ITHACA, N.Y.—The first dirt was tossed aside under a shining sun Friday afternoon, signaling the official beginning of the Asteri Ithaca project, the Green Street Garage redevelopment that will bring 181 units of affordable housing and a conference center to downtown Ithaca.

The project, led by Vecino Group, has been visible for some time, with significant walking detours near the Commons and the complete demolition of the Green Street Garage, which needed repairs so badly that it evoked the initial redevelopment interest. But Friday marked the first true steps of building instead of tearing down, with remarks delivered by Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, Vecino Group President Rick Manzardo, Tompkins Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jennifer Tavares, New York State Assemblywoman Anna Kelles, Tompkins County Legislator Rich John, Downtown Ithaca Alliance Executive Director Gary Ferguson, New York State Homes and Community Renewal Assistant Commissioner Lenny Skrill and Tompkins Community Action Deputy Director Danielle Harrington, whose agency is collaborating with Vecino to provide support services to people living in 40 reserved units in the development who need them.

“When [Tom West in the Engineering Department] pointed out the window and said ‘Mayor, what are we going to do about this parking garage?’ We could have just done the simple thing and rebuilt the parking garage. But this is Ithaca, and we don’t do the simple thing,” Myrick said of the project’s affordability aspects, which will house people making between 30-80 percent of Area Median Income. “To the City Hall staff, I want to say a profound thank you, and an apology for the construction noise for the next two years. We’ve been building all over the city and we’re about to live with some of our own medicine for the next two years, but it will be worth it.”

Myrick also credited the work of those in the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, led by Nels Bohn.

Following Myrick, Manzardo commented on Vecino’s excitement to work with the City of Ithaca, further illustrated by another project that is in motion—the Arthaus development in the West End.

“To the City of Ithaca, thank you for not just building a garage, that would have been a shame,” he said.

During his comments, Skrill indicated the state’s strong interest in further investment in Ithaca housing projects. Recently, Asteri Ithaca was awarded $52 million in a grant from the state to help with its construction costs. Similarly, Tavares spoke about the hope and optimism represented by the project, particularly since it comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic that halted almost all development during the early months of spring 2020.

While everyone was all smiles at the groundbreaking ceremony, Asteri’s path to fruition was a winding one early on. When the City of Ithaca first published the Request for Proposals (RFP) for Green Street Garage redevelopment plans, they only received one submission, from well-known Ithaca developer Jeffrey Rimland with a Georgia-based partner. Backlash from the community followed, partly because of the content of Rimland’s $123 million proposal and partly from objections that the submission deadline was too soon to allow for a fair competition.

After significant pressure, the RFP was then reopened by the city and four development proposals were submitted, including Rimland’s original proposal, with the city going through a ranking process before selecting the Asteri proposal, touting its affordable housing component as the strongest blend between adding to the housing stock and providing a community benefit.

While the project is a step in the right direction of addressing the constant affordability concerns of Ithaca housing, Myrick and Kelles specifically pointed out that it is only a step. Most saliently, Kelles mentioned that 80 percent of AMI is still high, and that more housing needs to be built for those on the lower end of the income scale—housing like Asteri Ithaca. In Ithaca, rent rates for those making 80 percent of AMI are still over $1,000 per month.

“We’ve proven it’s possible,” Kelles noted. “We talk about 80 percent AMI as affordable […] 80 percent AMI is high in Tompkins County. It’s our job to increase housing in all brackets, explicitly focus on under 80 percent AMI. This building does that.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com