The first available renderings of the proposed ArtHaus development from Vecino Group. 

Vecino Group's Arthaus project had its turn before the public on Tuesday as they pursue a tax abatement from the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency. 

The meeting started with a presentation from Vecino's Molly Chiang to refresh the crowd about the specifications of the project. It's still 124 affordable units, with 40 of the unites set aside for formerly homeless you th and families with on-site supportive services from TC Action, as well as artist-focused amenities. "Affordable" in this case will include rents for people making 50-80 percent of Area Median Income, which means that rents for studios will be between $737 and $1180 per month, up to 1,095 and 1,752 for a three-bedroom apartment, the highest price. 

In total, the project is asking for slightly over $4.5 million in tax breaks over 30 years, and projects $28.79 million in private investment generated by the project. During those 30 years, Vecino is proposing to pay $3.73 million in new property taxes as the land's value increases from the project. 

Bill Benson, a neighboring resident, said that while he supports the sentiment of the project, he feels that it is too out of character with the rest of the surrounding area. 

"There's no one I know, both living on the West Hill or any of my friends, that are in any way opposed to trying to get affordable housing into Ithaca in the best way possible," Benson said. "What I'm here to point out is this is a totally out of character, huge complex that does not fit into my neighborhood. [...] It is one big block of concrete, with windows the size of prison slits."

Most of the criticism for the proposal was reserved for the building's design, which was alternately described as both ugly and too large. There isn't much of a chance for the project's leaders to respond during these types of meetings, though it might set up questions that can be asked when the TCIDA officially decides on the project's abatement at their May monthly meeting. 

"I'm very disappointed that after lots of thought, this is what we come up with," Ithaca resident Kathleen Halton said. 

Common Council member George McGonigal also weighed in, reiterating his previously stated remarks that while the Waterfront District was rezoned to include housing, its primary use should still be industrial developments.

"I admire Vecino and their purpose," McGonigal said. "My concern is that the size of this project is so large that it will decrease the industrial viability of our last remaining industrial zone. This is where we should be growing jobs, and the size of this project compromises that."

The project will return before the TCIDA on May 8. 

(1) comment

Peter Wissoker

The Arthus, LLC project is, by design, a very much needed source of affordable housing for our community. It is the right project, but on the wrong site, and there are issues with the financing arrangements and taxpayers' share of the burden.

1. The site:
a. Do we really want the county subsidizing a large, low-income housing project right across the street from one of the largest refuse disposal sites in the county is likely to perpetuate in the County what is called in the case of African-American and Latino communities, environmental racism. In this case, we are putting low-income and otherwise extremely-vulnerable populations in a relatively isolated area, on a site that was an auto repair shop for decades, across from a large metal recycling facility. This is simply not the right thing to do and I urge the board to consider the siting of the building as a negative factor when deciding about the abatement.

b. The building is a poor use of industrial land, and therefore contrary to the mission of the IDA’s larger, employment-related goals. At a time when we risk having a shortage of industrial land, this is not the right place for a building of this size . There is no point in trying to have all the housing downtown (to reduce sprawl) if we force all the non-health/education jobs in the city out---a kind of industrial sprawl as it were. The IDA should play a role in the preservation of industrial property, property that will be used to generate jobs, and not use its programs to diminish the available stock. Is there somewhere else the building could be put?

2. The abatement:
a. The developers are asking the county (and the other taxing entities that are affected by the IDA’s decision) to provide $4.5 million in tax breaks (including sales tax). Yet they are putting in less than a million dollars of equity, or 3.3% of the project’s cost. This is unconscionable, particularly for a firm that owns or operates more than 25 large buildings and clearly has deep pockets.

b. The agency should either decline the abatement under these terms or go back to the developer to insist they put in more of their own equity. At the hearing today, the agency’s president, Ms. McDaniel, noted that without tax relief the project would not be viable. But there are other ways to resolve the issue. For instance, the company could put in more of its own equity. Why not split what is needed 50-50? The developers could put up three million dollars and the county would contribute the same. That would show that both parties are committed to the success of the project. Alternatively, if the county keeps its contribution level, the developer could match our share (or at least come close) and in the process lower the mortgage payments, and, as a result, decrease the amount of funds necessary to render the project viable (although this won’t solve the siting problem).

3. Employment:
a. How can it be possible that there will have no employees for a building of this size, as is stated on page 8 of the application form? No guards, no janitors, no rental agents, no rent collection? (Perhaps it is time to change the form to include language that says something like “you or your contractors” or something along those lines).

b. As we know, health and social service workers are often underpaid. If there is sufficient leverage, could one condition for an abatement be a requirement that anyone working at this building for Tompkins Community Action be paid a living wage?

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