News Tidbits 4/11/19

12 04 2019

1. Chances are very good that the county legislature will approve the purchase of the former orthodontics office on the 400 Block of North Tioga at their meeting next week. At least two subcommittees are recommending it, the feasibility study came back with reasonably positive results, and there appear to be no significant hurdles to moving forward. Representatives of the neighborhood sent in a letter with 25 or so signatories requesting the county build or deed away some land to build affordable housing on the Sears Street (rear) frontage of the lot, which is something the county is actively exploring but has yet to make a firm commitment to. It could range from townhouses, to three single-family homes, to two duplexes and a single-family home, to nothing, so 0-5 units, but the city and neighbors would appreciate at least a few homes to maintain neighborhood character. It’s doubtful the county would build the housing, but could deed lots to INHS or another affordable developer for the purpose of building out.

In terms of the project dimensions, there’s still a lot to be sorted out. The new office building could range from 32,000 SF to 46,000 SF, 3-4 floors, and 25-42 parking spaces. The historic building at 408 North Tioga may be renovated and repurposed for county offices, or sold off as-is. Concept site plans can be seen on the county website here. The vote on the evening of the 16th will only be for the county to purchase the property, and not to choose which development scenario is preferable. To be specific, there are actually three votes planned, one after another – the vote saying the environmental impacts are mitigated, the vote saying that the project is a public resource project exempt from zoning, and the vote to purchase.

The timeline on this project is very quick as local projects go. The county plans to break ground on the office building by this July, and have it occupied by the end of 2020 (this probably means HOLT Architects has concept drawings ready to go right now). The renovation or sale of the historic neighbor would also occur by December 2020. The housing, if any, would be a third phase after the other two components are completed.

The county estimates the total cost of a possible eventual project (designed to LEED Silver standards) to be $18.55-$19.55 million.  That estimate includes new building development ($12.8 to 14.5 million), land acquisition, and related renovation to 408 North Tioga, for which they would allocate $1 million for the 3,800 SF building. The initial acquisition costs would be covered by general county funds re-allocated in an amended Capital Program, and although it’s not clear in this agenda, it seems likely a municipal bond issue would be used to cover the construction costs.

Quick aside, it turns out the county did conduct a feasibility study back in 2011 to see if they could repurposed the Old Library into a county office building. That study, also conducted by HOLT, found that because of the library’s open atrium and unusual layout, the renovation costs made the project infeasible. It’s actually cheaper to build new than it would have been to rebuild the old library’s interior.

2. The Carpenter Business Park development held another community meeting in its quest for a PUD, and the Times’ Edwin Viera described it as “a firm shakedown”. The project has garnered some controversy as it had to shift to above ground parking (the result of soil tests indicating that the soils were in poor condition as they are along much of Ithaca’s West End) and no longer conformed to the site zoning. First ward council member Cynthia Brock made several swings at it for height, density, and the placement of affordable housing on the northern end of the site, for which she has made clear she will not support the PUD request. This is not a surprise, as Brock has not been circumspect with expressing her dislike of any proposed residential uses for the site. Her ward colleague George McGonigal likewise expressed concerns, and the fifth ward’s Laura Lewis noted concerns about traffic – there would be three access points to the 411,600 square-foot project.

Quick refresher – PUD stands for “Planned Unit District”, or as I often call it on the Voice and here on the blog, “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) zoning”. A project need not follow zoning code if it offers certain community benefits. The city recently expanded it for certain non-industrial properties, with Common Council now getting to vote on projects alongside the planning board to determine if community benefits are worth the variance from the legal zoning for a site.

3. It’s been almost two years since it was first proposed, but the mixed-income 46 South (formerly Hamilton Square) project is inching forward in Trumansburg. The Tburg Planning Board is down to the nitty-gritty at this point, exterior finishes, plantings, parking and fencing. The zoning variances have been approved, though the number of parking spaces per unit was bumped up from 1.2 to 1.4 spaces per unit to satisfy zoning board concerns (there will be 144 parking spaces on-site). According to the Times’ Jaime Cone, there was spirited debate over the use of wood trim vs. a lumber composite material (Trex), which is wood fiber mixed with plastic, the plastic cousin of fiber cement. There are still some lingering concerns from the board, but it’s possible that preliminary approval for the project could be granted in May.

The basic project specs have stayed the same in recent revisions – a mix of 17 market rate for-sale homes, 10 affordable for-sale townhomes, six affordable rental townhomes and 40 affordable rental apartments, plus a nursery school. The school, designed by HOLT Architects,has been redesigned to invoke a “barn” aesthetic.

