News Tidbits 9/16/17: The Big Surprise

16 09 2017

1. Ostensibly, the biggest newsmaker of the past week was the announcement of the Green Street redevelopment in Ithaca’s downtown core. To be frank, I was freaking out at my desk. Even more astounding was that the city slipped it out so casually, embedding it in a monthly PEDC meeting file that typically focuses on more mundane legal and planning concerns.

All photos that follow are from Jolene – pardon the marginal quality, we were both in note-taking mode, and these presentation papers weren’t given out to the public. North is towards the top of the floor plan images.

While the documents have yet to be uploaded to the city’s website, some basic details were released during the meeting – the number of parking spaces for the whole complex is 525. There would be two towers with residential units, a U-shaped west tower and a boxy east tower with projecting corners. 15 floors apiece. 350 units, “designed to appeal to a broad demographic”. Abatement likely, with the details to be ironed out as the percentage of affordable units is determined. The middle portion will also have residential units on top of the existing garage. 30,000 SF of conference space is planned under the eastern tower, if my notes are right.

The first floor appears to have at least two retail spaces, a lobby area, and an office, probably for management of the complex. The middle section will retain access to Cinemapolis and the garage. On levels two and three would be rebuilt garage sections (note the center section was rebuilt ten years ago and unlike the ends, is in good shape). Another floor of parking will be added.

Cooper Carry is the architect, and the initial design looks fairly safe, attractive if not particularly inspired. After the Marriott, it’s good to be wary of potential value engineering. It appears to use brick veneer, Nichiha-like metal panels and maybe fiber cement. Also, with Harold’s Square and City Centre off to the left, this would arguably create a broad-shouldered if stubby skyline for downtown Ithaca, more impressive than many communities Ithaca’s size.

My notes are that Marriott co-developer Jeff Rimland had non-public information about the Green Street garage because he owns the ground facilities under the garage’s eastern deck, and would be impacted by renovations. He was made aware of city looking at their options and put something together. The city only learned about the plan four weeks ago, and mayor Myrick wanted to make sure it was brought forward for public discussion and to determine if it was a wise choice to move froward. Ostensibly, if this came out as a surprise, a hornet’s nest of opposition would be stinging. Being transparent now helps later.

It seems the intent is an RFP for the garage for the sake of fairness, but I dunno how effective that will be. Rimland has a big advantage as owner of a portion of the parcel, since any other developer would need to arrange legal agreements with him in order to carry out a project. It was suggested by Brock, who has never been a fan of development, and I cynically wonder if this was an attempt to ensnare or at least stall the proposal. An RFP does put the city in a more legally comfortable position, perhaps. On the flip side, I cringe at the thought of another Old Library-like mess.

On a final note, there’s also a name, seen in the lower right of the rendering – “Village on the Green”. Very punny guys.


2. The other big news item of the week was 311 College Avenue, more commonly referred to as “The Nines replacement”. The Nines is a much-loved restaurant and bar that has long been a part of Collegetown’s drinking and musical scene – in the late 2000s, if I had to describe Collegetown bars, where Johnny O’s was the “fratty frat” bar and Chapter House the erudite tweed-clothed crowd, The Nines was the laidback, indie band geek-turned-rocker. Add in its location in a ca. 1908 fire station, and one of the few sizable outdoor patios in Collegetown, and one can understand that a project on this site was never going to be warmly received.

Granted, I’ve been raked over the coals a couple of times for the article, whose first headline said The Nines was being kicked out. It was an honest copy-editing mistake. For breaking news I publish ASAP, like with the Green Street development. However, that’s discouraged because the business pieces are useful for filling slow periods during the day, or to give time for others to prep articles during the early morning. Many of my articles are written in the late evening, submitted to the schedule, and skimmed through before hitting the website. In this case, I submitted Sunday night, my editor Jolene read through it early Monday morning, she thought the opening lines implied an eviction and changed the title (the original was a generic “Apartments Proposed for The Nines”). Sometimes title get changed for clarity or Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but this particular time it created a false statement. I didn’t see it until I was at work on Monday, and uncomfortable conversations ensued. Sorry all. The next article won’t wax poetic.

Anyway, with that error noted, it makes this next opinion segment more uncomfortable. I’m not a developer. But if I were one, and heard the property was being put up for sale, I’d probably have steered clear. With all due respect to Todd Fox, my gut feeling is that the cons outweigh the pros.

Ithaca is not an easy city to do a project in. A developer has to pick and choose their battles. In this case, the battle is taking a building with some degree of historic value, but more importantly a lot of local sentiment attached, and proposing to replace it with, frankly, a mediocre design with high-end student units. I understand the economics of the site, the market, and the unfortunate though economically necessary impacts building flush to lot lines has on the ability to install windows on the sides. My concern is external impacts, by creating an emblem for opposition to organize around, because it wraps several perceptibly negative impacts into one proposal. That may make future projects that much more difficult. I worry that whenever a controversial plan is brought forth in years ahead, it will be pejoratively described by NIMBY types as “just like that Nines replacement”.

It has taken years for Ithacans to become slowly more amenable to density and development. Proposals that inadequately address community concerns threaten that progress. Consider the case of Jason Fane. He toyed with the city plenty of times. Eventually it caught up to him and he got burned. The sad part is, 130 East Clinton was a solid project, and to this day I believe that had it been another developer, those apartments would have been built.

