ITHACA, N.Y. — As another year comes to a close, we have another year to reflect on Ithaca’s development. 2018 continued the trends of the past few years – economic and population growth have led to development being a hot conversation topic in coffee shops and around office water coolers.

Since some reflection is healthy, let’s take a look at the five biggest stories of the past year.

Historic Preservation: A boon, or a burden?

Advocates for historic preservation will look back on 2018 as something of a mixed bag. The first half of the year was dominated by the debate over the future of 311 College Ave., a former fire station better known by its longstanding restaurant owner-occupant, “The Nines.”

The owners of the Nines wanted to retire, close up the 40-year-old restaurant and sell the building to fund their golden years. However, as demonstrated by a (now canceled) proposal from Visum Development Group, most of those potential buyers want to redevelop the site, and landmark protection would have put very restrictive measures in place that would have greatly reduced the price the owners could ask for. Suddenly, the owners’ retirement nest egg looked a lot more uncertain. On the other hand, 311 College Ave. is also a rare throwback to the early days of Collegetown, and a beloved structure among the apartments and boarding houses of Collegetown.

It became a debate over historic value versus personal property rights and expectations, and there was no easy answer. Common Council seemed to agree, splitting 5-5 on historic designation, with the mayor quickly casting a tie-breaking vote to deny the landmarking. For what sting the defeat might have brought, there were some notable positives this year for historic protections of local buildings – the Tibbets-Rumsey house at 310 W. State St. has been saved and is being turned into a housing co-op, and as of the start of 2019, the former train depot and Greyhound bus station at 710 West State Street is now an individual historic landmark.

The Saga of the Green Street Garage

My, what strange paths some plans weave. In the fall of 2017, developer Jeff Rimland, working with Peak Campus, proposed a massive mixed-use project that would rebuild the decaying city-owned Green Street Garage along with hundreds of apartments, conference center space and other amenities. At the insistence of some city staff and officials, the proposal was slowed so that a Request For Proposals (RFP) could be issued. At the time that RFP period closed, there was only one submission, Rimland/Peak. However, at the meeting where the IURA was to declare Rimland/Peak the preferred developer, there was a major public outcry over what was felt to be an insufficient amount of time for the RFP, and so the city decided to give it one more try.

This time, four proposals came in, each with their own pros and cons. Through scoring of features and weighing of each submission’s pros and cons, the four entries were whittled down to two by the end of October. Finally, a preferred developer, the Vecino Group with their Asteri Ithaca proposal, was selected by the IURA. At this point, the city and Vecino are in a 90-day exclusive negotiation period, but should the city find Vecino’s plans are no longer feasible or to their liking, they can always give a second look to the runner-up proposal jointly submitted by Visum Development and Newman Development.

A rendering of the NCRE’s sophomore village. (Provided image)

Cornell Thinks Big(ger)

On East Hill, Cornell moved forward with long-brewing plans to add to its campus housing stock and house more of its expanding student population with the addition of more than 2,000 new dormitory beds for its North Campus housing, allowing the university to house (and mandate) all freshman and sophomore students in campus-owned facilities. The proposal has not been without controversy. While the addition of the new housing has been generally welcomed in supply-strapped Tompkins County, concerned have been raised about the new buildings’ energy sources. The structures are designed to tap into Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system that heats and powers most of its main campus, but the CHP system relies on natural gas as its primary energy source. Cornell has stressed that more renewable sources are in the pipeline and the plan is to have all their energy be renewable by 2035, but that far-flung timeline has not been welcome news to many local environmental advocates.

The Cornell plans are still in the review process, with the city planning board having declared the environmental review satisfactory with adequate mitigation measures in place or proposed as part of the project. Cornell’s goal is to obtain site plan approval in early 2019 and begin construction next summer for the completion of phase one in 2021, and phase two in 2022.

  • Cornell releases details on 2,000 bed expansion – The gears are finally turning on Cornell University’s massive North Campus dormitory expansion. The town of Ithaca will preview the plans tonight at its Planning Board meeting. The Ithaca Voice
  • Cornell readies massive dorm project for review – It’s one of the largest projects in Tompkins County history, and it looks like its ready to begin the arduous task of site plan review – Cornell has submitted the filings for its approximately 2,000 bed dormitory project, and the city of Ithaca Planning Board is expected to declare itself lead agency for environmental review at its meeting Tuesday night. The Ithaca Voice
  • Community members question energy impacts of Cornell’s North Campus Residential Expansion – Cornell University’s proposal to add 2,000 beds to campus with the North Campus Residential Expansion project has been moving forward. On Tuesday, more than 30 community members showed up to the Town of Ithaca Planning Board meeting to dig into the project’s energy plan. The Ithaca Voice
  • Cornell’s North Campus expansion clears environmental review hurdle – The City of Ithaca’s Planning and Development Board declared Tuesday that Cornell’s North Campus Residential Expansion project will not have a significant adverse environmental impact, clearing the way for the project to move forward. The Ithaca Voice

Varna’s Vagaries

Not all of the bid development news has been confined to Ithaca. Over in Dryden, debate continues over “The Village at Varna,” a 550-bed proposal from Trinitas Ventures, which specializes in student housing. The proposal has proven highly controversial, with many Varna residents expressing serious concerns over its scale, number of rental units, and whether a student-oriented developer can design something that appeals to a broader population beyond students. Still, the Dryden town board has been willing to entertain the proposal; concept plan approval was given in October, with a number of stipulations regarding project size, unit features and overall project features. Trinitas has submitted paperwork indicate how they intend to meet those stipulations, but whether the two sides agree will be something to be discussed in site plan review next year.

Trinitas hopes to obtain approval by next spring. Construction would start shortly thereafter, with full completion expected in Fall 2020.

The Old Library Debate Continues

The Old Library debate has been running for years, but new issues have continued to arise.

Tompkins County sold off the former library to preferred developer Travis Hyde Properties in Fall 2017, and then…the site went quiet for a while. Developer Frost Travis announced a partnership with local senior care provider Bridges, but site preparation got underway several months later than first anticipated, and when it did, there was a major problem – consulting engineers deemed the roof structurally unstable and in response to the engineers’ report, the city’s building division condemned the building in September.

THP’s approach was to then change their asbestos abatement plan from, “contained” abatement” in which the building is sealed up in a plastic bubble and the asbestos is removed before the structure is demolished, to a “controlled” abatement, which involves tearing the condemned building down as-is and using water hoses to suppress any potential airborne dust. That hasn’t sat well with neighborhood residents and local environmental activists, including Toxics Targeting’s Walter Hang, who circulated a petition calling for the building to be renovated and re-stabilized to allow the original asbestos abatement plan to take place.

The city opted to seek the services of a third-party structural engineer, who also deemed the building unstable, and so THP’s “controlled” demolition plan was allowed to proceed. Driving by today, demolition continues, and some neighbors have sealed up their porches and windows in plastic wrap, the lack of faith in the city and developer as clear as the plastic around their doors.

Looking for more recaps? Be sure to look at “2018 in Review: A Year in Photos” that show the photos that told some of the biggest stories of the year. 

Brian Crandall

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