ITHACA, NY -- Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee got its first chance to discuss the proposal for Inlet Island after the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency chose Finger Lakes Development as the preferred proposal.
Finger Lakes Development, led by developer Steve Flash, proposed two separate buildings, one with 50-56 affordable housing units serving a range of 30-120% of area median income ($18,000-$72,000), and one with 78-90 units for extended stays, called a “hometel.”
Reviews were generally mixed from committee members, with most liking some aspects while not liking others.
Committee Chair Seph Murtagh said he likes that Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) is involved, and he likes that the affordable housing ensures equitable waterfront development. However, in addition to the evergreen concerns of parking, he said he was also concerned with the lack of active ground floor uses in the proposal.
“If there are no active uses on the ground floor, there won’t be a lot of reasons for people to visit the place,” Murtagh said. “I do have a concern that […] if there’s not something to draw people there, nobody will go [to the green spaces proposed].”
Committee member Laura Lewis echoed his sentiments. She said she can imagine hospital employees or teachers living on Inlet Island, but shared the concern about lack of active ground floor use, and asked Flash if adding that was a possibility.
“We would certainly be open to it,” he said. “We do have the draw of people who want to watch the boats in the flood control channel, but sure we would be glad to have some commercial space.”
Alderperson George McGonigal agreed and said it’s a perfect location for an ice cream shop or modestly priced restaurant for people leaving Cass Park.
Another concern throughout the process, brought up by Lewis this time, has been the size of the buildings.
“I wonder if you could comment on the possibility of reducing, somewhat, the size,” Lewis said. “Right now [both buildings] are projected at five stories […] and there has been concern and questions about the size of the buildings.”
Flash said that reducing the building size isn’t out of the question entirely, but that it does depend on finding a balance between size and financial feasibility.
“Size is generated by the demands placed upon the building,” he said. “We have to pay for [environmental contamination] clean-up, we have to pay for the foundations. There has to be a give and take. This is a balance, but could there be a different balance?”
McGonigal also said he thinks the project is too big, and said he thinks INHS has the skills to find different funding sources to build a smaller project.
Joe Bowles, the director of real estate development for INHS, said they have similar financial constraints.
“Fifty units feels not too large, but could we do 35 units? What does it cost and can we get the financing put together?” Bowles said. “That’s not a specific answer, but I’m saying what [Flash] said. We have to get into it to figure that out, but we’d certainly look into it if that’s the direction people wanted to go.”
Committee member Stephen Smith, however, said he takes no issue with the size.
“Looking at these pictures these seem like reasonably sized buildings, especially to get so much housing,” he said. “It’s not that dramatic and if we can create more affordable housing in such a nice location, I feel like we should do that. We should give people in our community a nice, affordable place to live.”
Committee member Cynthia Brock expressed a lack of excitement toward the project overall.
“There are so many benefits of Inlet Island, the potential is amazing,” she said. “And [this project] lacks the imagination to take advantage of that potential and that’s what seems like such a missed opportunity.”
She pointed out that the housing units don’t take advantage of the lake views and instead face away from it.
“It could just go a little bit farther to satisfy and exemplify all the wonderful things we have here in Ithaca,” she said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity and we could get there with a little more work. There’s a tremendous amount of development and traffic fatigue from residents and to go through this process and bring forth a city recommended project, I think there needs to be significant value to say this is worth it. It’s almost there but it’s not there yet.”
Director of Planning JoAnn Cornish reminded the committee that they weren’t voting on the specific details and design of this plan, but the overall concept. If Finger Lakes Development is approved by Common Council as the preferred developer, the design plans will still have to go through the normal planning process. With that in mind, the committee voted to send the plan on to Council.