual to see Cornell buying property these days, but this Friday, the university purchased the house at 1250 Trumansburg Road on Ithaca’s West Hill for $157,000. The house is a 19th century fixer-upper on 1.21 acres – Cornell owns the land surrounding it, some of which is being subdivided off to build the Cayuga Meadows affordable senior housing project. The house is assessed at $215,000, but the real estate listing notes it needs some work, and it’s been off and on the market for five years.

Several years ago, Cornell expressed intent to develop the 35 acres it owns into a mixed-use complex with a hotel institute, housing, offices and medical services, but the only part of the plan that ever really moved forward was Conifer’s project. I haven’t seen the plans in years, but I remember the early plans (there were a couple versions) were very sprawly; six, eight years ago, walkability was not as valued as it is now.

By buying the house, Cornell reduces its need to work around a neighbor and can incorporate the property into potential plans. This purchase would seem to suggest that Cornell still has strong interest in developing the rest of the West Hill property at some point. In the meanwhile, Cornell might rent it out while the school figures out what it wants to do with the acreage.

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8. House of the week. From the outside, 228 West Spencer Street is almost done, and the interior is fairly far along as well, with finishing work underway. Architect Noah Demarest says the house will be put up for sale in a few weeks, if everything goes as planned.





The Chain Works District DGEIS, Part One: Introduction

20 04 2016

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Chain Works is, without a doubt, the single largest project currently being considered in the Ithaca area. It’s a very large project in terms of square footage, in terms of cost, in terms of length of build-out. Being such a large and important, it needs to be examined carefully – it could help propel Ithaca’s economy and ambitions to a higher quality of life, or it could serve as 95 acres of dead weight.

Between March 29th and May 10th, the city is receiving public comments on the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement, the DGEIS. The city’s website appears to be outdated, but the Chain Works District website is up to date – any comments readers might have, any questions or concerns, are submitted to the City of Ithaca Planning Board as lead agency for environmental review. UnChained Properties LLC, the developer, offers a blank form here, or if one prefers, comments can be sent directly to Ithaca senior planner Lisa Nicholas at lnicholas@cityofithaca.org.

What a DGEIS does is evaluate the potential impacts of growth on local resources and facilities, such as traffic, water supply systems, utilities infrastructure, social and aesthetic impacts. The DGEIS, which will need to be finalized, is part of New York State’s Enviromental Quality Review (SEQR, pronounced “seeker”) and a necessary precursor to any planned/contemplated construction and development of the site.

So, the DGEIS main body is 422 pages, with about 3 GB’s worth of appendices. Although 45 days is allotted for public comment, not a whole lot of people want to read through 422 pages, but the table of contents allows people to jump around if there’s one or two thing they’re more keen to read about. A link to the DGEIS is offered by project partner Fagan Engineers here, but you might need to submit an email and name before being able to see it.

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So, basic details, per the “Description of Action”:

Chain Works District Project is a proposed mixed-use development consisting of residential, office, commercial, retail, restaurant/café, warehousing/distribution, manufacturing, and open space within the existing 95-acre Site which traverses the City and Town of Ithaca’s municipal boundary . Completion of the Project is estimated to be over a seven-to-ten year period. The first phase, referred to henceforth as Phase I, will consist of redeveloping four buildings generally located at the northernmost and southernmost ends of the complex of existing buildings. These first four buildings are approximately 331,450 square-feet (SF), and will house office, a mix of office and residential, and industrial uses. Subsequent phases of development will be determined as the Project proceeds and will include new structures to complete a full build-out of 1,706,150 SF.

So, just based off that, anything that gets developed, is as the market and NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allows. If the market isn’t amenable or the cleanup plan isn’t approved, don’t expect the plans to move forward all that fast, if at all. If the market is good and the DEC signs off on plans, expect the build-out to be on the shorter end of the 7-to-10 year time-scale.

