119-125 College Avenue (College Townhouses) Construction Update, 10/2019

10 11 2019

Probably the last update for this one. All that’s left is some landscaping, at least until the power lines are buried. Definitely one of the stranger projects I’ve covered. Practically no online presence apart from city documents and what I’ve written for the Voice and here. As far as I’m aware, these are just privately-owned Cornell faculty apartments.

“John Novarr and Phil Proujansky’s latest Collegetown development appears to be in the home stretch. The glass and steel facade is basically complete, the concrete entry stairs have been poured and cured, and railings, trim and other exterior finish work is ongoing. Interestingly, these appear to come pre-furnished. Peering inside the windows, unopened mattresses were laid out on new frames and tables and chairs had been stocked in the apartment units.

Part of the reason for that might be the intended market – during the approvals process, the project team stated that the 67 units of rental housing geared towards Cornell visiting faculty and researchers. Reasonably, many of those folks would arrive in Ithaca with little in the way of furniture, and given the relatively short appointments for visiting faculty and staff (a year typically, maybe two), it would make sense to offer units pre-furnished. It would also probably explain why these units aren’t advertised online. Welliver and their partners should have the apartments ready for their first tenants by the end of this year.”

A history of the project can be found here.





119-125 College Avenue (College Townhouses) Construction Update, 12/2018

16 12 2018

The CMU (concrete masonry unit) elevator/stairwell cores are being assembled for Novarr and Proujansky’s Cornell visiting faculty and staff housing at 119-125 College Avenue. The North Building’s core tower is complete and capped with an American flag courtesy of Welliver (who are proudly displaying their involvement with Cornell’s North Campus Residential Initiative on their homepage, and is co-developed by Novarr and Proujansky). It’s kinda intuitive from the east tower, but workers work their way up along the inside, using the steel girder in the center. The plastic sheeting offers some basic weather protection as the cinder blocks are mortared and laid into place in a running bond pattern. These cores give an idea of how tall the finished buildings will be, though keep in mind the lowest exit/entry opening is the basement, which will be built out and backfilled up to ground level as construction progresses.

One of the reasons why the hot gossip swirls around Novarr’s Collegetown plans is that he enjoys a very close relationship to Cornell, so if the university determines it wants to do something Collegetown, they can turn to someone who has a lot of developable property and a strong relationship with the school. Rather than deal with the potentially damaging public blowback of a tax-exempt property, Novarr and Proujansky keep it on the tax rolls and create a welcome degree of separation. Most of their properties are fully taxed – the Breazzano, which serves an academic function rather than ancillary function like housing or student services, has a PILOT agreement for fifty years.

Apart from the excavated sites and elevator cores, the concrete foundation work (footers, slab pours, foundation walls) is ongoing, mostly at the south building. It doesn’t look like the north building is quite as far along, even though the elevator core is complete.

Project information and history can be found here.





238 Linden Avenue Construction Update, 12/2018

14 12 2018

John Novarr and Phil Proujansky’s project at 238 Linden Avenue is moving right along. For an all-residential construction, this is a heavy-duty building. It uses a steel frame with steel stud walls and gypsum sheathing – unlike wood-framed structures that could go up in smoke, this building is designed to be durable and withstand and potential fire-related calamities. It may be related to the fire code issues that delayed the project?

It looks like the design is similar, but not exact to the renders below. While some of the rough window openings are still being carved out of the gypsum panels, it’s not the same fenestration pattern. The sunken rear courtyard remains – it will be nice during the summer, but every leaf in Collegetown will seem to find its way in there by November.

The 13,715 square-foot building, which will house 24 studios, is topped out but not yet fully framed. Corrugated steel decking is in place and some interior framing has occurred as well. Based off the demolition plan submitted for 325 College Avenue around the corner, the targeted completion date for this structure is sometime next summer – given it’s designed to serve Executive MBA students at the Breazzano next door, that makes good sense.

Briefly, to touch on that 325 College Avenue site – the rumor mill does not know what’s planned, but the only consistent detail is that it will not be student housing. The market is too weak, and many Collegetown landlords are holding off on projects until the impacts of Maplewood, and potentially Cornell’s North Campus, have been fully absorbed. It’s not a situation where anyone seems to be going bankrupt, but the big Collegetown players have taken a more conservative approach as a result of Cornell’s new housing. As to what they could plan other than student housing, we’ll see. Faculty/staff housing, a hotel, another Cornell-related institutional use…plenty of options.

A history and overall description of the 238 Linden Avenue project can be found here.





119-125 College Avenue (College Townhouses) Construction Update, 9/2018

16 10 2018

A little late in coming, but better than nothing at all.

