Schwartz Plaza Construction Update, 6/2017

15 06 2017

One of the biggest complaints about Collegetown is the lack of public gathering spaces – there’s no real park or public plaza that can be utilized for gatherings and events. The gorges aren’t all that accessible and aren’t suitable for large groups, and places like CTB and St. Luke’s provide for small private gatherings and community events, but the lack of a sizable public social space poses a challenge to the neighborhood’s ability to provide for its residents.

As Collegetown’s raison d’etre, Cornell is stepping up to the plate to offer a space with the renovation of Schwartz Plaza. It’s not truly a public space as something owned by the city or county, but Cornell’s large, multi-faceted presence offers a reasonable facsimile.

Part of the purpose for building the Schwartz Performing Arts Center in Collegetown was to draw in people from outside the neighborhood, and mix the non-students with the students. When the building first opened in 1989, the plaza was intended as an outdoor reception area for Schwartz patrons, and the original design by English architect James Stirling, which called for a lively “forecourt”, was never built out. Instead, the plaza was walled off from the street and there was little exposure or interaction with College Avenue. As a result, outside of performances, Schwartz Plaza tends to be barren, its only social function comes from being close to a bus stop.

The stated goals for Schwartz Plaza’s renovation are to improve pedestrian circulation, increase safety by providing for better visibility, and to enhance aesthetics. To do this, Cornell will remove the 4-foot tall concrete wall that separates the plaza from the sidewalk, create a series of short stairs to facilitate “permeability” of pedestrians to and from the plaza, and adding new seating and landscaping to make the plaza more inviting – stone walls and pavers, wood-on-granite benches, recessed LED lighting, new bike racks and planters. It’s not really a new structure or even a change of use, but to make the plaza more effective for its intended use.

To quote the marketing pitch: “This project is expected to yield a lively new gathering space that serves as a catalyst for an enhanced pedestrian boulevard along College Avenue, the primary pedestrian gateway to the university. This project is conceived as a key node within a larger, future Collegetown public realm enhancement area.”

Being a fairly minor project, and having hosted some community meetings last fall to determine the neighborhood’s design preferences, this plan sailed through the city’s planning board review, in and out from February through March. I can’t seem to locate the SPR offhand, but the total cost is about $600,000.

As projects go, this one should be relatively short at about four months, May-August 2017. TWMLA is responsible for the plaza design, T. G. Miller for civil engineering work, and Taitem Engineering for electrical engineering. The contractor isn’t clear and (unusually) Cornell doesn’t have it listed on their webpages, but the invited bidders were all regional road/landscape construction firms.

In the photos, it looks like removal of the old plaza is underway, with the wall soon to follow. The plywood around the Vermont marble columns is for protection (way back, the columns were intended to be limestone and brick stringcourses, but it was value-engineered to marble and off-white Dryvit).

 





News Tidbits 3/4/17: Oh Hey, Tax Season

4 03 2017

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1. It’s that time of the year where the Tompkins County Department of Assessment goes through its assessment process in preparation for adjustments to property values for 2017, known as “Annual Equity Maintenance”, or AEM for short. Since there are 35,249 tax parcels in Tompkins County with a total value of $11.9 billion, not all are reassessed every year – most places are reassessed every three years, except for areas of rapid change (for instance, Fall Creek is every two years at present), or individual properties that are being undergoing change, whether it be a new construction, sudden property damage, or a sales transaction. The state has their own system, called Cyclical Reassessment Program (CRP, but the county docs refer to it as CRAP), but the county opts out to do their own valuations.

Some properties are easier than others – for example, a purchaser of a big-box property isn’t buying just the building, but a long-term lease from a tenant like BJ’s in Lansing. Student houses in parts of Collegetown are worth less than the property they sit on, which the tax system cannot accommodate. They provide one example of a $500,000 house sitting on $3 million of land – that’s not something the tax system is designed to handle, so the house is overvalued, but the property as a whole is very undervalued.

The department notes that sales were strong this year. According to their records, average sales are up 4.5% from $228,442 to $238,796, and the median sale is up 2.5%, from $200,000 to $205,000. The document also only notes 677 sales, which would be the lowest since before 1990, and is lower than the 681 sales noted by the Ithaca Board of Realtors (and IBR represents most but not all agencies). Someone is mistaken, it’s just hard to tell who. Assessments are on average about 8% lower (9% median) than home sale prices.