Anyway, the ILPC would like to preserve it as-is, which draws the question why the discussion never moved forward 18 months ago when they had the chance. I don’t think that’s likely at this stage, and an overbuild probably wouldn’t work due to development costs (foundation shoring, elevator if 4+ floors) with respect to developable area – the big front yard setback is an impediment to that. I heard that an offer was floated to Neil Golder to move his house at one point during the 201 debate, so maybe moving all or at least the front (1908 wing) of the old station No. 9 is possible, but the expense would be great. As for the new building’s design, maybe modest fixed windows in the north/south brick faces, or glass block features like on Sharma’s 307 design, or even something as minor as a mural on the CMU blocks would help.

But, all that might be grasping at straws. This was always going to be controversial. I won’t fault someone for seeing an opportunity, even if it’s not a plan I’d advocate. It all depends on one’s appetite for development opportunities, and sensitivity to potential blowback.

3. For sale: 405 Elmira Road. 0.74 acres of parking lot next to Buttermilk Falls Plaza. List price: $465,000, courtesy of Pyrmaid Brokerage. Also noting – the chain hotelier who bought the former Tim Horton’s next door from the same seller for $640k in January 2016. Timmy Ho’s 0.75 acres is a little small for a hotel on its own, but combined with this lot, suddenly plans start to look quite viable for a mid-sized chain in the city’s suburban-friendly SW-2 zoning. Someone else may come along and buy it, but let’s see what happens.

4. It appears the 24-unit Pineridge Cottages project is off the table. The project, planned for the corner of Mineah and Dryden Roads in Dryden town, was greatly scaled back by developer Ryzward Wawak after water tests led to concerns about having enough to supply all the units. At this time, the plan is for four cottages, each a two-bedroom unit.

5. The Times’ Matt Butler has a nice summary and brief interview with Lakeview Health CEO Harry Merriman regarding the 60-unit affordable housing plan for 709-713 West Court Street. Some of the obstacles the project faced wouldn’t be a surprise to readers of this blog – the soils require a more expensive deep (pile) foundation, and land acquisition costs are climbing, which increases the overall costs involved with bringing a proposal into reality, let alone a plan that focuses on affordable housing. The increase in units from 50 to 60 was driven by the need to balance out revenue with expenditures and make the affordable housing economically feasible. Incremental cost increases per unit are significantly less than overall structural costs, so the per-unit expense for 60 units is less than 50, making the project more appealing in competitive grant processes.

Of the 22 units to be set aside for formerly homeless individuals, six will be reserved for HIV-positive clients of STAP, the Southern Tier Aids Programs. Those infected with HIV tends to experience much higher homelessness rates than the general population, with at least 81 homeless HIV-positive individuals in Tompkins County alone. This makes it hard to do things like refrigerate medication. These six units are a small number perhaps, but for those six folks it will make a huge difference.

6. Another feather in the cap of the local STEM sector of the economy. Biotech startup Jan Biotech Inc., based out of the Cornell Business Park by the airport, has received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) that will be used in the research and production of an HIV diagnostic for detection and quantification of latent HIV-infected reservoirs in patients –  cells that have the virus but aren’t actively producing HIV, which current anti-retroviral therapies struggle with. Potentially, the diagnostic could help test new medicines for their ability to target those cells, and lead to a true cure for the virus before AIDS can occur.

Along with new equipment and renovated facilities, the grant is expect to result in the hiring of another 5 to 10 scientists and engineers for the four-person firm. Which is great, but truly, it’s their work to try and improve our treatment and medicine of a deadly virus that’s more important. The very best of luck to them.

7.  A bit of news from the Cornell Daily Sun regarding the additional 2,000 beds Cornell would like to build on its North Campus, as part of its freshman expansion and “Sophmore Village” plan. The university would like to begin construction on the first dorms in 2018, and start increasing student enrollment by 2020. For that to happen, the plans pretty much need to come forward for formal planning board review within the next few months. Presumably, they’d like to have the dorms ready by August 2019 – these will be used as flex space initially, so that existing dorms like Balch and Clara Dickson can start renovation. At a bare minimum, it takes three months to go through the city planning board. Given this project’s proximity to Cayuga Heights, the local patricians will want to have their say as well, even if it is just outside village lines. With the size of the project and a minor amount of inter-municipal complexity, four months from sketch plan to approval seems realistic. Considering the need to request and award contract bids, it would seem plausible that Cornell puts the dorms forward this fall for review, with approval expected by late winter. Bids would be requested and awarded during the Spring, and construction would start by June. Whatever the case, the first construction plans are likely not far off.





News Tidbits 9/9/17: Shopping for Sales

9 09 2017

1. As Dan Veaner at the Lansing Star reports, the new owners of the Shoppes at Ithaca Mall (aka Pyramid Mall) are planning to roll out new tactics to counter the ongoing, nationwide retail apocalypse currently underway. Instead of leasing locations, the mall owner would like to subdivide retail spaces within the mall under a Planned Development Area (DIY zoning, in essence) so that tenants could potentially own their spaces instead of renting them, under the hope that when they own a store location, they are less likely to close it and will opt for closing rented spaces elsewhere. Because customary use-based (Euclidean) zoning is not suited for this unusual arrangement, a PDA has been suggested, and the village of Lansing seems amenable to the idea.

