News Tidbits 12/2/17: The Changing Calculus

3 12 2017

1. Perhaps the big news of the week is that Visum Development Group’s project for 311 College Avenue (the Nines restaurant and Bar) was revived after negotiations with the seller moved in a favorable direction. This time around, it appears that Visum is bringing something close to an “A” game proposal; Jagat Sharma is still the architect of record, but Visum’s VP for New Market Development, Patrick Braga, had a heavy hand in the design work and historical research. The designs produced are more historically inspired and embrace some of the elements that make the old fire station attractive to the public – the first floor doors will pull up like garage bays or slide open to create a sort of open-air loggia on warm days, and a cornice element is retained. Floor to roof will be about 66 feet according to the Times’ Matt Butler, and still contain about 50 1-bedroom and studio apartments as well as 750 SF of retail. For the record, he and I did a bit of collaboration on describing the architectural features before we ran our respective stories.

The sketch plan had a kinder reception from the Planning Board this time around, if still cautious. Even though John Schroeder made it clear he would never accept any plan for The Nines, he said something to the effect of, if this design were proposed for any other MU-2 in Collegetown, he would have no problems with it whatsoever. The rest of the board did a quick poll to see if the other members would at least entertain a proposal, and no one else said no, so the project is considered active.

Now, things can get a little awkward from here. The city planning director, JoAnn Cornish, made it clear that they could move forward with design if they want, but there’s a risk that the property may get landmarked before they get approval. Speaking with the city historic preservation director Bryan McCracken the day after the article, he said that a decision on whether or not to move forward with the landmarking process would be on the agenda for the ILPC’s December meeting. If they move forward, it still has to go to Common Council. I had previously heard through the grapevine that the council was favorable to landmarking in the case of the Nines, but that was before Visum brought forward a new plan. The truth is, things are fairly unpredictable at the moment, and it’s a matter of waiting and watching how different stakeholders act and react.

2. I like Matt Butler, he has time to do the stories that I can’t. This time, a look into the plans for a centralized government facility at the site of the Central Fire Station on the 300 Block of West Green Street. That study is still active, under the guidance of Kingsbury Architecture and TWMLA, as is the second study for a combined Public Works facility. The appraisal process and estimates of cost are also still underway.

It’s kinda a given that this would have tremendous impacts, as noted in the Voice. A lucrative Collegetown site and other redevelopment sites would be on the market, and hundreds of workers and daily visitors would extend Ithaca’s core down State Street, which the city wants, considering it to be one of the few directions downtown can expand towards without compromising too much of Ithaca’s existing urban fabric. The ILPC would need to sign off on plans due to the fire station’s proximity to the “Downtown West” historic district (it actually contains the IFD’s parking lot for the sake of contiguous parcels), so “super-edgy hypermodern” probably isn’t on the table design-wise. The city also has to make a decision relatively soon – the current city hall (former NYSEG HQ, built 1939) and “Hall of Justice” (1920s, renovated/expanded 1964-66) are in need of major renovations.

3. Also on the visionary end of discussion are future plans (2020 onward) for Collegetown’s transit network. Here, it is often a delicate case of balance; it’s a dense, lucrative secondary core of the city, but parking and traffic are problems, as is the lack of infrastructure for pedestrians and bicyclists. One option being explored is a new bike lane up College Avenue that would eliminate 35 parking spaces (and was not well received), and the other is a more modest plan that largely keeps College Avenue as is, which many didn’t like either.

Perhaps the most interesting note from the article is that the city is examining the feasibility of expanding the Dryden Road garage by adding additional floors to the 1980s structure. The Dryden Road garage has the highest parking rates and a high occupancy, and is the most lucrative of the city’s four garages. The city is also looking at incentives for on-site parking, which to be honest, probably isn’t going to work in Collegetown for a number of planning and financial reasons (i.e. a developer will make a lot more from a rentable unit per SF, than from a parking space per SF).

4. Nothing much of note from the town of Ithaca Planning Board agenda. The owners of a former convenience store at 614 Elmira Road are seeking to perform minor renovations to the building for a bottle and can return (to be called IthaCAN & Bottle Return), and Maplewood is asking the town planning board permission to work on Saturdays in a mad dash to have the 872-bed complex ready for occupancy before August. Normally, renovations don’t need to visit the board, but the zoning for the Elmira Road requires a visit for each change of occupancy/use.

The city of Ithaca’s Planning Board memo is short as well, just the long-brewing plans for a garage-replacing addition to 115 The Knoll in Cornell Heights. The 1950s garage will be replaced with a 4-bed, 2-bath addition for Chesterton House, an all-male Christian interest group Sophia House, an all-female Christian group.  It appears the design has changed very little if at all since the plan first became public in May. The $349,900 addition, designed by STREAM Collaborative, would be built in the Spring and Summer of 2018 for an August opening. (Correction: Chesterton House is next door and owned by the same group. The project is for Sophia House. Thanks to Lyn for catching that.)

5. Local developers Steve Flash and Anne Chernish (d/b/a Rampart Real LLC) will be taking on a partner in the 323 Taughannock project. The couple sold a $203,000 stake in the 8-townhouse plan to Arnot Realty of Elmira (d/b/a 323T LLC) on the 22nd. For Flash and Chernish, it gives them a much bigger partner with experience and connections to contractors; for Arnot, it gives them a toehold in the buregoning Ithaca market, their first step into the city. The deed explicitly states this is a joint venture.

6. So this is interesting. On Friday 12/1, an LLC purchased an industrial/office building at 37-40 Elm Street in Dryden for $260,000. The property was built in the late 1980s and is about 25,000 SF, with a warehouse, manufacturing space, office space and three apartments.

