News Tidbits 9/16/17: The Big Surprise

16 09 2017

1. Ostensibly, the biggest newsmaker of the past week was the announcement of the Green Street redevelopment in Ithaca’s downtown core. To be frank, I was freaking out at my desk. Even more astounding was that the city slipped it out so casually, embedding it in a monthly PEDC meeting file that typically focuses on more mundane legal and planning concerns.

All photos that follow are from Jolene – pardon the marginal quality, we were both in note-taking mode, and these presentation papers weren’t given out to the public. North is towards the top of the floor plan images.

While the documents have yet to be uploaded to the city’s website, some basic details were released during the meeting – the number of parking spaces for the whole complex is 525. There would be two towers with residential units, a U-shaped west tower and a boxy east tower with projecting corners. 15 floors apiece. 350 units, “designed to appeal to a broad demographic”. Abatement likely, with the details to be ironed out as the percentage of affordable units is determined. The middle portion will also have residential units on top of the existing garage. 30,000 SF of conference space is planned under the eastern tower, if my notes are right.

The first floor appears to have at least two retail spaces, a lobby area, and an office, probably for management of the complex. The middle section will retain access to Cinemapolis and the garage. On levels two and three would be rebuilt garage sections (note the center section was rebuilt ten years ago and unlike the ends, is in good shape). Another floor of parking will be added.

Cooper Carry is the architect, and the initial design looks fairly safe, attractive if not particularly inspired. After the Marriott, it’s good to be wary of potential value engineering. It appears to use brick veneer, Nichiha-like metal panels and maybe fiber cement. Also, with Harold’s Square and City Centre off to the left, this would arguably create a broad-shouldered if stubby skyline for downtown Ithaca, more impressive than many communities Ithaca’s size.

My notes are that Marriott co-developer Jeff Rimland had non-public information about the Green Street garage because he owns the ground facilities under the garage’s eastern deck, and would be impacted by renovations. He was made aware of city looking at their options and put something together. The city only learned about the plan four weeks ago, and mayor Myrick wanted to make sure it was brought forward for public discussion and to determine if it was a wise choice to move froward. Ostensibly, if this came out as a surprise, a hornet’s nest of opposition would be stinging. Being transparent now helps later.

It seems the intent is an RFP for the garage for the sake of fairness, but I dunno how effective that will be. Rimland has a big advantage as owner of a portion of the parcel, since any other developer would need to arrange legal agreements with him in order to carry out a project. It was suggested by Brock, who has never been a fan of development, and I cynically wonder if this was an attempt to ensnare or at least stall the proposal. An RFP does put the city in a more legally comfortable position, perhaps. On the flip side, I cringe at the thought of another Old Library-like mess.

On a final note, there’s also a name, seen in the lower right of the rendering – “Village on the Green”. Very punny guys.


2. The other big news item of the week was 311 College Avenue, more commonly referred to as “The Nines replacement”. The Nines is a much-loved restaurant and bar that has long been a part of Collegetown’s drinking and musical scene – in the late 2000s, if I had to describe Collegetown bars, where Johnny O’s was the “fratty frat” bar and Chapter House the erudite tweed-clothed crowd, The Nines was the laidback, indie band geek-turned-rocker. Add in its location in a ca. 1908 fire station, and one of the few sizable outdoor patios in Collegetown, and one can understand that a project on this site was never going to be warmly received.

Granted, I’ve been raked over the coals a couple of times for the article, whose first headline said The Nines was being kicked out. It was an honest copy-editing mistake. For breaking news I publish ASAP, like with the Green Street development. However, that’s discouraged because the business pieces are useful for filling slow periods during the day, or to give time for others to prep articles during the early morning. Many of my articles are written in the late evening, submitted to the schedule, and skimmed through before hitting the website. In this case, I submitted Sunday night, my editor Jolene read through it early Monday morning, she thought the opening lines implied an eviction and changed the title (the original was a generic “Apartments Proposed for The Nines”). Sometimes title get changed for clarity or Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but this particular time it created a false statement. I didn’t see it until I was at work on Monday, and uncomfortable conversations ensued. Sorry all. The next article won’t wax poetic.

