ITHACA, N.Y. — In an unexpected turn of events, the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Green Street Garage was reopened last Thursday at the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s monthly meeting.

The reopening came as a surprise. At the end of the three-month RFP (initially issued as two months), only one proposal, the Rimland-Peak development, was submitted. The city had chosen to issue an RFP after Rimland-Peak had approached them with their proposal to build a new garage, the retention of Cinemapolis, two apartment towers and conference space last September.

The concern was not with the Rimland-Peak development group, who had agreed to reduce the required area median income for the affordable units from 90% to 75%, and change the plan from 38 studios to 40 units proportionally distributed among the 404 apartment units. The concern was that, amid pushback from other developers and the general public, some elected officials and staff express concern about the transparency and quality of the RFP process to-date. In short, it wasn’t the proposal, but the procedure.

“The mayor raised the concern that if the process is viewed as unfair, it could face headwinds from council when they hear concerns, so out of an abundance of caution, the project is being given adequate opportunity for other developers. Anyone who had a good project will have the opportunity to bring it forward,” said IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn. They city is the lead agency for review, meaning that Common Council would have to sign off on approval of any project.

As currently planned, the RFP is being opened back up starting May 1st. There will be an initial 30-day period for a qualified developer to submit qualifications proving they are capable of carrying out a large-scale project. If no other developer groups qualify, then the second RFP is terminated and the IURA will revert to deciding whether or not to give preferred developer status to Rimland-Peak.

If, however, a second qualified developer applies, that developer gets another 60 days (June 1st – July 31st) to put forth a rival proposal to Rimland-Peak’s. The two would then be reviewed after July 31st to determine which better meets the demands set forth by the city and Common Council for the site.

Interestingly, the preferred developer agreement, while getting concessions for parking restrictions, pedestrian circulation, greater active street-use and a semi-public rooftop terrace on the center garage portion, did have one concession from the city – a conference center space was no longer deemed a necessity, if an alternative suitable active-use space component could be provided for review.

Further changes may be applied at the Common Council’s discretion. “This (RFP) will also go back to Common Council to refine their request, including prioritizing one of the objectives or the guidance,” said Bohn.

Any change is likely to still have, at its core, either a reconstructed garage, or a hefty purchase price if not rebuilt (given the neighborhood impacts of a complete loss of the garage and its parking, no garage at all appears to be a less likely option). Reconstruction estimates for the Green Street Garage, which is approaching the end of its useful life and already showing signs of significant structural decay in its older east and west wings, have clocked in at around $17 million.

In case anyone out there is feeling especially ambitious, a draft of the new RFP states that needed qualifications to be named eligible for the garage include:

  • Financial status and stability
  • Legal qualifications to operate in the State of New York and to enter into contracts with regard to disposition, use and development of land in question
  • Previous experience in financing, use, development and operations of projects of a similar nature
  • Reputation and proof of fair, reputable and ethical business practices and a record devoid of convictions

A possible second proposal?

At this time, it seems there is a second qualified proposal in the works. Local firm Visum Development Group circulated copies of a massing diagram for their proposed take on the Green Street site at the Thursday meeting, and to local media following the meeting.

The Visum proposal would develop western two-thirds of the garage. On the western end next to City Hall would be a multi-story building with approximately 50,000 square-feet of affordable housing (a ballpark estimate says that’s sufficient 50-60 units) to be built, owned and operated by local affordable housing developer Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services. Next to that would be a taller market-rate building being pitched towards empty nesters and older households.

The center portion of the property would include a linear 5,000 SF park to connect Home Dairy Alley to Green Street, and on the other side of that park strip, a rebuilt and expanded parking garage, which the diagram suggests to be 4 floors (one floor more than current). No specifics on units or parking spaces are given in the concept handout.

The eastern third of the property, which is controlled in part by a ground lease to Marriott co-developer and Rimland-Peak co-developer Jeff Rimland, is not a part of the Visum proposal. “(T)he eastern portion of the parking garage could still be redeveloped by Rimland-Peak even under our proposal. There’s also enough room for them to build upward of 135 apartment units (and potentially more depending on the layout and unit mix) in addition to a conference center,” said Visum Vice President Patrick Braga. Braga added that, similar to the Rimland-Peak peak, Cinemapolis would be retained in the Visum plan as well.

A spokesperson for INHS did confirm they had had talks with Visum, though clarified that this was during the initial RFP period during the winter. In other words, Visum had a plan being put together during the initial RFP process, but did not submit it before the deadline. When asked about it, Braga said “(w)e’ve been working continuously on the project since the RFP was released, including reaching out to potential partners. For an endeavor of this scope, however, the initial time-frame wasn’t sufficiently long to submit a proposal. We’ve been investing our time in putting together a viable project that we feel proud of and which meets the city’s requests to high standards.”

At this point, it’s back to the waiting game. If Visum or other development teams submit credentials in May, and meet the eligibility requirements, the IURA will give two more months for them to submit a plan. After July 31st, the IURA will publicly review and then calculate scores for the proposals, most likely in August to early September, followed not long thereafter by awarding preferred developer to the project with the highest score.

Brian Crandall

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