ITHACA, N.Y. — Picking up where part one left off (and relieved that my car has been repaired), it’s time for part two of construction updates on projects in the city of Ithaca. Once again, a big thanks to my colleagues Matt Butler and Jimmy Jordan for their help in photographing sites.

We’ve timed this piece to offer you a few minutes of potentially welcome distraction from your Thanksgiving holidays, so pour yourself your beverage of choice, tell your relatives you’ll be with them when you finish this article, and let’s go.

Image property of Purcell Construction Corporation.
Image property of Purcell Construction Corporation

411-415 College Avenue

We’ll start with a recently completed project in Collegetown, the new Student Agencies building at 411-15 College Avenue, practically Cornell’s doorstep. The new $12 million Student Agencies building provides first-floor commercial retail space and 56 student-oriented apartments on the second through sixth floors.

The breakdown is 26 studios (average size 383 square feet), 7 one-bedroom units (577 square-feet), 21 two-bedroom units (737 square feet), and 2 three-bedroom units (1,029 square feet). With the exception of the three-bedrooms, those are smaller than what is typical in a new build. Units come furnished with all-electric appliances (the kitchens have been criticized for lacking features) and tenant facilities like a gym. The 4,000 square-foot ground-floor retail space is being fitted out for restaurant use and is leased by the Ithaca Beer Company, and part of the outdoor plaza under the building’s structural bump-out will be utilized as a dining patio space.

The project has had a number of controversies. One issue was the demolition of the century-old Chacona Block to make way for the building, after landmark designation was rejected by the city in a tie vote broken by the mayor. A second issue has been the sky-high rent prices for the units. While the units and their prices are no longer listed as they’re all rented out for 2022-23, screenshots show a 340 square-foot studio started at $1,950 a month, and two-bedroom units were renting for $3,450-$4,200/month.

It makes for some splashy commentary, but it’s also a reflection of what the market allows for a brand new building next door to Cornell’s campus. There is a captive market of college students, and a university of Cornell’s size and prestige has a sizable number of affluent students willing to pay prices that most of us would consider to be unreasonably high. Student Agencies knows they can ask a high price and get it. For the record, the project is paying property taxes in full, and the property tax assessments in inner Collegetown are as lofty as the rents.

Local firm HOLT Architects designed the new building, and Ithaca’s Whitham Planning and Design designed the new public plaza spaceT.G. Miller P.C. did the civil engineering work, and Ithaca’s Elwyn & Palmer Consulting Engineers provided further engineering work. Purcell Construction Corporation handled the buildout.

126 College Avenue

126 College Avenue is the last in a trio of smaller midrise infill projects planned by Ithaca’s Visum Development Group in Collegetown. The first two, 210 Linden Avenue and 118 College Avenue, were completed a couple of years ago.

126 College Avenue replaces a five-bedroom apartment house with a five-unit student-oriented apartment building, with a four-bedroom basement apartment, five-bedroom ground-floor apartment, and a six-bedroom apartment on floors two, three and four. Units here somewhat less expensive per person than Student Agencies, though still very high as a new building in inner Collegetown – the six-bedroom units rent for about $1,250/month per person. For that, tenants get stainless steel appliances, fully furnished units, complementary Wi-Fi, in-unit washer/dryer, pet-friendly policies and access to gym, storage and lounge spaces in Visum’s larger Collegetown projects like The Lux and 201 College Avenue.

Local architecture firm STREAM Collaborative designed 126 College and its siblings, which utilize fiber cement board (Allura Fiber Cement in “Dark Green” and “Nichiha Yellow” with wood batten trim seen in the second photo), treated wood trim, and metal balconies. The original 2017 plan was modified with city approval in 2020, and then tweaked post-approval to replace the steel balcony railings with the treated wood. Minor post-approval changes like trim or material color are usually handled at the staff level unless there are particular design sensitivities, for instance a project in a historic district.

There was a lull in Collegetown proposals with the uncertainties generated by COVID last year, but with some closer semblance to normal, at least three more mid-rise projects are planned for 2022-23 construction – two of those are a 35-unit building at 121 Oak Avenue by developer Josh Lower, and “The Ruby”, a 39-unit proposal planned by builder Boris Simkin at 228 Dryden Road. Meanwhile, Visum has plans for a smaller 8-unit building at 238 Dryden Road, to open in August 2022.

Balch Hall (Cornell Campus)

Renovation plans for Balch Hall have taken something of a back seat since they were approved in September 2020. Balch Hall is a nearly century-old, 167,000 square-foot building that has long served as Cornell’s all-women freshman dormitory; if you want to read more about the proposed gut renovation in greater detail, the Voice has you covered here. 