Anyway, with that error noted, it makes this next opinion segment more uncomfortable. I’m not a developer. But if I were one, and heard the property was being put up for sale, I’d probably have steered clear. With all due respect to Todd Fox, my gut feeling is that the cons outweigh the pros.

Ithaca is not an easy city to do a project in. A developer has to pick and choose their battles. In this case, the battle is taking a building with some degree of historic value, but more importantly a lot of local sentiment attached, and proposing to replace it with, frankly, a mediocre design with high-end student units. I understand the economics of the site, the market, and the unfortunate though economically necessary impacts building flush to lot lines has on the ability to install windows on the sides. My concern is external impacts, by creating an emblem for opposition to organize around, because it wraps several perceptibly negative impacts into one proposal. That may make future projects that much more difficult. I worry that whenever a controversial plan is brought forth in years ahead, it will be pejoratively described by NIMBY types as “just like that Nines replacement”.

It has taken years for Ithacans to become slowly more amenable to density and development. Proposals that inadequately address community concerns threaten that progress. Consider the case of Jason Fane. He toyed with the city plenty of times. Eventually it caught up to him and he got burned. The sad part is, 130 East Clinton was a solid project, and to this day I believe that had it been another developer, those apartments would have been built.

Anyway, the ILPC would like to preserve it as-is, which draws the question why the discussion never moved forward 18 months ago when they had the chance. I don’t think that’s likely at this stage, and an overbuild probably wouldn’t work due to development costs (foundation shoring, elevator if 4+ floors) with respect to developable area – the big front yard setback is an impediment to that. I heard that an offer was floated to Neil Golder to move his house at one point during the 201 debate, so maybe moving all or at least the front (1908 wing) of the old station No. 9 is possible, but the expense would be great. As for the new building’s design, maybe modest fixed windows in the north/south brick faces, or glass block features like on Sharma’s 307 design, or even something as minor as a mural on the CMU blocks would help.

But, all that might be grasping at straws. This was always going to be controversial. I won’t fault someone for seeing an opportunity, even if it’s not a plan I’d advocate. It all depends on one’s appetite for development opportunities, and sensitivity to potential blowback.

3. For sale: 405 Elmira Road. 0.74 acres of parking lot next to Buttermilk Falls Plaza. List price: $465,000, courtesy of Pyrmaid Brokerage. Also noting – the chain hotelier who bought the former Tim Horton’s next door from the same seller for $640k in January 2016. Timmy Ho’s 0.75 acres is a little small for a hotel on its own, but combined with this lot, suddenly plans start to look quite viable for a mid-sized chain in the city’s suburban-friendly SW-2 zoning. Someone else may come along and buy it, but let’s see what happens.

4. It appears the 24-unit Pineridge Cottages project is off the table. The project, planned for the corner of Mineah and Dryden Roads in Dryden town, was greatly scaled back by developer Ryzward Wawak after water tests led to concerns about having enough to supply all the units. At this time, the plan is for four cottages, each a two-bedroom unit.

5. The Times’ Matt Butler has a nice summary and brief interview with Lakeview Health CEO Harry Merriman regarding the 60-unit affordable housing plan for 709-713 West Court Street. Some of the obstacles the project faced wouldn’t be a surprise to readers of this blog – the soils require a more expensive deep (pile) foundation, and land acquisition costs are climbing, which increases the overall costs involved with bringing a proposal into reality, let alone a plan that focuses on affordable housing. The increase in units from 50 to 60 was driven by the need to balance out revenue with expenditures and make the affordable housing economically feasible. Incremental cost increases per unit are significantly less than overall structural costs, so the per-unit expense for 60 units is less than 50, making the project more appealing in competitive grant processes.

Of the 22 units to be set aside for formerly homeless individuals, six will be reserved for HIV-positive clients of STAP, the Southern Tier Aids Programs. Those infected with HIV tends to experience much higher homelessness rates than the general population, with at least 81 homeless HIV-positive individuals in Tompkins County alone. This makes it hard to do things like refrigerate medication. These six units are a small number perhaps, but for those six folks it will make a huge difference.

