ITHACA, N.Y. — Last spring, as part of the state’s economy-themed regional competitions, Ithaca submitted an application to the NYS “Downtown Redevelopment Initiative”, or DRI. Like the state’s regional economic development council “hunger games” from a couple of years ago, the DRI was a contest between cities, competing for $10 million grant awards to help invest in their downtowns. With grading based on maximum benefit, maximum need and how well though out the plans were, each of the ten regions in the state would have one winner.
Ithaca did not win. The Southern Tier award was given to Elmira last July. But the applications written by many communities, including Ithaca’s, were unavailable to protect the confidentiality of some early-stage projects – to use an analogy, the farm didn’t want to sell the eggs the chickens hadn’t laid yet, even if they were pretty sure the chickens would eventually lay eggs.
Well, enough time has elapsed that the state has gone forward with publishing all the submissions, Ithaca’s included. Whether those eggs are Easter eggs, or goose eggs is up to the reader.
Most of the projects listed are fairly well-known, or have become well-known since the plan was submitted a year ago. There’s the Canopy Hilton, City Centre, Harold’s Square, and other big-ticket items that are showcased as proof of Ithaca’s vitality. The application notes that the $10 million would be leveraged to create $214 million of public and private investment in Ithaca’s core.
Specific funds were allocated to the State Theatre, improvements to the 100 Blocks of North and South Cayuga Street, the county Heritage Center (not yet public at the time), and feasibility studies for a downtown conference center and the rebuild of the Green Street Parking Garage. As for the private investment proposals, some have never been made public until today.
Perhaps the biggest example is a drive-thru ATM and parking lot at the corner of the Commons’ Bank Alley, where the Cornell Public Library stood until 1960. Developer Jason Fane, who acquired the property through Ithaca Renting in the 1990s, shared concept plans for an 8-story mixed-use building on the property. The early estimates called for 8,000-10,000 square feet of first-floor retail, with seven floors of apartments above, totaling 100-130 units. The 80,000 SF building was projected to cost $20 million.
When asked whether or not the plans were still on the table, Ithaca Renting representative Nathan Lyman said “[t]he Seneca Street lot is a development site in our portfolio. It is probably fair to say that there are other sites that would be addressed first, but if the city or state was to promote our development of a building there, we would certainly give it consideration.” At the moment, Fane is working on a couple other projects – the renovation of Bank Tower on the Commons into apartments, and the future tallest building in Rhode Island.
Another plan offered, lower-in-profile but perhaps just as interesting, is to renovate the former Ithaca Journal building (now called the Market Bay Building) into an indoor extension of the much-lauded Press Bay Alley. As the Ithaca Journal’s presence has decreased, property owner John Guttridge has been looking at his options. The $1 million proposal here would be to renovate the building into an indoor pedestrian mall flanked with micro-retail units. The new indoor offering would connect Press Bay Alley to West State Street, and offer space close to the Commons for budding retailers.
Press Bay owner John Guttridge was optimistic when asked about the plan. “Press Bay Alley was a tremendous success, so if we could extend it thru to State Street and its urban environment, it’d be a huge win for the block. But it’s expensive, we’ve gotta make sure it works financially in the end. We’re still trying to figure it out, there’s a lot between here and there.”
On the public side, the DRI plan gives an idea for potential infrastructure projects coming up – for instance, anyone who has used the Green Street garage recently knows it’s in need of repair. Since the original garage segments were built in the early 1970s, some structural components have worn out after almost 50 years, and are in need of replacement. Some of the ideas floated in the document include rehabilitation and repair to keep the garage as-is, build additional parking levels as replacement occurs, or tear down the eastern third and/or western third and stack them on the recently-renovated middle section. Although repairs can’t be put off, the plan for a long term rebuild of the Green Street Garage is still being hashed out.
The DRI application is worth a read for those with an interest in Downtown Ithaca. Even if Ithaca’s downtown dreams aren’t funded by the state, it gives an idea of just how far downtown Ithaca has come in the past 15 years, and where it might be heading.