Masonic Temple Renovation Update, 4/2018

13 05 2018

The Masonic Temple renovation is low-key but worth an explainer. Here we go:

The 17,466 SF Masonic Temple at 115-117 North Cayuga Street is a bit of an unusual building. It was one of the last designs by prolific local architects Arthur Gibb and Ornan Waltz, and completed in 1926. The style is Egyptian Revival, which was also used for the Sphinx Head Tomb at 900 Stewart Avenue, and to a lesser extent in the Carey Building, which was built around the same time. Egyptian Revival architecture uses what are or are perceived to be Egyptian motifs (stark facades, strong symmetrical elements, Egyptian-themed ornamentation), and experienced a resurgence in the 1920s following the opening of King Tut’s tomb – the early 20th century designs are sometimes grouped in as a subcategory of Art Deco.

Keep in mind that Freemasonry is a loose affiliation of fraternal groups, with some degree of secrecy (that they like to play up, for better or worse). Although diminished in this age, they played a role in community social life much as Greek Life does on college campuses. The Ithaca Freemasons wanted something exotic with just a hint of foreboding, so the architects went with minimal ornamentation, strong symmetry, simple, slit-like windows, and a bare, impassive facade, here a thin limestone veneer over a steel frame (a modern idea for the time). To quote William D. Moore’s Masonic Temples: Freemasonry, Ritual Architecture, and Masculine Archetypes, “a critic claimed that Ithaca’s Masonic Temple could help visitors to imagine themselves ‘transported to the civilizations of the Pharaohs…There is no mistaking this structure for an abode of commerce’.”

By the 1990s, the Masonic Temple had fallen into disuse, and local developer and major landlord Jason Fane picked it up in 1993. Fane had made his intent clear that he preferred to demolish the building and build new on the site, a stone’s throw from the hear of Downtown. In response and concern to that idea, the building was landmarked in 1994. You could probably see some parallels to the Nines situation here, only the Nines owners aren’t already multi-millionaires and don’t have a negative public image.

It’s a difficult building to reuse. Not only does one contend with the extra hurdles and costs of working with a landmarked historic structure, but the rooms are cavernous and the building has been described as functionally obsolete – its outdated mechanical systems and lack of handicap accessibility have made it a difficult sell to prospective commercial tenants. The last tenant was the Odyssey nightclub, which moved out over a decade ago. Older folks tend to remember a restaurant prior to that, Europa.

Fane himself was never a big fan of what was considered his “white elephant” property; out of concerns he was letting it decay to the point of an emergency demolition, the CIITAP tax abatement rules were modified in 2014 to say that applicants had to be code compliant on all their other existing properties, and was targeted at Fane, who was seeking an abatement at the time for an apartment proposal at 130 East Clinton Street (it was denied and the project was never built).

The best way to describe the Masonic Temple problem is that it’s not the location, and it’s not out of a lack of interest – it was simply the cost of making it code-compliant and more accessible for tenants. Early plans considered putting The History Center here, while an earlier plan from 2012 considered buying the property from Fane and making it into a community center. The 2012 plan never made much headway – Fane was not keen on selling, and he still harbored hopes of demolishing it. The History Center plan was also seen as more expensive than a specialized space for The History Center.

The city has long hoped that they and Fane would see eye-to-eye, and finally it appears that dream is coming true. In July 2015, the city Common Council voted to support an application from Fane to the New York State Main Street Program, a state-sponsored grant program that encourages revitalization efforts at historic sites in downtown urban centers. In December of that year, the state awarded Fane a $500,000 grant towards the rehabilitation of the building (which cost a little over $1 million total). The initial plans were to get the ball rolling on construction in summer 2016, but it does appear that much-lauded renovation plan is finally moving forward now.

The renovation, designed by architectural preservation specialists Johnson-Schmidt & Associates of Corning, calls for the creation of three commercial spaces, the installation of a ramp at the rear of the auditorium, and a new elevator on the southwest side of the building. With the interior kitchen still intact, it is likely that at least one of the commercial spaces would be geared towards a restaurant tenant.