6. Another feather in the cap of the local STEM sector of the economy. Biotech startup Jan Biotech Inc., based out of the Cornell Business Park by the airport, has received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) that will be used in the research and production of an HIV diagnostic for detection and quantification of latent HIV-infected reservoirs in patients –  cells that have the virus but aren’t actively producing HIV, which current anti-retroviral therapies struggle with. Potentially, the diagnostic could help test new medicines for their ability to target those cells, and lead to a true cure for the virus before AIDS can occur.

Along with new equipment and renovated facilities, the grant is expect to result in the hiring of another 5 to 10 scientists and engineers for the four-person firm. Which is great, but truly, it’s their work to try and improve our treatment and medicine of a deadly virus that’s more important. The very best of luck to them.

7.  A bit of news from the Cornell Daily Sun regarding the additional 2,000 beds Cornell would like to build on its North Campus, as part of its freshman expansion and “Sophmore Village” plan. The university would like to begin construction on the first dorms in 2018, and start increasing student enrollment by 2020. For that to happen, the plans pretty much need to come forward for formal planning board review within the next few months. Presumably, they’d like to have the dorms ready by August 2019 – these will be used as flex space initially, so that existing dorms like Balch and Clara Dickson can start renovation. At a bare minimum, it takes three months to go through the city planning board. Given this project’s proximity to Cayuga Heights, the local patricians will want to have their say as well, even if it is just outside village lines. With the size of the project and a minor amount of inter-municipal complexity, four months from sketch plan to approval seems realistic. Considering the need to request and award contract bids, it would seem plausible that Cornell puts the dorms forward this fall for review, with approval expected by late winter. Bids would be requested and awarded during the Spring, and construction would start by June. Whatever the case, the first construction plans are likely not far off.





The Maplewood Redevelopment, Part III: Site Photos

5 09 2017

The rough construction timeline for the Maplewood structures looks something like this: Apartment buildings B and C started construction first in the spring, and the first townhouses were scheduled to begin in May. All of the major apartment buildings are expected to start construction by the end of August, while the last of the townhouse strings will not begin build-out until January 2018. Roughly speaking, the ends of the project site have earlier starts than structures in the middle of the site, and the more traditional-looking townhouse units start construction before the more modern strings.

The timeline is likely slightly behind schedule. During the mid-August site visit, a worker said that five of the foundations had been completed, but it seems at least six should have been finished by that point. The reason given for the relatively slow progress has been the wet summer, which has interfered with certain parts of the construction. For example, concrete pouring and curing for the foundations becomes a lot more complicated with the presence of frequent downpours. Rainwater can damage the foundation during certain stages of the process by causing the new pour to become soft again, reducing its structural integrity. Depending on timing, extra precautions have to be taken, or even worse, if it’s a real washout of a day the pour simply can’t take place at all. Several construction days have been lost, and to pick up the slack, the project asked for and received approval to increase the workday from 8 AM – 6 PM, to 7 AM – 7 PM, with the town’s stipulation that the extra two hours keep work noise below 85 decibels.

The photos below come from three separate time periods – February, which was mostly just site prep and excavation for underground utilities, the continuation of utilities excavation and installation in April, and the readying of connections to those new utilities in August. The circular concrete structures seen in April and August are for underground electric utility junctions. Similar structures may be used for wastewater pipes and drainage pipes. The teal pipes are PVC sewer pipes, and the rectangular precast concrete sections are protective covers. New curbing is being installed along Mitchell. I don’t know what the ridged crescent-shaped orange structures are, but if a reader knows, feel free to chime in in the comments.

Above-ground, it looks like the masonry stairwells for apartment buildings B and C have been built as of August. The slots in the sides suggests structural steel frames. A trailer on-site belongs to Peppard & Sons Masonry of Lockwood, so they may be the pertinent sub-contractor. Foundation slabs can be seen, and wood forms have been prepared for future pours.