While this may very well come to fruition, this contentious and drawn-out process was effective at repelling other potential developers in the village, so in a way those opposed still got some of what they ultimately wanted. The mixed-income housing may be approved, but it seems very unlikely anyone else will be taking interest in building much in Trumansburg for a while.

4. Normally the Times’ Edwin Viera does a good job as their go-to guy for real estate reporting, but the headline on this piece is a little misleading: “Old Library, Arthaus projects will have to try again for tax abatements”. They weren’t rejected. The IDA was only supposed to review applications this month, the vote is scheduled for next month.

That noted, there is still useful information in his article. We now have some potential rent figures for Arthaus: $737/month for a studio at the 50% area median income (AMI) price point, to $1,752 for a three-bedroom at the 80% AMI price point. At 124 units, the project would be the largest single addition to Ithaca’s affordable housing scene in over 40 years.

As expected, the 66-unit Library Place project garnered the lion’s share of attention and public criticism. Most were opposed, but a few members of the public spoke in favor. I had heard a rumor that Frost Travis offered to set aside three units for 80% AMI, but have yet to confirm. Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick did expressed some reservations with the project for its lack of affordable housing – the CIITAP mandatory affordable housing policy became law shortly after the CIITAP application was filed, so it fell into a legal grey area that the city didn’t want to fight a legal battle over. Travis Hyde also plans to pursue an abatement for Falls Park in due course, and that would have to have an affordable housing component.

5. Quick note – the College Townhouses project at 119-125 College Avenue has a construction loan on file with the county. $18.3 million, courtesy of NBT Bank of Norwich. That’s a heck of a lot than the $10 million estimate first reported when the project first went public. The project unit count is revised upward slightly, from 67 units to 72 units, still a mix of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. The unit breakdown is not listed in the loan document, but previously the full occupancy would have been about 90 residents if one per bedroom or studio. Co-developer Phil Projansky signed the loan, which notes that he, John Novarr and any other investors involved have put up $4.47 million towards development of the project.

NBT Bank is a regional bank with a limited Ithaca presence but a major player in other upstate markets. This is their second major project they’ve financed in Tompkins County, the first being a $33.8 million loan for Harold’s Square.

6. The Maguires have reason to be optimistic in Lansing. While the review process has taken longer than anticipated due to concerns over lighting and signage, the village planning board looks likely to sign off on their new 25,235 SF Nissan dealership at 35 Cinema Drive.

7. Dear diary – the Common Council was “excited” and “praised” a project, according to my Voice colleague Devon Magliozzi. One hopes that bodes well for INHS’s Immaculate Conception School PUD application. As previously noted, the project hosts a number of community benefits, including 78-83 units of affordable housing (at least four owner-occupied),  the sale of the former school’s gym to the city for use as a community gym by the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, office space for family and children’s social services group, special needs housing and the renovation and preservation of the Catholic Charities building, which would continue to be used by the organization. The board also praised the outreach by INHS in designing the site, reducing the school addition from five floors to four at neighbors’ request (INHS was able to compensate the loss of housing elsewhere on the site).

This is a good sign, but the city has never issued a major PUD. The only two recent PUDs were the Temporary Mandatory PUDs (TMPUDs) on the West End and Waterfront, which were used in effect to stop the Maguire Waterfront dealership, and the Cherry Artspace, which was incidentally roped into it. Those were 2-8 and 8-2 votes respectively, a denial and a approval. The fact that a rather pedestrian 1,900 SF building in an industrial area got two “nay” votes leads me to be cautious until the ICS documents are signed and filed.

8. On that note, the CDBG and HOME fund disbursals are posted. INHS would get $200k of the $350k requested for the ICS project. The other economic development and housing-related submissions were also mostly or fully funded. Most of the public service ones were not.





Library Place (Old Library Redevelopment) Construction Update, 3/2019

27 03 2019

Not a whole lot to say at the moment – everything above surface level on the site has been cleared as of the end of February, and grading/leveling is taking place. Part of the existing 1960s foundation will be reused for underground parking, and part of it will be taken out. According to the project team, an examination of the existing foundation column footers vs. the blueprints found that eight of the column footers were not where indicated on the as-built drawings. That created a conflict with portions of the new structure, ans so these column footers are being removed (probably by the demolition subcontractor, Gorick Construction of Binghamton; LeChase is the general contractor overseeing the whole project).

It might seem weird, but this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Half the footers were missing outright at Ed Cope’s Ithaca Glass site, which led to a total overhaul of the project plans (now held by Visum, although I haven’t heard anything about the plan since the transfer was announced in November).