The buyer was an LLC, but the LLC filing address traces back to 312 Fourth Street in Ithaca, a 13,800 SF complex of buildings and warehouses home to the All Stone & Tile Company, Ithaca Ice and Strawbridge & Jahn Construction. So either someone is growing out of space and the others are staying, or they are all moving. If they are all moving, that could be an opportunity. Zoning is B-4,  which allows a very wide variety of business and residential uses. Zoning is 4 floors/40 feet maximum height, 50% lot coverage, but being on the tip of the Waterfront/West End corridor, my suspicion is that the city could be a bit flexible with zoning variances for density and/or affordable housing. The only places one finds B-4 zones are the fringes of downtown, so it’s not well-suited for big projects, but there’s room to explore options. Of course, the electrical substation next door isn’t ideal, and the property isn’t even up for sale, but this is worth keeping an eye on.

7. So, there’s no real avoiding it this week – the tax bill in Congress. It really hurts Tompkins County. I did my one and only tweetstorm to cover some of the issues, and most of it still holds. Two last-minute changes softened the blow between then and now. One was the inclusion of the Collins amendment to reinstate a $10,000 cap on SALT (State and Local property tax) deductions, since the original Senate bill had no deduction. The other was raising the endowment from colleges with an endowment of $250,000/student, to those with $500,000/student. Cornell’s is about $310,000/student (6.8 billion/22,300 students). For the record, it wasn’t done to protect Cornell, it was done to protect conservative Hillsdale College after an amendment to give it an exclusive exemption failed. At least 30 schools were still hit, and this detail has to reconciled with the House Bill’s $250,000/student figure.

So apart from the SALT and college impacts I had already noted, one thing that got missed was that the bills allow prohibit schools from taxing out tax-exempt bonds to fund construction. For Cornell’s plan to add 2,000 beds, this is a problem.

So let’s just overview this real quick – a bond is a fixed-income investment in which an investor loans money to an entity, which borrows at a fixed or variable interest rate for a fixed period of time. When you buy a bond, you hold the debt for that entity. Most investors typically have some proportion of bonds in their portfolio – they typically are more stable investments than stocks, though the returns are typically less. Their relative safety is why financial planners recommend a higher proportion of bonds as one gets closer to retirement. The riskiness of a debtor not paying back is given by their bond rating. Cornell’s long-term debt rating is AA, which is very good, high-quality investment grade.

Now, in the case of non-profit schools, typically the tax-exempt bonds are issued with the approval of local and state authorities. The project to be financed by the bonds is determined by the school. The school does its internal approval of the project and bond plan, and the project it goes up to the community for planning board/environmental review. Once approved, the school chooses an approved issuer of bonds, often a state or local development authority (ex. The Dormitory Authority of NYS). A working group is put together to establish a timetable and structure for the bonds, and once the bond structure is settled and reviewed for issues, a public hearing is held on the bond issue, so that any issues or concerns are made clear before issuance. Barring no problems, the government signs off on the tax-exemption for the bond issue, a closing date is established and the bonds are marketed and sold, mostly to banks and big investment firms. The received funds are disbursed to pay for the project.

That’s getting taken away by this tax bill. That means any future bonds will be taxable, and have a much higher interest rate. Borrowing just became more expensive. A 30-year AA tax-exempt bond might be 2.76%, and a taxable bond 3.37%. That might seem a small difference, but a 2,000 bed project is on the order of $200 million (recall Maplewood is 872 beds and $80 million). So we’re talking millions of dollars more that Cornell will now have to pay to make those dorms happen. It opens up a distinct possibility that the project could be scaled back and/or delayed, which impacts the overall housing market. Probably the federal SALT tax cap is going to hurt much more.

Really, this bill was practically designed to decimate real and perceived enemies of politically conservative groups as much as it was designed to help billionaire donors and corporations. Poorly conceived, ignoring multiple non-partisan analyses and relying on overly optimistic projections, hastily put together and shoved through, blowing the debt trillions higher and immediately or eventually raising taxes on tens of millions. This is every cartoonish stereotype of Republicans amplified in one piece of legislation.

I don’t like to get political, but I’m a registered Republican, and have been my whole life. As a pragmatic never-Trump moderate, I joke that I’m a New York Republican and a Texas Democrat. When one writes about government red tape, the Cargill Mine, and Ithaca’s progressives attacking affordable housing, it tends to reaffirm beliefs.

But hell, this tax bill is throwing every principle out the window with this bill, causes a ton of damage to a place I care about, and with a morally deficient and unstable president at the helm, I can’t do it anymore. I mailed off the form today to become an independent. After this, I just can’t see myself voting Republican again, not for a long time.

 





News Tidbits 11/18/2017: Fears and Hopes for the Future

18 11 2017

1. Here’s an interesting sale – a 62.1 acre parcel on Troy Road sold for $380,000 on the 13th, less than half the original asking price. The buyer, “Troy Heights LLC”, is registered to the same address as Giora and Limor Fix, a semi-retired husband and wife couple who have acquired a number of rental properties around the area over the past decade, with 43 or so units worth something in the ballpark of several million dollars (units are marketed by the Fixes under the name “Homes-for-you Rental Properties”).

The Troy Road property is intriguing because there was a development proposal floated there a few years ago. Rural Housing Preservation Associates LLC had proposed a 130-unit combination of middle-market single family homes, townhouses and small apartment buildings for the site back in 2014; it started as 206 units, the town and neighbors complained it was too big, the project was whittled down to 130, and then the proposal was cancelled by September 2015. Using cluster zoning, the project could have built out 145 units in the low-density residential (LDR) zone, since the town’s cluster zoning allows 2.3 units/acre. STREAM was in charge of the project design, and some of the renders of the never-built apartments can be found here on their website.