On a related note, another subdivision of the mall properties would open up a portion of the parking lot behind the Ramada Inn for the development of an extended-stay hotel. This would probably play out over a few years, given the time to design a project, secure a brand and ask for village review/approvals. Market-wise, it’s not implausible, since the other hotels planned, like the Canopy downtown or the Sleep Inn at 635 Elmira Road in Ithaca town, are geared towards the overnight crowd, and the overall market is growing at a sustainable pace. As long as the local economy continues its modest but steady growth, a medium-sized specialty property that opens in two or three years would probably be absorbed by the local hospitality market without too much fuss.

2. Meanwhile, over in the the town of Lansing, a couple of minor notes and some name changes. From the town of Lansing Planning Board agenda, it appears the 102-unit Cayuga Farms development is now going by the name “Cayuga Orchard”. The project, which has been stuck in red tape due to the stringent review of modular sewage treatment systems, is seeking modifications to their plans, which was summarized in the Voice here. The short story is that the project has the same number of units, but the impermeable area has been decreased and the number of bedrooms is down from about 220 to 178. That should help reduce stormwater runoff, and if the town sewer isn’t through yet, it could make the modular system more feasible.

Secondly, Cornerstone’s Lansing Commons Apartments are being rebranded as the “Lansing Trails Apartments”, which makes sense since there aren’t any “Commons” in the town, but the town center property is traversed by numerous recreational foot trails. The town has endorsed Cornerstone’s two-phase, 128-unit development plan for affordable rental housing, though the planning board did express concerns with the impact of dozens of additional school children on a property with 581a property tax breaks, which may result in a 4% increase in school taxes in the default scenario. The number could vary given the number of kids that actually live there – the board ballparked 80 for their back-of-the-envelope analysis, which given 128 units and roughly 208 bedrooms in the project, isn’t unreasonable.

3. On that note, it appears Cornerstone and NRP have applied to the county’s affordable housing funding grant for a bit of financial assistance towards their respective projects. Cornerstone is seeking funds for qualified units within the 72-unit first phase of its Lansing Trails project, and NRP is seeking funding for qualifying units within the 66-unit first phase of its Ithaca Townhomes project on West Hill. Each organization would receive $256,975, mostly in Cornell-donated funds, if approved by the county legislature. The money may be leveraged and with less needed from traditional affordable housing funds, it may make each project more appealing from a federal or state grant perspective, with demonstrated municipal interest and more “bang for the buck” on the grantor’s end.

4. The two-building apartment complex planned at 232-236 Dryden Road is one step closer to construction. According to Tompkins County records, Visum Development bought the two properties on which the project was proposed (114 Summit Avenue and 232-238 Dryden Road) for $7.65 million on Monday the 5th. The properties are only assessed at $2.55 million, but sellers tend to enjoy a hefty premium when developers have intent for their parcels.

The following day, the building loan agreement was filed. The loan, for $16,354,628, was granted by S&T Bank, a regional bank based in Pennsylvania that has no retail banking presence in Ithaca, but has served as the financier for several projects, including the Holiday Inn Express that recently opened on Elmira Road, and Visum’s just-opened 201 College Avenue project.

A breakdown of the costs shows the total project cost is $22,780,334. There’s $13,020,010 in hard costs (materials/labor), $7.65 million for the purchase, $475,000 in soft costs (architect/engineering/legal), $250,000 for the demolition, and the rest is for taxes during construction, interest reserve (interest on the construction loan during construction). $650,000 (5% of the hard cost) is set aside as contingency funds just in case the expenses clock in higher than expected.

Along with the loan, Visum and its investor appear to be putting up $6.325 million in equity. With these hefty sums, one has to be pretty certain of their investment. In Collegetown, they often are.

Visum CEO Todd Fox has previously stated construction is expected to start this month on the 191-bed apartment property, with an eye towards an August 2018 completion.

5. The Old Library property sale is official, on an 11-3 vote. Legislators Kiefer, Chock and McBean-Claiborne voted no, none of which are an big surprise since, as members of the Old Library Committee, they found something to dislike with every proposal back in 2014. If anything, the surprise might have been legislator Kelles, who while not a fan, supported the mixed-use project. Travis Hyde Properties will bring 58 senior apartments, community space administered by Lifelong senior services, and a small amount of commercial space when the building opens in 2019.

6. So this is interesting. Josh Brokaw is reporting over at Truthsayers that Cayuga Medical Center wants to move the Community Gardens off the land. That is a story being covered further by my colleagues at the Voice, but notable to this blog’s purview are two nuggets of information.

One, Guthrie and CMC had *a bidding war* for the property, which explains a couple of things. It explains why CMC paid $10 million for a property the Maguires only paid $2.75 million for, and it offers a clue as to why Guthrie purchased the neighboring Cornell warehouses. They both have had plans for that area, and working together isn’t a part of them.

Two, Park Grove Realty is involved with CMC. They’re a young Rochester-based company generating lots of news in Lansing with a lawsuit-laden 140-unit townhouse project, and they purchased the Chateau Claire apartments and renovated them into the upmarket Triphammer Apartments, which generated its own share of controversy.

