However the $40 million, 620-resident housing project proposed for the State Street triangle at the east end of the Commons turns out, it’s doubtful it will look like one big block from any angle.
The city planning board took a look at new renderings for the 11-story building at their Aug. 25 meeting, and the primary concern they raised was “massing.” That is, the building is in their opinion too big and looking too much like one flat face for the area which it’s planned to go.
In a memo to the planning board, city historic planner Bryan McCracken wrote that in his opinion, an “11-story building that encompasses an entire block is not compatible with the massing, size, scale, or proportions of the Ithaca Downtown Historic District.” (The State Street triangle is not within the downtown historic district, but it’s immediately adjacent.) The sheer size of the building is emphasized by walls that read as “single volumes,” McCracken wrote, suggesting that light wells or “stepping back” the top four stories be considered by developer Campus Advantage and its architects.
Christine O’Malley of Historic Ithaca told the board during public comment that the project as proposed would have a “significant negative aesthetic impact on a highly visible downtown street block” and that in the “rush to push for density the city failed to examine the consequences for that site” before a height up to 120 feet was allowed there in June 2013.
When the planning board took time to comment on the project, Jack Elliott reinforced McCracken’s point: “It’s not about lines and cornices; it’s about massing.” CJ Randall talked about the idea of “porosity,” breaking up the block into distinctive facades.
Mark Darling offered that he wants this project “to be the gateway building to downtown and this doesn’t look like the gateway building to me.” Darling said that he’s still all right with the concept of densifying downtown and getting neighborhoods back to single-family housing, but “this looks like a different city.” John Schroeder repeated a point that comes up on different projects from different people: “The fact that something is allowed by zoning doesn’t mean it’s the appropriate thing to do.”
After much discussion of how much light will come in and some confusion from the board as to why an opening into an interior “well” was not facing toward the Commons, architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative offered that he had considered an option like cutting down three stories for a stretch of 50 feet across and asked if that would be considered a significant change by the board. McKenzie Jones-Rounds allowed that sounded like “a significant option” to her, but Elliott had a far-reaching request for the architects: “Forget about how many units per [floor-area ratio],” Elliott said. “Make it pop. Bring it back here, and we’ll say that looks better … and we’ll see how to shoehorn back in those units.”
Ithaca’s landlords have other concerns about the project. G.P. Zurenda told the board on Aug. 25 that he believes “it’s inappropriate and unethical to give tax abatements for a high end development. It’s taking from the middle class and giving to the wealthy ... unlike hotels [this project] is not bringing new people into the city to visit.”
On the Landlords Association of Tompkins County listserv, John Guttridge defended the State Street project. He would “rather see growth happening downtown than in Lansing or elsewhere on the periphery.”
Others, though, were questioning the conventional wisdom that Ithaca’s vacancy rate is nearly nonexistent. Someone asked whether there was any new information to supplement a 2011 Danter Company study on downtown housing which says that 1,000 new units is the conservative number needed to assuage demand.
“It seems to me that members of this group have been noticing how hard it is to rent a vacant places this summer, so how could we need more apartments,” David Shuman wrote. “Why would the city give abatement to large projects that will make our local taxes go up but force rents to go down due to a glut of apartments.”
In addition to its size and appearance and the question of whether it should receive tax abatements, another big question that has been raised over the Trebloc project so far is whether the parking glut so often claimed by city staff will become scarcity quickly, especially, as several landlords speculated, if the oft-talked about convention center project at the Hotel Ithaca gets off the ground.
Robin Tropper-Herbel of the Community School of Music and Arts asked the planning board about that parking glut, which she said is “based on this alleged belief the city garages are not being used to full capacity at present time … I urge you to pursue further inquiry about when do the parking garages reach the tipping point.”
Campus Advantage estimates on ithacaliving.com, the information site they have set up for the project, that it will rent parking 250 spots for the building. How many of those will be in the Cayuga Street garage, the only long-term rental spot downtown – at $65 per month – is unclear, as surface parking for those who only need cars for occasional trips might be available outside of downtown.
After the Aug. 25 meeting, Campus Advantage vice president Ronnie Macejewski said that when his company first came to Ithaca with the State Street proposal “everyone was really in favor of it,” but now they have “done a complete 180.” It wasn’t clear (and Macejewski didn’t respond to a request for follow-up comment) whom, exactly, were the excited parties. Planning so far has cost about a half million dollars for the Austin-based company, Macejewski said.
Whether Campus Advantage has ever dealt with a city where a planning board isn’t afraid to ask for touches like curtains that look like waterfalls is unclear. Clicking through their online portfolio of about 40 properties nationwide shows that Ithaca is their venture furthest north and east, and many of the projects are of the three and four-story campus housing type with names like “University Crossing” and “Flats at Mallard Creek.” Several are called “(Something) Lofts.” Most include a pool in the courtyard, and pool party pictures in the photo albums. Many look suspiciously like greenfield development, and this web browser, at least, can’t find a project of the size or in the type of location that they propose for Ithaca.