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.





News Tidbits 11/5/16: Condemnation and Praise

5 11 2016

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1. The Maguire waterfront plan has been rejected. By an 8-2 vote, the Ithaca city Common Council voted to discontinue consideration of the state-of-the-art Ford/Lincoln/Nissan dealership, with most citing concerns about the project’s marginal or poor fit with the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for an urban mixed-use form of development in the Carpenter Circle area where this dealership is proposed. The votes in favor of the proposal, from the third ward’s Donna Fleming and first ward’s George McGonigal, cited ways it could be conceived as fitting with the plan (greener alternative, local business expansion), and challenges the site offers to the city’s urban plan (poor soils, trains, chemical storage, power lines).

Although this shuts down the current proposal, this may not be the last we hear from the Maguires or the Carpenter Business Park site. At the meeting, company President Phil Maguire offered a teaser, saying they may partially liquidate their land holdings to bring in mixed-use development that would share the CBP space with the dealership. Given the heavy alterations that would need to occur, the council decided to vote down the existing proposal and send a message that it doesn’t fit the city’s goals. However, the council said they and the planning department would expedite review of an amended proposal, should it come forth.

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2. If you’ve ever wanted some explicit discussion of the challenges of doing affordable housing in Tompkins County, here’s a great summary courtesy of the the town of Ithaca. Back in August, the town’s Planning Committee (of town board members, similar to the city’s PEDC Committee) met with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services Director Paul Mazzarella for a Q&A. The town is considering regulations for inclusionary housing, and after INHS’s Greenways project fell through, they would like guidance and input on to make an effective code that promotes affordable housing without killing all residential development. Here are some of the highlights:

– Ithaca is a market of smaller builders. Local developers aren’t able or interested in doing huge projects, and most outsiders don’t see Tompkins County as a big enough or profitable enough market to tap into. So that leaves it to smaller builders who don’t have scale efficiencies, and are inclined to build luxury housing because the return on investment is more likely (i.e. less risky). The strong local economy also means that the local construction labor pool is largely tapped out, and additional crews have to be imported.

– Mandated affordable housing tends to work best in expensive, hot markets where the Return on Investment (ROI) for the market-rate units is more likely – your Seattles, San Franciscos and New Yorks. Even there, it is often paired with incentives such as height or square footage. Mazzarella noted he doesn’t think the city’s voluntary program will work very well. One thing to note with mixed-income projects is that the market-rate units will often be higher priced to cover the cost of lower-priced units. Simplified example – say you’re building ten houses for a sale price of $250,000. To meet an affordable mandate you sell two at $200,000, but to still obtain adequate ROI, that $100,000 is going to spread among the other eight – so you have two for sale at at $200,000, and eight at $262,500.

– We talk about modular homes as lower-cost alternatives, and for rural locations they often are, due to materials and labor costs. However, INHS found that in their experience for sites in the city and town, the cost is comparable to stick-built, although at larger scales, cost efficiencies may be achieved (ex. the Belle Sherman Cottages).

Another interesting read is the committee’s September meeting with city historic preservation planner Bryan McCracken and Historic Ithaca’s Christine O’Malley about protecting historical resources. As it turns out, the city cannot designate an individual landmark without the owner’s permission, and historic districts require the approval of 60% of affected property owners.

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3. Seems like Tiny Timbers had a well-attended open house. On their blog, the Dolphs have shared a cross-sectional diagram of an exterior wall – beneath the hemlock siding and copper trim will be ZIP sheathing and polyiso (thermoset plastic foam) insulation. ZIP is everywhere in residential construction, polyiso less common – locally, it was used extensively with the Boiceville Cottages in Caroline. On the inside, one has sheetrock and bamboo flooring. Exposed hemlock posts and ceilings will complement the sheetrock.

Also being rolled out is a fifth home design, a larger two-bedroom, two-bath home with a hipped roof. Variety is the space of life, as the saying goes.

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4. It was exciting to finally see the release of renderings for John Novarr’s College Townhouses project at 119-125 College Avenue. Links to the Site Plan Review document, historical documentation and drawings can be found in the Voice write-up here. There have yet to be images released for the garden apartment building to be built at the rear of the property, but look for the same general design features as the rowhouses. As expected from ikon.5 Architects, the design is modern and glassy, and given the Facebook comments and a couple of emails that came in, some neighbors are less than happy about that. However, this isn’t a historic district, so long as it meets zoning regulations, Novarr is free to hire whoever he darn well pleases. As mentioned in previous write-ups, he had ikon.5 design his guest house, so this isn’t strictly a cost thing, he genuinely likes their work. It was a bit surprising but interesting to see the well-researched history of the three 19th century boarding houses currently on the property, and it makes me wonder if that was a requirement. Novarr’s proven to be accommodating in the past, perhaps he’ll deconstruct rather than demolish, and the salvageable parts can be reused.

