Harold’s Square Construction Update, 9/2018

29 09 2018

With the Commons Playground issue seemingly settled, the Harold’s Square project continues to rise on the Commons (more specifically, 133-139 East State Street). The full floor area has been built out for the first and second floors, the third floor is partially assembled, and a few steel beams and joints have been erected for what will become the fourth and fifth floors. Note that the floor plate will only cover the full footprint of the building for the lowest four floors – the fifth has some modest setbacks from the Commons to create the impression of multiple structures and break up the massing, while floors six through twelve are the tower portion, where most of the apartments will be located.

Granted, the south views from those apartments are likely going to be for only a limited time. The two proposals that have garnered the most positive feedback and initial scoring for the Green Street Garage Redevelopment are the Vecino proposal and the Visum/Newman proposal, each of which calls for a tower similar in height to Harold’s Square. My impression is that, if forced to advocate for one or the other, the Harold’s Square development team might be slightly warmer to the Visum/Newman proposal because it provides for a wider alley between the buildings as well as aesthetic improvements to that alleyway.

Quick aside, in pitching the Little Commons proposal for the Green Street Garage, I had a mixed reaction to the IURA submission. The elephant in the room was always that whatever design he and his partners submitted would be sufficiently short so that the Harold’s Square owners (L Enterprises and McGuire Development) would retain the ability charge a premium for the upper-story units in the market-rate Harold’s Square building. The proposal’s website, which STREAM Collaborative put together, does a very good job stepping around that and emphasizing other potential benefits of a modestly-scaled structure. The written submission, however, stated the importance of protecting the Harold’s Square viewshed, which is readily recognized, but maybe not something that should have been explicitly acknowledged, because it could easily be twisted and rub reviewers the wrong way – “views are only for those with deep pockets” or “catering to the wealthy tenants next door”. It’s the kind of comment that reads better to developers than to the general public, and my personal take is that, however true, they just shouldn’t have brought it up.

Anyway, as seen in the Harold’s Square photos, once the structural steel is laid out, the corrugated steel decking is attached and a rebar mesh laid atop the decking for the concrete pour of the subfloor. As with foundations, the mesh provides stability and strength to the concrete as it cures. The openings between floors are for elevator cores and stairwells. The skeleton will rise at a fairly quick pace given the effort to take advantage of the relative meteorological calm that early fall provides, but I don’t see anything on the project website that indicates a ballpark estimate of when topping out might occur – the crane isn’t expected to be down until March, if I have my notes right, and after that happens, the structure should be closed up enough / far enough along with exterior work such that the Commons playground can be returned to active use. A mid-2019 opening is planned; no word on potential commercial tenants on the lower floors.

The WordPress for the project can be found here, and the Ithacating project description here.





Harold’s Square Construction Update, 7/2018

17 07 2018

Harold’s Square is starting to take shape. The white sheets on top of the basement level are Sika Corporation UltraCure NCF curing blankets. When the steel was laid, corrugated decking was laid on top to create the base of the floor. A rebar wire mesh was then laid and tied into place, and the concrete was poured into the floor cavity, with wood forms to keep the pour in place. The rebar strengthens the concrete and ensures structural integrity. In this mid-June Facebook photo from the Harold’s Square page, you can see the decking going over the structural steel. A week and a half later, you can see the rebar grid over the completed decking. The concrete was poured in early July, the slab was covered in the cellulose fiber blankets to promote an even and structurally sound cure, and after seven days they tested the concrete and the results came back all-clear, meaning they can start to put weight on the concrete and work their way up.

Meanwhile, structural steel erection will be taking a short break as masonry work begins on the Commons-facing side of the project, followed by masonry work on the Sage Building. The steelwork will resume in late July. Subcontractor Paolangeli will be doing backfilling (earthwork to cover up the foundation) on the Green Street (south) side of the project now that the shell of the basement has been built.

The WordPress for the project can be found here, and the Ithacating project description here.





Harold’s Square Construction Update, 4/2018

10 05 2018

Ithaca weather is not accommodating. Originally, the pour for the concrete slab was supposed to take place on April 3rd. It’s tricky, because this is a large footprint and the building is very heavy, necessitating a thick slab – 30 inches thick. That has to all be poured at once, without any potential interruptions like rain or snow, which can weaken the concrete as it cures (upsets the mix and water balance). That was rescheduled the first time due to winter weather, and was expected to take place on the 11th, which was rained out. 4/16 was also cancelled due to winter weather. Finally the concrete was able to be poured on the 23rd.

