ITHACA, N.Y. — Sometimes you get along with your neighbors, and sometimes you don’t. But usually, that doesn’t end up in the courts. Unfortunately, that appears to be the case with the developers of Harold’s Square at 133-139 The Commons, and its southern neighbor-to-be, the Asteri affordable housing and Downtown Ithaca Conference Center mixed-use project by The Vecino Group.

Under New York State law, an Article 78 lawsuit is filed against communities or public bodies when the plaintiff believes that arbitrary or capricious decisions have been executed, inappropriate of governmental powers. Also named in the Article 78 lawsuit alongside Vecino are Mayor Svante Myrick and all the members of the city of Ithaca’s Common Council.

According to the text of the lawsuit on file with the Tompkins County Clerk, the lawsuit stems from the city’s naming of The Vecino Group as the preferred developer for the redevelopment of the Green Street Garage. It takes issue with both the Common Council’s vote to give the mayor the ability to negotiate a lease agreement for the Conference Center, and with the request to the New York State Assembly to obtain permission to establish a hotel occupancy tax to help fund operations of the conference center, stating that environmental review (formally known as the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA) was not properly and fully carried out. You can read more about the decisions going into those votes in previous coverage here and here. The lawsuit seeks to annul both of those votes by Common Council.

It would seem a rather unusual fight to pursue, given that the tax itself doesn’t impact Harold’s Square, which has no hotel component. But inside the filing, the lawyers for Harold’s Square state “Harold’s Square development relied on representation by City of Ithaca representatives that parking would be available in the Green Street Parking Garage for residents and visitors of Harold’s Square in the Green Street Parking Garage. Harold’s Square construction is now near completion and office tenants have decided not to move to the building because of the uncertainty regarding future parking availability at the Green Street Parking Garage due to the Green Street Redevelopment Project.” The section of SEQRA they highlight is the parking and traffic section, which is near but not fully complete with the Asteri project itself, and still in the midst of data collecting for the separate Downtown-wide study.

So in other words, Harold’s Square is having trouble filling its office space, citing parking as an issue. Its developers are going after the city for continuing with a redevelopment plan of the Green Street Parking Garage, that includes prepping for a new conference center by arranging an avenue for funding and space leasing. Meanwhile, the physical project itself, with its parking impacts, are still being reviewed, parking impacts they see as harming their project. In theory, if they can stop Asteri and the Conference Center from getting built, that’s more parking in the garage for Harold’s Square and its tenants.

Vicki Taylor Brous, the public relations representative for the developers of Harold’s Square, argued there was more to it than parking spaces.

“This is not just about parking. It is about the city making commitments in the form of a lease guarantee to a developer of a conference center without first considering the environmental impacts that come from such an operation in the downtown core and how those impacts can be mitigated. The law requires government agencies to consider environmental impacts as early as possible in the process and prior to making any commitments.

While the impact on parking is a part of that, it is also traffic impacts, impacts to air from traffic jams, visual impacts, shade impacts, and socioeconomic impacts from having a large conference center within the downtown core that may not be active year-round or viable, particularly in a post COVID world. Could impacts be lessened by having the conference center at a different location? We do not know because the City failed to perform the required analyses. The issue has nothing to do with the creation of affordable housing which is certainly needed in the community.

The City’s failure to conduct a meaningful environmental review related to this project is not a new issue. We have consistently and frequently requested that the environmental impacts be considered since the Green Street garage redesign concept was introduced.”

Brous’s comment about the affordable housing is in part a defense of Harold’s Square after they, in the words of one of Planning Board member, “commandeered” the Public Hearing of a Planning Board meeting to protest the Asteri affordable housing portion of the project, saying that a second 12-story building next to their own would block the views and prevent adequate light and air circulation to their upper-floor market-rate apartments. The board did express some hesitation with Vecino’s design with that in consideration, and after further discussion over the following month, Vecino trimmed ten feet from the rear upper-levels of their building in an effort to open up more space, which the board approved. However, they also expressed frustration with the way Harold’s Square approached the issue, and there was some public blowback that a developer of higher-end units could push around an affordable housing developer.

It’s also something of a departure for Harold’s Square to emphasize building something outside Downtown, given the heavy emphasis it placed on its own urban core development starting with the project’s inception in 2012. The project has experienced multiple setbacks over the years on its path to completion later this year, including a construction halt due to contractor disagreement, difficulties in obtaining a construction loan,  fights over closing off the new Commons Playground, and impacts on retail neighbors on the Commons. The design and program mix has been changed multiple times. The project bounced back and forth on proportions of office space and apartment units, including a change in the middle of construction to reduce the number of units from 108 to 78, and reconfigure that former residential space for office use.

The Harold’s Square development team was one of four firms to submit proposals in response to the city’s second RFP for the Green Street Garage in 2018. Their proposal, named “Little Commons”, called for 76 apartments with ground-level retail, and was by far the smallest of the four submissions. Given concerns about the developer’s financial capacity, and the proposal’s expectation that the city would take on the garage reconstruction costs (the other three offered to pay for reconstruction), the proposal was not selected.

City Planning Director JoAnn Cornish brought the figurative receipts in her comments regarding the lawsuit, citing SEQRA documentation filed by the developers back in January 2013. “In the FEAF documents submitted by the applicant for Harold Square, I quote the following: ‘Harold Square is designed to be a pedestrian-oriented project, with most trips both to and from its offices, retail stores and apartments to originate and terminate on foot.’ Additionally, for what its worth, included in the same document and what we, the city, thought to be a commitment, Temporary transportation impacts will occur during construction of the project, which is expected to begin in the summer of 2013 and continue for a period of 18 months.  A detailed staging, excavation and materials delivery plan is being developed in conjunction with the planning for the adjacent Commons Reconstruction project, which is planned for the same time period.’  We know this did not happen and after we completed the Commons, it soon became a construction zone to accommodate the Harold Square project. Incidentally, Harold’s Square was also granted a (zoning) variance for relief of the rear yard setback, and is now objecting to Asteri doing the same thing.”

Cornish further noted that a Downtown parking study is underway at the moment to analyze impacts and needs, given the rapid evolution of Ithaca’s Downtown over the past several years. However, the analysis is complicated by the unusual traffic patterns created as a result of the COVID pandemic, as many office workers are clocking in from home, and the hotels and leisure businesses are closed or practically closed. “Prior to the pandemic, the numbers looked much different. Moving forward, we’re not sure what the post-pandemic world will look like. Will (employers) want less office space as employees continue to work from home? Will that result in fewer people driving, eliminating the need for hundreds of parking spaces in huge expensive parking garages? Will the increased density in downtown actually reduce the need for parking as people choose to give up their cars? These are all unknowns we are trying to figure out with the help of an outside consultant (Stantec).”

As for the hotel room occupancy tax, her colleague Deputy Director Tom Knipe added “We haven’t yet performed a SEQR analysis on the potential passage of the local (hotel room occupancy tax) law because we are not at that stage of the process yet. The enabling bill just passed the State Legislature last week and the governor has not yet signed it…Common Council needs to then pass a local law that conforms with the state enabling law to establish the new room tax.”

It’ll be up to the New York State Supreme Court to decide whether or not the Article 78 complaaint has sufficient grounds. With the project not yet approved, the parking study underway, and the laws the lawsuit goes after not yet enacted, there’s a lot for the courts to review and consider.

Normally, the Voice doesn’t delve into the quarrels of neighbors, but when it’s the city and two skyline-altering projects worth over $50 million each, it merits some attention.

We’ll keep you posted as the case moves through the courts.

Brian Crandall

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