Anyway, it makes the commotion down by Carpenter Business Park that much more interesting. Nothing has come public yet, but keep an eye on it.

7. On a related note, it’s not much of a physical change, but Maguire is using some of that cash windfall to officially acquire the former Bill Cooke Chevy-Olds-Caddy dealership on Lansing’s Cinema Drive. The franchise rights were transferred over ten years ago, but the property itself was still under the ownership of the Cooke family. Thursday’s sale was for $2,015,000. The 4 acres and 19,857 SF building was assesses at $1.8 million, so it appears the sale price was a fair deal for both sides.

I would be remiss not to point out that the buyer was “Maguire Family Limited Partnsership”. No LLCs cloaking this purchase like with Carpenter Business Park.

7. Now that the state has okayed the Cargill expansion, the above-ground portion of the project has to go before the Lansing planning board. The surface facilities, expected to cost $6.8 million, consist of a 10,000 SF administration building, a 2,100 SF maintenance building, a 2,600 SF hoist house, parking, landscaping and signage. A hoist house is essentially an industrial-strength engine room for operating the lift that brings people and equipment up and down from the shaft. It’s likely the primary cost contributor in the surface portion of the project.

As seen in the renders above, it’s designed for functionality rather than aesthetics, though Cargill did attempt to make the shaft building barn-like to blend in better with the farms. Construction on the above-ground structures is expected to start next year and run for about 18 months (the mine is being built from the bottom up). Although not shown in the renders, trees will be planted around the developed area to provide a green screen and help dampen noise.





News Tidbits 8/21/17: Insert Eclipse Pun Here

21 08 2017

1. Quite the sight in the latest Tiny Timbers update. The nascent kit-based homebuilder plans to roll out several new designs, many of which will be incorporated into the 15-unit Varna project on the corner of Dryden and Freese Roads. That brings their total number of home design options up to about 21 or so, in several general styles from four-square to prairie-style to bungalow. It is not clear if the layout will be pre-set at is was with the Belle Sherman Cottages (relatable because STREAM Collaborative designed both), or if it will be left to the buyers.

Tiny Timbers is a bit of a misnomer because the designs are a modest but still sizable 1,000-1,500 square feet, with two or three bedrooms. Prices will be in the mid 100s to low 200s, depending on unit and features. I’d be more inclined to compare them to the starter homes of the 1950s in terms of market appeal and affordability.

Tiny Timbers has yet to get permission to start marketing for the community (the state needs to sign off on all new Home Owner Associations), but marketing has started for some scattered site development on Hector Street in Ithaca’s West Hill, and there is work underway on a few custom builds for landowners in other parts of the county.

2. Last week was not a good showing for the Inn at Taughannock. As relayed by the Times’ Jamie Swinnerton, the town of Ulysses Zoning Board of Appeals denied the lot variances, the heights variances and even the sign variances. The only one they outright permitted was the height variance to allow a rooftop cupola on the existing inn. The sign variance is kinda weird, because it sounds like they were okay with some individual signs, but not the sum of parts, so they’re doing another meeting.

While this isn’t what owner/developer Carl Mazzocone was hoping for, there were alternative plans drafted that did present an alternative design that, while the same style, fit within the zoning parameters. So this is a setback, but this project isn’t off the table yet.

3. Sure, most readers outside the Cornell bubble avoid Collegetown like the plague, but it’s worth noting when new businesses are coming in. Old Mexico, the restaurant that replaced Manos Diner in Southwest Ithaca, will be opening a modest to-go operation at 119 Dryden Road (Collegetown Plaza) in what used to be a barbershop (at least in my time in the late 2000s). Meanwhile, where the Collegetown tobacco shop used to be at 221 Dryden (Collegetown Center), will now be a “Chinese street food” restaurant called Beijing Jianbing. Best of luck to both. At least restaurants aren’t being driven out of business by the internet anytime soon.

4. In the same vein, it was noted a few weeks ago that a $415,000 construction loan was filed for Hancock Plaza, the strip retail plaza at the corner of Hancock and Third Streets in Ithaca’s Northside. A quick check showed an interior renovation underway with new metal stud walls and sheet-rock going in, and the somewhat uncertain workers said that the storefront next to Istanbul restaurant would be a “medical service facility”.

5. Earlier this month, it was mentioned that a 4.5 acre parcel at 452 Floral Avenue in Ithaca was sold to a local homebuilder for $100,000. Now he’s trying to flip it. The asking price is $239,000. The tax assessment is $68,400.

The real estate ad notes the potential of an R-3a zone, which allows for homes, townhouses, small apartments and small-scale commercial with a special permit. The zoning permits four floors and 35% lot coverage, with a minimum of 5,000 SF per lot for a home, plus incremental increases for additional units.

On a side note, with thanks to the city for uploading about 470 documents from the IURA’s microfilm stash, here’s what the 1992 affordable for-sale proposal looked like for that same property. There appear to be 27 home lots, but a few may have been designed for accessory or two-family units. This gives an idea of what could reasonably be done under the existing zoning, but there are many possibilities.

Side note, I found this by chance. If anyone has time to pick through 470 documents from the 1960s to 2000, more power to you.

