From left-right, Mayor Svante Myrick, developer Josh Lower, Kristi Lower, Bill Lower, architect Jagat Sharma, and Brandon Kane of GreenStar

ITHACA, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick heralded a “new transformation in Ithaca” at a groundbreaking ceremony for a major development at the center of Collegetown Monday morning.

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Josh Lower’s six-story Collegetown Crossing project, first proposed about five years ago, will add 98 beds, 44 apartments units and a 4,000 square foot GreenStar Cooperative Market at 307 College Avenue.

Construction is expected to be completed in August 2016.

From left-right, Mayor Svante Myrick, developer Josh Lower, Kristi Lower, Bill Lower, architect Jagat Sharma, and Brandon Kane of GreenStar at Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony.

The project became the center of a political fight in the city in part because, when initially proposed, it violated the city’s requirement that developers building new housing also had to add new parking spaces.

Lower and a group of supporters argued that this rule stymied badly needed development and punished the pocketbooks of a growing number of residents and students who prefer to walk or ride their bicycles. A later change to the city’s zoning code allowed the development to proceed.

“Josh, truly, with this project was so far ahead of the curve, he had to wait for the rest of us to catch up,” Myrick said at Monday’s ceremony, adding that Lower had “a new vision for how to develop.”

Renderings of the project

An early backer of Lower’s project and an opponent of the parking rules, Myrick reflected on the long process of getting the building approved and said Lower’s ideas were helping to transform the city’s landscape.

“You will see projects underway that will mirror … this new transformation in Ithaca,” Myrick said, citing other rising or proposed Collegetown developments. “People who told Josh along the way this wasn’t possible, all I can say is it was an inspiration how he led this project.”

Lower’s project will also include a laundromat, public park space and TCAT transit hub that will keep commuters warm during the frigid winter months. Those amenities were added in part to allay some concerns from city officials about the spillover effect from not providing more parking.

Courtesy of Jeff Lower

About 50 people — including city officials, family and friends of Lower’s, and advocates who supported Collegetown Crossing — gathered for the ceremonial shoveling of dirt on the site on Monday. They stood just east of the pit where a 35-year-old building had stood until this month.

In an interview with reporters after the ceremony, Lower seemed to be searching for different adjectives to convey just how happy he was — noting at various points that he was “elated,” “thrilled,” “excited,” and “very delighted.”

4 other highlights of Collegetown Crossing project:

1 — GreenStar expands; Collegetown gets grocery store

Among the benefits touted by Collegetown Crossing’s supporters is a GreenStar location on the ground-level that will provide the neighborhood with its only major grocery store.

“The residents of this area really need a full-service grocery store,” said Brandon Kane, of GreenStar, after the ceremony. “This is a culmination of a plan years in the making.”

Kane said the Collegetown location was “very important to our long-term business model,” and said that he was confident students would support its co-op model.

“They’re looking for what GreenStar can provide at this location,” Kane said. “Even with conservative estimates, I predict a tremendous amount of success pretty early on.”

Bill Lower, Josh Lower’s father added at the ceremony that he was “just tickled” that a GreenStar will be part of the project.

2 — Rents, tenants

Lower said that rents at the development are expected to be in the range of $950 to $1,250. He expects the apartments will appeal primarily to Cornell students, but also to some young professors and faculty.

“This is something that’s been missing from this neighborhood for a very long time,” Lower said of Collegetown Crossing. “I think this meets a niche.”

See here for Brian Crandall’s explainer about the Collegetown housing boom.

While those rents are out of the price range of many Ithaca residents, advocates of new development in the city say increasing the housing supply will lead to lower overall rents.

3 — Concerns voiced about parking

The project came under criticism from city officials who worried that it would drive students to park their cars elsewhere in Ithaca, thereby taking the spaces of permanent residents.

“History has shown that inadequate/expensive parking in Collegetown encourages students, faculty and staff to park in surrounding neighborhood,” stated a draft review of the project from the city’s planning board a number of years ago.

Those concerns were echoed by members of Ithaca’s Common Council.

“My concern about the project is that the applicant is holding out the carrots of the GreenStar to tout as a public amenity,” Common Council member Ellen McCollister told the Cornell Daily Sun at the time. “The problem with this application is that everybody has [gotten] so enthusiastic over GreenStar, but we’re still not thinking of the land-use ramifications of the proposal.”

Still, Lower and others lobbied forcefully for the city to encourage development that didn’t require more parking and, by extension, more driving and car use. Those efforts generated substantial public support for the project.

At a 2014 meeting at City Hall, for instance, Ithacan Stephanie Hayes spoke during the public hearing in favor of Collegetown Crossing, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.

“This is something that would benefit this community hugely,” Hayes said, The Sun reported. “What is proposed would actually do something for the entire community.”

4 — Project overcame multiple obstacles

In his interview with reporters, Lower hinted at the depth of the opposition facing the project when first proposed: “When I started this, people said I was literally crazy.”

The project had to win a series of city approvals that spanned the course of multiple years — the Board of Zoning Appeals, the city’s planning board and changes from the Common Council, the building department, and more.

Myrick joked about the length of the process, but also said Lower’s willingness to push through was a testament to his character.

“Eight years ago, when I was a young man, I met Josh and we were working on the Collegetown plan,” Myrick said, adding that he was on the city’s Common Council at the time.

He recalled how he and Lower helped get a few dozen people to show up at City Hall in support of the project.

“And we thought, ‘Surely now this project is going to happen,’” Myrick said.

They were wrong, as Myrick noted; it would be more multiple years, and “maybe 50 meetings … vote after vote after vote,” for the project to be approved, culminating in Monday’s ceremony.

In some ways, Myrick said, the votes were the easy part. What’s more impressive, according to mayor, was the “patience, the grit, and the determination” Lower needed to get the project off the ground.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.