A new roof membrane will be applied, the exterior limestone and stucco will be cleaned and repaired, the street windows repaired and repainted, and the auditorium windows, which had been boarded up by previous tenants, will be replaced with similar-looking new windows. The front entrance’s stone steps would be redone, and the front doors and lamp posts would be restored. The Ithaca Landamrks Preservation Commission signed off on the work in January 2017. The plans can be seen in the application here.

At the moment, it looks like asbestos abatement is underway, and the ground-level light wells are having their deteriorated concrete removed and replaced. Kascon Environmental Services is performing the asbestos removal, and McPherson Builders Inc. of Ithaca is the contractor-of-record. I asked Fane via email if the plans had changed at all since January 2017, or if there were any tenants on board, but as is often the case with him and his lawyer/representative Nate Lyman, there is no response.

3/30/2018

4/28/2018





News Tidbits 12/31/16: For Ithaca, This Wasn’t A Half-Bad Year

31 12 2016

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1. Another fairly quiet week for that Christmas-New Year’s lull. There wasn’t anything too noteworthy in real estate transactions, but thanks to a construction loan filing, we have a figure for the construction cost of Modern Living Rentals’ 902 Dryden Road project – $1,192,550. The 8-unit, 26-bedroom townhouse project is being financed by Elmira’s Chemung Canal Trust Company, a regional bank which has been looking to expand its presence in the growing Ithaca market. Most mid-sized building loans like this are financed by Tompkins Trust, and this appears to be the largest project CCTC has financed locally; checking the records for the past 12 months, they’ve previously financed a few single-family homes and that’s it. A larger loan like this might be a sign that they’re building confidence in the project and the market.

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2. Sticking with MLR, a glance at their webpage gives an interesting detail – the 87-unit, 87-bedroom 815 South Aurora project is now described as having 125 bedrooms. The multi-story apartment project sought and persuaded the city to reduce cellphone tower no-build radii last spring so that it could be built near the South Hill telecommunications mast, but because the city only reduced to 120% of height instead of tower height plus 10 feet (meaning 206 feet instead of 180 feet in this case), the project has to be tweaked. No revised designs have been released, but should something come along, you’ll see it here.

Side note, the website has an easter egg – clicking on MLR’s Commons placeholder gives you the 2015 downtown market summary from the DIA.

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3. For those interested in learning more about Cornell’s north campus plans, video from one of their meetings can be found online here. The key takeaways – the first building, when it is built, has to be larger enough to function as swing space for Balch Hall, which appears to be first in line for renovations. Balch has 437 bedrooms, to give an idea of the potential capacity of the first new dorms. Dickson is larger (527 beds), but its renovation will be split up over two summers, allowing for partial occupancy while renovations are underway. Lot CC could potentially be replaced with 1,000 beds in multiple buildings, as well as a dining facility (a new dining facility is seen as less urgent and would be further down the line). Those new dorms would eventually be geared towards sophomores, multi-story but “contextual” in height. It sounds like the first concrete plans are expected to be ready by the end of the 2016-17 academic year.

4. The Common Council will be voting on some bond issues next week that will fund several municipal projects. $500k for street reconstruction, $367k for municipal building renovations, $653k for street lights, $600k for a replacement water tank on Coddington Road, $101k for bridge inspections, $181k for the Stewart Park pavilion, $51k for site improvements to the Hangar Theatre property, $134k for design and scoping costs for the Brindley Street bridge replacement, $340k for the Cascadilla Creekway project and a replacement ped bridge at Sears Street, water mains, traffic lights, traffic calming, new police cars, all totaling $6,464,450. A separate measure calls for an additional $950k in bonds to cover the costs of the Stewart Avenue bridge repainting and reconstruction.

