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.





Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 6/2017

21 06 2017

This project isn’t 100% complete – some stone veneer still needs to be applied, and the landscaping needs to be seeded – but for practical purposes, the new wing is ready for occupancy and this project is done. The first hotel guests in the new wing are unpacking their bags this month, and already there are chairs out on the balconies. The project began in March 2016, which gives a period of about 15 months from launch to opening. Interior and balcony photos can be found on The Hotel Ithaca’s twitter account.

As a project, it’s not inspiring architecture, and rather than market growth, it’s more about keeping the Hotel Ithaca successful in Ithaca’s upward trending downtown market. But it adds a few jobs, it’s a $15 million investment, and it demonstrates strong, sustained support for Ithaca’s leisure and hospitality market.

Hart Hotels of Buffalo, founded by David Hart in 1985 and operating locally under the name Lenroc L.P., was the project developer. Krog Corporation, also of Buffalo and a favorite of Hart Hotels, was the general contractor. NH Architecture of Rochester, another frequent partner of Hart Hotels, was the project architect. NH Architecture is rather busy lately, as architect for both Dryden’s Poet’s Landing, and Lansing’s Cayuga View Senior Housing.

Side note – I’ve heard through the rumor mill that the owners of the Sunoco next door have been offered very lucrative sums to sell their gas station, as it’s on a choice corner for development close to the Commons, and allows a 100-foot tall building. But alas, the owners have had no interest in selling.





Rodeway Inn Construction Update, 5/2017

30 05 2017

So this is one of those small projects that would probably be missed unless someone were explicitly looking for it. At 654 Elmira Road south of the city-town line, hotelier Pratik Ahir has commenced with reconstruction and expansion of the Rodeway Inn motel.

The Rodeway Inn is one of Ithaca’s less-expensive, quirkier lodging options. A collection of four buildings dating from 1950s-1980 with later renovations, three buildings hosted 40 motel-style rooms with a dining/lobby space, and a detached house was home for a live-in manager.  With it came outdoor gazebos, a playground, and well-appointed if careworn rooms – an unusual blend of budget appearances and mid-tier amenities. Motels have been on the property since the Wonderland Motel was built in the 1950s, and the buildings have been owned by JAMNA Hospitality since 2005.

Reviews of the Rodeway generally note welcoming staff and clean units, but dated layouts and buildings in need of a serious upgrade. That is what JAMNA’s Pratik Ahir has set out to do here. The initial plan was to enlarge the rooms with a rear addition for more spacious bathrooms, and add new corner units to former mechanical closets on either end of the U-shaped “Building 1”. These plans were approved in December 2013.

After the approval, however, the plans were shelved. In 2014, the Maguires were seeking to do their “artisanal” dealerships and HQ down there, and that plan would have involved buying out and demolishing the Rodeway Inn. JAMNA was prepared to sell the property to the Maguires, but after the Maguire plan was cancelled following disagreements with the town over zoning, the motel owners were once again given a chance to re-evaluate their plans.

Revision number two to come before the town asked for the renovations as before, but added internal and external modifications, parking lot adjustments, and called for an additional 1,146 SF to the single-family home (“Building 2”) to turn it into a community center for guest recreation and dining. This was also approved.

Then we get to the final version, number three. This plan asked for the 1,146 SF addition as in Plan 2, but instead of Plan 1’s addition, JAMNA requested approval to tear down both arms of Building 1 and replace them with larger arms on the same footprint that would host an internal hallway – so less motel and more hotel. The work would also add four rooms, bringing the total to 44. Perhaps related to this confusion, JAMNA had already started demolition when the town issued a stop-work notice in January, requiring the new plans to be approved before work could continue.

Joe Turnowchyk of Pennsylvania-based Hex 9 Architects is the architect for the project; he’s also the guy behind JAMNA’s future plans for a 37,000 SF, 70-room Sleep Inn up the road. Anatoliy Bezpalko of “Time 4 Improvement LLC” is the general contractor. It’s a little odd that the architect’s from Southeast PA, and the contractor from Stroudsburg in the northeast near the Delaware Water Gap, as they are neither close to each other or to Ithaca. According to county records, the Rodeway Inn has a hard cost of $926,000. The lender is Generations Bank, a small bank based out of the Seneca Falls.

Looking at the site below, a fair amount of progress has already been made – stone veneer and some exterior finishes are up on the new community center, and wood framing is ongoing for the new motel wings. The large blank wall on the “tower” will be occupied by metal awnings, matching the metal roof. Some housewrap has already been adhered to the plywood sheathing. The roof has been sheathed and the underlayment is being attached. Buildings 3 and 4 will be renovated, but their square footage and layout should stay the same.





Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 4/2017

23 04 2017

The exterior finishing is further along on the new wing of the Hotel Ithaca. For most of the hotel, the exterior wall construction goes something like this – the steel stud walls are erected, RMax polyiso insulation boards are attached, and the fire-rated GP DensElement fiberglass mat gypsum sheathing panels go over the boards – the maroon sealant is PROSOCO R-Guard FastFlash liquid flashing. DensElement is different from other GP DensGlass products in that the water-resistive barrier (WRB) is integrated into the fiberglass mat, so there shouldn’t be the need to place a barrier over the sheathing. But some parts of the sheathing do appear to have an exterior WRB (compare the southeast and northeast balconies in the first photo below), so make of it what you will.

Once the fiberglass mats are installed and sealed tight, metal clips are adhered to the sheathing, and then Alucobond panels are fastened to the clips. Alucobond is an aluminum panel that is sometimes used as an exterior finish because it’s lightweight and fairly dent-resistant (and aesthetically, metal panels are used for a modern, clean look). The drawbacks are cost, and potential waterproofing issues if not installed correctly. Along the ground floor, stone veneer was applied over the sheathing.

Side note, the initial design called for diamond-shaped panels, which were rejected by the Planning Board with extreme prejudice – one member called it “strip mall architecture“. Although, the strange part of all this is, the final product appears to be a blend of what was initially proposed, and what was approved – the exterior and window elements resemble the final render, but the final submission didn’t have a doorway on the east end of the wing, while the initial design did. The end of this update has a copy of each for comparison.

It looks like the roof is finished and the trim is going on, so with the exception of the remaining metal panels, doors and trim pieces like the balcony railings, the exterior is nearly complete. Hart is aiming for an opening by graduation weekend, so things should move at a fast clip over the next few weeks. Krog Corp, a frequent partner of owner Hart Hotels, is the general contractor.





News Tidbits 3/4/17: Oh Hey, Tax Season

4 03 2017

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1. It’s that time of the year where the Tompkins County Department of Assessment goes through its assessment process in preparation for adjustments to property values for 2017, known as “Annual Equity Maintenance”, or AEM for short. Since there are 35,249 tax parcels in Tompkins County with a total value of $11.9 billion, not all are reassessed every year – most places are reassessed every three years, except for areas of rapid change (for instance, Fall Creek is every two years at present), or individual properties that are being undergoing change, whether it be a new construction, sudden property damage, or a sales transaction. The state has their own system, called Cyclical Reassessment Program (CRP, but the county docs refer to it as CRAP), but the county opts out to do their own valuations.

Some properties are easier than others – for example, a purchaser of a big-box property isn’t buying just the building, but a long-term lease from a tenant like BJ’s in Lansing. Student houses in parts of Collegetown are worth less than the property they sit on, which the tax system cannot accommodate. They provide one example of a $500,000 house sitting on $3 million of land – that’s not something the tax system is designed to handle, so the house is overvalued, but the property as a whole is very undervalued.

The department notes that sales were strong this year. According to their records, average sales are up 4.5% from $228,442 to $238,796, and the median sale is up 2.5%, from $200,000 to $205,000. The document also only notes 677 sales, which would be the lowest since before 1990, and is lower than the 681 sales noted by the Ithaca Board of Realtors (and IBR represents most but not all agencies). Someone is mistaken, it’s just hard to tell who. Assessments are on average about 8% lower (9% median) than home sale prices.

Some of the other takeaways are a modest softening in the student housing market in 2016 (Cornell enrollment in Ithaca did drop slightly from 2015-16, before renewing its upward trajectory in 2017), the city and Dryden’s Ellis Hollow continue to be strong markets but the other suburban neighborhoods are regaining interest, and Groton’s a mixed bag due to the poor state of some village properties. New assessments for 2017 (including parts of Ithaca town, Caroline, Freeville, Enfield, lakeside properties, restaurant properties, and manufacturing facilities) will be publicly available on July 1st.

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2. The redesign of Schwartz Plaza has started the formal review process. Cornell submitted the sketch plan at the February meeting, and hopes to have approvals for the renovation by next month. The properties would lose the walls and open up to the surrounding Collegetown, in what Cornell and Ithaca hope will give the densely-populated neighborhood a needed public gathering space. As reported by the Cornell Daily Sun’s Nick Bogel-Burroughs, project manager David Cutter hopes that the project leads to further public space enhancements near the stone arch bridge and down by Eddygate – this includes additional pedestrian and bike facilities, electronic boards with bus information, and a possible realignment of the Oak/College intersection into a T-configuration.

But for now the focus is on Schwartz Plaza. Cornell intends to have approvals within 1-2 months, start construction in June, and have the new plaza ready by August 2017. Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects is the design firm of record.

Postscript, Novarr’s townhouses at 238 Linden were pulled from the meeting before the sketch plan was due to be presented at the city planning board meeting last Tuesday. As for 301 Eddy, still trying to dig up information.

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3. Nick Reynolds has a very interesting profile and interview of Jason Fane over at the Times. Definitely worth a read about one of Ithaca’s most prominent landlords.