6. Also for sale, to the deep-pocketed investor looking for a safe investment – multiple East Hill apartment houses. 5-unit 119 Stewart Avenue for $995,000, a two-family home at 208 Stewart Avenue for $695,000, and $2.25 million for a 23-bed (20 SRO, 1 studio, 1 2-bedroom) property at 717 East Buffalo Street. The Stewart Avenue properties are owned by a Long Island-based LLC representing a higher ed professional now located in Massachusetts, and were purchased just a few years ago – 119 for $625k in 2014, and 208 for $513k in 2012. 717 East Buffalo was purchased by a Brooklyn investment group in 2003, and is taxed at $1.05 million. The positive is that they’re close enough to Cornell to easily take advantage of the student market. The negative is that they are all in the East Hill Historic District, which means redevelopment is off the table, and exterior renovations have to go through the ILPC.

7. Pretty slow month for the Planning Board. Finger Lakes ReUse is seeking preliminary approval for their expansion project and final approval for the warehouse portion. 709 West Court Street, the 60-unit affordable project from Lakeview, will have its DEIS finalized, potentially allowing for city approval in September. There are no new projects though, unless one counts the six-bedroom duplex at 217 Columbia, which is so minor from the state’s perspective that it only qualifies for city review. The Times is reporting that O’Connor is willing to prohibit student tenants, but permanent residents are still opposed to new student housing in their neighborhood.

There could be some interesting discussion at the meeting, not only with South Hill development, but with historic preservation matters. For instance, Student Agencies is upset that they city is likely to landmark its building at 413-415 College Avenue, which it says it had intent on redeveloping. Unfortunately, timing is everything. Likewise, the shoe is on the other foot with the Nines at 307 College Avenue, for which there has been an unpublished sketch plan of a redevelopment project. The ILPC is expressing frustration that it wasn’t landmarked already, but with the development plans already presented, the city would be acting reactively instead of proactively as it’s doing on College Avenue, and that could make the difference if a legal situation were to arise. So while the Chacona Block is likely safe and soon to be under ILPC purview, the Nines will not be protected for as long as the redevelopment plan is active, and the best the ILPC can do is recommendations.

Here’s tomorrow’s agenda:

AGENDA ITEM Approx. Start Time

  1. Agenda Review 6:00
  2. Privilege of the Floor 6:01
  3. Site Plan Review

A. Project: Mixed Use Apartments – Finger Lakes ReUse Commercial Expansion and Supportive Apartment 6:10

Location: 214 Elmira Road

Applicant: Finger Lakes ReUse

Actions: Consideration of Preliminary Approval Overall & Final Site Plan Approval for Phase 1

Project Description:

The applicant proposes to expand the existing office and retail center with a new +/- 26,100sf
attached 4-story mixed-use building to include retail, office, and 22 units of transitional housing fronting Elmira Road. A 7,435 SF covered outdoor inventory building and a 600 SF pavilion are also proposed. The new parking and loading layout will reduce the number of curb cuts on Elmira road from 5 to 2 and provide 70 parking spaces. An improved sidewalk will be constructed to provide a safer link between the existing pedestrian bridge that connects the Titus Tower property to Elmira Road. The building will have landscaped entrances facing Elmira Road and these will be connected to the new building entrances giving residents and patrons arriving on foot direct access to the street. The project site is in the B-5 Zoning District and has received the required area variance. This is a Type I Action under the City of Ithaca Environmental Quality Review Ordinance (“CEQRO”) §176-4 (I), and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) § 617.4 (11) for which the Planning Board as Lead Agency made a Negative Declaration of Environmental Significance on June 27, 2017.
Ed. note – the first phase is the warehouse addition for lumber storage. Phase 2 is the supportive apartments.

B. Project: 709 West Court Street 6:30

Location: 326 & 328 N Meadow St. and 709 – 713 West Court St.

Applicant: Trowbridge Wolf Michaels for Lakeview Health Services Inc.

Actions: Public Hearing, Determination of Environmental Significance

Project Description:

The applicant proposes to construct a five-story L-shaped building with footprint of 10,860 SF
and GFA of 62,700 SF on the .81 acre project site comprising four tax parcels (to be consolidated). The building will contain sixty (60) one-bedroom apartments plus associated shared common space (community room, laundry facilities, lounges, and exterior courtyard), support staff offices, program spaces, conference room, utility rooms, and storage. The siting of the building allows for a small landscaped front yard, a south-facing exterior courtyard, and a 16 space surface parking lot in the rear of the site. Site development will require the removal of five structures and associated site elements. The project is in the WEDZ-1 Zoning District. This is a Type I Action under the City of Ithaca Environmental Quality Review Ordinance (“CEQRO”) §176-4 (1) (k) and (n), and the State
Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) § 617.4 (11) and is subject to environmental review.

C. Project: Duplex 6:50

Location: 217 Columbia Street

Applicant: Charlie O’Connor for 985 Danby Rd LLC

Actions: Public Hearing

 

 

Project Description:

The applicant is proposing to install a modular duplex with one 3-bedroom apartment on each floor. The new structure is proposed to be sited directly behind the existing duplex on the property. As the project will increase the off-street parking required from two to four spaces, the applicant is proposing to shift the existing curb cut to the east and install an expanded parking area and drive aisle along the eastern property line. The project also includes removing a 30”dbh oak and one street tree, closing the existing curb cut, installing a fence, landscaping and walkways. The project is in the R-2a Zoning District. This is a Type II Action under the City of Ithaca Environmental Quality Review Ordinance (“CEQRO”) §176-5 C.(8) and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) § 617.5 (C)(9) and is not subject to environmental review.

