Jim Merod at 144 The Commons

Emma Lou Sheikh, former owner of the building is at right.

Downtown Ithaca is in the process of becoming a neighborhood. Again. Developer Jim Merod is renovating 144 The Commons—above Mockingbird Paperie—to put three apartments each into the second and third floors, and he has added a fourth floor of living space to create a penthouse that covers the entire level.

Merod and his crew have stripped the century-old building to its supporting walls, joists, and pillars (in some cases replacing them) and framed out the units. On Monday, March 17 he led the board of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance on a tour through the nearly empty premises pointing out what he had already done—added a shaft for an elevator, mapped out the floor plans for the studios and one-bedroom apartments—and describing what he intends to do—add granite counters here and sliding partitions there.

In order to give his visitors a feeling for the quality of his vision and workmanship, Merod first showed the board what he had done with the former Shalimar and Ithacards spaces at the ground level, and he concluded the tour in the offices of architect John Snyder in the back of the building, a project he finished in April 2013 (see Dialynn Dwyer’s article at ithaca.com).

Merod’s modus operandi is to strip a building down to its elements, preserve what can be saved and restore it, and then rebuild the rest with materials that respect the age and mood of the property. In both the old Shalimar and the Snyder offices he had uncovered a pressed-tin ceiling and repainted it. He removed plaster and paint from the brick perimeter interior walls of the building to expose the rough surfaced framing that holds the masonry together and then covered the surfaces with a protective coating.

“We used water-based polyurethane in the back [in the architecture office], but that’s already peeling,” said Merod. “We try to be … green, but … so we used regular polyurethane in [Mockingbird].” He got permission from his tenant, John Snyder to allow the DIA to hold its board meeting in the back office, a soaring space with the back third going up two floors and a deep gallery on the second level stuffed with tables and computers for the staff.

•     •     •

DIA Executive Director Gary Ferguson led off the meeting with a financial report that indicated that the recent Chili Cookoff would break even in spite of the intensely cold weather on the date of the event. The Commons renovation project, he said, is now behind schedule, but DIA’s mitigation budget extends only to July, the original estimated completion date. Ferguson indicated that his staff would carry on as if the project were going to finish on time.

The executive director then gave a presentation that he described as a combination of two that he ordinarily gives separately. In the first part he summarized the various roles played by DIA in the downtown business improvement district (BID) and in the second he listed for his board the five different models for downtown organizations. These overviews were delivered in advance of the DIA annual meeting scheduled for Tuesday, April 24 at the Hotel Ithaca (former Holiday Inn).

DIA, he said, does not do development, but facilitiates it, citing Cayuga Place and Cayuga Green II as recent examples. “We also help with project formulation,” he said, “helping people to think about the form of project.” Here he cited the Argos Inn and the Marriott Hotel. The former opened in January and, according to Ferguson, the latter has all of its financing and permits completed, and they will be “in the ground” this spring at the juncture of Green and State streets (adjacent to the Green Street parking garage and the Rothschild Building). “This project was never not going to happen,” said Ferguson. “Mr. Marriott was always behind it.”

David Lubin, a member of the board, reported that he is still searching for tenants to occupy the office space in his planned Harold Square project at the other end of the Green Street parking garage. He needs to pre-lease either 30,000 square feet or two 15,000 square-foot offices.

Ferguson outlined the definitions of five models of downtown organization—data managment, business referral, case management, pre-development facilitator, and default developer—emphasizing that there is no one correct approach. A city should have the model appropriate to community conditions. The DIA operates largely on the case management model. When a business comes to them, they vet the candidates, and they are found to be an acceptable potential addition to the downtown community, the DIA helps them become a part of it.

The executive director wished to make clear which model Downtown Ithaca follows and asked his board to consider whether they would like to continue in that mode or change.

Associate Director Vicki Taylor Brous introduced the board to a twin campaign to raise money to close the gap between The Commons renovation budget and its cost. The $17 million project must raise an additional $1.9 million and DIA has broken the undertaking into two segments. The community campaign will attempt to raise $250,000 for a playground ($75,000), planters ($60,000) and “animal tracks” ($9,000), which are currently beyond the budget (although that, Brous noted, is subject to revision). DIA is also looking to add items like a Bryant Park-style outdoor reading room, kiosks, and holiday lighting.

Larger projects, like a fountain ($540,000), gateways ($223,000), granite pavers ($900,000) and news boxes ($24,000), represent a separate fundraising effort (a total of $1.7 million) that will go on largely outside the public view. The campaign kicks off on April 2. A decision about the fountain must be made before April 30.

A “Downtown Living” tour is scheduled for Sunday, April 27 from 1 to 4 p.m. Lanyards will be available at the visitors’ center on The Commons and free food and other amenities will be distributed at several businesses as a demonstration as to what is available to downtown residents. •

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