So here is a log lot, bought by folks involved in local real estate and with significant assets, under the name “Troy Heights”, which sounds like a project title if anything. I reached out to Giora Fix, and he was kind enough to respond:

“[C]urrently we do not have any concrete plans to develop Troy Road. Once we have them I will be happy to share with you.”

So something to keep an eye on, though it might be a while.

2. Here’s a piece of news from the Times’ Nick Reynolds. With regards to the police consolidation debate, the city wants to have the headquarters downtown on Green Street (likely in that proposed centralized government facility floated for the Central Fire Station site), while the towns would prefer something near the current BPW on the north end of the Northside neighborhood, which offers easy access to Route 13. Consolidation is still a rather unlikely prospect at this time, and there’s little enthusiasm from the more rural parts of the county. But it sounds like the sheriff is keen on killing the city’s ideas before they take off.

3. Bad jobs month for the state, good for Ithaca. The Ithaca metro (Tompkins County) added 1,800 jobs (all private sector) from October 2016 to October 2017, bringing the total to 67,800. The 3.2% increase was the largest gain by percentage in the state over the time period. Unfortunately, the state as a whole lost 11,900 jobs last month, which falls even more to 14,600 jobs when taking away those added by the public sector (government jobs). A study from the Federal Reserve Bank last month notes that upstate economic growth in general has been losing steam over the past year, with exceptions for Ithaca and Albany. New York City is performing reasonably well.

While it’s well and good that Ithaca is doing well, I have concerns about the recent tax reform bill going through Congress. With the potential hit to SALT deductions and the taxation of graduate student tuition waivers, I could see significant negative impacts on the local economy. Given that most communities have property taxes in the range of $2500-$4000/$100,000, a cap of $10,000 as proposed by the House would hit many middle-class and upscale neighborhoods hard. A typical home in Ithaca city is worth about $230,000-$270,000 range at this point, and with about $3779 per $100,000 in property taxes, that means that homeowners with properties valued over $265,000 will take a financial hit, close to half of the homes sold. The Senate’s version removes the SALT deduction completely, affecting all local home buyers. Either case would be a severe blow to the home buying market.

Another concern is the taxation of graduate student tuition waivers as proposed by the House plan. Speaking from experience, I had a waiver that saved me about $14,000/year at the public university where I did my master’s. In my case, seeing that taxes would have cost an extra couple thousand in theory, though the doubling of the standard deduction might have limited its impact on me. A Cornell graduate student is looking at $20,800-$29,500, and could see a tax bill larger than any savings from the standard deduction increase. The Senate version does not tax tuition waivers. Another, lesser factor to consider is that the student loan interest deduction for borrowers on-time with their payments would be eliminated.

On a final note, Cornell’s endowment would be taxed an extra 1.4% under the House bill, as would any college whose endowment is worth more than $250,000 per full-time student. Cornell’s endowment is $6.8 billion, and the school has 23,016 students across all campuses as of Fall 2017. That is over the allowed cap of $5.75 billion as calculated by the bill’s guidelines.

The long story short is that Cornell recruitment takes a hit, as does its endowment, and that could impact current employment as well as future hiring. Politics aside, these “reform” bills are definitely a cause for concern from Ithaca and Tompkins’ economic standpoint.

4. A separate note not so much economic, but something many Ithacans care about – the House bill takes away the historic building rehabilitation tax credit. The renovation of 310 West State Street that I reported in the Voice earlier this week would be off the table without them, and the building will likely be demolished if the credits are eliminated. So the impacts aren’t just economic, but perhaps aesthetic as well.

5. This is looking to be a very quiet late November. For the first time in over a year, the town of Ithaca has cancelled two planning board meetings in a row. Meanwhile, in the city, the only “old business” reviews are final site plan approval for the 601 South Aurora duplex, and final approval for the Brindley Street Bridge replacement.

6. So technically, the Request for Proposals went out for the Green Street Garage site. A site tour for interested applicants is scheduled for December 4th, applications are due by January 23, 2018, and no timetable is given for the selection of the preferred developer. The applications are to include a cover letter, application form, description of project team members with relevant experience, proof of ability operate in NYS, good reputation, financial status, marketing plan, tenant management plan, conceptual designs, financing plan and demonstrated capacity to obtain financing, purchase price, project schedule, community impact benefits statement, schedule, and specific concerns (acknowledgement of site issues and plan to resolve them). A $500 application fee is also required.

Obviously, Ithaca Associates LLC has a huge leg up on the competition, since they not only have a plan fleshed out, they own the ground lease under the eastern end of the garage that everyone else would have to negotiate to obtain. About the only legitimate opening to another developer would be for the western and central portions of the garage, though the city’s requests make it such that anyone else interested had better be thinking big with housing, parking, and other site uses. Saying you’d leave things as-is would be an immediate disqualifier. Unless Fox or Lubin are dreaming up multi-story apartment buildings, it isn’t likely many developers will entertain this RFP. This really feels like it’s just the city stalling for time so they can fully absorb the immensity of the 365-unit, $118 million “Village on the Green” proposal.





News Tidbits 4/15/17: Good and Bad Decisions

15 04 2017

1. It looks like the Lansing Meadows issue is being resolved. Village mayor Don Hartill has issued a sort of mea culpa for not sending the project to the Planning Board before inviting it to the Village board of Trustees, saying the Planning Board was caught off guard and it was his and the village attorney’s fault. So the project will visit the Planning Board with Hartill and developer Eric Gortzmann on hand to answer any questions the planning board might have. A workable solution is possible – the planning board isn’t necessarily opposed, they would prefer more housing but could be willing to hear out a commercial component so long as it’s set back from the road and screened from the homes by foliage. Optimistically, the cafe/diner and twenty senior housing units might be good to go within a month.

