ITHACA, N.Y — For those who would like a place overlooking the Commons, you might have another option coming soon.

Jason Fane, head of The Fane Organization and owner of the Ithaca Renting Company, is planning to convert vacant office space on the upper floors of the First National Bank Building (Bank Tower) into 32 apartments with 51 bedrooms. The second through seventh floors of the ca. 1932 building would become a mix of units ranging from studios to three bedrooms, mostly 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom units. The first floor of the building would remain commercial space.

“The target market is young professionals and retirees looking to relocate to Ithaca and/or downsize from existing housing stock, and who are seeking an upscale urban living experience,” said Nathan Lyman, a lawyer and representative for Ithaca Renting.

“We have not decided to furnish any of the apartments, so the number of beds, tables, chairs and other furniture will be as chosen by the tenants.  It is a luxury apartment house, not a college dormitory, and we hope to have many long-term tenants,” added Fane.

The renovation will cost about $4 million and cover approximately 33,500 square feet. The large majority of the work planned is interior; the work on the outside will be limited to cleaning and repair of the brick and limestone on the original building, and a detail band on the newer two-story addition east of the tower.

Although not set in stone, The Fane Organization is looking at creating two retail spaces on the first floor, and a building an entrance on the west side of the building, so that one tenant has a west entry, and one has access from the south where the main entrance currently is. The city’s Active Use zoning ordinance requires high-traffic commercial uses for the first floors of buildings on the Commons.

Fane gave two reasons on why he’s looking at a residential conversion for the bank after nearly twenty years of ownership – “because the space is vacant, [and] there’s always a market for superb new apartments in an outstanding building, such as Bank Tower, in that absolutely top location.”

While the Ithaca housing market has been very strong over the past several years, the market for office space is not. Law firm Miller Mayer recently moved from Bank Tower to the Rothschild Building down the street, leaving two floors vacant.

Secondly, with Tompkins Trust moving forward with construction of its new headquarters, the amount of office space available downtown is likely to rise as the bank consolidates operations into the new digs when they open in early 2018.

In short, you have a lot of space that is or will soon be available, which makes it something of a renter’s market if you’re looking for office space (or put another way, it’s what a lot of folks would like to see happen with the housing market). The cost of doing a residential conversion could potentially pay itself off since demand is so much stronger for bedroom space vs. cubicle space, and new units typically fetch a premium price point.

Since there is no change in the occupied square footage, the plans do not need to go before the full Planning Board. However, the plans would need to undergo Design Review since they involve exterior alterations (the retail spaces on the first floor).

They also need to be reviewed by the ILPC, since Bank Tower is a part of the Ithaca Downtown Historic District. The reviews would focus on the exterior work, and on any interior changes that would be easily visible to the public. So the layout of bathrooms in the upper-floor apartments isn’t in the ILPC’s scope, but the mezzanine on the first floor is. “I am confident that the various city boards and bodies will ultimately make the right decisions,” said Fane.

In the meanwhile, the legal joust with former first-floor tenant Chemung Canal Trust Company is continuing. “The Court heard oral argument yesterday on motions for summary judgment.  The Court reserved judgment and will issue a decision in the near future.  The lawsuit may impact the project, but I cannot predict that impact at this time,” explained Lyman.

Also, in case you were wondering, plans are still being hashed out for the Masonic Temple a few blocks away. “The Main Street Trust (which is the agency involved in the grant administration) requires a Phase I environmental study before we can proceed further. That has been done, is being reviewed, and will be sent to the proper parties shortly,” Lyman said.

“I expect that we will award a bid for some professional services in the coming month, assuming the Main Street Trust gives us the go ahead.  It has taken a little longer than I hoped to get to this point, but anticipate that things will move forward more quickly in the coming months.  We are working closely with the DIA (who is the local administrator) to move this project forward.  They have been very helpful and are knowledgeable about this process,” he added.

Work on Bank Tower is expected to commence later this summer, with an opening planned about nine months later in June 2017. Ithaca’s John Snyder Architects is in charge of the design.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.