ITHACA, N.Y. –– If you want a snapshot of what’s coming down the development pipeline in the city of Ithaca, the Planning Department’s Annual Report are practically guide books as to what’s been approved and what to expect from those projects. Not only does it help the city figure out what to expect in the next year or so as shovels hit the dirt, it also helps planners figure out what’s absent or outright lacking, so they can determine if steps need to be taken from the policy side in the upcoming months and years.

Here at The Ithaca Voice, we’ve delved into the numbers and identified key points and takeaways from the 2020 Report. Let’s delve into those findings and stats below. The city has yet to upload a copy of the 2020 Planning Report, but we’ve embedded the copy that the Planning Department kindly provided at the end of this article.

1. Despite COVID, the city saw stronger interest from developers than ever before.

In terms of the number of applications reviewed and approved in 2020, it was a pretty good year for the city of Ithaca. As seen in the chart above, over $200 million in private development was approved – and another $73 million has been approved this year or is before the board right now, not counting whatever happens with the Collegetown Innovation District. Note that staff-approved projects are no bigger than single-family and two-family homes, everything bigger than that involves a trip before the Planning Board.

Of that $214 million, institutional projects only make up about $4 million of the total, from the combined price tag for Cornell’s Balch Hall Renovations ($2.96 million) and Dwyer Dam Rehab ($1 million). That’s a significant change from 2019, of which $128 million of that $194 million was due to the Cornell North Campus Expansion currently underway.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the level of interest from non-institutional developers in doing a project in Ithaca is the highest its been in decades, perhaps ever.

2. The city is starting to make some progress in approving affordable rentals. But owner-occupied proposals are still rare.

In 2020, the city approved 235 low-moderate income units for construction, and 786 housing units total, a record for the city of Ithaca. Note that those stats are not the same thing as actually getting built, because they still have to get funding first. Looking more closely at the 233 LMI apartments, they all come from three projects – 181 in Asteri, 42 units in phase one of the Carpenter Circle mixed-use project and ten in “The Ithacan” tower. This builds on top of 2019’s successes when the 79-unit (75 rental/4 for-sale) Founders’ Way and 124-unit Arthaus projects were approved, and one of those is under construction and the other is soon to start construction. Assuming the latest projects get funding, 436 new units of low-moderate income coming onto the market over the next couple of years is most welcome in an area with well-documented affordability issues.

However, there is still a significant lack of for-sale affordable housing. The number of for-sale units built in recent years is quite limited, both market-rate and low-moderate income. Since 2006, 4,470 apartments have been approved in the city of Ithaca, of which 3,309 have been built or are under construction now. Meanwhile, only 96 (63 market-rate, 33 affordable) have been built since 2006 and only four more are approved (and I’m aware of two units in the review pipeline, in an INHS duplex on South Plain Street), so it’s been practically a trickle over the past fifteen years. There are a number of reasons for this, namely that the number of lots suitable for single-family homes is limited, it’s much harder to get grant funding for affordable hor-sale housing because it needs much more per unit, and condominiums of any price point are legally and financially more difficult to do vs. rentals.

3. Development plans were spread out across the city’s more urban (or planned urban) neighborhoods.

So this is an interesting point because typically when I’ve done this report over the past several years, the projects are concentrated in Collegetown, or they’re concentrated in Collegetown and Downtown (the 2018 report broke that guideline because very little housing was approved that year, 19 units). In 2020, the project approved was fairly spread out across a few neighborhoods. Carpenter Circle Phase 1 and City Harbor are on or close to the north end of the Waterfront, and the Aeroplane Factory expansion is on the south end of Brindley and Taber Streets. West End Ironworks is on the 400 Block of West State Street. Asteri and The Ithacan are where the Green Street Garage currently is Downtown, and three projects ( the student housing plans – 238 Dryden Road, 126 College Avenue, and 411-15 College Avenue) are in Collegetown. The remaining few are retail projects down along Meadow Street in Southwest Ithaca’s big box corridor.

4. There was a boom in demand for commercial space.

This point seems especially counter-intuitive; after all, COVID shellacked brick-and-mortar retail, and the market for office space has always been lukewarm at best. To be fair, building speculative, or “spec” office space, still seems to be a risky proposal – the last I checked a couple of weeks ago, the recently opened Harold’s Square still had yet to sign on any takers for its commercial spaces.

However, a comparatively large amount of commercial space was approved for construction in 2020. The three projects that make up the bulk of that are the Downtown Ithaca Conference Center (49,000 square feet), the Guthrie Clinic medical office building being built on Pier Road (60,000 square feet), and the Cayuga Medical Center office building (60,000 square feet) being built as part of the Carpenter Circle project. Fears about the Conference Center in a post-COVID world noted each of these promises to bring dozens of new jobs when they open, with more to potential come as the medical office spaces fill out. The key thing here is, these spaces were spoken for when they were proposed, nothing was built on “spec”.

The remaining commercial space is generally retail, either medium-sized spaces on Meadow (4,686 and 7,000 square feet), the small-storefront ground-level variety in the mixed-use developments, or boutique office space like in the Aeroplane Factory.

121 Oak Avenue, approved last month by the Planning Board.

5. There doesn’t appear to be a slowdown yet.

Looking into 2021, two significant projects have already been approved, Josh Lower’s 35-unit development on Collegetown’s Oak Avenue and the Northside Apartments rebuild (82 units, replacing 70) have already been approved this year. Several other projects are in review at this time, including a new KeyBank branch at 500 South Meadow Street, the first phase of the Water Works mixed-use development on Taughannock Boulevard, and Visum Development and Providence Housing’s affordable 58-unit mixed-use project at 510 West State Street. The biggest of all currently under review is the 347-unit apartment building and parking garage at 401 East State Street. All those add up to 527 housing units and at least 7,800 square feet of commercial space. Since review typically takes 3-4 months, there’s still plenty of time for new submissions this spring to be approved by the end of the year and be counted in 2021’s report.

Thinking beyond the projects currently before the boards, the Collegetown Innovation District remains a question mark after they pulled plans for a PUD when the response to their plans was less-than-favorable. The Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency will name a preferred developer for the city parking lot on Inlet Island, so that will likely head to the Planning Board this year, whoever that preferred developer turns out to be. The remaining 166 apartments in the Carpenter Circle project are not approved and excluded from counts, as they can’t get approval until funding has been secured for the affordable housing (it’s how the city is making sure that the affordable apartment building gets built).

Of course, there are also rumors, concepts, and sketch plans. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens around town. But with any luck, the Voice will be breaking news on a new, offbeat project proposal later this week.

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PB Report 20 by Anna Lamb on Scribd

Brian Crandall

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