ITHACA, N.Y. –– With the Request For Expressions of Interest closed, the city of Ithaca now has its contenders for the redevelopment of the 2.65-acre city-owned parking lot along the waterfront next to Taughannock Boulevard. Three competing teams, in fact.

At a glance, it’s another nod to Ithaca’s popularity among developers in recent years. The Old Library site had six contenders, the Green Street Garage had four. Here, the plans from two development groups, the first led by Steve Flash and Jeff Rimland, and the second by Lincoln Morse, were already well known, so that may have dissuaded others.

Though apparently, not all others –– growing local developer Visum Development Group has thrown its hat into the ring, becoming the third firm to compete for the Inlet Island site.

Since Flash/Rimland and Morse both revised their proposals, it’s worth having another look at the three contenders below. As a reminder, here’s what the city was looking for in the responses to the RFEI. Note that the scoring system is a ranked 3, 2, 1 with 3 being the best proposal for that criterion, and then weighted by a multiplication factor, so for instance 30x and a score of 3 means they would get 90 points.

A. Community Benefits (30x) –– The “calculation of social, economic, and physical community benefits resulting from the project and realization of land use objectives identified in Plan Ithaca, the City’s comprehensive plan.” Things that boost the rank here include job creation, paying fair market value for the land, proven local labor commitments, sustainable/green building design, commitment to living wage for staff, potential to bring people (and tax dollars) to the waterfront, and a host of other considerations. At least 80 public parking spaces must be included in a proposal.

B. Project Concept (30x) –– This dovetails with Community Benefits in bringing people to the waterfront and “vibrancy” and economic value from the proposal. Considerations also include physical benefits such as the upgrade or extension of the existing waterfront promenade, upgrade of public parking, enhanced public access to the waterfront, enhanced streetscape and sidewalk system, and inclusion of public art.

C. Financial Capacity (20x) –– No one wants to be wooed and left at the altar, the city included. This is about a development ability’s team to get the project done as presented to the city in a reasonable time frame.

D. Financial Terms Proposed (20x) –– A project that requires modest participation by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) or city is likely to have fewer feasibility issues than a project that requires major public investments or deep discounts on land sales. The more favorable and less complicated the terms of sale and development, the higher the rank.

Since this is ranked-choice rather than a simple score, a proposal cannot afford to slack off in any way –– it has to be a strong concept plan with easily identified and substantial community benefits, and it needs to have a solid funding plan with no major burdens onto the city and general public. This will be a very interesting, if tough, set of reviews and public hearings ahead because each of the three projects differs substantially, with elements that make each one unique.

Let’s have a look at what each proposal offers if selected. Before we jump in, two notes –– there’s no rhyme or reason to the way these are presented, there is no favoritism. (Frankly, my comment to my editor was that I was surprised by how strong all three proposals were). Also, never fall in love with the architecture shown, because regardless of who wins, it’s subject to change from first submission to approved product.

1. The Morse Proposal

The project team for this proposal includes Lincoln Morse and his business partners with Ithaca’s STREAM Collaborative serving as project architect, and local firms T.G. Miller P.C., Taitem Engineering and Elwyn&Palmer in project engineering roles. Readers may recall Morse is the developer behind WaterWorks, the new Incodema facility and Cliff Street Retreat. The only non-local member is Burlington, Vermont-based Smith Buckley Architects, who would be doing design work on the hotel. The mixed-use project seeks to address economic growth, “missing middle” housing in terms of smaller-scale middle-income units, and promote water activities and water-focused retail.

Programmatically, the plan calls for 48 apartments, one-bedroom units priced to serve those making 80-100 percent of area median income. A five-story 122-room Cambria hotel would be built along the waterfront, to be owned and operated by the hotelier. The plan calls for 10,000 square feet of retail/classroom space, 217 parking spaces as well as indoor bike storages and racks, 3,000 square feet of marina storage and launch sites, and 630 linear feet of new waterfront walk/promenade. About 0.76 acres of green space would be set aside for a new public park. The proposal fully complies with existing zoning. The Coast Guard Auxiliary parcel will need to be transferred from the State to the City or IURA and then sold to the project team as part of this plan.

Touted benefits include 60-70 permanent jobs, 50-100 construction jobs, moderate-income housing, increased waterfront access with new services and amenities courtesy of PuddleDockers and other water-focused entities, public parking, property tax and hotel tax revenue and the cleanup of an existing brownfield site. The total cost of the development comes to $37.56 million, with a Q2 2022-2024 construction period. Tompkins County IDA tax abatements would be sought for the project.

2. “At the Helm on Inlet Island” (The Rimland/Flash Proposal)

This proposal is led by developer Steve Flash, who was the original preferred developer of the property back when a hotel with condos was proposed and shot down by Common Council in the late 2000s, and Jeff Rimland, co-developer of the Marriott Downtown and the developer of the Ithacan apartment tower next door. Lambrou Real Estate and Edger Enterprises, who are developing the City Harbor mixed-use project nearby, are also providing support to this proposal, and non-profit housing developer Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS). Local firm Whitham Planning and Design is shepherding the proposal through the RFEI, and Ithaca’s HOLT Architects is in charge of design.

