ITHACA, N.Y.—Plans for a new county office building in Downtown Ithaca have taken a step forward this week, as the Tompkins County Legislature’s Downtown Facilities Committee voted unanimously to both accept the environmental review and send land acquisition plans to the full legislature for approval and execution.

Upon approval by the full 15-member legislature, Interim County Administrator Lisa Holmes would be authorized to execute purchase of two office buildings, the KeyBank Building at 300 North Tioga St. and the Ithaca Professional Building at 308 North Tioga St., for the sum of $2.8 million.

There was only one speaker in public comment, Lisa Bagnardi Farr, the daughter of the architect of the Ithaca Professional Building (J. Victor Bagnardi), who was prominent locally in the 1950s and 1960s. Bagnardi also did the old Tompkins County Library and the old St. Catherine of Siena Parish Center in the town of Ithaca, both now demolished. She spoke of it as an iconic building and said she was “not real thrilled about” the proposal, on the verge of tears that another of her father’s designs would be torn down.

Members of the committee stressed that there are no building designs ready and that is just a procedural acquisition that would allow planning to continue, and generally legislators spoke of the purchase as a wise investment in a suitable location for access to services. Martha Robertson (D-13th District) said the county had been trying to buy the KeyBank Building since she was first elected twenty years ago, and that the county was going to give the tenants of both buildings time to move out on their own pace.

“This will consolidate much of the county’s staff in one spot…it will save the count several thousand dollars a year in rent, for years to come,” said Committee Chair David McKenna (R-8th District).

While designs are still in concept stages, plans call for a new 5-story building with up to 65,000 square feet to be occupied by various Tompkins County departments, with the Board of Elections, the County Clerk, Information Technology Services, and Human Resources receiving priority occupancy. Back of the envelope estimates usually estimate 200-250 square feet per employee, meaning it would potentially accommodate up to 300 county workers. The Tompkins County Annex Building at 128 East Buffalo would be taken down to make room for the new midrise.

The move is rather sudden given that the county had already purchased another site one block to the north for a new office building, paying $1.8 million for two office buildings and a parking lot on the 400 Block of North Tioga Street. It should be noted that planned municipal real estate transactions are typically discussed in non-public Executive Sessions, because public knowledge of such plans could affect the sales price. However, the leap to purchase a second site might come off as a lack of adequate planning, though Downtown Facilities Vice Chair Richard John (D-4th District), who also represents the neighborhood in the legislature, says it was really just a matter of awkward timing.

“The timing of the opportunity on the 300 Block was just that it came up after we had committed to the 400 Block. We did ask ourselves if we wanted to undertake a second property purchase, but the advantages of this contiguous property outweighed the fiscal considerations. We will recoup the value through parking needs and redevelopment on the 400 Block. We need a place to park. At the same time, I recognize what taxpayers might be saying.”

“What the chronology was, we saw the opportunity in the 400 block between Tioga and Sears Street and recognized the need that we will need to plan for new county offices […] we went forward with that plan,” explained John. “After we had completed that (purchase), one of the lawyers who was an owner of the lawyers’ building (the Ithaca Professional Building) passed away, and his share of the property went into his estate. A second lawyer who had been an owner went into estate as well. That represented a majority of the four owners. That led to the estates wanting to sell, and the majority of the owners wanted to entertain offers. Then KeyBank indicated that they were willing to have a conversation with the county as they’re thinking about relocating to another site in the city. So the opportunity at that site arose after we had made a decision on the 400 Block.”

John also explained just how advantageous a development on the 300 Block would be in comparison to the already-purchased site to the north. “It made sense to pursue the Buffalo Street corner because it allows a taller building, it’ll match the height of the building across the street at 200 East Buffalo. Beyond that, it’s contiguous with the other county buildings, it’s on the same block, and it’ll allow us to share energy resources with other buildings, perhaps ground source heat pumps buried under the parking. We felt it had a better chance of being a good presence for county offices, and it would be farther away from residences on Sears Street. We were trying to come up with plans that would accommodate the interests of the neighbors on the 400 Block, but it was still going to be a pretty big building. We were debating whether we could limit it to three stories or if we’d have to go to four, and quite likely it was going to have to be four stories. The 300 block is an opportunity to address many of these issues at one time.”

On a more personal note, John also expressed some satisfaction that the Annex Building (also called Building C) would be coming down as a matter of aesthetics with its next-door neighbor to the west, the historic Boardman House. “Those buildings are very close together. Building C really is not a good complement to what I think is a very pretty building. Removing Building C and creating some open space there would be a positive development.”

410-412 North Tioga Street, which would be used for temporary office space and parking.

In the short-term, the county plans to maintain ownership of the 400 Block property for use as parking and for temporary office space as the Annex comes down and the new building is under construction. In particular, New York State has been pressing the county to move the District Attorney’s and County Clerk’s offices out of the courthouse, and 410-412 North Tioga might end up their temporary new digs until new offices can be built out.

Beyond that, once the new building is built later in the decade, portions of the 400 Block site would likely be sold off. John cited a desire to build new housing in the gap along Sears Street where three houses were torn down in the early 1980s, and the county intends to hold onto the parking lot. The office buildings may be sold off for redevelopment, though he noted that issues need to be sorted out first. “(T)here needs to be some real conversations with the city, there are some real zoning problems there with overlays and conflicts that make any private development difficult. But there’s an opportunity to get the 400 Block to a better place.”

Although the new office building will not be required to go through site plan review because government-owned public resource buildings have zoning immunity in New York State, John stressed that there would be multiple opportunities for public comment in what he expected to be a much slower process once the site has been secured.

“It’s going to be a fairly slow process. I dunno when we might begin construction,” said John. “But as long as we’re moving in the right direction, I think it’s okay to go slowly. This building will be around for fifty or more years, we want to do it right.”

Brian Crandall

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