2. The Biggs Parcel is up in the air. There have been no offers since going on sale last July, and the contract with realtor CJ DelVecchio has expired. The county has decided not to renew while they weigh options. Options being weighed for the three-month hold include a smaller housing development on eight of the acres on the corner of Indian Creek and Harris B Dates Drive, and/or a solar farm, which may split neighbors between a low-intensity, eco-friendly project, and losing a portion of the woods so that the solar panels could operate. There is no plan for another Cayuga Trails-type project like what NRP proposed before the discovery of more extensive wetlands convinced them to cancell the project in September 2014.

3. The town of Ithaca has selected its firm of choice to conduct the economic development study and strategic plan for its Inlet Valey corridor southwest of the cityConsultEcon, Inc. of Cambridge, in partnership with Behan Planning and Design of Saratoga, was selected from six applications. Behan has previous experience in the area; in fact, they won an award for their work on the 2012 Varna Master Plan over in Dryden. The town will pay $30,000, and the state will pay $30,000 through its Empire State Development division. Although not state in the town agenda, I believe the time frame to perform and submit the study is six months.

According to Ithaca town’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan, the goal is to turn Inlet Valley from an auto-centric hodge-podge with no overarching character, to a semi-rural neighborhood with an agribusiness, “artisanal industrial”, and tourism focus, capitalizing on Ithaca Beer and the existing and proposed lodging. The Sleep Inn proposal submitted a potential rustic streetscape that gives an idea of the aesthetic the town seems to be going for.

4. From the PEDC, the Southside housing plan is ongoing, and the IURA has hired their new planner after Lynn Truame left for INHS. There was considerable discussion over the Waterfront rezoning, with general conceptual support, although the First Ward councilors are not fans of mixing housing with light industrial areas, or forcing businesses to compete with housing developers for waterfront sites. Councilwoman Brock (D-1st) was opposed to housing in the Cherry Street Corridor. The proposal was granted by vote the permission to circulate for review and comment, so there’s still time for thoughts and opinions to be contemplated and discussed.

5. On another note, many of the speakers at the PEDC meeting were there to speak out against the City Centre project at 301 East State Street, not because they didn’t like the building (well, most of them), but because it didn’t have affordable units, which they felt should be a requirement for abatements.

I support that to a degree, but I’m also aware that, all other things equal, the revenue loss from the affordable units has to be made up for somewhere, usually by passing the costs on to the other tenants. In that case, the city ends up with a lack of units for those with middle incomes. I like the idea of modestly more generous zoning as a tradeoff to the inclusionary housing component, but as a proposal, that didn’t go over so well – developers didn’t like it (because to build more they need bigger loans, so it hurts smaller developers), anti-development folks didn’t like it (because affordable or not, it’s more of what they don’t like), and there was significant uncertainty on whether it’d be effective.

The county IDA had its vote for the sales/mortgage/property tax abatements the following day, and they decided to grant the abatements 5-1, with legislator Will Burbank opposed. The 192-unit mixed-use project is expected to begin construction with the next couple of months, for an early 2019 completion.

6. Once in a while, you get a project so despised by neighbors, they decide to run for office as single-issue candidates – namely, to stop the project. That’s what happening in Lansing village. Mayor Donald Hartill and two incumbent trustees, Ronny Hardaway and Patricia O’Rourke, are being challenged in the May election by mayoral candidate Lisa Bonniwell and two trustee candidates, Gregory Eells and John LaVine. Their goal is to overturn the rezoning of the Park Grove property on Bomax Drive, which rezoned commercial/tech office space to multi-family, enabling a 140-unit apartment project to move forward with planning board review.

This is not the first time something like this has happened in Lansing. When the Lansing Reserve affordable housing project was proposed in 2011, two residents opposed to the project, Yasamin Miller and Brian Goodell, ran against incumbent trustees on a single-issue platform of stopping the project. They lost by 2:1 margins, but Lansing Reserve never moved forward, and since then the land has been bought by the village for park space.

Although in a Voice capacity I can’t formally take sides, I have big issues with the challenger’s platform. I’m not a big fan of the Park Grove as a project, but the rezoning makes sense. As the county’s airport business park study demonstrated, the demand for new commercial and industrial space is very limited, while from the Denter study, it is clear the demand for housing is quite strong (5,000 units in the next decade). It amazes me that the challengers are saying the project will lower property values in a village with substantial price appreciation and major affordability issues (but as noted by the Star, Bonniwell’s family developed the expensive and still incomplete Heights of Lansing project nearby, so she has a vested interest in limiting housing).

Not only that, in the interview with the Lansing Star, challenger LaVine suggests the village should look at eventually merging with the town of Lansing, which is completely contrary to the village’s formation in 1974 as a reaction to the mall, when residents demanded for stricter zoning that the town didn’t want to accommodate. The town has much looser zoning than the village. If voters think for one moment that the town wouldn’t seek to change zoning in the village to build up the tax base and cope with the likely loss of the power plant, they’re in for a rude surprise.

7. On the agendas, nothing too exciting this week. The town has a couple of telecom towers and a 600,000 gallon water tank for Hungerford Hill Road. Over in the city, it’s project review week, but zoning variances suggest another nicely-detailed garage from STREAM Collaborative (STREAM does really nice garages), a couple of home additions, and a new 1,695 SF house at 412 Worth Street in Belle Sherman designed by Jason Demarest. The property is a flag lot that straddles the city-town line, so it would be neigh impossible to do anything without a variance. Ulysses will just be discussing zoning, and the other towns and village will be doing their regular meetings later in the month.

 





News Tidbits 11/12/16: Oof.

