ITHACA, N.Y. — If you have a sense of Déjà vu, don’t worry, it’s not just you. The City of Ithaca plans to issue a Request For Expressions of Interest (RFEI) later this year for a potential redevelopment of the Seneca Street Garage.

The Seneca Street Garage opened in 1973. To make way for its construction, the old city hall and other century-old downtown buildings were torn down, and the strong negative reaction to its loss served as one of the sparks for the local historic preservation movement.

However, what was new, is now old. As with the Green Street Garage, the Seneca Street Garage was designed to have a finite lifespan. The serviceable existence for the garage is about 50 years, and already the building is showing signs of substantial structural issues. Some of structural beams have started to fail, and stabilizers and shoring posts have been put into place to keep the garage operational while a long-term solution is worked out.

Seneca Street Parking Garage. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
Seneca Street Parking Garage. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Still, the announcement of a Request For Expressions of Interest (RFEI) comes somewhat sooner than anticipated. In 2017, City Engineer Tim Logue stated that the goal of the short-term fixes and repairs earlier in the decade were to allow the garage to remain operational for about 10 more years before major reconstruction expenditures would need to be made, likely a demolition and rebuild at the minimum.

The garage has not had the best of maintenance, either. For a number of years after it was built, the city, during its budget crunches, would minimize the expense of maintenance by simply not doing it. Years of salt and water has also taken its toll.

The idea of an approach similar to Green Street, where a rebuild is incorporated into a larger private development, had previously been floated as a potential approach to meeting both the city’s affordable housing goals, and to make better use of land located a stone’s throw from the downtown core of Ithaca. Publicly-available parking would be a requirement in the RFEI, and the city is hopeful that plans not unlike Vecino or Visum’s Green Street proposals are considered for the Seneca Street property.

“We need to continue investing in our parking infrastructure. Staying ahead of repairs so that we can avoid a collapse. That means looking around the corner and seeing big investments before they reach us,” said Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick. “Given the great location of the Seneca Street garage near the Commons, large employers, and great public transit, we believe there may be significant interest in a public-private partnership that would let us reinvest in our parking infrastructure while adding some badly needed housing.”

According to a Planning Department memo, the RFEI would be drafted and distributed during the first quarter of this year. Proposals would be received a few months later, and reviewed and scored later this year. A preferred developer for the site would ideally be named sometime in the July to September timeframe, with a vote by the Common Council to approve the sale later in that quarter, and project review by the Planning Board in 2020.

Still, Myrick noted that the RFEI is not a firm obligation. “(A)n RFEI is different then an RFP. Less formal, less serious, with less commitment. It is just an attempt to see if there is any interest out there – think of it as a personal ad seeking any casual suitors who might want to begin a serious relationship.”

Brian Crandall

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