ITHACA, N.Y. –– At last check, the county had purchased a combination of properties at 408 and 412-414 N. Tioga St. and 117 and 119 Sears Street for $1.8 million, with the intent of building a new county office building on the site. It appears those plans have suddenly changed. The Tompkins County legislature is quickly moving to authorize purchase of another Downtown Ithaca site.

The site in question is really a pair of Downtown sites neighboring each other, 300 North Tioga Street and 308 North Tioga Street. 300 North Tioga is the two-story KeyBank Building, which opened as the First Federal Savings Building in 1967, and 308 North Tioga is the Ithaca Professional Building, which was built around 1960. The commercial properties are adjacent to the Tompkins County Courthouse and the Tompkins Count Annex Building.

This is the first public notice of the intended change in development sites for the new Tompkins County office building that the county has been planning for several years. The Downtown Facilities Committee of the Tompkins County Legislature, led by legislator David McKenna (R-8th District), was in Executive Session for much of its previous meeting, meaning that it was a closed-door discussion not accessible to media or the public. The resolutions before the Downtown Facilities Committee on Tuesday only state that the properties have “recently become available for acquisition”.

According to the county tax assessor’s office, fair market value for the commercial office buildings is $1.7 million for 300 North Tioga Street, and $1.1 million for 308 North Tioga Street. The resolution before the Downtown Facilities Committee on Tuesday recommends the legislature authorize the County Administrator to purchase the properties for the $2.8 million fair market value. The full legislature will need to vote to approve the purchase, which according to county staff would most likely occur at the meeting on August 17th.

In the event of purchase, the buildings would not be immediately vacated, as both KeyBank and the tenants of the Ithaca Professional Building (mostly law firms) need time to shift their operations to new locations. A new office building for the county would need to be designed and put out for construction bids, with demolition of the existing office buildings and construction of the new county building to follow at undetermined dates. According to the filings, the late 1950s Tompkins County Annex Building at 128 East Buffalo Street would also be torn down to make way for the new county office building. The construction period would be expected to last 18-24 months.

Generally speaking, a proposed new county office building does not have to go through municipal Site Plan Review. Under state law, municipal developments can supersede zoning restrictions as long as they are providing a public service. However, unlike the federal and state governments, which have absolute immunity, county governments have limited zoning immunity – in order to supersede city zoning, they have to demonstrate “balancing of public interest”. This involves several factors – scope and use of the project, legitimate impacts on local interests, extent that the public interest is served, whether the site could be better used, and whether the public has had a chance to give input.

A concurrent resolution to the purchase resolution issues a negative environmental review declaration for the proposed office building, meaning that county planners have determined that any potential negative impacts have been effectively mitigated. The resolution states that the new office building is not to exceed five floors and 65,000 square feet.

According to the environmental review document prepared by staff of Interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes, “(d)etailed plans of the new building have not been prepared…The specific operations to be located in the new building have not been determined but may include the Board of Elections, the County Clerk, Information Technology Services, and Human Resources.”

The county’s desire to consolidate its administrative footprint, reduce the amount it spends on office rentals, and state-mandated need to expand court functions have been well documented over the years as a driving force for the development of a new office building. The county has long sought a Downtown site to maintain accessibility for “equity of access” to services for residents, primarily in the city, who don’t have cars.

The county’s initial choice of 412-414 North Tioga Street had been controversial due to its proximity to historic buildings and lower-density residential housing in the Fall Creek neighborhood. However, after months of discussion, purchase plans were executed in April 2019. The county has engaged with HOLT Architects on feasibility studies for a 32,000-46,000 square-foot office building on the 400 Block with renovations to the historic building at 408 North Tioga Street and 2-5 units of infill low-moderate income housing lining the western edge of the property along Sears Street. The project cost was estimated at the time to be $18.55-$19.55 million. The resolution before the Downtown Facilities Committee Tuesday makes no mention of future plans for the already-purchased site.

Requests for comment to Downtown Facilities Committee chair McKenna were not returned, Vice Chair Richard John (D-4th District) deferred to McKenna for comment, and county staff deferred to legislative officials for public comment.

Public comments on the proposed purchase may be received no later than 1 PM Monday here, and the meeting will be broadcast on Tuesday at 1 PM on the county’s YouTube channel here.

Brian Crandall

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