It’s a bit unusual since the project is already underway (or at least, the site prep is), but Library Place has yet to receive approval for a tax abatement. The Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority (IDA) will be receiving the tax abatement application in early April and the board will get their first glance at it on April 10th. A public hearing on the abatement will be held sometime before the May 8th IDA meeting. Assuming the application is approved at the May 8th meeting, pile driving would start within a few days of approval.





Library Place (Old Library Redevelopment) Construction Update, 2/2019

17 02 2019

I’ll admit I’ve actively avoided writing this one up because it has more twists and turns than a soap opera, and it ends up being extremely hard to follow as a result. There are over forty articles from local outlets regarding the site, and Travis Hyde Properties compiled about two dozen of the pieces it liked onto their website. The Voice has eighteen Old Library articles on file, but because of a tag mix-ups, it’s more like thirty. Here’s an attempt to distill everything into one post.

The Old Library site refers to the former Tompkins County Library, located at 310-14 North Cayuga Street. From 1967 to 2000, the library was housed there. However, once the library moved downtown in 2000, the building was used for day reporting for low-level criminal offenders, and for records storage. These were eventually relocated to other properties, and the 38,630 SF would be vacant by early 2015. However, the county didn’t like the idea of hanging onto it. Its unusual interior design (a large atrium) was difficult to adapt to other uses, inefficient from an energy standpoint, and the building’s utilities systems were running short on useful life, and would be expensive to replace. As a result, the building was declared surplus.

The idea of a Request for Expressions for Interest (RFEI), was hatched in late 2013. An RFEI is basically a prerequisite to a Request for Proposals (RFP), feeling out interest by asking for less paperwork – an RFP to RFPs in a sense. While the building was no longer useful for the county’s needs, it sits on a site close to downtown Ithaca, next to historic DeWitt Park (and in the DeWitt Park Historic District). It’s walkable, and the city’s 2013 rezoning allows up to four floors and 50 feet. The RFEI stressed mixed uses with an emphasis on senior housing, and compatibility, energy efficiency, and growth of the tax base. The hope was that someone would use the site to help the county meet its goals, though the county was unsure how it would go – an earlier RFP in 2000 garnered no interest in the property.

As luck would have it, there were six responses to the RFEI, which can be found here. Two, INHS and IAD, dropped out before an RFP went out – INHS had acquired the 210 Hancock site and decided to focus on that. The DPI condo proposal declined to respond to the county’s RFP, citing frustrations with the county’s frequent delays, and that had one of the favored proposals in the feedback I received. The other two “reader’s choices” were Cornerstone’s affordable housing plan, and Franklin Properties collaboration with STREAM Collaborative, which called for reusing the structure of the building.

By the time the RFP has been issued and responded to in April 2015, three projects were up for review – Cornerstone’s 73,600 SF 54-unit affordable housing plan (<80% AMI), Travis Hyde’s 72,500 SF, 60-unit market-rate senior apartments plan, and Franklin/STREAM’s 58,000 SF building, with 22 higher-end condominiums and medical office space. All would pay the county $925,000 for the site.

The next few months were not enjoyable. The Cornerstone project asked for a PILOT tax agreement and lost county support. That left Franklin and Travis Hyde and Franklin Properties. The Franklin project had strong public support. But in June 2015, the county Old Library Committee of legislators recommended the Travis Hyde project 3-2. Two legislators genuinely favored Travis Hyde, one voted in favor just to move it out of committee, one liked the Franklin proposal though expressed some unhappiness with all of them, and one thought all three proposals were outright terrible.

A week later came the full county legislature’s vote – 6-6, a hung vote with two absent. Neither proposal had the eight votes of support needed to move forward. That’s when things started to get ugly. The city’s Common Council and Planning Board submitted letters recommending the Franklin proposal, which ruffled some feathers in the legislature. One legislator was accused of an ethics violation because the Travis family donated to her congressional campaign two years earlier, and recused herself from future votes. The Old Library plan was sent back to committee, where the committee was unable to come up with an endorsement. There was a very good chance neither plan would get the required eight votes, and the county would be unable to make a decision on how to sell off a property they didn’t want. More failed votes ensued.

Finally, in early August, the Travis Hyde proposal got the nod in an 8-5 vote. There was definitely some bitterness afterwards, and an air of unscrupulous behavior. A legislator who switched his support to Travis Hyde would lose re-election to a strong advocate for the Franklin project later that year. He moved districts and into Fall Creek just as the other deciding vote retired from the Fall Creek district; there have been accusations it was orchestrated, but nothing was ever proven, and believe me, my then-editor, Jeff Stein who’s now at the Washington Post, had worked hard to find something.

For the record, this is why I have a strong aversion to RFPs. It works well when there’s one clear choice. But here, the disconnect between suburban and rural legislators, and passionate city residents, as well as all of the fighting and accusations that went with it, really created an unpleasant and rancorous experience. I dread the RFP for the NYS DOT site, which will come up in a year or two.

