ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s going to be a big week for the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. The board is poised to select its preferred developer for the Green Street Garage at 8:30 a.m. Thursday in City Hall.
The city whittled the proposals down from four to two earlier in the fall (the original submissions can be seen here). Those plans are the Vecino Group proposal for “Asteri Ithaca”, and the Visum Development/Newman Development joint proposal, “120 East Green.” The Rimland/Peak proposal fell flat due to a lack of perceived community benefits (though, the largest plan, it had the least amount of affordable housing), and the Harold’s Holdings “Little Commons” plan received poor scores for a lack of demonstrated financial capacity and project feasibility.
Over the past couple of months, city staff and elected officials have coordinated and issued an additional series of questions and requests for data from Vecino and Visum/Newman, as well as made comments about what they like, don’t like, and hope to see revised, giving the two remaining contenders a chance to adjust their plans accordingly. With the final proposals in hand, let’s take a look at what the two are offering. Let’s start this off with a brief summary of the changes in each, and then move into a cross-comparison.
Visum Development Group / Newman Development Group
The Visum/Newman proposal (link), which entered into this final round as something of an underdog, is the plan that has changed the most. The number of units in “120 East Green” has been increased to 205, and that can be seen with the new affordable units added to the top two floors. Seventy-one of those are affordable housing (43%-80% area median income depending on unit) to be owned/managed by INHS, 108 of those are workforce housing (80-90% area median income) and 27 market rate (up to 125% area median income). A 30,000 square-foot conference center space has been added. The ground floor would host 17,100 square feet of retail “with a grocery and home goods component.” There would be a 5,000 square-foot plaza and “art park,” and 525 parking spaces.
The Vecino Group, “Asteri Ithaca”, remains largely the same as before. The number of units was reduced from 209 to 206, to give the studio apartments a little more space. All 206 of the units are affordable (50-80% area median income depending on unit). Like Visum/Newman, it’s mostly one-bedrooms, with the remaining mix being studios, two-bedrooms, and a few three-bedrooms. The Vecino project has a 30,000 square-foot conference center as well, but they also give the city the option of removing in exchange for a larger public plaza and some additional retail space, or potentially working with Marriott co-owner and first-round Green Street Garage contender Jeff Rimland to include a conference center in a redevelopment of eastern third of the garage, something not present in the Visum/Newman plan. The amount of ground-level retail is otherwise not defined but would line Green Street to provide active street-level uses. The project includes 514 parking spaces.
The projects, head to head
At a glance, these are both very much alike. Both proposals meet the stipulations of the original Request for Proposals (RFP). Both will have about 200 apartments. have a 12-story building with retail, conference center space, and apartments above, and each complies with city zoning for the property. Both will use air source heat pumps, both will comply with the city’s proposed Green Building Policy. Each is committed to local labor, though labor representatives previously spoke in favor of Vecino. Both have local project team members (architects, engineers, developers) working on their plans, though Visum/Newman has a greater proportion of local representation their project team. Cinemapolis is retained, and both have a landscaped walkway to the Commons from Green Street. If the city wants the parking spaces to be public in either plan, they will need to subsidize their maintenance.
Now let’s try to tease some details apart. Financially, while both will seek a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) or deep tax abatement, and each is a better financial prospect than the city rebuilding the garage on its own, Visum/Newman works out somewhat better for the city, even if Vecino gets the highly competitive grants they’re aiming for. If it doesn’t get those, the city has to subsidize it much more. In terms of housing, Vecino maximizes the number of affordable housing units, while Visum/Newman serves a broader range of incomes.
Common Councilors have started to stake their views on one or the other. Back in November, before the final plan revisions, Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) and Steve Smith (D-4th) expressed support for the Visum/Newman Plan, while Laura Lewis (D-5th) and Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd) favored the Vecino proposal. A letter submitted by Donna Fleming (D-3rd) was noncommittal to either plan, as was Mayor Myrick at the November meeting. On the other end, councilor George McGonigal (D-1st) said he disliked both plans, also disliked the other two plans that had already been cut, and basically did the bureaucratic equivalent of “I don’t like any of this, I’m taking my ball and going home”. Give him credit for being consistent with his opposition to development and density.
To be fair, neither one clearly stands out as being “better” than the other. They both have much to offer the city, and really, either one would go a long way to help meet the city’s goals, like rebuilding a downtown parking garage at the end of its safe/usable life, affordable housing, and conference center space.
(In proof this will be a fight to the end, Visum’s Todd Fox reached out after publication to point out that, unlike their submission, Vecino would need millions of dollars in housing grants to have any hope of construction, while Vecino’s Molly Chiang sent revised figures to the IURA and the Voice, showing a financially rosier outlook for their project).
Whichever project is eventually selected after IURA review Thursday, the city and developer will then have ninety days to negotiate on the land (called an “Exclusive Negotiation Agreement”, or ENA), and the agreement itself, called a Disposition and Development Agreement (DDA), would go to the IURA committee and Common Council for public hearings and approval votes. If those pan out, the project would then undergo the normal purchase approval and planning review process. Long story short, while a preferred developer will be named this week, don’t expect any deals until well into next year.