ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a very busy meeting last night for the city of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee. So busy in fact, Voice staff had a debate on splitting this into two articles—which is why you’ll find the initial discussion on cannabis retail in an article later today. For the rest of last night’s coverage, pour yourself a cold drink and read on.

2021 HUD Action Plan and CDBG-CV Project Funding

Special orders of business last night were the public hearings for the proposed grant awards for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. The annually awarded grants are the Community Development Block Grant Entitlement Program (CDBG) and Home Investment Partnerships Program (HOME). The requests are designed to help people, or specifically to fund organizations in the community that help people in the low- and moderate-income category.

As often happens, the requests were greater than the amount the city has to work with. While over $1.7 million was requested, the city had $1,387,601 to award from current and unused previous funding, including $63,090 in leftover 2020 coronavirus relief funds. Nearly all applicants received at least some funding award, though not all of what they requested, including all four of the applicants to the coronavirus relief funds. You can read about the submissions here. The application from St. John’s Community Services did not receive funding for the homeless shelter, and the public comment was harshly critical of them for inadequate facilities—other resources outside the Action Plan are planned for use to help fund the homeless shelter.

The PEDC’s role is to approve the funding as the committees of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) have allotted, and send the Action Plan to the full council for approval and implementation in June.

There were no public comments on the HUD Plan. PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward) excused himself from voting, as he does work for Catholic Charities, one of the proposed recipients.

There was no substantive discussion, as the PEDC felt that the IURA had done a reasonable job of reviewing applications and allocating the funds. Honestly, the longest part of the discussion was Laura Lewis’s (D-5th) reading of the resolution. In response to a question from councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st), IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn explained that the housing loan (HODAG) including in the funding plan is a recirculating $100,000 loan to be repaid later to the IURA, and is slated for the 510 West State project. Visum Development Group would use it to help them get their construction funding in place, and would then repay the $100,000 at a later date.

The motion to pass the Action Plan passed unanimously (4-0), and the coronavirus funds passed unanimously as well, 5-0 with Murtagh included. Both will head to the full Common Council next month for approval.

Left to right: County assessor file photos for 215 Cleveland Street, 109 Morris Avenue, and 417 South Aurora Street.

Direct Sale of Tax-Foreclosed Properties

Every year and for various reasons, a couple dozen of the 40,000+ properties in and around Tompkins County go into tax foreclosure because the property taxes have not been paid for at least two years. Normally, the county puts tax-foreclosed properties up for auction, but the city has the ability to procure the property prior to auction if they pay the tax bill. The city occasionally exercises this right with a property of special interest—in this case, a trio of properties they hope to convert into permanently low-moderate income housing.

The first is 215 Cleveland Street in Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood. The owners are thought to live downstate, and the renters of the modest two-bedroom house are in a pickle. Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services is offering to buy the house, paying off all the back taxes, fees and penalties, and renovating the house as needed. The house would be sold as owner-occupied affordable housing, incorporated into their Community Housing Trust program to prevent rapid price appreciation and lock in its affordability for 99 years—houses in the trust are only allowed to appreciate 2 percent annually, so they remain affordable to future buyers. INHS says it will work with the renters to give them first dibs on ownership if they qualify (80 percent area median income or less) and want to be homeowners.

The second and third tax-foreclosed properties are also single-family homes: 109 Morris Avenue in Northside, and 417 South Aurora Street on South Hill. In this case, Tompkins County Habitat for Humanity (TCHFH) is offering to buy the houses at a below-market price ($27,500 for 109 Morris Avenue and $25,000 for 417 South Aurora Street) to renovate them into owner-occupied affordable housing for households making 60 percent or less of area median income. The homes would be renovated with a combination of professional contractors and volunteer labor, including 350 hours of “sweat equity,” where the selected future homeowners actively work as members of the volunteer construction crew, as well as taking a homebuyer education course, financial training, and completing other tasks to help them become knowledgeable, self-sufficient homeowners. These houses are also locked into a community housing trust for long-term affordability.

The thing to keep in mind here is that for non-profits like INHS and TCHFH don’t have the money to compete with for-profit builders and developers who see houses like this as their next market-rate rental. The city and Common Council are essentially using the special status state law allows to entertain initial offers from affordable housing builders before for-profits can snatch them up in the county foreclosure auction. If PEDC likes it, the full Common Council can tell the city chamberlain at their meeting next month to put the tax auction for these properties on hold and allow the IURA to work out the potential deals.