 

Pre-development site photos:

February 2017:

June 2017:

August 2017:





210 Hancock Construction Update, 8/2017

22 08 2017

210 Hancock is nearly complete from the outside. On the apartment buildings, the brick veneer has been attached over the Blueskin, as have most of the Alpolic aluminum pearls (dark-grey “charcoal”, off-white “pearl”, and intensely bright “EYL Yellow”). Early drawings also had lime green panels in the mix, but this was later deleted. The finalized elevation drawings suggests some more yellow panels will be attached between the ground-floor windows under the awning. In fact, it’s mostly the EYL yellow panels that have yet to be installed on Building “A” and Building “B”, the southernmost pair (and the first buildings shown in the parade of pics below). The northern buildings, which are built over a ground-floor garage, are partially faced with Barnes & Cone architectural masonry – upscale and arguably more attractive versions of concrete masonry units (CMUs).

The large expense currently being paneled on Building “D” (the northern end of the building string) will be more EYL Yellow, although this will be Morin corrugated metal panels, custom painted to match. The corrugated metal, which is used elsewhere (ex. top of building “B”) in blue-grey color, will add a little more visual interest to an otherwise featureless wall. According to the 210 Hancock website, occupancy is slated for September 1st. It looks like they have a one-bedroom available, which seems odd given the lottery, but the price tag suggests this one-bedroom is one of the moderate-income units (those with annual income in the $41,000 – $60,500 range). Offhand, 11 of the 54 units were designated moderate-income, in order to provide a mixed-income development. Similarly, the handicap-accessible three-bedroom townhouse (the one-story red one) is still for rent, but the other four rental townhomes are spoken for.

The townhouses are mostly finished, and marketing has started for the seven for-sale units. Three are already under contract. The cutoff for maximum annual income is 80% of Tompkins County’s area median income or less – $42,380 for a 1-person household, $48,400 for a 2-person household, $54,450 for a 3-person household, and so on. The wood lattice screening below the porches will be painted to match the trimboards, which come in three shades of Certainteed vinyl – “Natural Clay”, “Sandstone Beige” and “Flagstone”, or to the layman, dark tan, tan and light grey.

Outside of the building, the new lightpoles are in. RGL Inc. of Binghamton, a subcontractor for Lecesse, is laying down the new curbing and sidewalks, with road paving/striping, landscaping and the new playground to follow. For the record, the playground will be open to all neighborhood children regardless of whether their families live in the Hancock complex. As a plus, the play area connects directly with Conley Park without the need to cross any streets. Personal aside, in the affordable apartment complex I grew up in, June 25, 1997 was one of the most memorable days of my childhood because that was when they replaced a field dumpster pad with a playground — and I can remember how absolutely packed it was for weeks afterward.





1001 North Aurora Street Construction Update, 8/2017

20 08 2017

This small infill project in Ithaca’s Fall Creek is just about done. Tenants have already moved into the four three-bedroom units, and it looks like all that’s left on the outside is grass seeding and a coat of paint. According to the guys working on the duplexes, the mismatch in the second floor LP SmartSide wood siding was because the store they bought them (think they said Home Depot offhand) from had ran out, so they just bought what was available with the intent of painting over it when they were ready. It looks like the first floor has been painted, so that’s a good sign. It is nice to see that, although they were threatened for deletion if expenses came too high, the side windows on the inward-facing walls of the units (east side of 202, west side of 206) were retained.

This is a small, unassuming project. It replaced an older single-family home with four units that fit in with the neighborhood. It’s a bump in density without garnering too much attention. To be candid, it’s probably the only feasible way to add density to Fall Creek – scout out the few vacant lots, or buildings with less historic or aesthetic value, and try to design something that fits in (the only other one I’m aware of is the Heritage Builders infill project on West Falls Street, but at this point it would need re-approval from the planning board).

The three guys out front said that once these are complete, they expect to start work on developer Stavros (Nick) Stavropoulos’ next project at 107 South Albany Street. That site has not changed much over the summer, all that is there at the moment is the fenced-off foundation of the old building. The 11-unit apartment building slated for that site is expected to be completed by summer 2018.