Some of the money covers design studies for intersections – of particular note is a study considering a roundabout at the “five corners” intersection at Oak Ave/Dryden Rd/Maple Ave, which could be a welcome change from that awkward traffic light currently there.

The city issues bonds twice a year, in January and July, to cover its various construction projects. Some of it gets reimbursed with state and federal dollars.

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5. I cheaped out on my Voice summary of the top development stories of 2016 – there are only 5, but only because there was no way I had time to do ten this week. Here are five that missed the cut – the cancellation of State Street Triangle and the rise of its replacement, City Centre; the Tompkins County Housing Summit and the Danter Study, which are important but not really attention-grabbing; some progress in affordable housing, with Cayuga Meadows, 210 Hancock, Amici House and Poet’s Landing; the continued growth of Collegetown, with the opening of Dryden South, Dryden Eddy and Collegetown Crossing, and the entrance of the College Townhouses, 210 Linden and 126 College; and the growth of the local economy, which if the numbers hold up to revisions, 2015-2016 will have the second highest year-over-year gain in jobs since 2000 (#1 is 2011-2012).

When thinking about what’s in store next year, it’s a little sketchy because of impacts from the incoming Trump administration, and how that could impact the national economy – but if things stay consistent on a large-scale, than Ithaca can expect continued modest but steady growth, mostly in meds and eds, with a bit in tech and hospitality. We’ll probably see a couple new projects proposed in downtown and Collegetown, and maybe some smaller residential and commercial projects in other neighborhoods, like the Elmira Road strip and State Street Corridor. The town of Ithaca, it’ll depend on if they get their new zoning sorted out; if they do, there might be a burst of new proposals in some areas. The other towns, it’ll be hit or miss, maybe a larger proposal in Lansing or Dryden but otherwise scattered-site single-family, par for the course. Also, keep an eye out for more housing proposals from Cornell.

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6. It’s quiet week, so let’s finish this up with a little water cooler gossip. From the rumor mill, some of the potential tenants being discussed for the Masonic Temple include a microbrewer (good thing the city just updated their zoning to allow microbreweries), professional event space, and a church. That last one seems a little unusual, but to each their own. The renovation plans call for three rental spaces, one of which is geared towards restaurant tenants.





News Tidbits 12/10/16: Missing Out On the Fun

10 12 2016

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1. We’ll start off out in the town of Lansing this week with a new business startup looking to climb to the top of the pack. Reach Works, the brainchild of an academic family that relocated to Ithaca, just earned final site plan approval to build a professional-grade climbing wall and facility at 1767 East Shore Drive, next to The Rink. The $1.2 million, 10,400 SF building will have a noticeable impact on the Lansing shoreline, as the building will reach 56 feet in height. South Hill’s George Breuhaus will be the architect in charge.

According to the Times’ Cassandra Negley, the owner looked at Chain Works for an opportunity, but those plans fell through. The finalizing of the wall design is underway now, and Reach Works hopes to begin construction in March and be open by next fall. Between the pro shop and the wall, they hope to employ five full-time and ten part-time, with most making about the living wage of $15/hour (although, the application on file with the town says six employees). The hope is that it also becomes a regional attraction, drawing in hardcore climbers from the Rochester, Syracuse and Binghamton metros. Best of luck to them.

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2. Maplewood is almost ready. The city is set to give its final approval this month, and the town is expected to give preliminary approval before the Christmas holiday. The latest changes to the FEIS include the following details:

– The amount of money for traffic calming measures has been increased from $20,000 to $100,000. $30,000 goes to the city and town, and $70,000 will be allocated by EdR and Cornell for streetscape improvements that they will build.
– Recycled building materials will be incorporated into the buildings.
– A revised estimate states that 100 to 150 construction staff will be on site during construction. They will park behind the East Hill farmer’s market space and are expected to walk over to the site. They will work on weekends, with noisy work commencing after 8 AM.
– The units closest to the East Hill Rec Way have been moved another four feet back from the trail.
– Initial property taxes in 2018 will be $2.25 million. IT is assumed they will go up 3% each year thereafter.

