ITHACA, N.Y. –– No one is going to argue that 2020 wasn’t a rough year. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crash, the national political tumult, widespread civil unrest, societal disruption –– we could go on and on.

That said, from a development standpoint, the market overall just kept chugging along, though some sectors have fared better than others. Recently updated 2020 home sales figures from the Ithaca Board of Realtors suggests that, with a 7% decline in closed sales but a 13% rise in prices, that there’s a lack of for-sale housing available to buyers. On the other end, rentals in some neighborhoods and retail projects have experienced a market downturn and greater uncertainty.

It can be difficult a bit hard to keep track of the ups, downs, and everything going on, but to help close out to 2020, here are five major stories that help to define what the real estate and development scene looks like in Ithaca and Tompkins County are now, and where they’re going.

Redevelopment of the Green Street Garage advances

In what would arguably be the biggest project in Downtown Ithaca since the days of urban renewal fifty years ago, the Green Street Garage redevelopment continued its long, arduous path forward. The western two-third would be redeveloped into the Asteri Ithaca project by The Vecino Group, with about 182 apartments for low-moderate income households and a 54,921 square-foot conference center to boost the city’s convention business, and the easternmost third of the garage would be redeveloped into The Ithacan by Rimland Development, a mostly market-rate 200-unit apartment building that includes renovations to the Rothschild Building to house Ithaca College’s Physician’s Assistant program. Collectively, the development costs for the pair are valued at over $170 million. About 500 parking spaces would be included in the newly-rebuilt and expanded garage, with 468 of those being publicly accessible.

As of this writing, the city of Ithaca’s Planning Board has approved both project, and the last of the legal paperwork is being finalized and approved by the city of Ithaca’s Common Council. Both projects are expected to begin construction this winter, with completion in summer 2022 for the Ithacan, and early 2023 for Asteri.

Rimland Tower redesign ends retail ruckus – Several shopowners in the Rothschild Building, which Rimland owns, would have been forced out by the project, and they had been given little notice. Shops like Home Green Home and Sunny Days would have been shunted from their storefronts, abruptly and with minimal assistance from their landlord. The Ithaca Voice

Not very neighborly: Harold’s Square launches lawsuit against city, adjacent project – 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 project by The Vecino Group. The Ithaca Voice

Downtown developers call truce, announce major development deal – It pays to be neighborly. A pair of downtown developers embroiled in a lawsuit over neighboring developments have come to terms with each other, with plans to trim back one development plan, and work together on a third site elsewhere in the city. The Ithaca Voice

Planning Board Recap: Asteri and the West End Ironworks Get the Green Light – The pre-holiday November City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meeting was short but productive; two projects with commercial space and over 300 housing units received approvals this month. The Ithaca Voice

Planning Board Recap: Board signs off on “The Ithacan” tower –  It was a jam-packed meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board last night, but contrary to the long agenda and stacks of documents, it went surprisingly quickly and smoothly, with eleven different submissions and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of development reviewed in just about 3.5 hours. The Ithaca Voice

Developers dive into in Ithaca’s West End and Waterfront

Last year I used the phrase “a new start” to describe development activity in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood and the adjacent waterfront. This year, developer interest in the area blossomed as developers big and small made big-ticket purchases and proposed mixed-use projects, ranging from the modestly-scaled to grander plans. This has not been without some controversy, as the Common Council

The draw boils down to a combination of factors – many underutilized sites due to decades of neglect following the creation of the flood control channel in the 1960s, lower land prices and less complicated logistics than downtown properties, and zoning revisions enacted in 2011 and 2017 that encouraged denser, mixed-use and more walkable/urban site plans.

With purchases and plans continuing through 2020, the waterfront and greater West End will be a focal point of Ithaca’s development scene through most of the decade ahead.

