ITHACA, N.Y. — At this month’s city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting, two big things served as the meat of the discussion: the revisions to the Green Street Garage RFP and the Nines historic landmarking, which after a heated discussion, was sent to Common Council on a 3-2 vote.

It wasn’t totally congruent with the public comments, which could generally be divided up between the Nines and the Parks Master Plan (residents near to Maple Grove Park plan to adopt the space to keep it from ending up “alienated” and determined surplus), but they’re important topics. Let’s have a look.

Revisions to the Green Street Garage RFP

Recap time. Readers may recall that the naming of Rimland-Peak as preferred developer went awry at the last Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA); with concerns about transparency and process, it was decided to reopen the RFP to any other potentially interested parties, of which according to IURA Director Nels Bohn, at least three additional teams have expressed interest, though not necessarily submitted qualifications to apply, which are due by the end of the month.

The PEDC’s role in this is that they offer suggested revision to the original RFP so that it’s something that aligns with the goal of the city. This can actually be a bit tricky – you want enough suggestions to suggest a variety of options as well as meet a number of city goals; but ask for too much and you may not have any willing developers if you demand everything, or no one will be satisfied by a “pick and choose” plan. Even if it were just rebuilding the garage, the city ends up looking bad.

To be honest, simply rebuilding the garage is the last of the city’s desires. No one will do for them, garages aren’t usually covered by federal grants, and the city is staring down a $17 million price tag just to rebuild the Green Street Garage – and according to city transportation engineer Tim Logue, it only has perhaps two years of safe, useful life left in its wings, particularly the west wing of the structure. If/when that time comes, large sections (hundreds of parking spaces) will have to be shut down.

Here’s the spark notes version of the revised RFP, in order of importance: minimum 50 affordable housing units of varying sizes, because percentages are too easy to game. Rebuilt parking structure; and then either conference center space, or a new city hall.

Yes, that’s right. It was introduced out of the blue. “This is a pipe dream, I’d like to add a future city hall, incorporate a city hall into the project. This (current city hall’s) parcel could then be freed and redeveloped for housing…thinking of that as a staged process,” said councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward).

“We can drop that in to see what’s possible. We don’t have a city hall that looks worthy of the people,” replied mayor Svante Myrick. Myrick stressed that it was merely an option, not a demand, as a way to add 30,000 SF of useful office/commercial space. A conference center would be about the same size, so if they deem one doesn’t work, they can take a look at replacing it with office space for a new city hall.

It was also noted that while the city would certainly like more than fifty affordable housing units, that might not work if you’re also asking a developer to spend $17 million to rebuild a parking garage to be used by the public. So if a developer wants to build more, there’s a potential subsidy (i.e. city pays them), though it would not be more than $5-$10 million.

Landmarking 311 College Avenue (aka The Nines)

This was definitely an uncomfortable conversation, because of what’s involved. On the one hand, the fire station is a well-recognized Collegetown feature; on the other hand, landmarking makes redevelopment and rehabilitation/renovation much more difficult and expensive – and those historic tax credits you hear about are applied after the work is done and paid for and approved. If it becomes more difficult, then the property is harder to sell, and will likely sell for a lot less. The owners of the Nines, arguably a more beloved institution than the building at 311 College, are kinda counting on the sale proceeds for their retirement. You can read up on the background story here.

The first plan to historically designate the whole property was turned down by the PEDC, and went back to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC). While generally not fans of any changes, they did concede that landmarking just the front half, which is more visible and in better shape, would be okay, so that was the modified landmark plan before the PEDC last night.

Well, it was okay for the ILPC anyway. “I don’t feel this is quite the suitable compromise because this only allows us to use half the lot, and that half is very hard to access…leaving me with half a building doesn’t really help too much,” said Nines co-owner Mark Kielmann during the public comment period.

At the start of the meeting, the owners’ lawyer, Brody Smith, asked for the committee to table the landmarking for a month, saying they planned to submit redevelopment plans under the new PUD overlay, that would incorporate the facade while building a new structure behind it. Brock was intrigued by the proposition.

“One of the concerns about the designation of this property is that it places an undue economic burden on the property owner…and I think that is a very large burden to bear for a property owner who has for twenty some-odd years thought they owned a building in Collegetown that would be their retirement account, and just wanted to run their restaurant. From what I’ve been told, they went above and beyond for their employees. I realize this isn’t the charge of the ILPC, but I would very much like to see the property owner come up with something creative to incorporate the ILPC’s request into the new development.  I want to give the property owner the opportunity to respond with a PUD.”

City Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken was not a fan. “Recreating the face and the sides would maybe be legally satisfying, but isn’t respecting the building as a community asset.”

The motion to table was heated. Along with Brock, councilor Steve Smith, who represents the Nines in the 4th Ward, protested what he called a “binary choice” in either designating the whole front building, or just the exterior walls and facade. Technically, local landmarking impacts the exterior and anything easily seen on the inside from public view.

However, the other councilors disagreed. Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) cited the need to make a decision within 90 days as ILPC requirement, and felt that landmarking the front half was an adequate compromise.

“This is a very tough, tough decision because the owners have been wonderful employers and have contributed to the community…at the same time, it may sound heartless, but I believe it is not the city’s responsibility to provide for someone’s retirement, unless you work for the city,” said councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th).

“This feels arbitrary and capricious. I think we have an obligation to help property owners feels a sense of security in their property. I don’t mean speculators, I mean property owners who have invested in our community for decades, and don’t expect the tables to be turned against them just as they’re preparing to sell,” replied Brock.

In the end, the motion to table failed 2-3, with Murtagh, Lewis and Donna Fleming (D-3rd) against. In turn, the motion to send the historic designation on to council passed 3-2. As attendees rose to leave, the owners briefly slumped in their seats. “I do feel badly, but I stand by my decision,” said Lewis.

On a side note, it came up that the city will be issuing a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI), which is basically an RFP for an RFP, to redevelop the current Collegetown fire station next door to The Nines, which was something of a surprise piece of news. Plans had been floated to sell the existing station and merge Collegetown with Downtown or build a new station on Maple Avenue, but things had been quiet since the feasibility study wrapped up last year.

Everything else from the agenda passed unanimous with little added discussion. This included the federal HUD grant spending plan, sending the Parks Master Plan to council, waterfront zoning tweaks, and giving the Planning Board to review and approve Special Permits.

Brian Crandall

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