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Related infrastructure work for the Project will include: (1) removing select buildings to create courtyards and a network of open spaces and roads; (2) creating pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular connections through the Site from South Hill to Downtown Ithaca; (3) improving the existing roads within the Site while creating new access points into the Site; (4) mitigating existing environmental impacts from historic uses; (5) fostering the development of a link, the Gateway Trail, to the Black Diamond Trail network; and (6) installing stormwater management facilities, lighting, utilities, and plantings.

No big surprises – some buildings in the interconnected complex will come down, shared road concepts will dominate the internal transportation system of the neighborhood, the site will be more fully integrated into South Hill and trails, and usual site details like stormwater plans and landscaping are going to be incorporated into the project.

Given its complexity, the project team is pretty broad – eleven organizations, from the Ithaca, Elmira, Corning and Rochester areas. Local firms include STREAM Collaborative, which helped draw up the design standards and rezoning, Randall + West for more rezoning work, and Brous Consulting, which is handling public outreach. UnChained Properties is headed by David Lubin of Horseheads (suburban Elmira). From what I’ve been told, project development to-date has cost somewhere around $2 million dollars.

Likewise on the approvals – the project will need something like fifteen approvals from a dozen different government groups and agencies.

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Let me share an introduction and summary comparable but maybe more approachable than theirs – a background primer on why this is happening can be found on the Voice in my introduction article here, and Mike Smith’s summary article here.

Much of Chain Works reuses what was once the Morse Chain / Emerson Power Transmission (EPT) factory, which employed thousands from the 1900s, up until the last workers were let go and the facility shut its doors in 2011. During the mid 20th century, industrial processes used chemicals and compounds that are known to be toxic – Trichloroethylene (TCE) being the best known, but also heavy metals and oils. These not only affect the site and its building, they’re also in the soil and groundwater of South Hill.

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The site is classified as Class 2 Superfund site, which the DEC describes as “a significant threat to public health and/or the environment and requiring action”. While EPT is responsible for clean-up, they’re only responsible for the bare minimum (the industrial standard, what can be safely exposed to for 8 hours) unless otherwise specified by a proposed reuse, in which case they have to clean to a higher standard like residential use.

So that leaves us at present – a vacant 95.93 acre, 800,000 SF industrial site split between municipalities and with varied terrain and conditions. One of the most basic goals of CWD is to get the city and town to rezone the land to allow a mix of uses – PUD/PDZ, which give flexibility in site development based off of standards the developer, the city/town, and in this case NYSDEC mutually agree to.

 

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So, in the PUD/PDZ, one of the broad takeaways is that each of the four form code has its own design standards – height, width, window-spacing, setbacks and most physical details, even signage. Unlike typical zoning, it’s the appearance that is more thoroughly managed, not the use. Those can be found in detail here. The design standards utilize what’s called LEED ND (Neighborhood Development), design standards created for large-scale green, well-integrated and sustainable development. A gated community it ain’t.

The goal of these design standards is to mitigate some of the adverse impact the new and renovated buildings will have on the community – promoting alternate transit reduces traffic, limiting floors and floor heights reduces visual impacts, and so on.

Build-out falls under four general form zones: (1) CW1- Natural Sub-Area, 23.9 acres of old woodland to be limited to passive recreation. (2) CW2- Neighborhood General Sub-Area, 21.2 acres of townhouses, stacked flats and similar moderately-dense development, mostly in Ithaca town; (3) CW3- Neighborhood Center Sub-Area, 39.7 acres of mixed-use, in a combination of renovated and new buildings towards the northern end of the property in the city, and (4) CW4, Industrial Sub-Area, a 10.3 acre zone for industrial uses in existing buildings at the Emerson site. The site borders Route 96B, single-family and multi-family homes, natural areas and steep terrain.

About 0.91 acres will be subdivided off and maintained by Emerson for active groundwater treatment. The other 95.02 acres would be sold to UnChained Properties.

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The re-development is fairly multifaceted. Some buildings will be renovated, a few will come down, a couple will receive additions, an quite a few others, like those in the all-residential CW2 zone, will be brand-new. Specifically in Phase One, four buildings – 21, 24, 33 and 34, will be renovated.

In Part Two, we’ll take a closer look at the neighborhood design standards and detailed plans for Phase One.

