This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation between Brian Crandall (of “Ithacating in Cornell Heights”) and Frost Travis, of Travis Hyde Properties.
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Q: I know you’ve been busy lately with the Carey Building project. How long has that been in the works? It’s a separate project from the Hilton Hotel going up next door, right?
We have been working on the Carey Building expansion since the Fall of 2013. It is a separate project from the Canopy Hotel next door, but we are working closely with them on coordinating construction staging and site plan.
Q: There are two things that stand out to me with the Carey addition. The first is the small size of the apartments (400-500 sq ft). What encouraged you to produce small apartment units?
My inspiration was the “Making Room” exhibit at the Museum of New York City. It showed a way to create housing in an urban environment that could be small but beautiful. We knew that we had a successful formula with the small units at Center Ithaca as well. People like living in downtown and having a car-free or car-optional lifestyle.
The units shown in the Making Room exhibit represent a small but luxury installation for cabinetry and other built-ins. We are aiming more to the middle of the market and expect to use locally made products instead of designer, Italian products as depicted in the Making Room photos.
Q: So the Carey Building is downtown, and it seems downtown Ithaca has garnered a lot of interest in the past few years, even with construction tangles like the Commons. How do you think downtown Ithaca will evolve in the next several years?
I foresee continued growth in downtown as people realize the benefits of living in a walkable urban village well served by transit and other services including arts, dining, and entertainment.
Q: Travis Hyde Properties (THP) has been around for a while, right? It’s a family operation?
We are entering our 38th year. Travis Hyde Properties was founded as Ithaca Rentals and Renovations by my father in 1977.
Q: Since you and your family have been active in the Ithaca market for quite a while, how do you think the market has changed since your father started the company?
The quality of the housing stock overall has improved tremendously. My father realized that there was a need for higher quality housing for students in the 1970s. It used to be that a student wasn’t well served in the Ithaca market. He undertook a strategy of supplying quality housing beginning with students and has been successful.
Q: THP appears to own and operate quite a few units in the Ithaca area (Eddygate, Gateway Commons, Ravenwood). What’s the draw of investing in Ithaca? Do you foresee buying or building more properties in the future, or are you satisfied with your current assets?
We were founded in Ithaca, and it’s our home. Ithaca has a great quality of life and it’s a great place to raise a family. There are high barriers to entering the real estate market in Ithaca, but we couldn’t think of another place to be. We would entertain buying or developing more properties in Ithaca as long as the market supported such an expansion. There still remains quite a bit of unmet housing demand in Ithaca as employment continues to grow.
Q: You’re also planning a redevelopment of Ithaca Gun site, right? The site has a well-documented history of environmental contamination. If you had to sum up the cleanup and the redevelopment process to date, what would you say?
I would sum up the redevelopment process as slow and complex. We have run into several major obstacles over the course of the remediation, but I anticipate concluding the remediation part of the project by the end of this year. The city is using the development site as a staging area for remediating the Island park site that we donated. We cannot commence remediation of the development site until they are done with their work.
Q: Affordability is a hot topic right now. Housing in Ithaca is becoming a major issue as costs continue to rise. Looking forward, do you see any possibility of rents moderating? What can be done by developers? What can be done by the Ithaca community?
I believe that as long as we continue adding density downtown where it belongs, we will reach a critical mass of housing which will help moderate rent increases. I believe that one can preserve the neighborhood feel of the cottages on the hills while still allowing density downtown. The Ithaca community needs to understand that serving special interests during the development process can very often make the difference between a project going forward and contributing positively to the tax rolls or not.
Real estate development is very capital intensive and very risky. Layering on additional costs is short sighted. In my opinion, it is better to make it easier to build where density is appropriate than to frustrate development to the point that it sprawls to open space outside of Ithaca—of course there are those who oppose any new development. I heard it said recently that people hold a version of Ithaca in their hearts and minds that looks as it did when they first moved here. However, change is part of a growing community. If you look at the old Sanborn (fire insurance) maps of downtown Ithaca, you will find stables, telegraph offices, and trolley barns.
Q: THP owns a few properties in Collegetown. Any comments about the Collegetown Form Guidelines (the new zoning plan)? Pros and cons?
We have no active development projects in Collegetown so are not directly affected. I haven’t closely followed the issue, but would say that the new guidelines appear to concentrate density where it’s appropriate.