 

 

  1. Zoning Appeals 7:20
  2. Old/New Business 7:30
    1. A. 412 East State Street – review and sign off on Argos Inn shared parking agreement with 418 East State Street.
    2. B. PB Report on Proposed Local Landmark Designation of 403 College Avenue and 411-415 College Avenue . There will be a short presentation by Scott Whitham regarding 411-413 College Avenue.
    3. C. Development Patterns of South Hill – Discussion
  1. Reports from PB Chair, Director of Planning and Development, and BPW Liaison 8:00
  2. Approval of previous minutes
  3. Adjournment




City Centre Construction Update, 8/2017

21 08 2017

Ithaca is fortunate to have a downtown area with strong residential demand and relatively low commercial retail vacancy. Unlike many communities in upstate New York, its downtown area is ahead of the curve when it comes to attracting and capitalizing on investment. Apart from a few communities of similar economic strength (Saratoga Springs, Beacon), most regional cities are only just starting to re-invest in their downtrodden downtown cores.

It’s important to keep in mind that Ithaca was on a similar destructive path during the 1960s and 1970s. Like many cities, it was experiencing flight to the suburbs, competition from malls and shopping centers on the fringes, and general disinterest and loss of investment downtown. In an attempt to spur development, the city commenced with urban renewal plans that, among other things, routed Green Street through an urban block to create the tuning fork in the late 1950s, and in the mid and late 1960s, the city seized multiple 2-5 story ca. 1900 structures on the 300 Block of East State Street via eminent domain, demolishing them with the intent to sell the land to Ithaca Savings and Loan for a new bank branch and office building.

Things didn’t pan out as planned. After the bank pulled out, the now empty triangle of land bounded by South Aurora, East State and East Green Streets was used as a parking lot for construction crews, before finally being sold in 1973 to the Colbert family, who developed the Trebloc Building on the site. Originally planned at two floors, it opened in 1974, a one-story, brutalist-lite structure that was not a good fit and certainly not the transformative plan the city sold voters on a decade earlier. But, the city was desperate. They would take what they could get.

In the following decades, Ithaca’s economy remained relatively stable compared to its peers, thanks in large part to the colleges – staff counts increased to pick up some of the losses from manufacturers moving out of state or abroad, and students helped buoy the service sector. Ithaca’s downtown saw some investment in the late 20th century, but more importantly, most of the historic properties that survived Urban Renewal were now generating enough interest to avoid the wrecking ball.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, the idea of spin-offs and start-ups was starting to take off, and with Cornell serving as a sort of research incubator, it led to a modest but well-paying and growing high-tech sector. Add in an increasing trend towards college towns as a lively alternative to retirement communities, and Ithaca found itself with a growing economy. Coincident was a resurgent interest in urban living; Ithaca’s sleepy but intact downtown was poised to take advantage. It was still a risk in the 2000s, but through effort and luck, public-private projects like Cayuga Green and Seneca Place have paid off.

At this point, the initial “pioneer” projects have opened and demonstrated market strengths and weaknesses. Commercial office space is lukewarm at best, but rentals are hot. With a continued resilient, growing economy, developers were now scouting opportunities on their own. This was encouraged by the city, which upzoned several downtown parcels in 2014 to drum up interest. As part of this upzone, the Trebloc site was rezoned from CBD-60 to CBD-120, raising the maximum height from 60 feet to 120 feet, while permitting 100% lot coverage (excluding setbacks) with no requirement for on-site parking.

The first formal proposal to come along was State Street Triangle in April 2015. Texas-based Campus Advantage initially proposed a 12-story, 240-unit, 600-bed apartment building with first floor retail. The units were intended towards the student market, and Campus Advantage saw the property as an ideal location to draw in both Cornell and IC students.

Unfortunately, this development attempt pretty much checked off every box for what not to do. It was very large by Ithaca standards, officially student-oriented, the original design was mediocre at best, and according to city officials and staff, the developers came in with a condescending air, like the building was a gift and the city could only be so lucky. This stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition. Complaints included the size, the parking, the tenant mix, the design, and the developers were taken out to the proverbial woodshed for being out of touch “outsiders” who were simply going to profit off the city.

While there were some proponents, they were not many. The developers tried to make amends with a more appropriate design by STREAM Collaborative that reduced the size and scale, offered to make a donation to the city’s affordable housing fund, and broke up units to appeal to non-students, but the damage was done. When it became clear they would seek a tax abatement as most downtown projects do, the mayor, who is generally pro-density and pro-downtown, spoke out against it. Behind the scenes, a local developer was preparing to file a lawsuit if the city dared to approve the project without asking for a long, expensive Environmental Impact Statement first.

Meanwhile, the Colberts were in talks with a different developer, Newman Development Group (NDG) of Vestal. While not as large as Campus Advantage, Newman had previous experience in Downtown Ithaca, co-developing the Seneca Way mixed-use project with Bryan Warren a few years earlier. In fact, NDG’s forte is suburban shopping plazas and student housing; at the time, their only urban non-student residential project was Seneca Way. But, they knew Ithaca through experience. They knew what the city did and didn’t like, and watching Campus Advantage flounder not only gave them an opportunity to swoop in, it was an additional opportunity to watch and learn.