Aeroplane Factory Owners Seek West End Expansion – Back in January 2019, the Aeroplane Factory business campus on Ithaca’s West End was purchased by a trio of local businessman, Gregar Brous, Robert Sparks and Jerry Dietz. Dietz noted at the time that the property offered both an opportunity to preserve buildings that are part of Ithaca’s historic fabric, and expansion sites for when they were ready. Well, they’re ready. The Ithaca Voice

Press Bay Alley Developers propose Cherry Street project – The southern end of Cherry Street has posed something of a problem for the city. For decades, it’s been marketed as a “shovel-ready” development site for job creation. It’s also been a site the city has long struggled with. The Press Bay developers have a solution for the city’s ails. Or perhaps, that should be “ales”. The Ithaca Voice

Visum plans pair of projects for Cherry Street – These are uncertain times, but clearly some developers are thinking optimistically about the future of Ithaca’s waterfront. In the latest vote of confidence, a pair of buildings from Visum Development would retail and nearly 200 apartments on the 100 block of Cherry Street. The Ithaca Voice

GreenStar sells the Space, starts new chapter as “Food Hub” – With GreenStar’s move completed, the next wave of property sales on the West End has begun. First to bat are a pair of sales on West Buffalo Street. The Ithaca Voice

Arnot puts forward plans to redevelop former Bishop’s property – The Horseheads-based developer has submitted plans detailing its proposed redevelopment of the former Bishop’s property at 430-444 West State Street. The Ithaca Voice

Arnot wins acution for NYS DOT property – To the victor go the spoils. In this case, the spoils are eight acres of prime waterfront property in the city of Ithaca. The Ithaca Voice

Dueling proposals vie for Inlet Island site –  For the city of Ithaca, it’s a fortunate problem to have, if a tough one. Two local developers are vying for a city-owned parcel of land on Inlet Island, each seeking to build out the undeveloped property and complement the growing interest in Ithaca’s waterfront. The Ithaca Voice

Collegetown Innovation District meets public eye

Should it come to fruition, the long-awaited Collegetown megaproject would fundamentally reshape the student-centric neighborhood at Cornell’s doorstep, both demographically and physically. As proposed, the five-site, $145 million project offers up over 720,000 square feet of built space, with at least 440 housing units, office space, ground-level retail, and an uncertain amount of high-tech industrial and community/non-profit space, with an expectation of 360 new jobs.

On the flip side, the project still faces a lot of questions and concerns before any shovels hit the ground. For one thing, it’s not clear who will be creating those new jobs. The project also tosses Collegetown long-debated 2014 rezoning structure out the figurative window, in exchange for payments in lieu of taxes as well as into the city’s affordable housing fund, and a potential financial underwriting for the movement of the former Nines firehouse. If successful, the project stands to be an economic boon for Ithaca in a neighbor that has long been the taxable cash cow for city coffers but otherwise overlooked due to its transient population. If done poorly, you basically get empty office blocks and Collegetown Terrace 2.0, Inner Collegetown edition. Expect many more discussions about the Collegetown Innovation District as we head through 2021.

Collegetown “Innovation District” goes public – The Voice has been following this project’s quiet behind-the-scenes movement for years. Finally, it’s ready to see the public eye. Novarr-Mackesey’s Collegetown “Innovation District” promises to redefine Collegetown and have an immense impact on Ithaca, its economy and its skyline. The Ithaca Voice

Developer releases ‘Collegetown Innovation District,’ but without high-tech discussions – A development team recently pitched to Ithaca a redevelopment project they say would improve Collegetown’s economy by adding jobs to the area and dilute the neighborhood’s dependence on students. However, members of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee are dissatisfied with the proposal, claiming there is a lack of evidence that would guarantee their vision of bringing high-tech jobs to the area. The Ithaca Journal

Community response divided over Collegetown Innovation District – Developers for the Collegetown innovation district met with community members and business owners on Dec. 7 to answer questions and hear feedback on their plans as they pursue a Planned Unit Development application. The Ithaca Times

Industrial firms seek greener pastures

If there’s any one for which the city of Ithaca has lost its appeal, it’s the industrial firms that make up less and less of the city’s employment base. As these firms have announced their departures for more suburban or rural locations, they have said that it’s not an issue with city officials, but that Ithaca is increasingly a less attractive option as land values rise, more residents move nearby and the city’s few industrial sites are increasingly constrained by an inability to expand or a risk to nearby environmentally sensitive areas.