 

 

 





News Tidbits 1/30/2016: A Doozy of a Week For All the Wrong Reasons

30 01 2016

I’m not going to lie – this was a rough week. For those who like old buildings, the city tore down 404 West Green and 327 West State this week. For those who are consider themselves eco-activists, Black Oak wind farm is on life support. State Street Triangle is likely cancelled, the Printing Press Lounge is off the table, Cornell continues to pour most of its attention on its new New York City campus, and a grocery store and a downtown shop are closing their doors and putting people out of work. There have been better weeks for news round-ups.

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1. State Street Triangle isn’t dead per se, but it’s indefinitely stalled. I think the best headline goes to the Ithaca Times since they’re the most accurate. From chatting with planning consultant Scott Whitham, who’s involved with the project, it sounds like the impasse is the result of Campus Advantage wanting to pay less for the site since they can’t build as large of a project, which would decrease their revenue. The contract for the land purchase from Greenstate Properties/Trebloc Development (Rob Colbert) was up for re-negotiation after the December expiration, but neither side wants to budge on what they feel the price should be. So nothing can move forward without a deal between the two parties. I reached out to Colbert Wednesday, but the secretary paused for a minute and then said “he’s, uh, busy in a meeting, care to leave a message?” So he’s probably not going to say anything further.

Could it move forward? Possibly, it could be revived if a deal is made. But as things are, it’s stalled and it’s outside the control of any community group or government authority. It’s definitely a shame from the standpoint of Ithaca’s worsening housing crisis because it’s less that will be entering a market flooded with students, people moving here for work, and wealthy retirees who have apparently decided this is the Asheville of the north. And given the battles of “structural racist gentrification” and “uncivilized crime-producing trouble-making affordable housing“, where everything is accused of being one or the other, I’m not especially hopeful at the moment.

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2. Now for something that is definitely dead in the water – The Printing Press Lounge. Developer Ben Rosenblum had wanted to put a jazz lounge in a 7700 SF industrial warehouse at 416 East State Street, but neighbor objections to noise and traffic proved a little too much for the Board of Zoning Appeals, whose members appeared unlikely to support necessary variances for the vacant facility. So the developer pulled the lounge proposal, but the office space and apartment are still under consideration.

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3. Also from the same phone conversation as State Street and Printing Press – the Canopy revisions were approved, so at least there’s a good chance that will be breaking ground this Spring. The Chain Works review schedule was also approved, although given the couple emails from the Voice article, the public review period is going to be groan-inducing. One of the letters commanded that nothing should be done there and it should be kept as is because it encourages traffic and “its density is ruining Ithaca”. They might have meant size, but density is a buzzword at the moment. Apparently, they also overlooked the fact that it’s already built and won’t be fully cleaned of toxic chemicals until a reuse plan is in place. The development team will have to respond to all of these comments, perceptive or not.

4. In real estate sales, an LLC in suburban Corning picked up the former Tim Horton’s and Cold Stone Creamery space on Elmira Road. 0.74 acre 407 Elmira sold for $640,000 on January 22nd. A little research into the rather exotically-named “Armiri LLC” shows that they were previously registered at an address home to an Econo Lodge, and that the owners have about 70 or so other LLCs related to hotels and the hospitality industry. A little more digging, and the owner turns out to be Corning-based Visions Hotels, a developer of suburban chain hotels with locations from Albany to Buffalo. So if I were to make a guess, the five-year old Tim Ho’s building won’t be long for this world, and a suburban hotel is likely to rise in its place in a couple years. But we’ll see what happens.

5. Meanwhile, just up the road, Maines will be shutting down their store at 100 Commercial Avenue. The 26,146 SF building was built for the Binghamton-based grocery chain in 2010. February 7th will be the last day. Although there don’t seem to be any figures online, the move will likely put at least a couple dozen people out of work. A phone call and email to Maine’s asking for employee totals and reasons for closure were not returned.