Some of the other takeaways are a modest softening in the student housing market in 2016 (Cornell enrollment in Ithaca did drop slightly from 2015-16, before renewing its upward trajectory in 2017), the city and Dryden’s Ellis Hollow continue to be strong markets but the other suburban neighborhoods are regaining interest, and Groton’s a mixed bag due to the poor state of some village properties. New assessments for 2017 (including parts of Ithaca town, Caroline, Freeville, Enfield, lakeside properties, restaurant properties, and manufacturing facilities) will be publicly available on July 1st.

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2. The redesign of Schwartz Plaza has started the formal review process. Cornell submitted the sketch plan at the February meeting, and hopes to have approvals for the renovation by next month. The properties would lose the walls and open up to the surrounding Collegetown, in what Cornell and Ithaca hope will give the densely-populated neighborhood a needed public gathering space. As reported by the Cornell Daily Sun’s Nick Bogel-Burroughs, project manager David Cutter hopes that the project leads to further public space enhancements near the stone arch bridge and down by Eddygate – this includes additional pedestrian and bike facilities, electronic boards with bus information, and a possible realignment of the Oak/College intersection into a T-configuration.

But for now the focus is on Schwartz Plaza. Cornell intends to have approvals within 1-2 months, start construction in June, and have the new plaza ready by August 2017. Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects is the design firm of record.

Postscript, Novarr’s townhouses at 238 Linden were pulled from the meeting before the sketch plan was due to be presented at the city planning board meeting last Tuesday. As for 301 Eddy, still trying to dig up information.

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3. Nick Reynolds has a very interesting profile and interview of Jason Fane over at the Times. Definitely worth a read about one of Ithaca’s most prominent landlords.

Speaking personally, I’ve got mixed feelings about it, if only because it takes a blog quote I made about 330 College Avenue in 2014, and in the article’s context, I sound like an arthouse snob. Fane has always been serious about building on the property, and that’s great, but I stand by my quote on 330 – after the years of negotiations on the new form district code, there is no way a 12-story building was going to be built on the corner of College and Dryden, even if Jagat Sharma, Fane’s favored architect, brought his A-game. It’s not a matter of economics or taste, it’s a matter of very real opposition from the Belle Sherman and East Hill neighborhoods. Any politician who considers signing off would be voted out of office ASAP. Any city staffer who consents will be shown the door. Look at what happened with State Street Triangle. In a city where people have many gripes about development, this is one project that is truly stopped in its tracks. I think Fane could negotiate 7 or even 8 stories if he gives the city a donation towards affordable housing, or some other community benefit. but not 11 or 12.

I like grand buildings and imposing structures, but I’m also a realist. End rant.

4. Todd Fox’s Visum Development has a couple construction updates on their Facebook page. Exterior stud walls are being installed on the lower floors of 201 College, and two of the three townhouse strings at 902 Dryden Road have been fully framed and sheathed, with siding installation underway. At a glance, it looks like the exterior will look more like the elevations on Modern Living Rentals’ listings page rather than the STREAM Collaborative renders – the renders had horizontal lap siding, the elevations show vertical lap siding as seen above.

If more developer could post updates as Visum and Carina Construction do, that would be swell.

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5. Wrapping up a quiet news week, here’s the agenda for the town of Ithaca planning board next week. A lot subdivision for a new house, a pair of communication towers, and the final approvals for the Sleep Inn proposed by hotelier Pratik Ahir at 635 Elmira Road. True to the sketches presented last fall, the design has that rustic look on all sides of the structure, and all the town’s requests have been met, which should allow for a smooth final approval meeting on Tuesday. The design will be unique among the 320 locations of the Sleep Inn chain. It should be noted that the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals was very split on the height and size variances, approving them with just a 3-2 margin.

In the other towns, the only one with anything new to report is Danby, whose planning board is looking at a special use permit for a property management company’s offices at 1429 Danby Road, and a 3,535 SF expansion to the Ithaca Waldorf School at 20 Nelson Road.