ITHACA, N.Y. — The Downtown Ithaca Alliance voted Monday night to throw its support behind an 11-story building proposed for the Trebloc site a block from the Ithaca Commons.
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Texas-based developer Campus Advantage is seeking city approval for the $75 million project, which would construct 620 new housing units at 301 East State Street.
But the project has been criticized by both Ithaca residents and members of the city’s planning board as too massive and wildly out of character with the downtown neighborhood.
Why the DIA backed the project
The DIA, which represents the downtown area’s business community, voted at its Monday night board meeting 11-1 to express its support for the building.
DIA Executive Director Gary Ferguson said a large number of local business owners are excited about the prospect of bringing many more students to spend their money in downtown Ithaca.
“We spend a bunch of our resources as an organization trying to bring students off of the hills to be shoppers and patrons … I can’t think of a better way to do that than to have 600 people live here — those 600, plus their families, plus their friends, plus everyone they know,” Ferguson said.
“What a great way to reach into the hills in a way we’ve never been able to do before.”
Ferguson added that he was encouraged to support the project by changes made to its initial design. Initially, Ferguson said, he wasn’t convinced that the 11-story proposal fit the fabric of the city’s downtown core. The new, updated designs are more in line with the existing neighborhood, Ferguson said.
“What we saw last night was a building that was actually very attractive,” Ferguson said.
“It’s large, no question about it. But it looked like a nice building — it had cut-outs, it had some character, the street level has been well-handled. It basically extends the Commons for another block. All of that is pretty positive.”
Why DIA support matters
Tonight, the city of Ithaca’s planning and development board is set to take up the 11-story building proposal for the Trebloc site for at least the third time since the idea emerged in July.
At the last planning board meeting, the developers were subjected to withering criticism from board members. “It doesn’t look like Ithaca,” said Mark Darling, one planning board member. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”
At that August meeting, the project was also assailed by planning board member Jack Elliot, who said: “I think you need to rethink how sunlight works on buildings … This is basic design. If you can’t do this you shouldn’t be in the business.”
Those concerns echoed earlier public objections to the project. “You can put a lot more lipstick on that Trebloc building: It’s still a pig,” said Ann Sullivan, one local resident, at a public hearing for the project in July.
Still, the DIA support suggests that the Campus Advantage developers may be turning the tide and winning converts to support the project. Added to the developers’ project team have been Noah Demarest, of the design firm STREAM Collaborative, and Scott Whitham, of Whitham Planning and Design.
The DIA’s vote could make the city’s planning board more open to the project. It may also influence another important obstacle to the project: Winning a tax abatement from the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency.
If the IDA believes that the downtown business community is supportive of the project, it may be more likely to approve a tax break.
Concerns remain over parking, traffic
About 15 community residents attended the DIA meeting last night, Ferguson said. The chief concern they expressed, Ferguson said, was over the project’s impact on the availability of parking; the issue was discussed for over an hour.
The DIA resolution to endorse the project was adjusted as a result. “One of the caveats was that this project could and should deal with parking in a certain way — and that, if it didn’t, that would be a problem,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said that some of the business owners are also concerned about how traffic flows would be affected around the Commons with the influx of new students — and, potentially, their cars.
A third concern aired at the DIA meeting was over changing the composition of downtown life: Would it be good for the character of the neighborhood to have many more students? Ferguson partly dismissed the worry, saying that 40 percent of those living downtown now are already students.
“The idea of mixing age groups together is a wonderful thing, and it works,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson stressed that the Trebloc site is currently filled by a one-story building that does little to increase the vitality of downtown Ithaca. When the city approved new zoning for the Trebloc site a few years ago, he said, it was envisioning — and even directly hoping for — a project that would, like this one, be big.
“We rezoned (the site) for high, dense development and so this has surprised some people,” Ferguson said. “It has not surprised us.”
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