In the photos below, you can see some wood forms are still in place for smaller sections (entryway, lower right of site). The vertical concrete column bases are being poured (note the squares of vertical rebar in the sections yet to be encased), with steel plates atop the finished column to tie into the steel beams. The hole in the lower right (southeast) corner is for one of the elevator cores. Taylor the Builders will have this heading skyward in short order.





Harold’s Square Construction Update, 2/2018

22 02 2018

Not all cranes come on wheels. Many larger cranes are assembled and disassembled on site. A concrete crane pad is formed and poured to provide a base for the crane, with the pieces assembled upward from the base. That’s what you can see in the photos below. The size can vary depending on the size of the crane required, whether it’s free-standing or tied-in, whether there are rock anchors that can be used, and the soil upon which it and the pad will rest. Here, the crane pad will rest on a thick, firm mud layer beneath, and the concrete will be reinforced with a tied-in (meaning the grid bars are tied together) steel rebar grid. According to the Harold’s Square website, the crane pad itself will rest on a 4’6″ deep concrete, 38′ x 38′. Keep in mind, there will actually be two cranes on-site. The one mounted here will be the heavy-duty 300-ton crane, but they construction team will use a mobile 55-ton crane as well. The elevator pits are also being boxed and formed.

All the piles have been driven in at this point, and the sides of the site have been shored up as necessary with lagging and steel H-beams. The low-rise Commons-facing portion of the building will utilize an 18″ rebar-reinforced mat slab foundation, while the tower portion will have a 30″ rebar-reinforced mat slab. These pours should happen by mid-March. The structure will be anchored into the foundation, which will evenly distribute the weight and support the floors above. After the foundation is in, the only way to go is up.





Harold’s Square Construction Update, 12/2017

31 12 2017

Grab a cup of coffee or tea for this one, it’s a long introduction.

Touching on a familiar topic again, downtown and urban living has enjoyed a revived interest in the past fifteen years, and coincident with moderate but steady economic growth in Ithaca, it has created plenty of opportunities for those with assets and expertise. Succeeding in those opportunities is a slightly different story – money and a strong project team are important, but some projects have an easier go of it than others. Harold’s Square has experienced substantial obstacles in its long pre-construction period, but thanks to developer David Lubin’s flexibility and tenacity, as well as an accommodating local government and growing market, it has surmounted those challenges and is now underway.

The first version of Harold Square at 123-139 The Commons was proposed back in October 2012. At the time, the plans called for first-floor retail, a few floors of office space, and 60-70 apartments on the upper floors of the 11-story building. The Sage Block (Benchwarmers) and W.H. Miller Building (Home Dairy) would be renovated, while three less historic buildings would be taken down to make way for the new development. The estimated price was $30 million and the plan was to have the 126,000 SF building finished by summer 2014. At that time, the building would have needed a fairly substantial zoning variance – the entire site was CBD-60, and it reached about 135 feet.

With the exception of the first-floor retail and Sage Block renovation, none of the other details have remained the same. However, the five major design iterations have all been by the same architect – CJS Architects (formerly Chaintreuil | Jensen | Stark Architects), with offices in Rochester and (later) Buffalo.

Lubin already had some familiarity with the project site – one of the storefronts to be removed used to be home to Harold’s Army Navy Store, a business started by his father and expanded to sixteen locations across the region. These stores were closed in the late 1990s as Lubin chose to focus on his development project and other business endeavors, like his computer recycling business. Harold’s Square is a nod to his father’s store, and the famed Herald Square of New York City.

The project design was critiqued and reviewed thoroughly over the next ten months, which also produced the first major set of design changes – in fact, if you’re googling Harold’s Square without prior knowledge, images of this version, v02, turn up enough that even many current agencies and organizations (and even the posters on the construction fence) treat it as the final design. The 2015 image from the contractor’s website, Taylor the Builders, is shown above. It did away with some of the less-liked design features of v01, but retained a clean, contemporary profile with a curtain wall of glass, and terracotta panels that extended to the roof canopy. During this period, plans to acquire the W.H. Miller Building were dropped.