 





Schwartz Plaza Construction Update, 8/2017

18 08 2017

Cornell’s modest but useful renovation of Schwartz Plaza has made significant progress. Gone are the walls that kept the sunken plaza cloistered from passerby, and in its place are stone seats and durable granite setts, for what ideally serves as a visible, attractive public gathering space in Collegetown’s dense quarters. Ornamental grasses will be planted between the seats, and from the renders, it looks like recessed LED light poles will be added as well.

Wood benches will be installed on a granite base below the steel trusses of the far wall, and some of the stone seatings on the near/eastern side will be overlaid with wood benches as well. Hopefully the marble columns get a thorough cleaning; after a few decades, it could use a good scrub. New ornamental bushes and vines will be planted along the trusses and against the back wall of the sunken “forecourt”.

Originally, this was supposed to be done in time for classes, but that seems unlikely at this point. A September finish is likely a fair estimate.





Chapter House / 406 Stewart Avenue Construction Update, 8/2017

17 08 2017

Some good news and some bad news. The good news is, the replacement building for 400-404 Stewart Avenue is well underway. No false starts, no rumor milling. The new structure is quite substantial for a modest three-story building – structural steel frame (currently up to the second floor), steel floor panels, finished basement, – all heavy duty, commercial grade construction, befitting for a mixed-use structure with possible food retail or general retail tenants on the 3,000 SF ground floor. Note the structural cross-beams; those well segments will not have windows. The exposed portion of the concrete foundation wall will be faced with bluestone later in the build-out. The fifth photo shows no concrete between the floor panels and foundation, presumably because the corner entrance will have an interior stairway that steps up to the ground level.

Now for the bad news. I chatted with a worker on the site, and when I said “the Chapter House site”, he chuckled, shook his head, and recommended I don’t use that phrase. “The Chapter House ain’t coming back,” he said before picking up a shovel. “People will forget all about it in four years anyway.” It hasn’t been a secret that the Chapter House likely isn’t making a return, but for many students and non-students, it’s still a disappointment to hear that.

The construction timeline for 400-404 Stewart called for a completion this year, which seems generous. The apartment building at 406 Stewart Avenue has been graded, but construction will not start until later this fall. Hayner Hoyt is the general contractor, with Taitem in charge of the structural engineering.

UPDATE: In the comments, John Hoey, the proprietor of the Chapter House, has written in the comments that he intends to reopen the bar, if not here then elsewhere in Collegetown.





Cornell Ag Quad Rehabilitation Construction Update, 7/2017

1 08 2017

If common spaces are what make or break a campus, then it’s a wonderful thing that Cornell hosts one of the best landscape architecture programs in the world.

With the new underground utilities in place, the remaining work is at or close to surface level. This includes the installation of new plazas, sidewalks, decorative pavers, concrete slab benches, stairwalls, bike racks and seeding. New lamp posts have been erected, a rain garden has been added, and new saplings (54 total) were planted to replace the trees lost to the utilities work. The sidewalks were widened to allow easier emergency access. The east half was finished this past fall, but the west half could only finish utilities work before winter put the kibosh on concrete pours and landscape work.

One of the goals of the refreshed ag quad is to make it a more inviting place to be during the warmer part of the year. By making use of removable furniture and adding seating areas along areas of high traffic and near buildings, the hope is that the space will be more lively and encourage social interaction among Cornell’s many students, faculty and staff. To be fair, it doesn’t look like a bad place to have an outdoor lunch.

At some point, the two temporary structures between Kennedy and Plant Science will make way for a new permanent structure; as for when that happens, your guess is as good as mine. The Pleasant Grove Apartments were built on North Campus as temporary housing after World War II and the influx of students on the GI Bill, but parts of the complex were maintained until the mid 1990s.

The $9.6 million project began last summer, and is scheduled for a completion before the 2017-18 academic year. MKW & Associates LLC of New Jersey is the lead landscape architect, Over & Under Piping Contractors Inc. of Auburn is the GC, and Albany-based CHA Consulting Inc. is providing civil engineering expertise. Background information on the project can be found here.