119-125 College Avenue is developer John Novarr’s attempt to add something to Collegetown that’s not explicitly student housing. The plan is housing for Cornell faculty and staff, ideally visiting faculty who are in need of housing close to the university.

Most developers would probably have played their cards a little more conservatively in Ithaca’s most student-focused and most expensive neighborhood, but Novarr and his partners, doing business as the Novarr-Mackesey Development Company, have assets worth in the few hundreds of millions, so they can afford to be a little adventurous. Among Novarr’s local holdings are 1001 West Seneca Street (the Signworks Building), the Casa Roma Apartments, the Breazzano Center (on a fifty-year lease to Cornell), 312 College Avenue and the crown jewel of his holdings, Collegetown Terrace. he’s entering his mid 70s, but has no intent on slowing down; with the Breazzano wrapped up, work has commenced on 238 Linden Avenue and 119-125 College Avenue.

The first official word of this project was leaked, in a way. It was listed in July 2016 as a potential project to be sponsored for a Restore NY state grant. At the time, only a site outline was available, the plan was estimated to cost about $10 million, and the project was looking at an October 2016 site plan application with a Spring 2018 completion.

It was very early in the timeline; in fact, the sale of the existing three apartment houses hadn’t even closed yet. The three boarding houses dated from the late 19th century. A historical analysis by Bero Architecture stated that the white Queen Anne-style house at 119 College Avenue was built as a boarding house in the early 1890s, the white Italianate-style house at 121 College Avenue was built as a personal residence in the early 1870s, and the stucco-coated house at 125 College Avenue was constructed as a personal residence in the 1870s. The three properties fell under the same ownership in the 1960s, and had been owned by the Hills family for over forty years before their sale to a Novarr-associated LLC in July 2016. According to the deed filed with Tompkins County, the sale price was $4.75 million, far more than their combined tax assessment of $1.655 million.

The project has since its inception met the requirement of the zoning for the site – the three continent properties are CR-4, which allows up to 50% lot coverage, 25% green space, up to 4 floors and 45 feet in height, a choice of pitched or flat roofs, and requires front porches, stoops or recessed entries. This is the lowest-density zone for which no parking is required. The city describes the zoning as “an essential bridge” between higher and lower density, geared towards townhouses, small apartment buildings and apartment houses.

The original plan, first presented in October 2016, consisted of three buildingsthe two buildings at the front of the parcel were designed to emulate rowhouses, and a third building located in the rear of the property would have contained garden apartments. The two rowhouse buildings and rear apartment structure would have been separated by an internal courtyard, and terraced modestly to account for the site’s slope. Counting basement space, the built space would have come in at 49,278 square feet. The 67 units were a combination of studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. The project was called the “College Townhouse” or “College Townhouses”, but strictly speaking, these weren’t townhouses, the buildings only resembled townhouses by having multiple entries and stoops. The design incorporated a modern motif with glass expanses and a few different shades of colored metal and fiber cement panels.

The proposal made it through planning board review with only minor changes – for example, to give a little more visual interest, the squared-off bay windows were replaced with curving glass. The approvals process was fairly straight-forward, with site plan approval granted in January 2017.

This is where things go off the beaten path. The site had already been cleared (Novarr often seeks to clear sites before he has approvals, something that has caused consternation before), and then…it remained quiet. A vacant patch with only a temporary fence and only patchy meadow grass. This was not going to plan.

The issue turned out to be the result of revisions to the New York State Fire Prevention and Building Code. The revisions, passed in November 2016, prevented construction of buildings taller than 30 feet in the presence of above-ground power lines. It just so happens that above-ground power lines pass in front of the site. The code also made the rear garden apartment building illegal because it couldn’t be reached from the street by aerial apparatus. City staff weren’t aware the code changed until after site plan approvals were granted, someone dropped the ball on communicating the changes. The College Townhouses project no longer met code because the code had changed, and so the project team had to seek a variance from the state in November 2017, under the advisement that the power lines on College Avenue were likely to be buried in the next couple of years anyway. The argument win the state over, so it was back to the drawing board.

The revised design, showcased in February 2018, removed the rear building, and reshaped the front buildings to be narrower and deeper, separated by a large courtyard that a fire truck can navigate. Access to the courtyard comes via a mountable curb. If the day comes that the power lines are buried (in 2020 or so), the plan is to turn the courtyard into landscaped green space. The decorative entry shown in the above rendering would be built after the power lines are buried. While the footprint was greatly altered, the plan kept the same design motif as before (the new design added stainless steel and zinc panels on the walls facing the courtyard, not unlike the similarly-designed 238 Linden project), and still includes 67 housing units (90 new residents, assuming one per bedroom). Revised approvals were granted at the end of February.