Oh, and the questioner who freaked out over the East Hill Village plan online – that SWA plan dates from about 2007.

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3. Cayuga Med’s plans for a 6,000 SF addition to their Behavioral Health Unit has been approved. At this point, the project needs a minor zoning variance for height,and then CMC has to apply for certification from the New York State Office of Mental Health for the facility to be approved- specialized medical facilities, like CMC and Brookdale, have to prove there is a need before they’re allowed to build. The hospital hopes to open the project to bidding early next year.

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4. So ICYMI, the Masonic Temple rehabilitation is moving forward. Six months later than anticipated, but it is moving forward. The project is valued somewhere north of $1 million. There is one other project on the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) agenda that I thought of writing an article about, but decided it was too minor – the Alpha Phi Alpha house at 421 North Albany will be doing a reconstruction of a non-historically significant rear porch. If it were a full reno, I’d do a write-up for the Voice.

Also on the ILPC agenda – a discussion of Collegetown Historic Resources. I have the feeling this is being spurred by Novarr’s 119-125 College Avenue project, the College townhouses. Three historically significant but non-landmarked apartment houses were taken down to make way for the project, which is expected to go up for preliminary approval later this month. The city did a review after the document was first published in 2009, and landmarked the Snaith House at 140 College and Grandview House at 201 College – they could be considering making a move towards landmarking other properties – some of the historic structures on the 400 Block of College Avenue, and the 100 blocks of Oak Avenue, College Avenue and Linden Avenue are possibilities. Novarr has another project rumored for 215 College Avenue, but that building, dating from the 1870s and renovated/expanded numerous times, was not on the 2009 list.

5. Staying Collegetown, a big sale this week – 113 College Avenue sold for $1.7 million. That’s a very impressive price for an outer Collegetown apartment house – the tax assessment has it pegged at $610,000. The bones of the 13-bedroom, 3,738 SF building date from the late 1800s, but like its twin next door, it’s been the subject of a very unsympathetic renovation (records suggest the renos were done around 1980). The house has been owned by the Tallman family since 1987.

The property is zoned CR-4 – four floors, no parking required. CR-4 is the same zoning as Novarr’s townhouses and Visum’s latest pair of proposals. And, because what goes around comes around, the buyer is the same LLC that sold Visum’s Todd Fox 201 College Avenue for $2.65 million back in June – Russell Johnson’s PBC & Associates LLC. He also picked up a CR-3 building at 233 Linden Avenue for $750k back in the fall. Price suggests redevelopment, but the buyer isn’t known for that – he might have just paid big for a long-term investment. TL;DR, he might be planning something, he might not; we’ll see.

On a side note, the county’s going to make some money raising the property tax assessment on this one – offhand, I’ve noticed most of the houses sold this week (excluding a couple in Ithaca city) have gone at or well under assessment, which is a bit unusual, and probably not something that the tax assessor’s office wants to see.

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6. Good news and bad news from the Regional Economic Development Council awards. The good news is, the area’s getting money. Cargill gets $2 million towards their salt mine project (they requested $5 million), Cornell gets $250,000 for a startup business alliance, County Waste gets $355k for a food waste transfer station at the recycling center site, and the Sciencenter gets $150k for renovations. Several smaller awards are to hire staff for cultural and arts programs.

Now the bad news – one project, marked priority, was not funded – the Collegetown Travel Corridor proposed by the city of Ithaca to connect Downtown and Collegetown. I asked to make sure, and the Planning Department was just a little deflated in their response. Major bummer. I don’t doubt the value of arts programs, but $38,500 for a theatre director and $41,000 for a workforce expansion isn’t sustainable, it’s one year’s salary. That’s nice, but how does that benefit the area in the long-term? The Travel Corridor would have further encouraged urban development downtown and Collegetown that could have indirectly supported the arts through patronage, or directly through taxes that are used to fund local-level grants.