The motion to Declare Lead Agency for 215 Cleveland Street and issue a negative declaration on environmental review (meaning its impacts are effectively mitigated) both passed 4-1 with Councilor Brock opposed, who’s previously explained her concerns with housing trusts.

“I’ve had the opportunity to speak to both Leslie (Ackerman, of INHS) and Shannon (MacCarrick, of TCHFH), and I really appreciate that. I fundamentally would love to allow affordable properties to be accessible…but not through a housing trust program. I do understand the sentiment and applaud the benefits of the program…but I have deep skepticism of the housing trust program,” Brock said.

Ackerman, in attendance for the meeting, responded to Brock’s concerns by noting that while rapid price appreciation isn’t allowed in a housing trust, the houses typically don’t dramatically fall apart within 10 years of construction or renovation, and that there are property tax breaks for housing trust homes.

Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd) also expressed reservations, though for different reasons. Per initial submissions, INHS is offering a higher purchase price and TCHFH is offering a lower purchase price, though the net benefit, an affordable owner-occupied home, is the same. (Technically, TCHFH is offering their house at a lower income bracket). Brock reminded the PEDC that they had received a public comment from James Kerrigan, a retired Ithaca city court judge, who wrote the council to request his interest in purchasing 215 Cleveland Street for non-housing trust affordable for-sale housing if the INHS plan falls through. With that noted, she asked if the properties were publicly advertised.

The short answer is no. The non-profits like INHS and TCHFH have to keep an eye out for potential foreclosures they can work with, and then contact the city if it looks like an opportunity. IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn noted that if the city’s goal was to maximize purchase price, they’d let it go the county auction, likely for renovation into a market-rate rental. Buying at auction means you have to have the full amount of the money ready to pay, an initial deposit and the remainder shortly thereafter. This approach where the no-profits contact the city to vie for first dibs is allowed because it opens opportunities for priority housing such as long-term low-moderate income owner-occupied homes.

Fleming maintained her concerns regarding the TCHFH proposal, but was comfortable with the INHS plan, voting for it and sending it to Council on a 4-1 vote with Brock opposed.

The motion to Declare Lead Agency for 109 Morris Avenue and 417 South Aurora Street and issue a negative declaration on environmental review (meaning its impacts are effectively mitigated) both passed 4-1 with Councilor Brock once again opposed. At Fleming’s urging, the motion was edited to be like INHS’s resolution, meaning TCHFH would pay off back taxes rather than an “either/or” pricing setup. That too will head to council on a 4-1 vote.

Cliff Street Retreat PUD

Back before the PEDC meeting Wednesday night was developer Linc Morse’s proposal for a mixed-use redevelopment of the Incodema facility as the custom sheet metal fabricator moves to new digs out on Slaterville Road in the town of Dryden later this year. The plans for the property at 407 Cliff Street on Ithaca’s West Hill call for a bevy of uses—a residential/lodging component of 13 one-bedroom units for short-term and long-term rental, 3,438 square-feet of office space with six suites, a break room and two meeting rooms, 3,900 square feet of retail space fronting Cliff Street, two light industrial maker spaces of 1,200 square feet each, and a lobby, lounge space and conference room. The footprint of the building remains the same, while the site includes the usual complement of landscaping, lighting improvements, stormwater facilities, bike racks/storage, and 86 parking spaces. The $4.5 million project would start in August if all goes well pre-development, with a February 2022 completion.

The project team presented an overview of their proposal at the April Planning Committee Meeting, and a public information session was held on Thursday, May 6. Some concerns about the slopes towards the lake and traffic were raised, but generally the public comment was muted and not that bad for a project proposal in Ithaca.

This month, the PEDC was set to approve the PUD and send it to Council for concept approval next month—the project still requires Planning Board review, and if and when the project is approved by the Planning Board, the PEDC and Common Council get to sign off on the explicit project details.

“It’s an interesting concept, and to me a PUD is best used for an unusual space that poses a sort of difficulty,” Fleming said. “I’m pleased to see this concept and look forward to learning more as things progress.”

“It’s gotten a lot of positive feedback from the community, I look forward to approving it and seeing this project unfold,” added Murtagh.

The vote to send to council for concept approval passed unanimously.

The location and a model of the ‘Sky Riders’ sculpture. Note that the sculpture model is not representative of final design, and is only intended to show the sculpture’s shape and form.