Just a little clarification edit here: the power lines were one issue, and the rear building was a second issue. Both had the potential to interfere with a fire truck’s ladder or lift, and with the result of changes in the code, not only did the rear building became illegal, the buildings were now also too tall for a block with above-ground power lines, 45 ft vs the 30 ft allowed. So the design team consolidated the three buildings into two structures, separated by a large courtyard that can be entered and exited by a fire truck – the truck can just pass under the lines now to reach the back of the property.

It has taken some time to finally get underway, but it looks like ground was broken around late August. Excavation was well underway by late September, with shoring walls in place (steel H-beams with wood lagging in between) to hold the adjacent soil in place.

Local landscape design firm Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architecture guided the apartment project through the review process, but the designer of the buildings is Princeton-based ikon.5 Architects, the same firm that designed Collegetown Terrace. Welliver is the general contractor for the project, which given the 12-14 month timeline of earlier reports, is likely looking at an August 2019 completion.





238 Linden Avenue Construction Update, 9/2018

9 10 2018

The foundation walls are being poured at Novarr-Mackesey’s 238 Linden Avenue project. The footers and some of the foundation walls are poured and cured, with steel rebar sticking out of the surface, waiting to be tied into the skeleton of the structure as it starts to be assembled. Other concrete walls are still being formed and poured. It looks like wood with steel bracing, my first thought was all wood but a closer look shows the bracing is thin steel, with the plywood from Pacific Wood Laminates and likely procured through a supplier, and the bracing probably from the same supplier. Forms are typically plywood, sometimes aluminum or steel, and are braced to resist the pressure from the concrete as it is poured to make the foundation walls – basically, to keep the walls in shape while they cure. And once the wall is cured and checked for any issues, workers move the forms to the next section until the walls are complete.

The sloping rear wall is probably not a part of the building foundation. Looking at the footprint of the building, it’s more likely a retaining wall intended to hold back the soil. 238 Linden will have a habitable basement with lower “courts” to let light and air below ground level (offhand, I think the layout is five studio units per floor on the four floors above ground level, and four studio apartments on the basement level, for a total of 24 units). The front retaining wall will have a similar slope as it is built out.





238 Linden Avenue Construction Update, 7/2018

22 07 2018

Might be jumping the gun a bit on this, but the fence encroachment into the street, pile driving equipment and steel/caisson tube liners on site are leading me to believe this one is in site prep.

Consider this project thr second half of a 2-for-1 package deal from developer John Novarr. Novarr and his business partner, Phil Proujansky, own a fairly large and widespread set of local properties, with the massive Collegetown Terrace project being the best known ($190 million investment, 1,250+ beds, 16 acres). Most of the rentals operate under Novarr-Mackesey Property Management. Their latest development was on behalf of Cornell, the 76,000 SF Breazzano Family Center for Business Education, which was dedicated last fall, an imposing six-story building at 209-215 College Avenue in Collegetown.

When Novarr first bought the properties that would be demolished to make way for the Breazzano, he bought a ramshackle six-bedroom house at 238 Linden Avenue for $1.35 million – this was in December 2010, before he had assembled his final, full group of properties (and realized Pat Kraft was flatly not interested in selling to him, later doing his own redevelopment at 205-07 Dryden), so the purchase of 238 Linden could be seen as a secondary purchase to give room for flexibility, and a place for construction staging in the notoriously tight spaces of inner Collegetown. In its last few years, Novarr did not rent out the house, which was in poor shape and torn down in June 2015. A redevelopment was always intended at some point, through it was only as the Breazzano plans were drafted did Novarr and Proujansky settle on a concept.

Inner Collegetown is a captive rental market – regardless of economic recessions, there will always be students willing to pay a premium to live near Cornell’s campus. The Breazzano project presented a unique opportunity – the project will serve up to 420 Executive Education students, who tend to be older, deep-pocketed, and infrequent visitors to campus, coming up for a few weeks of the year.

The new 238 Linden is designed to tap those Executive Education students who might come up more frequently, or prefer to have a second place to call home during their matriculation with the Johnson School. The project is a 13,715 square-foot building with 24 efficiency units (studios). It will be 4 stories with a habitable basement, just under 50% lot coverage, and is fully compatible with the site’s CR-4 zoning.  Each fully above-ground floor will host 5 efficiency units, with four in the partially-exposed basement. While intended for Johnson Executive Education students, it does not appear it would have provisions limiting the units to E-MBAs.