Programmatically, the proposal has several components. One is what they call “the Stays”, a 78-90 bed extended-stay ‘hometel’ concept where people who are visiting Ithaca for a long weekend, season or who are local and want to live on the water for a time can have a place to call “home”. A second building, called “the Anchor”, would be developed in partnership with INHS and provide 50-56 affordable housing units (30-120 percent area median income, but mostly 50-60 percent AMI). The Finger Lakes Boating Center would be retained. Roofs would be outfitted with solar panels to create a “microgrid” on Inlet Island. A new pedestrian bridge will link the Inlet Island site to Lambrou and Edger’s proposed Agora neighborhood, and parking facilities would be shared with the Agora project. An extended and improved Cayuga Waterfront Trail would wrap around the north side of the Inlet and provided green space includes picnic lawns, a dog park, playground for young children, and public seating. The existing Coast Guard Auxiliary building would remain in place and be improved to serve boaters and provide educational programming. 225 parking spaces are proposed.

Not to digress for long, but this is the first substantive mention we’ve seen of the Agora project publicly. While it’s complementary to this proposal, it is not a part of the Flash/Rimland proposal. The Agora project will feature a boutique hotel with waterfront views, a live-entertainment venue managed by Dan Smalls Presents, a new Lucky Hare Brewery location, market-rate apartment buildings, and for-sale waterfront townhomes. We’ll save this discussion for another article to follow.

The price tag with this project (without consideration of anything with Agora) is $40.19 million. The affordable housing component would be financed by a mix of private funds and the usual combination of local, state and federal affordable housing tax credits and grant funds. Tompkins County IDA tax abatements would be sought for the project. The Coast Guard Auxiliary parcel will need to be transferred from the State to the City or IURA and then sold to the project team as part of this plan.

Benefits extolled in this submission include the affordable housing, support of the Finger Lakes Boating Center and Boatyard Gill, generous amounts of public space, connectivity to the “mainland” across the inlet, shared parking areas with adjacent parking to reduce overall parking need, solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations, and alignment with city planning goals. A timeline for buildout is not stated, as it is partly dependent on the ability of INHS to obtain funds for the affordable housing portion.

3. The Visum Development Group Proposal

Visum has a habit of shaking things up –– when the Green Street Garage looked likely to be awarded to Rimland/Peak, they stepped into a public hearing with a schematic plan and a complaint that the time the city allotted for the first RFP was not enough for outside parties to submit plans; faced with the backlash from the public and competing developers, the city reopened the RFP, receiving four submissions and eventually choosing the Vecino Group over both Rimland and Visum.

Programmatically, the Visum plans include a 1.75-acre “landmark” public park, three mixed-income housing buildings with 120-121 housing units, retention of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary on the site in a new 3,400 square-foot service facility, a new 5,400 square-foot “Main Street-style” retail block with a three-level parking garage above hosting 110 spaces (60 more will be on-street along Taughannock Boulevard), a complete streets makeover of Taughannock Boulevard, and a new staircase connecting the Taughannock Boulevard bridge down to the Cayuga Waterfront Trail. Note that compared to the other two proposals, the drawings here appear to be the most conceptual. The parking garage would be given to the city. The housing units range from 30-100 percent area median income, but most (87 of 120-21) are in the 50-80 percent area median income range.

As with the other two proposals, the Coast Guard Auxiliary parcel will need to be transferred from the State to the City or IURA and then sold to the project team as part of this plan –– since all three want it, it makes that debate a moot point. The same goes for tax abatements; also like the other proposals, Tompkins County IDA tax abatements would be sought for the Visum project. The estimated project cost is $41.3 million. Funding sources include Visum’s cash equity, as well as some low-income housing tax credits and grant funds. It appears the Visum proposal also seeks some funds directly from the city to support the creation of the public portion, some as-yet unclear portion of its $2.7 million development cost. Promoted benefits include public access to an “environmentally responsive” waterfront, better multimodal transit connections, brownfield remediation and a substantial amount of new lower-income and moderate-income waterfront housing.

At a glance, these projects bear a lot of similarities –– the development costs are similar, the scaling of buildings is similar, and each have substantial green space and transit components. All three of the development teams are experienced in the local market.

However, each has their unique traits; the Morse proposal emphasizes economic development through the hotel and has the largest amount of waterfront retail. The Rimland/Flash proposal emphasizes connectivity to adjacent projects and creates a more cohesive neighborhood. The Visum proposal provides the most housing and opts for a parking garage instead of surface parking. They’re all strong proposals, but it’s up to the IURA’s Economic Development Committee (IURA EDC) and the complement of its citizens’ board to figure out which project is the best.

What Happens Now?

From here, each of the three teams is set to give a presentation outlining the proposal at the IURA EDC’s meeting on May 11. There will be a dialog with the committee (clarifications and additional information), a Q&A session, and a public comment period –– folks, this is your chance to speak about your preferences, though you could also send a letter to the IURA by emailing nbohn@cityorithaca.org.

The teams will have a chance to respond to comments and concerns and present updates at the June 8 IURA EDC meeting, which also has a public comment –– at that point, the three projects are scored and an unofficial preferred development is named. The full IURA board will consider the EDC’s recommendation at their June 24 meeting, and officially name the preferred developer at that time. The Common Council weighs in and approves the land transfer to the IURA for sale to the preferred developer in July (Planning Committee) and August (full Council). The developer and the IURA enter an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement for sale of the land in August, with site plan review in the fall and potentially any of the developers could begin work by early next year.

Brian Crandall

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