Speaking personally, I’ve got mixed feelings about it, if only because it takes a blog quote I made about 330 College Avenue in 2014, and in the article’s context, I sound like an arthouse snob. Fane has always been serious about building on the property, and that’s great, but I stand by my quote on 330 – after the years of negotiations on the new form district code, there is no way a 12-story building was going to be built on the corner of College and Dryden, even if Jagat Sharma, Fane’s favored architect, brought his A-game. It’s not a matter of economics or taste, it’s a matter of very real opposition from the Belle Sherman and East Hill neighborhoods. Any politician who considers signing off would be voted out of office ASAP. Any city staffer who consents will be shown the door. Look at what happened with State Street Triangle. In a city where people have many gripes about development, this is one project that is truly stopped in its tracks. I think Fane could negotiate 7 or even 8 stories if he gives the city a donation towards affordable housing, or some other community benefit. but not 11 or 12.

I like grand buildings and imposing structures, but I’m also a realist. End rant.

4. Todd Fox’s Visum Development has a couple construction updates on their Facebook page. Exterior stud walls are being installed on the lower floors of 201 College, and two of the three townhouse strings at 902 Dryden Road have been fully framed and sheathed, with siding installation underway. At a glance, it looks like the exterior will look more like the elevations on Modern Living Rentals’ listings page rather than the STREAM Collaborative renders – the renders had horizontal lap siding, the elevations show vertical lap siding as seen above.

If more developer could post updates as Visum and Carina Construction do, that would be swell.

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5. Wrapping up a quiet news week, here’s the agenda for the town of Ithaca planning board next week. A lot subdivision for a new house, a pair of communication towers, and the final approvals for the Sleep Inn proposed by hotelier Pratik Ahir at 635 Elmira Road. True to the sketches presented last fall, the design has that rustic look on all sides of the structure, and all the town’s requests have been met, which should allow for a smooth final approval meeting on Tuesday. The design will be unique among the 320 locations of the Sleep Inn chain. It should be noted that the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals was very split on the height and size variances, approving them with just a 3-2 margin.

In the other towns, the only one with anything new to report is Danby, whose planning board is looking at a special use permit for a property management company’s offices at 1429 Danby Road, and a 3,535 SF expansion to the Ithaca Waldorf School at 20 Nelson Road.





Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 2/2017

21 02 2017

The to-do list for the $13.8 million Hotel Ithaca “modernization” is drawing short as it nears its May completion date. All the DensGlass fireproof fiberglass mat gypsum sheathing is in place and the edges of the panels are closed up with liquid flashing. On top of the sheathing are metal clips to which the exterior panels are mounted. The stone veneer on the first floor is mostly finished. Many, but not all of the balcony doors, windows and AC units have been fitted. Details like balcony railings will be installed towards the end of exterior work. On the inside of the building, it’s a good bet that the rough-ins are complete, insulation and drywall is probably in place and close to being completed, with crews moving onto things like subfloors/underlayment, painting, and installation of room fixtures such as sinks and bathtubs. The rest of the AC units will likely go in after the subfloors are installed.

Some Hotel Ithaca job postings are advertising 94 new rooms, but unless there were some last minute changes, the number on file is 90. Also worth noting, the contractor, Buffalo-based Krog Corp., and its team of subcontractors have done a fairly good job of staying on Hart Hotels’ schedule – the SPR doc from two years ago called for an April 2017 opening.

More background info on the Hotel Ithaca project can be found here, and by using the “Hotel Ithaca” tag one can backtrack through the bimonthly progress reports.

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Hotel Ithaca Construction Update, 12/2016

15 12 2016

The Hotel Ithaca addition at 222 South Cayuga is topped off and has taken the shape of the final product. Most of the new windows have been fitted into the exterior walls. Air conditioning units will be installed in the smaller openings. Peering inside, it looks like the interior framing is all set, and utilities rough-ins are underway.

In most places, the DensGlass fiberglass mat sheathing is being sealed up with R-Guard FastFlash liquid flashing, to close up the seams, joints and fasteners. Some of the newer sections, like the south wall, have yet to be sealed – in fact, workers were cutring and installing the DensGlass boards on the balconies while these photos were being taken. Since the balconies aren’t meant for full-time occupancy, the fiberglass mats are going directly onto the steel studs, without the R-Max polyiso. Taking a guess here, the gray coat on the front (east) wall might be a primer material for the exterior facade.

Along with general contractor and frequent Hart Hotels partner Krog Corp, it looks like Henderson Johnson Inc. of Syracuse was tapped for some subcontracting, and IBEW-sponsored John Mills Electric of Ithaca is handling the electrical rough-ins for the new wing.

The new $13.77 million addition should open in May 2017, just in time for the big graduation weekends. More background info on the Hotel Ithaca project can be found here.
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