Approval of ‘Sky Riders’ Sculpture for Cass Park

The Community Arts Partnership and City of Ithaca have been working together to select a location for a new art sculpture called ‘Sky Riders’ by California-based metal artist Patricia Vader. The art project is a collaboration between the Department of Planning and Development, Community Arts Partnership and Center for Community Transportation and is independently funded by a private foundation.

A project steering committee comprised of community members with an interest and/or background in public art and active transportation has been guiding the project for over a year. At this time, Council is asked to approve the siting and installation of the sculpture east of the birding kiosk in Cass Park, which was selected after the review of two dozen potential sites. The Cass Park site is the same site of the now-cancelled “Tompkins Giant” sculpture, for which the foundation costs proved to be too expensive for the project budget.

For the record, since some of you will probably be wondering: the sculpture, which would consist of a concrete base with three poles on which the sculptures are mounted, is designed to impede climbing. The lowest height of the bicycles on the sculpture will be eight feet. You can’t prevent stupid, but you can deter it. Pending Board of Public Works and Common Council approval, the sculpture is scheduled to be fabricated and installed in late summer or fall 2021.

City Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR, pronounced “prinner”) Commission Chair Monika Roth spoke during public comment about the need for a more defined policy and criteria for placing sculptures in parks. Roth expressed concern that the commission was not adequately informed about the incoming sculpture.

City Deputy Director for Economic Development Tom Knipe explained the process and the role of the city in bringing the art project forward and the design of the installation. Knipe said the committee liked the proposal as a structurally simple project that also providing an opportunity for creativity in the designs of the bike riders, each of which will be unique.

“I’m fine with the sculpture, I’m just concerned with the history of not involving the commissions. The pandemic threw a curve at everybody, but we really need to make sure (the commissions) are involved in what we’re doing,” said Murtagh. “I want to approve this, but I’m worried about setting a precedent.”

“I didn’t know this was going on…at a time when a lot of other city business was not getting done due to COVID. I’m just surprised by the priority placed on this without our knowing it was going on,” said Fleming. Knipe, who is spearheading the art project, said it had been in the works for two years and placed on hold for some time during the pandemic.

The primary issue the PEDC had was that the PRNR Commission appeared to have been excluded, even if unintentionally, and felt it bore similarities to the initial issues with the Cass Park Mountain Bike Trail project, where the committee delayed review to give relevant parties and agencies a chance to check it out.

Councilor Lewis noted that some commissions had not met during COVID while others did, so there was a disconnect and need to “restart, reinvigorate and redefine” the commission structure in order to maintain avenues for public input. Councilor Steve Smith (D-4th) said he was fine with moving forward with the art project and inviting the Parks Commission to provide feedback, but adding that this was outside their jurisdiction, which Brock, the PRNR Commission’s council liaison, disagreed with.

Brock made a motion to delay review for a month so that PRNR could review, but Knipe was not a fan because he and the arts committee hoped to get the project done this year. However, Brock was insistent it be done out of respect for the volunteer commission.

“There is an interest in moving it forward, I’m just worried about the state of our commissions,” Murtagh said. “This is why we need a new city manager, to kinda manage the commissions and move things forward.”

The amended motion would send the project straight to the Common Council’s July meeting rather than June, giving the PRNR Commission time to review and comment, and skipping PEDC as they didn’t feel it would need to come back to them. It doesn’t really save time schedule-wise, but it’s one less thing for the PEDC to rehash. That amendment passed 5-0. However, the vote to actually move forward with sending the art project to Council in July passed 4-1, with Fleming opposed.

Rental Vacancy Study

A proposal from non-committee councilor Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd) is seeking the Common Council’s commissioning of a rental vacancy study. The Second Ward is ground zero for gentrification in Ithaca, with Northside and Southside both seeing rapid price appreciation on home values, which risks pricing out many of their long-term residents, many of whom are renters. In fact, about 74 percent of the city’s households are renters, whether students or permanent residents.

Nguyen is seeking to utilize New York State’s Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which expanded the Emergency Tenant Protection Act (ETPA) and allows municipalities throughout the state to opt into it. The ETPA stabilizes rents in buildings of six or more units constructed before 1974, regulating annual rent increases through a county Rent Guidelines Board and entitling tenants to a renewal of their lease. In short, it seeks to prevent tenant displacement, but is also fiercely opposed by many landlords.

Before a municipality can opt into the ETPA, it must declare a housing emergency by documenting an apartment vacancy rate below 5 percent. The municipality must also conduct a vacancy study of the class(es) of housing that would be affected by ETPA rent regulation. This resolution, if adopted by Common Council, directs the Planning Department to conduct such a survey. The survey is just one part of a rent control discussion which also has to weigh landlord concerns and broader impacts on local housing costs, but it’s a necessary prerequisite before the topic can be considered for any sort of legal implementation, the city has to prove it’s eligible for ETPA.

