Last year the Tompkins County legislature created a subcommittee chaired by Legislature Chair Michael Lane to oversee the process for disposing of the old library building at the corner of Cayuga and Court streets. The subcommittee has met twice over the past two months to review submissions for a request for an expression of interest (RFEI).

In the third of many steps, in December of last year the county sent out an RFEI for the purchase or lease and redevelopment of the old library property. By March 15 of this year, the cut-off date to submit an RFEI, the county had received six submissions. They are from Travis/Hyde Properties, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, Integrated Acquisition and Development, The Cornerstone Group and DPI Consultants. The first three are local firms and the last two are from Rochester. The sixth proposal came from a consortium of Franklin Properties, MCK Building Associates, STREAM Collaborative, Taitem Engineering, and Dr. Marne O’Shae, M.D. With the exception of the collective, all of them wish to tear down the old building and put a new one its place.

As Travis/Hyde and Holt Architects put it in their proposal submission, “Tompkins County has wisely indicated that this two-step RFEI/RFP [request for proposals] process is constructed to allow a free flow of ideas, before committing to a concrete financial proposal.”

“That’s the reason,” Lane said, “why we went with the process for the request for expression of interest. We wanted to get different ideas. We know it’s a historical district, not a large lot, and very close to the government campus. We know whatever decision we make it will be there for 50 or 100 years.”

•     •     •

The 38,630 square-foot old library building sits in the heart of downtown Ithaca, some of its walls colorfully painted, but with vegetation sprouting from its wooden front steps. 

The 0.8-acre parcel at 310-314 North Cayuga Street was originally acquired by the county in 1965 from the International Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F. ), Ithaca Lodge and Ithaca College to replace the Ezra Cornell Library on Tioga Street, which had been torn down in 1960. The Ezra Cornell collection was housed on in the Sons of Italy Hall for seven years until the county purchased it to install in the new building at the corner of Cayuga and Court streets. In 2000 the public library was moved to its current location on Green Street and since then various government programs have used portions of the old library building. 

The Dewitt Park Historic District is across the street, and its neighbors include the Lifelong Senior Center, the First Presbyterian Church, and Dewitt Park. It is within walking distance of employment, entertainment, shopping, schools and many services.

In 2010 the Tompkins County Capital Plan Review Committee began the process of deciding the old library’s future. At the time the county records center and the probation department’s community justice center were the only government programs remaining in the building and plans for their relocation were in place. That year the county made the decision to digitize part of its records and then took them to the old Seneca depot for storage. A large portion of the community justice center, which includes the day reporting program, felony drug court, and family treatment court, found a new home at the Main Courthouse on North Tioga Street. 

Only the day reporting program remains on site, and the legislature is moving forward with plans to expand the Human Resources Building located in the 300 block of West Martin Luther King Jr./ State Street and move day reporting there. On April 1 the county legislature approved the bonding of $1.68 million in serial bonds and notes to fund the renovations. The day reporting program is projected to be in its new home by the end of March 2015.

After the county’s planning advisory board gave the proposals a preliminary review, the submissions were passed onto the old library subcommittee. The subcommittee agreed to keep in mind the zoning laws and regulations as set out by the City of Ithaca’s comprehensive plan and the economic aspects.

The City of Ithaca recently rezoned the site as CBD-50, which allows mixed-use buildings up to four stories and 50 feet in height. The property is currently assessed at $1.5 million based on prior zoning.

Already two members, Legislators Carol Chock and Martha Robertson, have recused themselves from the Old Library Subcommittee. Carol Chock cited her husband’s–Paul Mazzarella of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS)–connections to one of the companies submitting an RFEI to the committee but requested to return to the subcommittee in the event the county did not enter into an agreement with INHS.

“I am stepping off of the old library subcommittee,” said Robertson, “because at least one of the applicants is a donor to my congressional campaign, and I felt that it was important to avoid any perception, although there has been no conversation between me and any applicant at all. But I just don’t want there to be any perception at all of any conflict of interest.”