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6. Let’s talk about money. The construction loan docs for Collegetown Terrace Phase III were filed with the county this week. The price? A cool $39.25 million, from PNC Bank. That’s just for 247-unit, 344-bed Building 7. Previously Valentine Vision Associates LLC (John Novarr/Philip Proujansky) received $50 million on 8/22/13, $50 million on 7/1/2014, and $50 million on 11/20/14. Do the math out, and $189.25 million in loans is a lot of money. Then again, this is also a 1,200+ bed project.

The latest loan docs require an opening by fall 2018, but expect it to be about a year sooner than that, August 2017.

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7. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council has approved the Chapter House plans. All that’s needed at this point are the Building Department permits, which are technical and just require that everything will be built up to code. Things are looking good for that February construction start.

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8. Something to look forward to at next month’s Planning Board meeting – further discussion of Cornell’s renovations to Hughes Hall. Planning Board Presentation here, drawings here, Site Plan Review application here. KSS Architects, with offices in Philadelphia and Princeton, will be in charge of design. KSS has been to Cornell’s campus before, having designed some of the Hotel School additions and part of the previous phase of law school renovations. Local firm TG Miller is handling the engineering work. The project is expected to cost $10.2 million and construction would go from June 2016 to July 2017.

Quick refresher, the plan is to renovate 4 floors of what were previously student dorms into academic office, admin and student organization space. Cornell anticipates about 200 construction jobs will be created, but nor more than 80 at any one time, and 20-40 on-site most days. No new permanent jobs, limited visibility, and minimal transportation/ground impacts will limit much of the customary Planning Board debate.

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9. Meanwhile, New York City outlets are reporting on the progress of Cornell’s massive new tech campus in New York City. The Real Deal is reporting Snøhetta, an Oslo/NYC architectural firm, will design the Verizon Executive Education Building. The other three buildings underway are the Bloomberg Center, The Bridge, and CornellTECH Residential, which are the work of Morphosis Architecture, Weiss/Manfredi Architecture, and Handel Architects respectively.  300 students and 200 faculty/staff  will move into the new 26-story dorm by August 2017. Verizon paid $50 million for their naming rights, and billionaire former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg paid $100 million, making up a sizable portion of the $590.6 million donated to Cornell over the past year. Once the initial wave of construction is complete, it’ll be worth seeing how donations break down – years ago, MetaEzra noted that Weill Medical received an outsized proportion of charitable giving.

Not to go all conspiracy theorist, but there are times when Living in Dryden blogger Simon St. Laurent’s thought piece seems uncomfortably relevant.

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10. At the county’s PEDEEQ Committee meeting Friday (PEDEEQ being the acronym for the unnecessarily long Planning, Economic Development, Energy, and Environmental Quality Committee; agenda here), the county did two things worth mentioning here. One, they awarded the $35,000 airport industrial park feasibility study to the team of Clark Patterson Lee of suburban Albany, and Saratoga Springs-based Camoin Associates. Two, they passed a resolution calling for “the Timely Development of the Black Oak Wind Farm” project in Enfield.

The Black Oak opposition really seems to have picked up momentum after one the major landowners involved with the project pulled out. Neighbors in the area are actively attacking the project by calling it a danger to human health and a destructive environmental menace financed by wealthy out-of-towners (a shot at Ithaca), and the wind farm’s executive board is struggling to address these accusations in the revised environmental review due to be completed in April. For the local eco-activist crowd, this is an unwelcome and unusual position to be in because more often than not, they’re the ones opposed to development. The county legislature, which has several green activists, is doing what they can by giving verbal support, and a subtle sort of wrist-slap to the opposition. Dunno if it will work, but we’ll see what happens this spring.

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11. Here’s the sketch drawing for Elmira Savings Bank’s new West End Branch at 602 West State Street. It would appear the plans call for a modern addition to the north side of the building, and renovation of the rest of the two-story restaurant into office/service space. Local companies TWMLA and HOLT Architects are handling the design.

According to the Twitter feed of the IJ’s Nick Reynolds, the building plan was received well enough at the Planning Board meeting, but the rest of the plans call for demo of the other buildings, including the affordable housing that had some folks up in arms, for a parking lot. That didn’t go over very well. Demolition of low-cost housing for parking is going to be about as welcome as a Hitler costume at a bar mitzvah. Expect another trip to the board with some revised plans.