Theresa Alt, speaking as a member of the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), spoke during the public hearing in favor of approving the rental study, citing the crucial need for affordable housing in the city.

“I think it’s a worthwhile investment to get a scope of the problem,” added Nguyen as he Zoom-called in for the agenda item and explained the objectives of the study.

Councilor Brock, who had taken an early interest in ETPA, stressed that the housing study needs to be carefully written so that the consultant conducting the study gives them the information they need to move forward with further discussion on rent stabilization—vacancy studies in other cities have been rejected by the state for being too narrow. In response to a question on costs by councilor Fleming, Nguyen responded that other cities had allocated $30,000-$40,000 for their vacancy studies.

City Planning Director JoAnn Cornish asked where the money was going to come from, and who would be doing it, as her department is stretched extremely thin at the moment. “I don’t see where we can take on this task right now.”

Brock responded that they would take another month to meet with building codes staff and figure out how many properties would be involved in the analysis—or how many properties there are in the city with six units or more, built in 1974 or earlier. Some discussion was also had on whether or not to broaden the scope, and whether to involve the county for potential financial support, given a mutual goal of housing affordability.

Councilor Fleming said she was not ready to approve commissioning a study, citing the need for more information, the expense and concerns that data would be selected to get a pre-ordained outcome. Her colleague Lewis expressed interest, but also had concerns with costs and staffing needs, and said she was also not willing to approve it yet.

With that, the vacancy study was tabled, eligible for reconsideration at a later date. Brock, Murtagh and Nguyen plan to do further research and outreach with the state and with city staff to try and provide more detailed information for the committee to digest at a future meeting.

Announcements, Updates and Reports

Councilor Laura Lewis and Bohn gave the rest of the committee an update on additional Ithaca Falls cleanup work planned by the U.S. EPA and NYS DEC. Lewis stated that city officials and residents met with DEC and EPA officials about soil samples confirming elevated levels of lead and arsenic remaining in the cliff face. The plan is that the EPA will install a containment barrier within the face of the cliff, adjacent to the trail that leads up to the falls, and while much debris has been removed, the barrier is a necessity given the lead issue. A barrier wall and signage to warn the public will be installed.

The path to the falls, for what it’s worth, has had testing done in March 2020 and March 2021 and the samples there were below action levels (400 parts per million), they were significant low enough that the path was determined to be safe. The issue is the cliff face itself, and material eroding from the cliff face that people may come in contact with. EPA and DEC are working in coordination with the city and the NYS DOH and the DEC is assuming responsibilities for annual testing. Work has already began on containment with completion by July 4th – cliff debris will be removed from the bottom of the cliff face and a sediment control barrier (limestone blocks) will be installed.

Councilor Fleming asked about the risk to walkers along the path and “don’t eat the dirt.” Lewis and Bohn replied said that those on the path are not at risk at exposure, and only those who go beyond the barrier closest to the cliff face that would be at risk, since erosion is an active event. Sediments may fall down the cliff base and roll into the trail, so the rock wall barrier is designed to hold the eroding cliff wall sediment behind the barrier and keep those lead-heavy sediments as far from visitors as possible.

Meanwhile in downtown, Bohn and Knipe reported that the Green Street Garage projects were moving forward as scheduled with both projects. Bohn stated that the Asteri project’s main issue had been rising construction costs, which have now been covered, and that agreements between the city and Vecino have been sorted out. Construction is expected to begin after June 30th. The market-rate Ithacan mixed-use project on the eastern end of the garage sought traditional bank financing and IDA support, and negotiations between the city and developer Jeff Rimland are being finalized, with potential approval by Common Council in June. Once that happens, it too can move forward with construction. Knipe added that a contract to have conference center operator ASM Global run the Downtown Ithaca Conference Center are being finalized.

Lastly, Bohn gave an update on the three competing Inlet Island proposals that are being reviewed and scored by the IURA’s Economic Development Committee. Bohn reported that the IURA has been reviewing responses to the parking lot redevelopment and that the Economic Development Committee has seen presentations on each of the three proposals. The projects will be rated and ranked at the June 9 meeting and the IURA will name a preferred developer on June 24, assuming no issues crop up. If you want to read more about those plans, hop on over to here.

Brian Crandall

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