In 2012 a housing study conducted for the county by The Danter Company showed that the overall demand for rental and for-sale properties was projected to be as high as 1,350 units. The report suggests an increase in the need for middle-income multi-family housing downtown as more and more people are looking for an urban lifestyle.  

Gary Ferguson, executive director of Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA), said he was ecstatic when the county announced its plans to find another use for the old library site. He said at first glance the RFEI submissions are going in a direction that is much needed in the community. Most downtown housing caters to students and only within the last decade has Ithaca seen an increase in housing for the general public, Ferguson said.

“Another need is that as the community ages the need for housing for 55-plus people is growing significantly as is clearly reflected in responses for the old library,” Ferguson said.

This need for senior housing has been expressed by several residents during public comment periods at Old Library subcommittee meetings. At the first subcommittee meeting Joan Jacobs-Brumberg, an emeritus professor of Cornell University, spoke in favor of developing condominiums for the elderly and single-unit low-maintenance facilities.

“There is a whole generation looking to retire and remain in Ithaca,” said Jacobs-Brumberg. “This high density could infuse a lot of energy into the downtown community. With so many things within walkable distance, this would be a prime location for condos for elderly people.”

She said that many people retain a high income in retirement and are willing to spend money in the downtown business district. 

•     •     •

Six companies responded to the RFEI request by the county. Some plans include ground-level facilities for programs and business, others plan to incorporate Lifelong services and another plans to build a “green node.” All six submissions plan to build some sort of housing, for families, low-income people or for seniors. 

Lifelong, a senior-citizen community center, has been next door on Court Street since 1996. It is a creation of a not-for-profit called the Tompkins County Senior Citizens Council.

Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services

INHS is proposing to buy the former library site for a mixed-used project that includes mixed-income residential units and commercial spaces. Along with Chiang O’Brien Architects and Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects, INHS is proposing a four-story brick-based building that is organized around a large central courtyard. INHS has also discussed plans to include Lifelong.

“There is a huge need for more apartments downtown. Here is a chance to bring more residents, who are permanent residents to live and take part in the downtown area,” said Mazzarella. INHS recently completed Breckenridge Place on the site of the former Women’s Community Building at the corner of North Cayuga and East Seneca streets. It was the first affordable housing to be built downtown in decades.

Integrated Acquisition and Development

Along with the QPK Design Architect and Engineering firm, Integrated Acquisition and Development is proposing to develop approximately 90 apartments for Lifelong comprising 22,000 square feet, a fitness center, a library, conference rooms and other amenity spaces. The project will target a 50- to 70-year-old age bracket or people leaving larger, older homes too large and too time-consuming to maintain.

In order to stay within the zoning height restrictions set by the City of Ithaca, QPK is planning to set its first floor half below ground.

“Of course we are in the early conceptual thinking,” said Vincent Nicotra, associate partner at QPK.

In the executive summary submitted to the county, Integrated Acquisition and Development said the proposal’s economic impact to the local neighborhood is increased due to the buying power and tax base impact of the targeted older and retiree population. 

Travis/Hyde Properties and Holt Architects

This proposed redevelopment project, led by Travis Hyde Properties in partnership with Lifelong, would demolish the old library and existing Lifelong buildings to create a new 4-story 90,000 square foot “green” mixed-use building. Occupants would include new and expanded facilities for Lifelong, senior housing on upper floors in approximately 44 one- or two-bedroom apartments, and professional office space at street level. 

Frost Travis, president of Travis/Hyde, said that seniors were an underserved segment of the housing market locally and that there was very high demand. 

“Downtown is perfect place for seniors to live because everything downtown is walkable and accessible,” said Travis. He also noted that retirees don’t need jobs near their homes, but “They enjoy serving on non-profit boards and generally contribute experience to the community.”

The green portion of the Holt design includes a “combined heat and power loop,” which would capture the heat generated during on-site power production and use it to supply heat to the building. 

“Think of a jet engine in a box,” said Travis, “and when turbine spins it can produce surplus heat. Cornell has huge CHP plant and reduces the carbon footprint of the building by 30 percent. The idea is to create a central district heating node and therefore people within reasonable range could tap into the CHP.”

