ITHACA, N.Y.—If you’re in the Lower Northside / Washington Park area, prepare for some construction traffic this spring. With a funding grant courtesy of the New York State, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services’ plans to redevelop the former Immaculate Conception School site into “Founders Way” will be getting underway.

In a virtual community meeting last week (and recorded here), INHS announced the project has secured the construction funding it needs to move ahead with site work starting this spring. The state has awarded funds towards construction of the mixed-use projects with affordable housing and non-profit office space, but has yet to formally commit as it finishes up due diligence in review and legal components. – as a result, an exact date for construction can’t be declared just yet. The purchase of the former school from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester will likely take place in May or early June, with construction permit filings shortly thereafter. Summer work will focus on asbestos abatement and demolition of the school’s south wing.

The development, slated for the 300 Block of West Buffalo Street, repurposes the former Immaculate Conception School, which the Diocese closed in 2017 due to declining enrollment. After a request for proposals for the property, the Diocese awarded preferred developer status to INHS at the end of 2018.

The $25 million INHS redevelopment calls for a partial re-use of the existing school building, preserving the west wing while replacing the south wing, preservation and eventual renovation of the Catholic Charities building and two-family house at 330 West Buffalo, and three new two-story townhouse strings along West Buffalo and North Plain Streets. The old ICS Gymnasium is being detached from the school and sold to the City of Ithaca, which seeks to renovate the gymnasium for use by the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC). A $1 million capital campaign for the gym renovation is underway.

As approved by the city in October 2019, plans call for 71 low-and-moderate income apartments and four for-sale townhomes (on the corner of West Court and North Plain) for owner-occupied lower-income households, for a total of 75 housing units. Office space for non-profit community organizations at below-market rental rates will be provided in the basement and first floor of the renovated west wing of the school. The combination of uses and desire to reuse the school building necessitated a specialized zoning request for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) zone, and it was the first large project to be approved under the city’s new PUD Overlay District guidelines. PUDs are basically do-it-yourself zoning in exchange for community benefits, and have to be reviewed and approved by the city of Ithaca Common Council.

The $7,156,937 funding awarded by the state this past fall comes from a variety of state-funded and federally-funded grants and tax credits. Among the sources are the state’s Housing Trust Fund (HTF) for low-income housing preservation and development, the state’s portion of the HOME grant program to promote home ownership for lower-income households, the NYS Community Investment Fund (CIF) for commercial spaces, the NYS Middle-Income Housing Program (MIHP), and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs).

What that alphabet soup of programs and funds demonstrates is that affordable housing funds are cobbled together from a number of sources—not just developer equity and private construction loans, but a plethora of state and federal funds. Unlike market-rate housing where construction costs are typically fully covered by the developer and a commercial lender, the low return on investment for lenders leads affordable and supportive housing developers to seek alternative funding to fill in the financial gap and allow construction to begin. Affordable housing financing is much like a puzzle, and each public and private funding source is a piece in that puzzle, from bank loans to tax-exempt bonds to tax credits. All these different sources have to fit together in a certain way to provide maximum financial leverage.

In addition to state and federal programs, Tompkins County also has the Community Housing Development Fund (CHDF), a county-managed fund jointly paid into by the city of Ithaca, some of the towns, the county and Cornell University to help fund affordable housing developments within the county. The CHDF awarded $300,000 to the Founders Way back in 2019. That’s helpful in two ways – it’s a quantitative show of support of the project from local leaders, and it’s less money that the state would need to offer, making the project a better bang for their buck. Only about 30 percent of projects that apply in a given funding round receive funding awards, so having an advantage over the competition is critical. The funding model has been touted in urban policy circles as a success, with over $5 million awarded to 800+ completed housing units since 2009, and other college towns and counties are adopting similar programs.

There was one piece of unfortunate news from last week’s virtual meeting, in that the Catholic Charities building renovation would need to be delayed. “Homes and Community Renewal, the division of the state that funds most of our projects, this was a funding round where they didn’t have a lot of resources available because of the impacts of COVID on the state’s budget. They, I would say more than strongly suggested, they almost required us to remove Catholic Charities from the project. That’s not to say that we won’t be renovating the building. We will eventually renovate the building, we own it now and will be managing it and making repairs as needed. But the larger renovation of that building is not going to be a part of this project,” said INHS Senior Real Estate Developer Lynn Truame.

Earlier construction documents indicated construction on Founders Way should take about a year and half to complete. Work will be conducted from 7:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, and on some Saturdays from 9:00 AM – 5:30 PM. In an effort to limit noise and vibrations, steel-driven piles have been redesigned to a drilled foundation (drilled holes with steel inserted rather than driven steel; the drill pumps in stabilizing grout as it pulls out, and is intended to be less noisy and intrusive). Workers have also been told to not use foul language with the Beverly J. Martin School next door. The building designs are the work of Ithaca-based STREAM Collaborative, with an assist from frequent INHS partner SWBR Architects of Rochester. Newcomer Hamilton Stern Construction of Rochester has been tapped to handle the buildout.

Brian Crandall

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