ITHACA, NY -- On Aug. 10, The Downtown Facilities Committee gathered to consider a resolution to acquire the properties at 300 North Tioga St. and 308 North Tioga St. for the future construction of a downtown Ithaca County Governmental Office Building. The meeting, which also considered the environmental impact of eventual construction, comes on the heels of several months of negotiation between Tompkins County and the property owners of the two land parcels.
The purchase of the current buildings on Tioga Street — the Keybank Building and the Ithaca Professional Building — would amount to $2.8 million. Tompkins County seeks to consolidate the County offices into a single location as a way to maximize efficiencies, enhance service delivery to county constituents, and improve environmental efficiencies, among other potential benefits. The project would not exceed 65,000 square feet and would be no more than five stories high.
Before discussing the acquisition resolution, the board considered the environmental impact resolution, assessing the maximum possible impact of construction at the site. Although the project is in its preliminary stages and lacks any concrete construction plans, Jonathan Wood reminded the committee that SEQR case law requires an evaluation of environmental significance.
“You have to do an environmental analysis before you really know what’s going to be there to comply with the law, so you do your best to look at what might have the maximum environmental impact,” he said. “So I wouldn’t look at the environmental assessment as having any real commitment, it’s just trying to do its best to look at what mightbe the environmental impact.”
After comments of support from some of the members, the committee unanimously passed a negative determination of environmental significance, meaning the construction will not significantly impact the environment.
The committee swiftly moved on to the resolution to authorize the acquisition of property for the proposed project. Several members voiced their support for the new building, welcoming the possibility to consolidate most, if not all, of the county staff into one spot.
Additionally, they responded to some of the main concerns that have been raised about the project. Considering that the county had recently paid $1.8 million for two buildings and a parking lot on the 400 block of North Tioga St., many critics consider the purchase of the 300 block buildings brash and the result of inadequate planning.
Shawna Black responded to this criticism, calling the planned purchase a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” It allows the county to construct a contiguous building with ample space in a strategic location for county staff.
“There are very few times in the city of Ithaca that you are going to have two properties that are older buildings that will be available,” she said. “As far as our constituents are concerned, this is the center point for all of our districts...I foresee this being a wise investment.”
The county plans to continue using the 400 block property during construction of the new building. Once construction is completed, the county will most likely sell portions of the 400 block site. The county owns a portion of Sears St. by the 400 block, and some members brought up the idea of using these parcels to build affordable housing. Specific plans for the fate of the 400 block and Sears St., however, remain undetermined.
Member Deborah Dawson shared her support for the project and responded to the concern that many residents don’t understand why the purchase of both buildings is necessary. She pointed to the many potential benefits to the public that purchasing the two buildings would generate.
“It makes it much easier for us to make some kind of arrangement to build affordable housing on Sears Street, which the residents have been requesting,” she said. “It allows us to use some of the remainder of that property for parking and perhaps electric charging infrastructure.”
Rick Snyder noted that some constituents have raised concerns that purchasing these properties and constructing a new building might not be a wise decision during the pandemic, especially considering the large expense of the project (the members did not specifically mention how it will be funded). In response, he framed the project as a long term investment that will outlive the pandemic.
“The decision we are considering here is really a 50 year decision, perhaps more, and we have to look well beyond the pandemic for what will really work for the county,” he said. “You’re not losing value by buying real estate — you're transferring it from cash to land... we will not lose value by investing in this land.”
Adding to the chorus of support for the project, Interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes shared her excitement about the new building.
“I think the consolidation of county operations downtown will only add to the synergies and efficiencies of the workforce as well as the greening of our facilities,” she said. “I am excited about the opportunities this purchase affords us, and I am pleased to see it coming to fruition.”
The committee unanimously passed the resolution.
Before adjourning the meeting, the members discussed a rough timeline and future plans for the project. Specifically, they considered whether or not they should pass the project on to a subcommittee such as Facilities and Infrastructure or even form a new subcommittee to manage it.
Robertson advocated sealing up major decisions this year, regardless of which committee tackles the project.
“I think it would be most efficient to continue with this group that has the knowledge so far of this design,” she said. “I think there is work to be done and you can certainly move through the decision making and get it done this calendar year so that it’s buttoned up in the right direction.”
Black disagreed with Roberton’s haste to shore up plans for the project in the next few months citing the heavy load already facing county officials.
“I don’t see a reason to hurry this forward over the next three or four months,” she said. “We are working on ARPA funds, we are working on the budget — we have a lot going on right nw, so if it can be covered in [Facilities & Infrastructure] or even having a special committee meeting, I think that is fine. I don’t see anything major coming up in the next 200 days that we will have to make major decisions on.”
Even though no concrete decisions about committee referral or timing were made at the meeting, the passage of the resolutions marks an important starting point for the proposed county building. The land acquisition plans will be sent to the full legislature for approval, and if approved, Holmes can formally authorize the purchase.
Faith Fisher is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun's inaugural summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times.