12 11 2016

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1. Starting off this week in Lansing, the village has okayed a zoning change that would allow the planning board to move forward with consideration of a 140-unit upscale apartment project on Bomax Drive. Neighbors came out to oppose the zoning change for the 19.5 acre parcel from office park business/tech to high-density residential, saying it would create additional traffic and hurt property values. The village board, however, responded in dissent, noting a lack of housing, a fit with the 2015 village comprehensive plan, and that this was about the zoning and not the project, which the planning board will critique as a separate action. The zoning change was approved unanimously. Park Grove Realty is now free to submit plans to the village, and planning board review will go from there. Expect it to take at least a few months.

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2. A couple quick notes from the town of Ithaca – Therm Inc. has commenced construction on their 20,000 SF addition at their South Hill plant. It’s a few months later than originally anticipated, but underway nevertheless. The $2.5 million project is expected to create 10 manufacturing jobs, according to the county IDA.

Also underway at this point is the renovation and expansion of the Rodeway Inn on Elmira Road. The plans call for expanding the existing 25 motel units, adding 2 new units on the ends of the main structure, and renovating a house on the property for a 1,146 SF community room to serve guests. Landscaping and lighting would also be updated. The town pegs the construction cost at about $679,000.

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3. Here’s some good news – it looks like someone has taken up the Iacovellis on their offer of a free historic house at 341 Coddington Road, providing that the taker moves it. It appears NYSEG was creating some hangups since the power lines have to be moved out of the way (NYSEG is infamously difficult to work with), but with any luck, the house itself will be saved. My colleague Mike Smith is doing the legwork on a story, so hopefully more details on the “buyer” will come forth shortly.

4. Back in July, several West End properties owned by an out-of-area LLC hit the market. Now, at least one of them has sold. The duplex at 622 West Buffalo (blue in the map above) was sold for $90,000 to a gentleman from suburban Syracuse. Immediately after, paperwork was filed with the county for a $179,145 building loan courtesy of Seneca Federal Savings and Loan, a small regional bank out of Syracuse. The paperwork does not indicate if it will be renovations/additions to the existing building, or a new structure (sometimes the sale price is a part of the building loan, but in this case the buyer paid separately, with $171,187 set aside for hard costs).

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5. Sticking with county filings, the construction loan for the third phase of the Village Solars was filed with Tompkins County this week. $6 million is being lent by Tompkins Trust to fund construction of 42 units, 21 in each building. Initially they were slated to have 18 units each, but because the three-bedroom properties don’t have quite the same appeal as smaller one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, Lifestyle Properties (the Lucente family) has broken up the units without significantly changing the exterior appearance and layout. Actual Contractors LLC, another Lucente company, is the general contractor, with Albanese Plumbing, T. U. Electric, and Bomak Contractors (excavation/foundation) rounding out the construction team.

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6. This is one of those unusual months were the city projects memo and the project review meeting agenda go out in the same week. Apart from the Collegetown Townhouse project, there are no new projects being presented, but there is new information and new renders.

In the projects memo, Novarr’s project is the new shiny, while Amici House, the8-unit project at 607 South Aurora and City Centre are being carried over as old business. Regarding City Centre, it doesn’t look like any particular points of contention have been raised by city planning, the framework for mitigating Historic Ithaca’s design complaint is already included, and most of the other requests are for more information/paperwork. From the Design meeting, it looks like the debate on the townhouses project is minor, mostly with where to locate the trees out front, and window details. They will not be putting windows into the north face because it’s on the lot line, but they will vary the materials for visual interest. The Design Committee requested that City Centre insert more windows in some areas, and less signage, as well as consideration of decorative elements to highlight the curved facade facing Aurora and East State Streets.

The project review committee meeting has all of the above, plus updated submissions from the Maplewood project team. Although no substantial development will occur in the city, the Maplewood project crosses municipal boundaries and the city has deferred to the town for lead agency. The meeting will also have a few zoning variances to comment on. The only notable zoning variance is for local realtor Carol Bushberg, who wants to do a one-story 812 SF rear addition at her office at 528 West Green Street, which is in a WEDZ zone and requires two floors.

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Looking at the Maplewood submission, the new dormer/gable style will be for the building strings that front Mitchell Street, and the two strings most visible from Walnut Street. More modern designs will be used for the remaining structures. Looking closely, the designs do vary from string to string, which will give the site some character and additional visual interest. The project timeline is pretty tight with submissions, meetings and approvals, aiming for preliminary approval from the town on December 20th, demolition to start immediately thereafter, and final site plan approval by January 3rd.

For links, here’s the Collegetown Townhouse updated submission, engineering narrative, site plan render, and cross section render. Here are the updated materials for 607 South Aurora (no significant changes, just a summary of submission materials),  here’s a new site survey for Amici House, and the project update for Maplewood.

7. Meanwhile, there’s nothing too exciting on any of the town boards next week. Lansing town will consider additions to a self-storage facility, a one-lot subdivision and a climbing wall facility next to The Rink. Ithaca town will be conducting their own analysis of Maplewood, and a one-lot subdivision.

Now, after this week’s election news, one might wonder if this has any impacts on local housing/development. Arguably, there are a few. Expect federal funds for affordable funding to be cut drastically, and grants for mass transit projects to also take a major hit. While those are major losses, the state has far greater control, so there will still be some funding available, but definitely not as much as would have been expected under a Democratic administration. Most land use and building issues are decided at the local level, so don’t expect significant impacts there.

More of a question would be infrastructure investments. The president elect wants to launch a massive rebuilding program, but the Republican Senate majority leader has already said that’s not something they’re interested in, so we’ll just have to see if he can force it through or not. If there’s any silver lining to all this, it might come in some form of deregulation, but while he might be a fan of urban environments, most of his cabinet will likely not. We also have to keep in mind the disdain for elite colleges like Cornell, so research funding, and the economy built off it, is probably going to take a hit. For the Ithaca area, the change in administrations is likely a net negative.