This was the version that was approved in August 2013, and received CIITAP tax abatements two months later in October 2013. It had 162,750 SF, with basement utilities/storage, ground-floor retail (20,670 SF), three floors of office space (56,855 SF) and 46 apartments on floors 5-10. The eleventh floor was a 5,000 SF penthouse for tenant use. The price tag was about $38 million.

At this point, post IDA approval, we kinda enter a publicly dormant period. Publicly, apart from the occasional reassurance from Lubin that the project was still alive, and the re-application for approval permits since those expire after two years, there didn’t appear to be much going on. Behind the scenes, it gets a little more interesting.

The project was having trouble securing a construction loan, and that was for a couple of reasons. For one, Lubin (as L Enterprises LLC) was having trouble securing a major office tenant, and office space made up about a third of the building. No one had any concerns about the apartments since the residential market was (and still is) strong, and retail is not hard to sell when it’s on The Commons, but office space is a different matter altogether. The demand for new space is modest, and often custom built for a tenant, rather than speculative space to be filled by tenants after it’s complete. So if we’re being fair but critical, the project team made a fair gamble but ended up overestimating the market for office space. Unless that space was spoken for, there would be no financing.

Re-examining the mix of uses, Lubin decided to revamp the project when seeking re-approvals in August 2015 – two floors of office space would be replaced with apartments. The first mention of this actually came through the New York Times, followed by the Voice and the Ithaca Times. With the drop in office space, the number of apartments jumped to 86. This also required some design changes, which were going to be reviewed by the city in Fall 2015. My notes show August 2016 ended up being the review date. We’ll call this version 3, v03.

Now Harold’s Square was 180,090 SF, with basement utility/storage space, ground-floor retail, second floor office space, and ten floors of apartments. The project had grown from 11 to 12 floors, but the height was nearly the same since residential floors have lower floor-to-ceiling heights than Class A office space. The total unit count was now 108, with 40 micro units (all the rage these days), 30 1-bedroom units, and 38 2-bedroom units. This version was approved in September 2016. By the time the project was up for re-approval, the city zoning had changed such that 140-foot buildings were allowed on-site, so no further height variance was needed.

With the space utilization issue worked out, the project was still seen as a sizable risk to potential lenders – it was at its inception the largest project proposed in downtown Ithaca since 2005’s Seneca Place, and Lubin had some experience with smaller projects, but nothing this size. Finding a partner to buy in to the plan would reduce the loan needed and add experience, making the project an easier sell to lenders. This is where McGuire Development, a major interest in the Buffalo market (3.5 million SF), came into play. They saw the potential in Lubin’s vision and the value in the Ithaca market, and agreed to buy in as a development partner. This appears to have been finalized in January 2017.

Fast forward to May 2017. With McGuire playing a role on the project team, major design iteration #4 (v04) removed the terracotta panels in favor of metal, and reconfigured the Commons storefront retail to use a common entrance, for “financial viability”. The enclosed atrium was removed and a mechanical penthouse added. It seems likely that McGuire wanted to ensure a certain return on investment. This version was approved without much further comment, except perhaps a bit of exasperation from city officials. Concurrently, the project team re-applied to the IDA for a revised tax abatement – the project’s price tag was now up to $42 million, and they were seeking revised, slightly more generous terms, which were granted with some grumbling. Complaints include a lack of explicitly affordable housing units, local labor concerns, and gentrification. The use of heat pumps and 60 kW of rooftop solar panels assuaged the sustainability crowd.

By October, the project was underway, courtesy of a construction loan from Norwich-based NBT Bank. The bank is a regional player with about 1.5x the assets of Tompkins Trust. This is new territory for NBT, which typically limits itself to single-family home loans in Tompkins, and has no service branches within county lines. The loan is for $33,842,000. L Enterprises and McGuire have each put up $5 million to cover the $43,842,000 cost of the project.

So here we are. The site has been cleared, and shoring and excavation by Paolangeli Contractor will take place over the next six weeks. After that comes ten days of pile driving, using a zero-resonance hammer to reduce vibration and noise – ostensibly, because is probably the second-most high-profile project site in the city after City Centre (which used the same method). Project completion is expected in Spring 2019. Sorry folks, but the Commons playground will remained cocooned and closed due to safety concerns.