By December 2015, the purchase option CA had on the site had expired; and when they went to renegotiate, the Colberts were not interested, and decided to go with NDG. In January 2016, State Street Triangle was officially cancelled.

City Centre was officially announced in a press release in June 2016. From the start, it avoided the mistakes that plagued Campus Advantage. The announcement came not as a leak in the Journal, but in a press release to all three Ithaca news outlets, which gave an air of transparency and limited speculation. The initial design by Texas-based Humphreys & Partners Architects was well-regarded. The project would be non-student market-rate, with studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units. Instead of no parking at all, 71 (later 72) spaces would be located under the ground floor retail in a subterranean lot. The turn lane from Aurora onto State would be maintained, rather than lost to an expanded plaza.

With this approach, opposition to City Centre was much weaker – many critics saw this as a fair alternative. There were some complaints, like from Historic Ithaca, who were against any building with more than six floors; but overall, the reception to City Centre was much more favorable. The key changes through the municipal review process was to try and make the building less massive and less like State Street Triangle, as both had similar massing, and a visual focal point on the corner facing the Commons. The project team achieved this through setbacks and bump-outs to create more facade variation, and reducing the building to eight floors. Other details that were revised include additional street-level windows and the cornice of the curved primary facade. City Centre received preliminary approval in January, after the zoning board signed off on a rear setback variance. Final approval was granted in February. The original design can be seen here, and the final design is here.

The details of the final plan are confusing to the point of frustration – no one seems to agree on the exact figures (if anyone reading this could provide them, it’d be appreciated). The range of figures call for a 217,671-218,211 SF (square-foot) building on 0.76 acres, with 10,600 SF of ground floor retail and 8,700 SF of amenity space (gym, lobby, computer room, lounge, rental office) and 2,000 SF of utility space. On the upper floors are 192 apartments, or 193 – the square footage and unit details are all over the place. Once source says 63 studio, 73 1-bedroom, 57 2-bedroom units – another says 193, with a breakdown of 56 studio units (506 SF), 94 1-bedroom units (598-725 SF) and 43 2-bedroom units (907-1,370 SF). 68-72 parking spaces will be built in a one-story underground garage (without the garage, square footage is 186,966-187,536 SF). Building height has been reported as 85 feet, 106 feet and 111 feet, which is probably just a technical difference due to the slope of the site.

The total hard cost for the project is estimated at $32.8 million, and combined hard and soft costs come in at $52.7 million. The project was granted an enhanced tax abatement in April 2017. This was not without some opposition from residents who felt it was inappropriate to give an abatement to market-rate housing, and some landlords. Downtown business owners and interest groups were generally in favor.

Construction is expected through at least Spring 2019, although the numbers have been a bit inconsistent, with some paperwork suggesting 2020. The disagreement stems in part from the start date for the 20-month construction period, and whether that includes demo/site prep or not. It will be steel frame construction with brick veneer and a few shades of Nichiha fiber cement panels. The building will use electric air-source heat pumps and have a 7.5 KW rooftop solar array.

The project team includes NDG, Humphreys & Partners as architect, Whitham Planning and Design LLC as the team representative and point of contact for the review process, and T. G. Miller PC for civil engineering and surveying work. Rochester’s Morgan Management will be in charge of leasing. NDG is in a major expansion mode on the residential side at the moment, with a 320-bed student housing project under construction in Oswego, and a 120-unit general market project underway in Binghamton.

At the moment, the former Trebloc Building is no more, having been fenced off and demolished earlier in the summer. Excavation for the parking garage and 26″ thick concrete mat foundation has yet to begin. About 400 construction jobs are expected to be created, and as part of the abatement agreement, at least 25% (100) will be local labor.

 





1001 North Aurora Street Construction Update, 8/2017

20 08 2017

This small infill project in Ithaca’s Fall Creek is just about done. Tenants have already moved into the four three-bedroom units, and it looks like all that’s left on the outside is grass seeding and a coat of paint. According to the guys working on the duplexes, the mismatch in the second floor LP SmartSide wood siding was because the store they bought them (think they said Home Depot offhand) from had ran out, so they just bought what was available with the intent of painting over it when they were ready. It looks like the first floor has been painted, so that’s a good sign. It is nice to see that, although they were threatened for deletion if expenses came too high, the side windows on the inward-facing walls of the units (east side of 202, west side of 206) were retained.

This is a small, unassuming project. It replaced an older single-family home with four units that fit in with the neighborhood. It’s a bump in density without garnering too much attention. To be candid, it’s probably the only feasible way to add density to Fall Creek – scout out the few vacant lots, or buildings with less historic or aesthetic value, and try to design something that fits in (the only other one I’m aware of is the Heritage Builders infill project on West Falls Street, but at this point it would need re-approval from the planning board).

The three guys out front said that once these are complete, they expect to start work on developer Stavros (Nick) Stavropoulos’ next project at 107 South Albany Street. That site has not changed much over the summer, all that is there at the moment is the fenced-off foundation of the old building. The 11-unit apartment building slated for that site is expected to be completed by summer 2018.