News Tidbits 5/7/16: Everything’s Political

7 05 2016

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1. Let’s start with government. The city of Ithaca passed revisions to its cell phone tower law reducing the no-build fall radius from 200% of height, to 120% of height. The 120% was decided upon after a check of other municipalities, where it was generally the most common figure.

The change allows development to proceed on the grassy field at 815 South Aurora Street on South Hill, although as mentioned last week, the fall zone revision isn’t as much as developers Todd Fox and Charlie O’Connor had hoped for. But it’s still enough to work with; according to Josh Brokaw at the Times, a revised plan that meets the new guidelines could be going to the planning board for sketch plan review in June, possibly with more units than the 87 studio units initially planned. It was also reported that the local neighborhood group (South Hill Civic Association, SHCA) is comfortable with the initial plan, so this might be a relatively smooth process when the project is ready for review.

2. Meanwhile, while one thing moves forward, Dryden’s been hit with a major setback. The Pinckney Road parcel sale in Dryden was foiled when voters, in a 1188-936 vote, rejected the town’s plans to use recreation reserve funds to purchase the 15 acre property. The town would have spent about $56,800 of a fund that has over $300,000, and the county would have contributed $15,000, so that the town could have turned it into park space in the long-term. The town was prepared to buy the property, but residents opposed to the sale managed to get enough signatures on a petition to force to to go up for a vote.

It sounded like a worthy and reasonable plan. But I get the feeling that there were a lot of folks who figured it would pass by a wide margin, so they just didn’t vote. In a marketing course a while back in college, I remember the professor sharing an interesting statistic – versus feeling neutral, the general public is three times more likely to support an initiative when they really like something, and nine times more likely to vote or speak out when they’re really opposed. People are more driven by aversion than reward, and that’s probably what happened here.

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3. Sticking with local governments, the town of Ithaca is set to vote on a moratorium on duplexes, but with some modifications from the initial proposal. For one, given construction seasons revolving around the warm season, and the time it takes to plan and get permits, it was decided to make it only nine months (January 2017) instead of one year, so that they could limit the possibility of dragging it through two construction seasons. And although the town planning committee chair wasn’t on board with it, an exemption is in place if one of the units will be owner-occupied. If their goal is to revise the approach to student housing, then at least these amendments fix or lessen some of the bigger issues a moratorium would produce.

4. Just a wee bit more info on the “Tim Timbers” planned for the corner of Freese and Dryden Roads in Varna. The tiny houses are small though not micro-sized – they’re expected to be about 800 square feet. Local architecture firm STREAM Collaborative is working with businessman Nick Bellisario on the 16-lot subdivision and home development.

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5. So the full 206-page, $78,000 NYS DOT waterfront redevelopment study by Fisher Associates is on the city’s website. The initial results were shared here back in October, but the final product has some additional, very interesting details.

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One of those additions is a potential timeline for development. It calls for getting official support and commitments over the next several months, issuing an RFP later this year for the new DOT facility in Dryden, and issue an RFP for the NYSDOT waterfront site later this year, with review in Q1 2017 and developer selection in Q2 2017, assuming this doesn’t end up like the Old Library debate. The DOT would move to Dryden in Q3 2018, and the excess state land would be transferred to the county, sold in Q1 2019, and ready for occupancy by mid-2020.

The other really interesting new section is Appendix 5, stakeholder outreach. This consists of interviews with city officials and nearby property owners – Cornell (who say they have no plans for their waterfront properties), the Farmer’s Market, and some smaller businesses and organizations. The gist of the comments had more to do with Farmer’s Market than the DOT – namely, heavy traffic issues, needs more parking, and needs to physically expand to accommodate a waiting list of vendors and cool-season operations. There are early plans incubating for a nearby indoor market facility, if memory serves right. As for the DOT site, the mixed-use plan was deemed most favorable, and the stakeholders agreed that the site had great potential for redevelopment.

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6. Looks like marketing has started for a proposed new medical office building in the village of Lansing. The new one-story building, which appears to be designed by Binghamton-based Keystone Associates, would be off of Warren Road, although it looks like the building would be accessed from a driveway coming off of Uptown Road. The 2.71 acre property is zoned “Human Health Services District” by the village, and borders undeveloped land owned by Cornell, and several other suburban medical office buildings built over the past few decades. The resolution on the attached site plan is too low to determine the square footage, though it looks to be in the low tens of thousands.

The property was purchased by Arleo Real Estate from Cornell for $378,600 in October 2014. Arleo Eye Associates owns and occupies the neighboring building to the south. Arleo built their 7,119 SF optometry office in 2007.





News Tidbits 3/19/16: A Taxing Problem

19 03 2016

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1. Apart from controversial presidential endorsement, Congressman Tom Reed paid a visit to the development community last week at the Boiceville Cottages project out in Caroline. According to Dan Veaner at the Lansing Star, the meeting was touted as an opportunity for developers, builders and contractors to express their concerns with onerous government procedures, specifically the local level.

Bruno Schickel, speaking at the event, noted that Boiceville could only have been done in Caroline because the 3,000 person town has no zoning (but they do have some type of commission that acts as a planning board). The lack of layers and conflicting comments from different interests allowed Schickel to get the latest 75-unit expansion approved in just two meetings back in 2012, something that he notes would have likely taken two years in other municipalities.

Then there’s this quote from another developer.

“After the site tour Reed spent time chatting with builders about regulations, mandates and costs that prevent some projects from ever being built.  One developer told Reed about an incident that killed a project before it even got started.