The project team will meet with members of the Planning Board on Tuesday afternoon for Design Review – about the only thing that stands out at initial glance is the lack of windows or visual interest with the north face, barely noticeable in the rendering. That probably won’t fly with the board, but we’ll see if it gets changed up as it goes through review. City Centre, the 8-story Trebloc site redevelopment, will also undergo further design review at the meeting.

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5. The Chapter House is going to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) yet again. The changes are subtle and few, but the rules are the rules. A service door will be added to the west (rear) wall, the inset vestibule is being reconfigured a bit, and the third-floor dormer windows are being changed from double-hung to casement – meaning that instead of sliding up and down, they’ll open with a crank. The ILPC will vote on the changes in November, which will probably sail through without much debate, and hopefully, just maybe, quite possibly, the Chapter House project can get underway.

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6. A couple quick updates from the town of Ithaca Planning Board minutes – after some discussion and a bit of praise for the redesign effort, the board opted for timber-trimmed Design “A” for the Sleep Inn proposal on Elmira Road. The minutes from Maplewood’s EIS meeting were also uploaded, and it is rare to see this much positivity in discussion of a project – not to say there weren’t dissenters, but the alternative energy source and efficiency initiative, use of local labor, and softening of the design on Mitchell Street won most of the speaking audience over. Public comment closed on Halloween, and now the project team must respond to all the reasonable comments received as part of the review process.





News Tidbits 8/20/16: Another Campus Coming?

20 08 2016

Fairly quiet week, but still a few things going on-

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1. The Journal’s Nick Reynolds followed up on the pile-driving underway at the 210 Hancock site in Ithaca’s North Side neighborhood. Admittedly, no one wants to live next to a site while hearing and feeling the bang of the pile-driver against the piles being inserted into the ground. Thankfully, this phase of the affordable housing project should be wrapped up by the end of the month. Lecesse Construction’s subcontractor, Ferraro Piling and Shoring of rural Erie County, is inserting 10-15 piles per day between the hours of 8 AM and 4 PM, and about 170 piles will be used in the project. Not fun for the neighbors, but this too shall pass.

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2. The town of Ithaca’s planning board had their close look at the Sleep Inn proposal for Elmira Road. They were not impressed. The primary complaints were that it was a one-sided design (meaning the front received significantly more cosmetic attention than the rear and sides), that it was big and that it was ugly.

The architect of the 70-room hotel, Joe Turnowchyk of HEX 9 Architects, responded with “all corporate hotels are basically ugly”, which isn’t the kind of response that will be well-received. It was followed with “[He thinks] that if they’re going to put more money into the front of the building, they shouldn’t need to address the rear”, which isn’t a good response either, because the rear faces the Black Diamond Trail.

Outsider looking in, one interpretation of the board’s commentary is that the stone and brick is fine, but they want less of a slab and more articulation – the recently-opened 64-room Best Western Plus in Cortlandville comes to mind. The massing is broken up, and architectural details and brickwork add visual interest, giving it aesthetic appeal even though the road is 40 or 45 MPH over there. The minutes note a comparison to an Arizona Sleep Inn to show what can be done with Choice Hotels brands. Anyway, the decision was tabled, with a revised design presentation planned for a September meeting.

3. New to the market this week – a duplex and five-unit mobile home park in Varna being marketed for “development potential”. The site is a one acre parcel at 10 Freese Road in Varna, touted as “perfect for townhouses or apartments”. Since the late 1980s, the “Wayside Mobile Home Park” has been the property of Ithaca attorney Ray Schlather, who was an ardent opponent of West End density and waterfront rezoning a few years back.

Zoning is Varna Hamlet Traditional District (VHTD), and it gets a little weird density-wise – per the guidelines, and being one acre, a developer could do four single-family homes, six townhouses, six condos, or three rental apartments, max 30% lot coverage. If LEED Certified, add 2 S-F homes, 2 townhouses, 1 condo, or 4 apartment units respectively. Lastly, there’s a redevelopment bonus, which honestly appears to be at the town’s discretion. If awarded, add another home, 2 townhouses, condo or 4 apartments. So in theory, max build-out for a green redevelopment is either 7 single-family houses, 10 townhouses, eight condos or eleven rental apartments on that acre of land. No idea what happens if they’re combos thereof.

Anyway, the property is being offered at $219,000, just a little over the $192,500 tax assessment.