12. The Dewitt Park Inn is for sale for $950,000. Owners Tom Seaney and Nancy Medsker are selling the property they purchased for $320k in January 2012 and renovated into a high-end bed and breakfast. The two were vocal advocates for the popular though foregone Franklin/STREAM condo proposal for the Old Library site, although Medsker didn’t do the debate any favors when she decided to trash her rear neighbor, senior services non-profit and Travis Hyde project partner Lifelong in a letter to the Ithaca Journal. The county has the Dewitt Park Inn assessed at $575,000.

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13. Nothing too exciting for the town of Ithaca planning board agenda next week. The town’s planning board will choose whether or not to sign off on the review schedule for Chain Works, and they have to re-approved plans for a smaller parish center at St. Catherine of Siena in Northeast Ithaca. According to the provided docs, the parish center has been reduced from 10,811 SF to 8,878 SF due to rapidly rising construction costs (seems to be a common refrain these days).

 

 





Can a Polluted Past Have A Future?

21 02 2013
Image Property of Welch Construction Inc.

Image Property of Welch Construction Inc.

Real estate in Ithaca is fairly warm as markets go (I refuse to call it hot). But there are still some gaping issues in the metro market.  One of the biggest examples is one that can be seen from just about any southward vantage point above the lake lowlands – Emerson Power Transmission.

The property started as Morse Chain, which dates back to 1880 and began the manufacture of automobile chains in 1906.  Morse Chain was acquired by locally prominent BorgWarner in 1929, and the facility continued industrial production until BorgWarner built a new facility near the airport in 1983, selling the factory to Emerson Power Transmission. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, several chemicals were used for “cutting oils”, removing oils from the manufactured automotive gears, shafts and chains at the tail end of the process. One of those was trichloroethylene, or TCE. TCE is a known carcinogen, and I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Unfortunately, the era of traditional manufacturing was fading in the Ithaca area. Emerson Power Transmission moved about 55 of its corporate senior staff to a suburban Cincinnati facility in 2007 (and I remember reading about it while a student at Cornell). The death knell came in August 2009, when Emerson announced it was closing up shop in Ithaca, putting 228 people out of work (the factory had over 500 people on site as recently as the mid-2000s, and had received tax incentives not long before closure). The closure was recent enough that this blog was already going, and the original entry is here.

At first glance, the property would appear to be potentially salable. It’s a large property in a well-populated and growing area with a substantial uptick in the real estate market. However, there’s one very, very big issue – the TCE contamination.

Although TCE use stopped by the late 1970s, the damage was done, and unknown quanities of it leaked into the groundwater and sewers. The site was declared contaminated by the state in 1988.

Since then, it’s been a series of long and contentious debates about who to hold responsible for what degree of clean-up. The city, the state DEC, and BorgWarner and Emerson had volleyed back and forth on who pays for what. 35 years after the chemical usage is stopped, yet nearby sewers have had to be replaced, soil tested constantly and excavated if contaminated, and groundwater / vapor testing in nearby properties. Essentially, a major environmental headache.

Although the brunt of the burden has fallen on government and Emerson to clean up (BorgWarner gets blame but seems to carry little if any of the cleanup cost), the site has been marketed for sale – $3.9 million for 94 acres plus structures (note that just the groundwater is contaminated, not the structures themselves – this isn’t Ithaca Gun). It was no surprise that with the remediation and continual testing, the site has been a tough sell.

All the more interesting, then, that the local chamber of commerce announced at a recent luncheon that someone is agreeing to purchase the property. Emerson’s in the final steps of reviewing the offer.  The property could be host to a variety of activities – the IJ article mentions a possible small business incubator like the one at the South Hill Business Campus (itself a former factory). Given the location, any number of industrial or commercial applications are possible, maybe even partial/total tear-down and redevelopment. The biggest obstacle apart from the lingering environmental concerns might be the fact that the property is split along the city and town of Ithaca, so both would have to accept any proposed redevelopment.  But still, any progress on the looming, decaying facility would be one of the surest signs of a “reinvention” of the area.