DPI Consultants

This Rochester firm has proposed development of seventy‐six (76) for‐sale, owner occupied home units and eight (8) for‐rent apartments. The homes will vary in size and cost to cater to median to high-income home buyers, filling a dire shortage of housing options for these groups as identified in the 2011 Danter Report. On‐site, underground parking will be provided for all homeowners and renters. Collectively, it is anticipated the total assessed value of this project will approximate $35,000,000, which would translate into $1,289.050 in property taxes to the county, city, and school district.

DPI’s proposal emphasizes their innovative construction techniques, which will shorten the interval between demolition of the old library and having a new building ready to use. Robert DiPaola, the principle of the firm, has previous experience inserting modern buildings unobtrusively into historic districts. The finished structure will include high efficiency air conditioning units and boilers, LED lighting, and landscaped roofs.

The Cornerstone Group

The Cornerstone Group of Rochester (RCG) will be the lead developer, but will collaborate with the Cayuga Housing Development Corporation (CHDC), an Ithaca-based not-for-profit affiliated with the Ithaca Housing Authority. RCG has developed 1,123 rental housing units around the state. Carol Oster of RCG has previously developed Ellis Hollow and Cayuga View apartments and Conifer Village at Ithaca.

“Rehabbing the existing structure,” Cornerstone Group’s RFEI reads, “would result in a nominal 30 rental units with excessive common space in the central building core and is not deemed economically feasible and therefore not pursued as a viable development plan.”

Instead they propose tearing down the old library and erecting a structure with “stone accents and peaked roofs” that refers to the architecture of the First Presbyterian Church across the street. The new building will include a courtyard and parking spaces at ground level (10 in the open and 36 under cover). 

The new building would include a mix of 70 to 80 one- and two-bedroom apartments designed for “independent living” so that seniors can “age in place.” The income demographic targeted includes those with 60 to90 percent of the Area Median Income.

Many amenities are included in the Cornerstone design: community, conference, laundry, exercise, and craft rooms, as well as tenant storage space.

A Consortium for Renovation

Marne O’Shae Family Medicine, Franklin Properties, MCK Building Associates, STREAM Collaborative, and Taitem Engineering came together to design a community center and senior housing project. 

“We like the floor-plan layout and space. It’s got good bones and well built, there won’t be any problems,” said Marne O’Shae of Marne O’Shae Family Medicine.

As the only applicant with renovation plans for the current old library building, O’Shae and her team plan to renovate the first two floors of the building as commercial space and create three floors of market-rate senior housing above. Market-rate housing refers to properties that are rented or owned by people who pay market rent to lease the property or paid market value when they bought the property, which means no subsidies, according to “Homebase For Housing.”

The team plans to collaborate with Lifelong, Longview, and other wellness practices to occupy the first floor of the building. Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative has focused on an environmentally responsible solution for the construction process.

“We are renovating (the old library location) mainly because of environmental reasons. The building has a strong foundation because it was designed and engineered to withhold loads of library books. As a result the foundation can stand a substantial amount of impact,” Demarest said.

Taking the renovation route would cause much less destruction and prevent the creation of a big hole in the ground, which would impact the surrounding areas, Demarest said. 

When the dust settles, O’Shae imagines the building will bring life back to the old library on weekdays, weeknights and weekends. Although Lifelong, a not-for-profit organization, will occupy 20 percent of the building, the other 80 percent will bring taxes to the community.

“I built my career here. I look to my longer life and obviously I have a long-standing dream which goes hand in glove with Lifelong for years of creating an educational space for the community about health, different traditions and those sort of things,” O’Shae said. •

(1) comment

Henry Kramer

Interesting that now that Robertson is running for Congress, she is concerned about appearance of conflict of interest and recused herself. When the question was whether to paint the shoulders of Ellis Hollow Road green in a mistaken belief it would slow traffic, Robertson did not take herself out of the picture, even though the painting of the shoulders included the shoulders in front of her own house. She was an advocate for it. Amazing how a run for Congress sharpens Robertson's ethical concerns.

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