‘I tried to build a mixed use residential retail commercial building and I needed more residential units to make the economics work for lending,’ he said.  ‘I wanted six more apartments and the Town of Ithaca wanted an environmental impact statement.  the deal with these impact statements is that you pay an expert $20,000 so he can produce a 50 page report.  They look at it and read it and if they don’t like it they want to hire their own expert and they make the developer pay for it.  I backed out right away.  I pulled the plug and walked out of the meeting.'”

In case anyone was wondering, that was Evan Monkemeyer and his never built College Crossings project on the corner of 96 and East King Road. Which, to be honest, didn’t get re-approved because the window of opportunity closed as soon as the town updated its Comprehensive Plan and decided it wanted dense mixed-use. It’s an uncomfortable situation for all parties.

Obviously, there are two sides. Schickel is a very thoughtful and responsible builder/developer, but others may not be, which is why guidelines need to be in place. But, having watched the battles over affordable housing, and seeing the battles over wind and solar power now erupting in the western half of the county, it does give pause. I never thought I’d hear Black Oak investors such as County Legislator Dooley Kiefer and Caroline town board member Irene Weiser described like greedy Wall Street corporate villains, but that’s the current state of affairs. Using the same point from last week, the county can’t afford to be self-defeating, and having too many rules and regulations can keep a lot of good things, like green energy and affordable housing, from happening. The big, hotly-debated question is, where is the balance?

On a final note, the Star confirms that Schickel will finish build-out of the late Jack Jensen’s Farm Pond Circle project in Lansing, as soon as the Boiceville Cottages are finished later this year.

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2. It’s that time of the year for property re-assessment. The county gives a rundown of their process and goals for this year here. Most places handle assessment on the city/town/village level, so being that Tompkins County is solely responsible here makes it unique in the state.

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The report notes that high demand and low supply has kept sales prices on an uptick, and as those get factored into assessments, the values of property are due to go up as well. There aren’t as many sales as in the mid 2000s, but county home values are appreciating at an uncomfortably fast clip – median price went up 4.2% in just the past year, much greater than wage growth. The Voice has gotten some emails from people extremely upset that the county is doubling their land value, and there have been similar emails getting shared on neighborhood e-mail listserves, so there will probably be a story coming out on that soon.

Certain areas are facing certain challenges. For example, Collegetown’s land value is so high that it’s often worth more than the building that sits upon it, making much of the neighborhood a redevelopment target. Fall Creek is seeing home value appreciation much faster than the rest of the county, making it ground-zero for rapid gentrification. The county’s not pulling these values out of the ether; assessments are based in part on what people will pay for similar neighborhood properties. Fall Creek is walkable, centralized and a strong fit to the rustic, crunchy vibe buyers are often looking for in Ithaca. There are signs that the North Side and South Side neighborhoods are seeing similar impacts, but they’re not as noticeable because those neighborhoods were traditionally less well-off, so the gross home values aren’t as high, even if they’re appreciating at similar rates.

Out in the towns, the county feels Caroline is being under-assessed, which they hope to change in 2017, and there have been wildly high-priced sales in Ulysses that the county attributes to “excited” lakefront buyers. About the only area where the county is concerned about falling land values is Groton, where poorly-maintained properties are taking their toll on the tax base.

On the commercial end, Commons businesses and county hotels can expect a 5% assessment increase.

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3. Looks like the town of Ithaca released their annual planning board summary. Only 15 new of modified proposals were reviewed in 2015, down from 27 in 2014, and 32 and 41 in 2012 and 2011 (2013 is excluded for some reason). Nevertheless, the town’s planning department has been busy trying to translate the 2014 Comprehensive Plan into form-based zoning code, at least some of which they hope to roll out this year. A couple sources seem to have taken to referring to it as the “Ithacode”.

Also in the pipeline – reviewing Maplewood (with the city as secondary), reviewing Chain Works (with the city as primary), and possibly, Cornell rolling out plans for East Hill Village (early design concept shown above), the first phases of which are expected to be unveiled within the next year.

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4. The townhouses at 902 Dryden Road in Varna have been approved. The Dryden town board voted 4-0 to approve the project at their meeting on the 17th. The 8 new units and 26 new bedrooms should begin construction this July and be completed by June 2017. Local company Modern Living Rentals will be developing the site, and the townhouses (no updated render, sorry) are being designed by STREAM Collaborative.

Also relevant to the Varna discussion, the planning department memo notes a pre-application meeting was held for a proposal to subdivide and build 16 “small homes” at the corner of Freese Road and Dryden Road currently owned by Dryden businessman Nick Bellisario. No other information is currently available about the project.

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5. Let’s wrap this up with a look at the city of Ithaca Planning Board agenda next week. Quick reminder, the general order is: sketch plan, Declaration of Lead Agency, Public Hearing, Declaration of Environmental Significance, BZA if necessary, prelim approval, final approval. Here’s the formal rundown:

Site Plan Review
A. 210 Hancock – project update, no decisions
B. 424 Dryden, rear parking lot for 5 cars – prelim and final approval
C. Hughes Hall Renovations, Cornell University – Determination of Environmental Significance, prelim and final approval
D. Ag Quad Renovations, Cornell University – Determination of Environmental Significance, prelim and final approval
E. The Cherry Artspace, 102 Cherry St. – Declaration of Lead Agency and Public Hearing

F. Sketch Plan – 301 E. State Street, the Trebloc Building.

Don’t know if this is a continuation of State Street Triangle or something else (it would be a surprise if someone could create a new plan in such a short time), but we’ll find out on Tuesday. Zoning is CBD-120, meaning commercial or mixed-use, no parking required, up to 120 feet in height.