 





607 South Aurora Street Construction Update, 7/2017

19 07 2017

Thanks to the rapid turnaround time for modular units, the the duplexes at 607 South Aurora Street in the city’s South Hill neighborhood are galloping towards their completion date next month.

One thing to keep in mind is that, once the foundation has been built (Superior Walls here) and underground utilities are in place (water/sewer), it’s basically a matter of trucking in the boxes from the supplier and craning them into place. Per Ithaca Builds (the website is down but the pages are archived), they’re already framed, sheathed, utilities are mostly in, the interiors have drywall hung, windows and doors have been fitted, and even cabinetry, bathroom fixtures and countertops are in place. 80% of the construction work for the duplex is completed by craning four boxes into place and locking them together. The pros are better quality control, less waste, and a quicker turn around time. The cons to modular units is that there’s generally a limited set of designs and customization, although that has improved in recent years, particularly if a developer has a somewhat generous budget (see the Belle Sherman Cottages for example).

Once the boxes are craned and secured to the foundation and each other, the inside will undergo painting and finish work, while the outside gets faced with the exterior material of choice and porches, garages or other details are attached. Here, the rear three duplexes use vinyl siding, lap siding on the lower floors and shake siding on the gables, with decorative lap bands and color variations to give the outside some curb appeal. These units will have small porches with lattice skirts. The unit facing Aurora will receive nicer finishes since it’s the unit that will be seen the most by passing traffic. This includes fiber-cement siding, a full-width porch with decorative brackets (seen under construction below), and sculpted roof brackets.

Note that the rear of the existing house at 607 South Aurora has been expanded, its roof raised slightly. The original five-bedroom house is being extensively renovated into two three-bedroom units. The eight new units will each be three-bedrooms, going for about $700 per bedroom. To quote the ad:

“This home has 3 bedrooms with 2 baths and everything is BRAND NEW!

Newly constructed in 2017, this home features stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops, LED lighting throughout the home, all oil bronze finishes, with large bedrooms and ample closet space. The home is equipped with its own washer and dryer, and can come fully furnished. This property is conveniently located less than one mile from Ithaca College, with off-street parking available, this unit is a beautiful place to call home! This property is pet friendly with the correct pet and owner. 

Other Features:
-Stainless steel dishwasher, refrigerator, range and hood vent.
-Luxury vinyl flooring throughout
-W/D in unit
-Beautiful tiled bathrooms
-Modern-Contemporary Style
-Bedroom Furnishings: includes bed frame, bed mattress, dresser, desk, and desk chair
-Dining Room/Kitchen Furnishings: offer seating for dinning
-Living Room Furnishings: includes a couch
-All Room Furnishings: includes curtains decorating all windows
-Located right up the street from the heartbeat of Ithaca, the Ithaca Commons! Magnificent place to eat, shop, and have fun in the Ithaca area
-The TCAT bus stops near the development.”

A couple blocks away, Modern Living Rentals picked up 217 Columbia Street, which has the potential for a rear unit, although it’s just as likely MLR will simply spruce up the existing two-family. The fact that the rentals are only until 5/31/2018 kinda leaves the door open for some construction work next summer.





902 Dryden Road Construction Update, 7/2017

17 07 2017

Seeing as these are expected to open for occupancy next month, this will probably be the final visit to the 902 Dryden site.

From the outside, these look to be complete. The landscaping is partially done. Grass is down and some of the parking area has been bordered with wood beams, but some sidewalk and plantings have yet to be poured/planted, and the bike shed will come towards the end.  About the only thing left for the buildings thesmelves are a few minor pieces of trim (trim boards, porch light fixtures). I’m still a bit disappointed that secondary colors were dropped in father of a color I like to call “bland oatmeal”, but the variation of shingle-style, lap and vertical siding makes up for it somewhat.

The inside of the units are in varying states of late-stage interior work – one of the end units was nearly showpiece ready with only some minor painting left. Working northward to units less further along, cabinetry and appliances were being installed, as were lighting fixtures, oven hoods and kitchen backslashes. Visum/Modern Living Rentals seems to strongly prefer neutral shades for interior colors, which is generally advisable when selling or renting a home. The appliances hanging up on the wall behind the kitchen counters are the air-source heat pumps.  The units closest to Forest Home Drive were still in the midst of drywall paint prep – there was a worker walking around on professional drywall stilts, which I did not take photos of because I wasn’t sure if they would see me and force me to go off-site. The drywall had been hung and appeared to be mudded, but not painted.

To quote the online ad:

These beautiful townhouses are a great place to call home!!
Brand new construction in late 2016 [sic?], has all the amenities needed! Brand new EVERYTHING, stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops, kitchen complete with a dishwasher! Great sized rooms with ample closet space, all custom tiles bathroom as well! Washer and dryer IN unit!

902 Dryden is not big or ostentatious. I wouldn’t call it out of place in rural Varna, and another 8 units and 26 bedrooms are welcome to the local rental market. Modern Living Rentals and Visum Development are bringing a pretty solid addition to the Varna market. Consider this a preview of MLR’s next project, the 42-unit rental complex they want to put in just a mile up the road at 802 Dryden.

Bella Faccia Construction is the general contractor, and STREAM Collaborative is the architect.