ITHACA, N.Y. –– If you have the money and the dream to own a piece of Ithaca’s waterfront, the city would like to hear from you. A Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) has been issued by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) for 2.65 acres of city-owned waterside property, and all potential bidders are welcome.

Looking past the alphabet soup of acronyms here, but an RFEI is a bit of legal speech that basically equates to a sketch plan prior to consideration of a detailed request for proposals (RFP) – an RFP for RFPs, if you will. The RFEI is more conceptual and focused on the “program mix” of intended uses with estimates of the approximate amount of housing, retail and so on. Every building detail and parking space doesn’t need to be laid out just yet.

To be considered as an RFP, the RFEI submissions must fit with the city’s goals and be able to reasonably obtain Planning Board and Common Council approval. The Common Council is required because they have to approve any sale of city-owner property like this parking lot. If the RFEIs pass those gut checks, they can submit more detailed plans and move on to being considered as an RFP submission.

Under consideration in the RFEI is 410-446 Taughannock Boulevard on Inlet Island, 2.65 acres of land that is mostly occupied by a city-owned parking lot and boat storage. An adjacent 0.27 acres owned but no longer used by the State of New York is also negotiable.

The zoning is fairly generous by Ithaca standards – the property has no required parking, allows up to five floors and 63 feet of height, and 100% lot coverage excluding lot line setbacks. Combinations of residential, commercial, recreational and water-related uses are permitted.

Ownership statuses on Inlet island. Pink-shaded land is the city of Ithaca and the IURA subject to the RFEI. Orange is owned by New York State. Blue is land owned by Lincoln Morse. Green is land owned by Steve Flash.

However, in practice, the site is much more constrained. The state has a 25-foot wide easement on the northern edge of the property for the flood control channel that prohibits permanent structures. The soils on one part of the site have petroleum contamination from bulk fuel storage in years past, and the soils overall are water-logged mush that require more expensive foundations for most buildings. The city of Ithaca wants to retain at least 80 public parking spaces on site, and the property sits in the 500-year flood plain according to federal flood insurance maps.

Submissions should expect to address in their applications how they help the city achieve its planning goals for the waterfront. This includes mixed-use development, housing opportunities across all income levels, public access to the waterfront, better multi-modal transportation connections (car, bus, bike, pedestrian, boat), and how it helps achieve a planner’s favorite buzzword, a “vibrant” waterfront.

While anyone is welcome to submit a plan, there are already two development teams vying for the property. Developers Steve Flash and Jeff Rimland have a plan they intend to submit that calls for four apartment buildings, a fifth building with apartments over ground-floor retail, a marina storage and boat repair building, and the regular complement of non-structural parking/landscaping/site plan improvements. About 90 apartments are included in that plan, with a 20% set aside for lower-income housing.

The second proposal, led by builder/developer Lincoln Morse, calls for a five-story hotel to be operated by the owners of the Argos Inn as well as 42 lower-income housing units in two buildings, and boat storage and repair facilities. On the waterfront, the Morse project enhances the waterfront trail, and adds facilities for water taxis, dinner boats, and slips and docks for recreational boaters. Both it and the Flash/Rimland proposal can be read about in more detail here.

Should anyone with deep pockets and aspirations to be a waterfront developer be interested, responses to the RFEI are due by 3 PM on April 7th. Respondents will then meet with the IURA’s citizen-led Economic Development Council (EDC) on April 13th to give a presentation on their submission and take part in a Q&A session.

EDC will then invite more detailed plans as needed to start the RFP stage. At that point, they will review the detailed proposals and engage in initial negotiations to decide who will get their endorsement as preferred developer. After they make their recommendation, the IURA will host a public hearing, and if all is well, they will make their endorsement of the development team for the Common Council. The Council will then consider whether or not to transfer the land to the IURA, and that will go through the Planning Committee and full Council with public hearings.

Once under IURA’s direct control, the project team can be deemed Preferred Developers and engage in full negotiations for terms of sale (called an “Exclusive Negotiation Agreement”, or ENA), and the sale also has to go through council and public hearings, and the Planning Board will review design aspects of the project concurrently with public hearing. The long story short is, this will take several months, and have multiple public hearings with different governing bodies for the sake of transparency. One could also joke this will generate enough bureaucratic red tape to tie a bow over City Hall, but it’s better to be drawn out and transparent than to be accused of operating under a veil of secrecy and ill intent.

Submissions should include a cover letter, conceptual site plan, preliminary development program (housing unit totals, square footage by use), estimated project budget and financing plan, and identification of any potential additional need for IURA or city assistance. Questions can be directed by IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn at nbohn@cityofithaca.org.

Brian Crandall

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