The project wouldn’t begin to move through municipal review until early 2016. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC), who had stated a strong preference for the Franklin proposal, was first up – there was no point in going to the planning board if the ILPC isn’t on board (and the Planning Board is generally the more accommodating of the two). The project they were first presented had 51 units, 6,500 SF of space for senior services Lifelong, community space (2,000 SF), and a modest amount of street-level commercial space (4,000 SF).

There were eight different designs that the development team submitted in an effort to satisfy the ILPC. Here’s the major ones – One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight, the final design. If you want to be picky, there are some minor revisions too, for things like facade materials tweaks. As review continued, it was decided that it would be more efficient to hold the ILPC and Planning Board meetings on the project at the same time in one group, so that one panel wouldn’t contradict the other.

After several months and several major redesigns, it wasn’t looking good. The ILPC felt that every design was simply too big and one called it “an impossible building”. County staff and officials were getting angry because they felt that the city was trying to spite them, and one planning board member’s comment was effectively “you should do what we tell you to do,” so once again, the project site was in an uncertain and acrimonious situation.

By October 2016, the plans had been modified to be 17 percent smaller, 73,400 SF with 57 units. This included a 950 SF ground-floor commercial space and a 1,900 SF community room to be administered by Lifelong, which had made the decision to stay in its building next door and not move into the new building. Some of the indoor parking was moved to an outdoor rear lot to shrink the structure further, and the fourth floor was set back from the rest of the building. This too was turned down, but there was just enough of a window for possible approval that Travis Hyde decided to give it one more shot.

Frankly, this project was hanging by a thread. Travis had informed the county that he was “bruised and battered”, but would make one last attempt. The last shot was February 2017’s meeting. The foundation of the old library would be reused in the latest design, and the third floor was pulled back from the street. It passed, 4-3. One vote essentially made all the difference. That allowed the project to move forward with environmental review SEQR) from the planning board.

This reviewed version called for 54 senior apartment units, 32 parking spaces, a 2,000 SF community room, 1,160 SF of retail, and 86,700 SF of total space, as the interior parking was now underground as part of the reused old foundation. The sale of the site was approved by the county after the project was greenlighted, in September 2017. The 3 no’s in the 11-3 vote were two Franklin proposal advocates and the legislator who said all the projects were terrible two years earlier, so points for consistency.

The actual interior layout at this point, is something of a question mark. In May 2018, it was announced that the project would be partnering with luxury senior services provider Bridges Cornell Heights on the project. As part of that, the design was updated to 67 units, though there was no change in total square footage. According to the press release, “(o)n site, there will be a restaurant, a la carte home health services from an on-site agency, a community room, courtyard gardens, workout facilities, pool and parking. The partners will also work with Lifelong to provide on-site activities and programs.” Units will be a mix of 1-3 bedrooms, market rate and available to renters 55 and older. The name of the project also changed, from “DeWitt House” to “Library Place”.

Continuing the theme of controversy with the project, by the time financing was secured for the now $17 million plan (up from $14 million in 2014), the building’s roof had become structurally unstable. The fear was that construction workers could be inside if it suddenly collapsed. An engineering report filed by Ryan Biggs/Clark Davis Engineering and Surveying in August led the city’s director of code enforcement to condemn the building. The initial demolition plan was to seal the building up and cart out the asbestos in sealed containers, a “contained” demolition. The new plan was to demolish on site with spraying to prevent airborne contaminants, a “controlled” demolition. This led to community protests, and the mayor threatened to torpedo the project unless a second engineering report was carried out by a third party engineer of the city’s choosing, with no affiliation to Travis Hyde. The second report, from Dende Engineering, confirmed the first report’s findings, so the city okayed, if somewhat begrudgingly, the new demolition plan. In response to the demolition, a neighboring couple wrapped their nearby home and rental buildings in plastic as a dramatic show of concern, which caught the attention of broadcast media.

The project is seeking a tax abatement, but the Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority (TCIDA) has yet to schedule a meeting to review the application and take a vote.

Demolition and site prep is expected to last through the winter, and construction will begin during the spring. A fall 2020 opening is anticipated. Alongside Travis Hyde Properties and Bridges Cornell Heights, the project team includes HOLT Architects for the building design (all eight of them), TWMLA for the landscape architecture, LeChase Construction as general contractor, and Hayes Strategy for marketing. Gorick Construction of Binghamton is handling the demolition, with Delta Engineers, Architects and Surveyors doing the air quality monitoring. The project website is here, as are the air quality reports.

December 9th:

January 19th: