ITHACA, N.Y. — As reported last Friday, Ithaca attempted to win a $10 million state grant to fund downtown investment and infrastructure, and for the third year in a row, came up short, this time to Owego. With a winner declared, the state published all applications from the six contenders, giving us our first public look at Ithaca’s application.
Endicott sought to be “a dynamic synergy”. Hornell wanted to “elevate (its) resurgence”. Johnson City’s goal was to bring its downtown from “today into tomorrow”, and Binghamton, whose application was crafted by Ithaca firm Whitham Planning and Design, wanted to “bring together” recent downtown investments to create a more cohesive and vibrant downtown. One could poke fun at them all, but even Owego’s theme was stimulating “The Heart of the Southern Tier”.
As for Ithaca, the theme of its application was “Building a Millennial Gateway for the Southern Tier“. Before every person over the age of 40 jumps to the comments to snipe about millennials, here’s the messaging. Ithaca College and Cornell have attracted tens of thousands of young, ambitious individuals to the region. Ithaca has had some success, arguably better in recent years, at retaining them post-graduation, especially as the number of local startup firms swell and the local economy grows.
The primary goal was to encourage further economic growth while addressing existing issues. One objective was increasing the amount of middle-market housing (80% area median income or higher, meaning units for individuals and families making in the $47k-$60k range), which is not allowed to be funded by affordable housing grants, and since it’s not as profitable for developers, often gets overlooked in favor of more luxurious market-rate housing.
Objective number two was supportive infrastructure to support downtown business and residents. Although there’s enough parking for what’s currently existing and under construction, the city is aware of concerns that there may not be enough for future projects. Namely, the grant money was to help cover a portion of the expenses of the Green Street garage rebuild (for whomever wins preferred developer status; the application uses the Rimland/Peak plan because it was the only public proposal at the time of submission), and a privately-owned garage to be built east of Gateway Center on what is currently a surface parking lot. A small chunk of the funds also would have been used to fund specialized studies and continued preliminary work for a downtown conference center.
The third objective was less about downtown, and more about extending Ithaca’s core. The gist of it is that most of the sites in Downtown Ithaca that were “easy” to develop, have been developed. There are only a few left, like the bank drive-thru on the corner of East Seneca and North Tioga Street, and the Ithaca Journal parking lot. Ithaca’s downtown is physically small and geographically limited, and yet there is still a significant need for new housing.
In an effort to steer development away from the city’s single-family neighborhoods where it would be more contentious, and away from the suburbs where additional sprawl would create its own set of issues (traffic, environmental degradation), the State Street Corridor was listed as a sort of new frontier for urban, mixed-use development, with several large parking lots or underused structures noted for redevelopment potential. Eventually, State Street would serve as a connector to the waterfront and projects like Cayuga Medical at Carpenter Business Park, and City Harbor. The State Street urban connector is not a new idea; it’s in the city’s 2015 Comprehensive Plan. But this is really one of the first substantial examples of that idea being fleshed out.
The DRI grant funding would have helped several Downtown or State Street Corridor projects. Visum Development had four projects planned with three in the middle-income 80-90% AMI range. Two of those were already known by the public (201 North Aurora and 327 West Seneca), but there were also two previously-unknown 100-unit mixed-use buildings that would have been built along the 500 Block of West State Street. According to Visum CEO Todd Fox, some of those projects are now unlikely to happen.
“We are planning on backing out of some of those deals. We were hoping to do affordable/workforce housing with all units below 80% AMI. The grant was going towards subsidizing the lower rents,” said Fox.
Another intriguing proposal was “Gateway II”, a $70 million project proposed by Travis Hyde properties that involved 120 senior housing units downtown, and a 400-space parking garage that would have been open to the general public. The city states it is not in a “fiscally strong” position to build new garages, and that the construction of a private garage available for public use would require some form of subsidy to be financially feasible. Developer Frost Travis acknowledged the concept was being considered, but made clear it was in the early stages and not yet a formal proposal.
On a smaller scale, $100,000 was to have been allotted to keep the historic Boardman House viable, and $250,000 would have been used for renovations to the Ithaca Agency Building at 108 West State Street. Both of these are also seeking smaller amounts through a RESTORE NY grant.
Several of the plans focused on enhancing arts and cultural assets, or public amenities. These include funding to build or expand exhibits for the Tompkins Center of History and Culture now underway, renovations to the State Theater, and an indoor playground inside Center Ithaca. DeWitt Park was to use the funds towards new benches, public art and landscaping, and a 0.8 mile extension of the Six Mile Creek gorge trail was planned from Gateway Plaza to the Mulholland Wildflower Preserve on Giles Street. New directional signage, crosswalks, lighting and public art would have been installed along West State Street to enhance the pedestrian experience.
On a final note, the DRI application notes the city is in the early stages of planning a new city hall. Funds would have been set aside for helping to convert the existing city hall into housing. According to staff, early plans call for historic landmark protection prior to any saleto ensure preservation of the building (and even the Visum Development proposal for Green Street Garage notes buying the current city hall and turning it into housing in a later phase). The application states the city is only in the exploratory stage.
In total, the $10 million was expected to leverage up to $255 million in other public and private development – certainly some bang for the buck if it had all panned out as planned. But, for whatever their reasons may be, the state decided to help Owego instead. So for many of these plans, it’s back to the drawing board, at least until some alternative sources of funds can be secured.