4. So this is intriguing – the city of Ithaca Common Council will be taking a vote next Wednesday to take $150,000 from the $500,000 Capital Project fund to relocate and build a new Fire station #9, and fund two consolidation studies. One would consolidate the city hall, the Central Fire Station, Station No. 9, and Police HQ into a government campus at the site of the Central Fire Station at 310 West Green Street; the second is to study a centralized facility shared by water/sewer and streets/facilities. There’s a lot that need to be considered as part of the government campus study, which would likely involve buying neighboring properties, or building skyward. Also worth noting, the fire station parking lot is part of the Downtown West historic district. Anyway, look for a lot more discussion if the money is awarded and the study gets underway.

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5. This week’s eye candy. Folks on Orchard Place asked for more detailed renders of the proposed two-family home at 123 Eddy Street, and here they are. Medium yellow Hardie board with white trim was the original plan. It appears that after the original drawing was submitted, the roof was realigned and one of the west-facing (front) second-floor windows was removed.

Note that this is just the planning board lot subdivision approval – although a single two-family home is typically too small to trigger planning board’s site plan review qualifications, the design still has to be approved by the ILPC and the Board of Zoning Appeals.

6. Case in point – If you live in Fall Creek, you might notice a new two-family house in the coming months. The Stavropoulos family, owners of the State Street Diner, just purchased the house for sale at 1001 North Aurora Street (above asking price, which is, for better or worse, quite common in Fall Creek) and plans to replace it with a duplex. Tompkins Trust gave them a $400,000 construction loan on the 18th. It’s a little different from the Stavropoulos’ typical M.O., which is to buy an existing house and do major renovations, as they did at 318-320 Pleasant Street and 514 Linn Street. This one looks like it will be a completely new build. No BZA, ILPC or Planning Board approval is required here, just staff level approval from the city.

7. Somewhat interesting Planning Board meeting next Tuesday. Here’s what in the bullpen:

1. Agenda Review 6:00
2. Privilege of the Floor 6:01
3. Subdivision Review 6:20

A. 123 & 125 Eddy St. (shown above)
Applicant: Nick Lambrou
Actions: Declaration of Lead Agency PUBLIC HEARING Determination of Environmental Significance Recommendation to BZA

4. Site Plan Review 6:40
A. Project: Mixed-Use Building (Harold’s Square)
Location: 123-139 E. State St. (The Commons)
Applicant: David Lubin for L Enterprises, LLC
Actions: Consideration of Project Changes

So I wrote about these changes for the Voice. The Planning Board resolution calls for modifications to the new design. The board mandates glass block for the elevator shaft on the north and lower west facades, restoration of the terra cotta cap and vertical bands on the Commons-facing facade, and restoring a deleted window from the East facade above the Sage Building. Could really used some updated renders right about now.

B. Project: Mixed-Use Building — Collegetown Crossing 6:55
Location: 307 College Ave.
Applicant: Scott Whitham for
Actions: Consideration of Project Changes (Landscape)

Project Description: Some slight tweaks here to the pedestrian walkway, mostly changes “simplifying and altering materials for the landscape”. The curvy benches are now straight, and the trees were eliminated in favor of shrubs because of concerns of branches extending onto the fire station’s property.

C. Project: Apartment Building 7:05
Location: 201 College Ave.
Applicant: Noah Demarest, STREAM Collaborative, for Visum Development Group
Actions: Consideration of Amended Negative Declaration of Environmental Significance, Request for Zoning Interpretation & Appeal Consideration of Final Site Plan Approval

Dunno what to say about this one at this point, since this is unfamiliar territory for everyone involved. We’ll see what happens.

D. SKETCH PLAN: 607 S. Aurora St. 7:35

The new project of the month is for 607 South Aurora Street on South Hill. It’s a single-family home on a 0.7 acre lot owned by Lou Cassaniti, the hot dog vendor on the Commons, but rumor mill says the applicant is Charlie O’Connor of Modern Living Rentals. Zoning is R-2a, which is detached single-family and duplex. Semi-educated guess, given lot size, zoning and rumored developer, the plans are small-scale infill, maybe subdividing the existing lot to build a duplex or two.

4. Zoning Appeals 7:50

5. Old/New Business 7:55

A. Chain Works District Redevelopment Project DGEIS: Special Planning Board Meeting, August 30, 2016, 6:00 p.m. to Review Comments/Responses
B. Maguire/Carpenter Business Park Temp. Mandatory Planned Unit Development (PUD): Public Information Session, Wednesday, August 31, 2016, 6:00 p.m., Common Council Chambers