The project team includes L Enterprises LLC (led by David Lubin) as lead developer, McGuire Development as co-developer, Taylor the Builders as the general contractor, CJS Architects, Fagan Engineers and Land Surveyors handling the application and civil/structural engineering work, and Brous Consulting for public relations. Those who want to follow the project without this blog as an intermediary can sign up for update on the project webpage here.

With the latest update on their webpage also comes the latest version of the project design, v05 – which doesn’t really affect the program space, but it does have several visual changes. The corner units now have exposed balconies vs enclosed rooms, the dark metal band on the top floor facing the Commons has been removed, and the retail frontage was reconfigured a bit on the Commons facade (the north module was stretched, one of the entry doors moved, and different fenestration patterns have been applied to some of the modules and the northwest face).

Pre-demo photo:





News Tidbits 8/5/17: Having the Right Look

5 08 2017

1. Thanks to Dan Veaner at the Lansing Star, we have the first rough site plan for the proposed Cornerstone and Tiny Timbers projects at the Lansing Town Center site at the intersection of Route 34B and Triphammer Roads. Readers may recall that Tiny Timbers has proposed a development of 60 for-sale single-family homes (ten in the first phase) called “Lansing Community Cottages”, and Cornerstone is proposing up to 144 affordable apartments in two phases for the town center site.

Specifically, Tiny Timbers is looking to sell homes averaging about 1,000-1,200 SF in the $175,000-$225,000 range, which is a critical but tough-to-hit segment in the local housing market. With consultation from planner David West, the homes are designed in a traditional urban layout, with congregated parking spaces instead of garages, and community green spaces. None of the homes are more than 150 feet from the roads and parking areas, a safety requirement to ensure access for emergency vehicles. Ten units would be built in phase one, twenty in phase two, and thirty in phase three. About the only concern town officials have expressed at this point is a second means of ingress/egress to keep the traffic down on Conlon Road.

In contrast to Tiny Timbers’ site plan, the Cornerstone plan is a more conventional suburban layout with parking adjacent to each 8-unit structure. In fact, based on the above design, and the need for affordable developers to save on costs and therefore many reuse designs when they can, it’s likely that some of the Cornerstone apartments look something like the above image, which comes from a recent Cornerstone project near Brockport. The detailing and the colors may differ, but it’s a pretty good bet that’s how some of the finished units will look. Like Conifer, Cornerstone appear to be using a mix of their standard designs, and there are two distinct designs on the site plan, as well as a community center.

2. A redevelopment opportunity in downtown Ithaca has sold, but it looks like there are no plans. 110-112 West Seneca Street is a 538 SF salon with a large rental parking lot, and zoning is B-1a, meaning 4 floors 50% lot coverage, parking requirements in effect of about one space per unit or one space per 250 SF of commercial use. Tompkins Trust (Tompkins Financial Corp.) picked up the property on Friday the 28th for $600,000, below the $800k asking price but still quite substantial for what’s mostly land.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anything is going to happen here. Tompkins Trust had previously rented the 23 parking spaces on site for use by its own employees – whether they’re hedging bets or don’t trust the parking garage situation, they appear to be buying the property to use as parking. Boo. With any luck, after their new HQ opens up next spring and their parking situation settles down, they’ll find better uses or potential partners for the lot. With no historic attributes but proximity to major services and amenities, a parking lot on this property is a waste of potential.

3. The Harold’s Square project team has given their website a overhaul, and with that comes the official timeline. According to the web page, asbestos abatement is now underway, demolition will start in September, construction will last through January 2019, and marketing/lease-up for the commercial spaces and 108 residential units should will start in January 2019.

The project description web page mentions 100 construction jobs, 50 retail jobs and 200 office jobs, which seems accurate for the square footage of each use (12k retail, 25k office). The estimate of 250 residents is way too generous though – the back-of-the-envelope is one person per bedroom, and there are about 144 bedrooms/studio units.

Side note, I reserve the right to grouse that the media links both go to the Times.

4. Dunno what’s going to happen with the Lansing Meadows senior housing up by the mall. Background story on the Voice here. On the one hand, the wetlands were an arduous and expensive undertaking, and Goetzmann did those to Army Corps of Engineers standards. It does make it tougher for the project to be financially viable. On the other hand, the village has a right to be frustrated, and it’s not unreasonable that they’re feeling that they’re being taken for a ride. Goetzmann received an IDA tax deal for what was largely a retail project, largely a no-no because most jobs in retail are low wage. He also received a variance for a community retail component, and multiple extensions from the IDA on fulfilling the housing component.