The design intent was to create a townhouse-like appearance, in form if not in function. The exterior includes fiber cement panels to complement the colors of the Breazzano, aluminum windows and a glass curtain wall with energy-efficient glazing. A number of green features are included in the project, such as LED lighting, low-water plumbing fixtures, and a sophisticated VRF high-efficency HVAC system, which uses air-source heat pumps.

Plantings, walkways, steps and retaining walls are planned, with decorative entry stair bridges and little landscaped courtyards to provide a pleasing aesthetic for the basement units. As with all inner Collegetown projects, no parking is required so long as a transportation demand management plan (TDMP) is filed and approved by city planning staff. During Site Plan Review, the project cost was estimated to be about $2 million.

The project had a pretty quick trip through the planning board – it was proposed in March, there were very few suggested aesthetic changes, and since everything conforms with the size and intent of zoning, the board was pretty comfortable with the proposal. However, while it was approved in July 2017, the project was unable to move forward because of a change in state fire codes that essentially made construction along Linden Avenue illegal for any building taller than 30 feet (and 238 Linden is 45 feet tall), because Linden is too narrow. The way around this was to petition the city Board of Public Works to treat the parking space on the street in front as a loading zone, creating a “wider” street since a fire crew would no longer have to worry about parked cars along the street frontage. This made it easier for the project to obtain a fire code variance from the state. Normally, BPW would reject this, but 238 Linden and Visum Development’s 210 Linden had already been approved when the code was changed, so they got a special, rare accommodation. Suffice it to say, any other Linden project would be difficult if not impossible under the revised state fire code.

As with all of his other projects, the architect is ikon.5 of Princeton, with local firm Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architecture serving as the project team representatives, and T.G. Miller P.C. providing the civil engineering work. The modern design may not be to everyone’s taste, but Novarr likes the architecture firm’s work so much, he asked them to design an addition to his property in Cayuga Heights. Beauty is in the eye of the wallet-holder. No word on who the general contractor will be, but Novarr has often turned to Welliver for his construction work. The original buildout period was estimated at ten months, so a plausible occupancy for 238 Linden would be complete by Summer 2019.





209-215 Dryden Road Construction Update, 8/2017

19 08 2017

The Breazzano Center is occupied, so for practical purposes this project is complete. The interior and exterior finish work is wrapping up (interior moldings, some cosmetic exterior panels), and it looks like the new street seating, curbing and bike racks are in – the development team may hold off on plantings until next spring, depending on how well the project team thinks the new landscaping will grow in to its new environment, and by extension, its ability to withstand the winter months.

The interior is relatively dramatic for an office and academic building. There’s lots of natural light thanks to the glass curtain wall, the natural wood paneling gives it a warmer look, and the lighting underneath the staircases in the multistory atrium is a nice touch. If I have any interior critique, it’s that there’s so much transparent glass and bright light, it can feel a little disorienting, creating a feeling of space that makes the 76,000 SF building seem much larger than it is. Some of the breakout rooms and one of the tiered large-group classrooms are also included in the photos below.

The exterior is a big change of pace from the CMU-faced residential buildings (much of it from Jagat Sharma’s hand) that define much of Collegetown. The glass curtain wall is unique, for the time being. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the aluminum panels on the sides and rear, though I recognize the cost utility provided, and necessary protection of certain interior spaces like the broadcast studio on the fourth floor.

Speaking to some construction workers on-site (the same ones who kindly gestured me to go in and take a look), they were uncertain when construction would start on Novarr’s complementary 24-unit apartment building at 238 Linden Avenue next door. But a timeline from April suggests next month, with completion next summer. That sounds reasonable – finish with one building, transition immediately to the next. Work on Novarr’s 119-125 College Avenue townhouse project has yet to start either; it appears to be a makeshift parking lot for construction crews and company trucks.

Overall, it seems the recent work in this part of Collegetown and Ithaca is a net positive. With projects like the Breazzano, 238 Linden and Dryden South, within just a few years, a corner of Ithaca that once housed a few student-oriented businesses and mostly-rundown/vacant apartments will have been replaced with dozens of beds, office space for hundreds of Cornell staff, and classrooms for deep-pocketed students who visit for only a few weeks a year. Plus, it adds up to an additional $15 million or so in taxable property (and that’s accounting for the reduction as a result of the Tompkins County IDA PILOT agreement).  There’s a clear financial benefit to Collegetown business owners and to the city. Add an aesthetic bonus point for removing the power poles and shifting moving the electrical utilities underground.

The $15.9 million project will be 100% occupied by Cornell on a 50-year lease. Hayner Hoyt Corporation of Syracuse is the general contractor.

Before:

After:

 

The wording on these sheets conjures images of a stuffy, tense maître d’ addressing his staff.