Ithacans will have to wait at least a bit longer to find out what will be the actual Green Street Garage redevelopment.
While the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) and development firm Vecino continue ironing out the final details of the redevelopment plan, which would bring hundreds of units of affordable housing to the Ithaca Commons, the IURA met Thursday to provide an update on the negotiations and sticking points. A quick vote at the beginning of the discussion established a new negotiation deadline, which was set to expire in the next few days but has now been stretched until August 29.
IURA Economic Development Committee Chair Chris Proulx said progress is being made, and the issues discussed certainly seemed minor in nature, but that both sides wanted more clarity on the conference center issue before proceeding.
IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn said the ongoing tweaks to the project haven't detracted from its overall mission, which is basically to provide a substantial amount of affordable housing as well as rehabilitate the Green Street Garage, provide parking spots and potentially construct a conference center.
"It's still consistent with the original vision of the project," Bohn said. "But one of the issues that has come up is, the conference center project is very difficult to finance, and [Vecino needs] to know if we want the conference center or not."
Those financing issues, which have to do with securing grant funding, are at the center of the continuing talks. Vecino has presented the City of Ithaca with three proposal options, one that includes a conference center and two that are meant as alternatives in case the conference center proves to be too dicey financially. To review, the three proposals include:
- Version 1.1 - one 49,000 square foot (SF) conference center, 218 units of affordable housing, 350 parking spaces and 11 stories total.
- Version 2.1 - 173 units of affordable housing, 9,000 SF of retail space, parking spaces, eight stories total
- Version 2.2 - 273 units of affordable housing, 9,000 SF of retail space, parking spaces, 12 stories total
While a decision wasn't made, some interesting subplots have developed as the city mulls its choices and awaits a second conference center study to gauge feasibility, which is expected to be publicized this week. Several officials have come out in favor of Version 2.2, citing the high need for affordable housing in the city. As always, the proposed rental rates are here:
Mayor Svante Myrick, Alderpersons Ducson Nguyen, Seph Murtagh, and Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles and others have all voiced support for the larger 273-unit proposal, but only in the event that a conference center is found to be too burdensome to complete. So, basically, the conference center is still the top priority, but if it can't go forward, the general position of the City of Ithaca is that more affordable housing units should be the second highest priority.
Interestingly, though, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, the city's most prominent affordable housing agency, submitted a letter to the IURA expressing concern over all three versions of Vecino's plan so far. They asserted three critiques: that the allowed income range is too narrow and the building too large, decreasing the amount of choice for lower-income residents; that the project should cater to a lower and wider income range than it currently does, acknowledging that this would cause financial restructuring for the plan.
As for recommendations, INHS said Vecino shouldn't build more than 125 units, a sharp decrease from all of their proposals, that the developer should widen the income range from 50-80 percent of Area Median Income to 30-100 percent of Area Median Income and to provide more information about how Vecino could effectively manage the property locally (pointing to West Village and Overlook Apartments as examples of mismanaged properties).
INHS also disclosed their previously reported involvement and withdrawal from the Vecino project, at which time they had also made clear they thought the project contained too many units. In the letter, the agency reiterated its confidence in Vecino's overall ability to develop the project, but restated their objections.
"But, based on our experience in the community, we do not agree that a single project, with a maximum build out, targeting a very narrow income band, and offering residents very little choice, is an appropriate approach," the letter concludes. It is signed by Executive Director Johanna Anderson and Joe Bowes, INHS' director of real estate development.
Bohn said he felt that a final conference center decision had to be made by, at the latest, January 31, 2020, in order to maintain a suitable grant proposal and funding schedule. Proulx said the Economic Development Committee was in favor of the largest project, which would be 273 units of affordable housing, should the conference center be ruled out.