An increase in density spreads the fixed costs out among a greater number of units, and it’s encouraged by the village and county, so that’s not the issue. The design is what bothers them – while shared walls and utilities is a cost-saving measure, the village has expected smaller, house-like units since the project was first proposed in the late 2000s. Maybe the happy medium between this and the ten duplexes is a site plan with 3-4 unit structures with 20-24 units, with the buildings designed with pitched roofs, dormers, small porches and other home-like features. Let’s see what happens in the next couple of months.

5. Plans for co-op housing on West State Street have been waylaid, perhaps permanently. New York City businessman Fei Qi had previously proposed to renovate the historic 3,800 SF property at 310 West State Street into office space, and more recently a 12-14 person co-op. However, there have been a couple of issues with both plans – the ca. 1880 building is in need of significant structural renovation. Years of deferred maintenance prior to Qi (who bought it from the Salvation Army for $195k last year) has left the building in rough shape, and asbestos and lead need to be removed. For the housing proposal to be permitted, fire suppression systems would also need to be installed. Some city officials have expressed concern that like the carriage house that once existed at the rear of the property, if the building gets mothballed again, its structural integrity may be at risk. Any external changes would need to be approved by the Landmarks Commission. It appears that Qi recently applied to the commission stating economic hardship, saying he was unaware the building was a historic property and was not communicated to him by the seller or real estate agent, and cannot afford to renovate it to ILPC standards. The designation went into effect in April 2015, a year before sale.

Concurrently, Qi has put the property up for sale. For an asking price of $278,000, one gets the building and the architect’s plans. I’ve seen ball-park estimates of $500k for the renovation into office space, but I never saw an estimate for the co-op. As a result of the structural issues, the building’s assessed value plunged from $250,000 in 2016 to $100,000 last year, most of that being the land. Fingers crossed, someone steps up to the plate to save this building before it’s too late.

6. Last month, I speculated that there was a plan for redeveloping 217 Columbia Street on Ithaca’s South Hill. Turns out there is, and it’s really upsetting the neighbors. The plan by Modern Living Rentals is to preserve the existing building, but build an additional two-family home on the property as well. For the neighbors, this is apparently one student-oriented rental too far. Some are calling for a moratorium, and others a zoning change to prevent rentals without an owner living in the property. Most of South Hill’s zoning is R-2 residential, which is one-and-two family homes, and most of the construction in South Hill these past few years has been one and two-family homes. The issue is that they’re upset they’re rentals, many of which appeal to Ithaca College students further up the hill in the town. In theory, you could make it an approval requirement that the renters be non-students, although I’m not sure that would placate the situation. We’ll see how it goes.





News Tidbits 7/8/17: Watching the Fireworks

8 07 2017

1. A pair of major downtown projects are starting to get a move on site-prep and demolition. The Trebloc Building has been torn down to make way for the 187,000 SF, $32.9 million City Centre project.

Photo from C. Hadley Smith Collection

For a bit of historical perspective, the Trebloc Building was a sort of monument to municipal desperation. Up until 1967, the site housed several 2-5 story buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then along came urban renewal. The city had made plans to demolish the buildings and sell the lot to a bank tenant, who would build a new office and help revitalize the city’s run-down downtown. But after demolishing the building, the potential bank tenant never followed through on its original intent, and the city spend years trying to sell the lot, which was used for makeshift parking in the interim. Finally, they found a buyer in the Colbert Family doing business as the Trebloc Development Company. The Trebloc Building was originally planned to have two floors, but financial troubles had reduced it to one before it finally opened for business in 1974.

One could argue that nothing quite represented the nadir of Ithaca’s downtown quite like the struggling, unloved and unlovely Trebloc Building did. There are some buildings worth fighting for, and even some mediocre ones that come down with a bittersweet sentiment. This was neither.

Perhaps unhappily for downtown businesses, City Centre will be under construction for quite some time; adjusting the estimate given to the IDA, late 2019 or even early 2020 is possible.