G. Sketch Plan – 201 College Avenue

201 College Avenue sits on the corner of College Avenue and Bool Street in inner Collegetown, and is presently occupied by a well-maintained though unremarkable 12-bedroom student apartment house owned by an LLC associated with the director of a local non-profit recreational center. The property is currently assessed at $545k. Zoning for the property is Collegetown MU-1, allowing for a 5-story, 70′ tall building with no on-site parking required. A quick check of neighboring properties indicates that the owner only owns this property, so whatever is planned will likely be limited to just this house.





The Times They Are a-Changin’

3 11 2015

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A little less fact and a little more opinion with this week’s Tuesday post.

I postponed what I originally had planned because of a few things coming together at once. One, a post from Kathy Zahler at the Dryden Daily Kaz alleging ageism at work in the 4th District county legislature race, and this piece on the ever-evolving character of New York’s East Village from the Sunday New York Times.

In the 4th District race, you have a 19 year-old candidate, and a 56 year-old candidate, both Ithaca natives. Reading their views on the issues, one can’t find a whole lot of differences, but the “he’s just a kid” type of comment raises its ugly head. I don’t claim to know why people vote the way they do, nor do I feel it appropriate to do endorsements. People will vote how they want. But it would be a real disappointment if age were being used as the deciding factor.

It reminds me a lot of an Ithaca adage that people want Ithaca to look and feel exactly as it did when they moved here, or felt most in their element here. Which ties in pretty well to this NYT piece from last Sunday.

“When I asked nostalgic people to name the street’s golden era, they cited a range of years — often falling between 1960 and 1982, but sometimes 1945, or 1958, or 2012.”

Likewise, everyone has their own idea of Ithaca’s “Golden Era”, and when it ended. For many of the city’s oldest or most conservative residents, and for many older folks in the surrounding towns, it was when the Commons opened in 1974/75. It has just as much to do with the Commons itself as what the Commons represents – when Ithaca turned leftist. Up until the early 1970s, the city and county were run by Republicans. But, due mostly to the large influx of largely singleminded faculty at IC and Cornell in the late 1960s and 1970s, and a trend towards rentals in the city (then as now, students/young voters tend to be more liberal), the area started voting more and more Democrats into office. The last Republican mayor of Ithaca (Bill Shaw) left office in 1983. The last alderperson (Bob Romanowski), 1993. The national trend towards the right didn’t help, as Northeast Republicans generally trend to the moderate side. The Commons was a product of Democrat Ed Conley’s administration, and it’s often seen as a congregation site for social activists and crunchy boutique stores – head shops, organic specialty items, and the like. So it’s not hard to imagine why the Commons receives so much criticism, because for those who saw Ithaca’s best days as Republican ones, its opening signified the beginning of the end.

You could go down any street and get a variety of numbers – for the more blue-collar folks, the end of the Golden Era might be 1983 (when Smith-Corona shut down most operations and BorgWarner Morse moved to Lansing), 1986/87 (when Ithaca Gun moved out), or 2011 (when Emerson Power laid off its last local staff). For those who have clung to the misguided image of Ithaca as a small town where nothing bad happens, the Ellis Hollow murders in 1989, or the stabbing death of IPD Officer Padula in the line of duty in 1996, might be when Ithaca’s Golden Age came to a close, and it became to them an alien, dangerous place. Still others will say Ithaca’s Golden Age closed when Wal-Mart opened (2005), when Cornell turned to the lake for its cooling needs (2000), or this year, when Moosewood decided to go national.

The point is, Ithaca’s “Golden Era” ended at a different time for everyone; for some it’s still going.  That’s because the community is always changing, evolving, remaking itself into something different from what it was.

“If you’re complaining about the East Village, or New York in general, being dead, I think it’s worth considering the possibility that, yes, it is over — for you. But for plenty of others, the city is as full of potential and magic as it was in 1977. Or 1964. Or 1992. Or whenever you last walked down the street and felt like it belonged only to you.”

One of the things that I find bothersome is when one prefaces a comment with “I was born here in 1953/I moved here in 1977/I bought my house in Fall Creek in 1983…”. It doesn’t make one more “correct”, it doesn’t mean one’s opinion should have extra weight. For a community that prides itself on being so cosmopolitan for its size, bragging about the decades one has been in one place suggests insularity and close-mindedness. It’s like saying the community isn’t allowed to change without one’s explicit permission.

My exposure to it is mostly from the perspective of development. Almost always, it’s how they’ve lived here for decades, and something will ruin the character of a neighborhood. People don’t like anything that impacts the feel of a place, which can be something major like the physical appearance of a new house or apartment building, or something more subtle, like the type of resident moving in. But as communities go, character was never intended to be a static object. That’s why you’ll have a building built in 1926, next to a pair of houses built in 1880, just west of an office built in 1972, and across the street from a building built in 2005.

The average Tompkins County legislator is well into their 50s; the county’s average age is 30. Some might see a 19 year-old too young for office, I see a kid with a lot of potential and desire to work for his community.

“Walking along St. Marks Place now, I see young New Yorkers having their moment, living their own Technicolor years. To afford to be here in 2015, they may have trust funds or three jobs or their bedroom may be a friend’s brother’s couch in Ridgewood. Yet here they are at midnight, breaking up with their first boyfriend on the same corner where ’50s poets went to jazz concerts, ’60s radicals handed out fliers, ’70s punk rockers skulked on stoops, ’80s artists plotted their assault on the art world and ’90s skateboarders did kick-flips….Who understands the soul of any place? Who deserves to be here? Who is the interloper and who the interloped-upon?”

Ithaca is always transforming. People are born, they grow up, they age, they die, they move in, they move out. New thoughts awaken and old ways of thinking fade to the background. Change will happen, welcomed or otherwise. But at least if it’s welcomed, there’s the opportunity to guide it.