Most of these firms are staying within the county, and the manufacturers and processors are increasingly supplanted with tech firms and smaller, often food-based “makers and crafters”, but it’s a change in Ithaca’s economic base that does conjure some nervousness in a city well aware of the struggles of its Rust Belt neighbors.

Ben Weitsman plans brand new Tompkins County facility – As the Cherry Street area continues to make its own transition from factories and construction yards to offices, shops and apartments, a longtime fixture is making a transition of its own. The Ben Weitsman steel service center will be packing up and moving to a new location outside city lines. The Ithaca Voice

Is there a place for industry in Ithaca? – “Diversifying the tax base shouldn’t include the relocation of industry to the outskirts. While the land is arguably better suited for residential (along a waterway), we need to set aside land for industrial purposes which bring in far more tax revenue than homes.” The Ithaca Voice

Industrial firms set sights on pair of Dryden sites – The hustle and bustle of business is about to get a little louder in the town of Dryden, a local sheet metal product manufacturer and a regional roofing and siding firm plan moves into the community, with jobs in tow. The Ithaca Voice

The impacts of COVID-19

If there was any one sector that suffered the most as a result of COVID, it was the commercial services sector – retail, consumer services, and leisure/hospitality. To survive in the COVID era required some ingenuity, devoted customers, careful adherence to social distancing and disinfecting, and perhaps some emergency forgivable PPP loans courtesy of the government. A number of local businesses have closed or are struggling to stay afloat, hoping that the worst of the pandemic passes as winter wanes and a vaccine is widely distributed and deployed.

One silver lining to all this – the announcement Trader Joe’s was opening a store at the South Meadow Square shopping plaza. You all liked the news so much, it was my second-highest performing article of all time – nearly 56,000 views, the equivalent of over half of Tompkins County’s population.

That said, in a time of uncertainty and disruption, some businesses have found a silver lining, either in expanding their existing work, or adapting to a “new normal”. In a year where so much went wrong, this versatility and resilience really is the story of 2020.

Cornell Orchards set to close store – It’s one of those traditions of early fall. You throw some jackets on the kids, drive over to Cornell Orchards, and get your fill of some of the many wonderful apple varieties and products they offer up every year. Well, you might want to make other plans for next year – the Cornell apple orchard store on Route 366 will be closing. The Ithaca Voice

Finally, Trader Joe’s is coming to Ithaca – It’s been a running joke since the Voice launched that if we could break the news of Trader Joe’s coming to Ithaca, our website would crash from the traffic. It’s time to test that hypothesis. Yes, folks, Trader Joe’s is coming to Ithaca. The Ithaca Voice

How many is too many? Dollar General proposal stirs debate – Town planners and local business owners often seek out a “good mix” when looking to enhance a town’s commercial offerings.However, it’s a delicate balance between encouraging that good mix, and letting stores and services sprout and grow on their own. The Ithaca Voice

In a time of crisis, some businesses find opportunity – For countless businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of an economic crisis.However, the story is not the same for everyone. Times of crisis can, under the right circumstances, be times of opportunity if a business is well-positioned to respond to the crisis or the “new normal” it creates. The Ithaca Voice

After delays, Ithaca homebuilder launches ‘pocket neighborhood’ – Call it a “long incubation.” After years of delays and challenges, New Earth Living’s Sue Cosentini is finally launching her 30-home Amabel “pocket neighborhood”. The Ithaca Voice

Brian Crandall

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