Meanwhile, just a couple blocks west, Harold’s Square is also gearing up for demolition of 123-135 East State Street. Unlike the Trebloc teardown, Developer David Lubin will be deconstructing the existing structures, so that their components can be re-used (the process will be managed by Finger Lake Re-Use). I’ve always been kinda partial to the green tile on the former Race Office Supply, so hopefully that goes to a good home. 137-139 East State will be renovated as part of the Harold’s Square project. Harold’s Square, a 180,000 SF building with a hard construction cost of $32.6 million, is expected to take about 18 months, opening in Q1 2019. Dunno why City Centre’s construction schedule is a year longer, although with the underground garage, the project is a little larger (211,200 SF), and more structurally complex. It could also just be a very generous estimate.

2. Tompkins County will be hosting a meeting at the Museum of the Earth on July 19th at 7:30 PM to discuss plans for the Biggs Parcel on the town of Ithaca’s portion of West Hill. As covered previously, the 25.5 acre parcel, which has something of a long news history, has been for sale since last summer, but without any firm offers, the county ended its realtor contract and has been trying to figure out with to do with the property. Although there are some streams and wetlands, there are some development possibilities; neighbors have been pushing for it to be a county-owned natural preserve, but the county wants an option that will pay taxes, whether that be a multi-family development, private estate or otherwise.

While the county did not identify this parcel as a high environmental protection priority, they are busy working with Finger Lakes Land Trust to protect a 125-acre property in Caroline, and there are ongoing discussions regarding a 324-acre property in Dryden.

3. As with nearly every sizable project in Tompkins County, the Inn at Taughannock expansion is being met with some resistance from neighbors. As relayed by the Times’ Jamie Swinnerton, arguments cited include traffic, view sheds, size, neighborhood character (which seems a bit weird, given there’s not much of a neighborhood nearby), and most frequently, noise, which the town could help resolve by asking for an acoustical counsultant’s report like what Ben Rosenblum submitted in Ithaca for his cancelled proposal for a jazz bar at 418 East State Street. The addition, which calls for a new restaurant, event space and five guest rooms, would create about 25 jobs if built and opened as planned. The often-joked but actually rarely-seen email calling me a “thoughtless corporatist” arrived in the inbox after the first write-up, which indicates this fireworks show may not be over for a little while.

4. In a bit of a weird hang-up, the Heritage Center project attempted to give itself a formal name, but the name was shot down by the County Legislature. The proposed moniker of “Tompkins Center for History and Culture” was defeated in a 7 yes -3 no vote (8 yes votes required) because a few of the legislators felt there hadn’t been enough time to gauge community reaction. Personally, I thought “Tompkins County Heritage Center” was fine, but to each their own.

5. Thankfully, the county’s endorsement of the Housing Strategy was unanimous. This is but a baby step in solving the county’s housing woes, but it’s an important step. The county now has a sort of guiding document to help address issues in adding and improving the local housing stock.

There are a few key things that the county will need to adhere to when moving forward. First is working with communities to identify suitable areas for development, and making updates to infrastructure and zoning to guide developers towards those properties instead of far-flung, natural areas where acquisition costs are low and there are fewer neighbors to contend with. Second is bridging the affordability gap – some of this can be done by encouraging new housing at market-rate, but the county will need to be constructively engaging and reliable when helping affordable housing plans apply for grants or exploring tax incentives to help make their proposals feasible.

The third, and arguably the most controversial point here, is standing firm in the face of opposition. Many Tompkins residents are averse to new housing (or really, new anything) near them. For example, consider the Tiny Timbers plan recently announced for Lansing Town Center. The plan checks a lot of boxes – at $175-$225k, it’s fairly affordable owner-occupied new housing, with a smaller ecological footprint than many detached single-family homes. Yet, in the Voice comments, it was dumped on as both a glorified trailer park and unaffordable at the same time, and the neighbor who tried and failed to buy the property from the town to prevent development was trying to scare people from small house living (which at 1000-1500 SF, these aren’t really “tiny” houses anyway). The county should listen for the sake of good government, but after weighing the argument, unless a project is truly a detriment to a community’s quality of life, the county and local boards will need a firm backbone in withstanding criticism. It also helps if people who like a project give their two cents in an email or meeting.

So, good first step, but there’s a lot of work ahead. Fingers crossed.