The downtown Harold’s Square project, which has been on a rollercoaster of ups and downs since being approved several years ago, received a requested tax abatement shift earlier this month, allowing the project another year before their tax breaks start to kick in.
With the myriad of delays that have beset the project, between struggling to secure outside financing and a dispute between the developer L Enterprises, owned by David Lubin of Elmira, and construction firm Taylor, the Builders, the project has been delayed for at least a year, as of February. That would mean if the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency hadn’t accepted their request for a postponed start of their abatement, which runs for 10 years, they wouldn’t have been able to maximize the first year (at least), since the tax break wouldn’t have been coming on the finished building.
“The developer wanted the abatement period to apply to the time when it is actually going to be open and operating,” TCIDA Vice Chair Martha Robertson said. “If the abatement started when it was supposed to start, it’d be a year or year and a half while it’s still under construction.”
The abatement’s approval comes even as some members of the public, always wary of tax abatements, argued that the building’s updated changes were impactful enough on the final state of the project to warrant at least another public hearing on the abatement. There were also demands that a safety plan be implemented so the Commons playground could reopen in time for the warm weather. Tompkins County Area Development President Heather McDaniel said that though the agency knew of the changes, they felt they would be able to rely on more information submitted down the line to decide if a more in-depth review process is necessary.
“We are aware that some of the usage has changed in the building and they’re reconfiguring some of the internal spaces,” McDaniel said. “Once they give us their final construction budget, with square footages and what’s changed, we’ll make a determination on that and that will happen before two years from now when the PILOT kicks in [...] We don’t have the information yet with which to make a determination.”
McDaniel said eventually, the number of apartments or amount of office space might shift, but the project will likely still qualify for a tax abatement considering the rules of the City of Ithaca’s Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program (CIITAP), as a mixed-use, multi-floor building.
Vicki Taylor Brous, who’s serving as spokesperson and consultant on the Harold’s Square project, went into some further detail regarding the changes that have taken place to the building’s design and plans.
“The project was originally slated to have ground floor retail, mid-floor office, and then housing,” Brous wrote in an email. “This plan included micro units. After an amount of office space became available, and housing studies indicated a great demand for more units, this plan was changed to add more micro units of housing. There has been a moderate softening in the housing market, and after inquiries from office tenants who requested spaces with additional natural light, the change was made back to office space. There have been some facade changes and the addition of balconies on the west side.”
Despite those changes, decision-makers do not seem concerned that the project will turn out significantly different than what has been submitted and discussed.
“I wasn’t concerned about what I heard about the changes,” Robertson said, noting that she knew if there were substantial changes the Tompkins County Area Development team, led by Heather McDaniel, would have raised a red flag and potentially made Harold’s Square reinitiate the abatement process with a public hearing.
Meanwhile, though work was purported to have restarted on the project already after a delay to start the year, the construction has either been stalled or slowed until this week. In an update posted by the development team, they said construction would resume this week, although they maintain that work has been ongoing over the last several weeks, but has not been as visible since certain elements weren’t in use, like the large crane.
“Onsite work is set to restart on the Harold’s Square site next week,” the update said, available on the project’s website. “There were some delays in re-issuing permits and insurances from the old to the new contractors, LeChase Construction, LLC [...] As the weather improves steel construction will continue and concrete will be able to be poured.”
According to the update, there will also be a meeting to update neighbors and downtown constituents, which will take place on Thursday, March 7, 2019 at 2 p.m. in City Hall.
Brous also addressed the Commons playground, which has been closed for months due to the nearby construction at the direction of the city’s planning department. When the playground was initially closed businesses on the Commons were irate, arguing that the closure would deter families with children from coming downtown for a night out, but the planning department wouldn’t budge.
There’s a tentative plan in place, Brous said, to reopen the playground by sealing the front of the building’s construction off from the Commons, but it remains to be seen if this will be effective and approved once implemented.
“We all want the playground to be opened as soon as it is safe to do so,” Brous said. “There are authorities that will not allow it while work is happening above. Our goal is to enclose the front portion of the building as soon as feasible so that the play area can be opened. It will still need to be closed periodically as required for safety. The hope is to accomplish this by late spring.”