To quickly recap, renovations that affect the exterior of the building include replacing the windows, rebuilding and/or replacing gutters, downspouts, and minor exterior walls to allow for new waterproofing and façade work, and installing four roof bulkheads and dormers to accommodate new elevators. Also included are numerous landscaping and accessibility improvements, including new stairs, ramps and lighting.  On the outside, plans call for replacing all bathrooms, bedrooms and sink rooms, making space for new lounge rooms and about 280 beds, an increase of about 34 beds that comes from the deletion of the sink rooms to convert single-person rooms into slightly larger double-rooms. The renovation costs will come in north of $1 million.

According to the Cornell Daily Sun, COVID resulted in delays to the initial timeline, and the dormitory was used as quarantine housing earlier in the fall (it is no longer used for that purpose). The new Toni Morrison Hall is being used in Balch’s place as the all-women freshman dorm. Work is now set to begin in the next couple of months on the renovation, with completion targeted for August 2023, a year later than initially anticipated.

Image property of Cornell University.
Image property of ikon.5 architects

North Campus Residential Expansion (Cornell Campus)

The first phase of Cornell’s massive $175 million North Campus Residential Expansion has opened, and the second phase is moving along towards its August 2022 completion. It’s always been a struggle to accurately convey the enormity of this nearly 800,000 square-foot project, in part because it’s split into two sites and phases. Phase one, which just opened, will eventually serve as 821 beds of sophomore housing, and phase two will serve as 1,244 beds of undergraduate housing. Currently, phase one is used for freshman housing while Balch is renovated and plans to renovate neighboring Clara Dickson Hall (the big colonial-style building) are hashed out.

Using the drone pics courtesy of Cornell and its architect ikon.5, in the second-to-last pic is phase two, with Barbara McClintock (B.S. 1923, M.A. 1925, Ph.D. 1927) Hall in the foreground, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (B.A. 1954) Hall behind it to the left, and Hu Shih (B.A. 1914) Hall behind it to the right. In the last photo, which places phase one in the foreground, the two-wing building at left is Ganędagǫ (pronounced Gah-NEH-dah-go), meaning “it’s in the hill” in the Gayogo̱ hó꞉nǫ’ (Cayuga Nation) language, and Toni Morrison (M.A. 1955) at right. Morrison also hosts a 50,000 square-foot dining hall.

Welliver and its subcontractors have the exterior of phase two largely completed, with gray and salmon terra cotta panels and the usual modern bevy of glass curtain walls and steel accents. Sunshades and glazing treatments on the glass expanses limit the intensity of sunlight coming through the glass walls, as it can impact the building’s energy systems and damage materials inside. On the inside, it looks like lighting has already been installed, so the utility rough-ins (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) are substantially complete and sheetrock appears to be in place. Ultimately, the addition of 2,000 beds to Cornell’s housing stock should help to take some pressure off Ithaca’s undersupplied housing market, especially as Cornell sophomores will soon be required to live on campus.

In case you’re wondering, the students have a number of complaints about the new buildings, including shower drains level to the floor (i.e. they flood), cloistered spaces that isolate students from each other, and being very “office-building-esque”. But they like the hardwood floors and air conditioning, so it’s not all barbs and gripes.

KFC (405 Elmira Road)

A small project perhaps, but it’s one of the projects I get the most questions about, mostly having to do with when it’s going to open. Kansas-based KBP Investments is redeveloping a 0.74-acre swath of parking lot at 405 Elmira Road on the southwest edge of the city to make room for a new 2,220 square-foot standalone restaurant with a single-lane drive-thru and 23 parking spaces. The redevelopment package also comes with the usual complement of site grading, drainage, access drives, lighting and landscaping improvements. Construction started in late September.

At the time of these photos (taken by my colleague Matt earlier this month), the foundation slab had been poured and framing was underway. A smaller restaurant building can go with either steel stud walls or wood, though they have their pros and cons. Steel is more expensive to build with than wood and takes a little longer, but given that food is being cooked inside and that wood’s combustible, the insurance rates will be higher with a wood-framed building. Wood is preferable when the design is uncomplicated and has few openings. and this KFC is not going to have broad doors and wide expanses of windows.

The last time I checked in with Rich Wilkinson of KBP Brands, the plan was to have the restaurant open just before Christmas. That feels like a fairly fast pace and it’s certainly dependent on good luck with Ithaca’s notoriously fickle weather, but we’ll see what happens.

Guthrie Clinic @ City Harbor (Willow Avenue)

Significant progress has been made on Guthrie Clinic’s new medical office across from TCAT’s main office. While technically a part of the City Harbor mixed-use project, Guthrie is developing its new 62,000 square-foot medical building separately, with its own architects and contractors. Ground was broken on the building in October 2020.

Due to the difference in timing between this building and the rest of City Harbor, the development team added a mechanical room to the Point East building that would support the heat exchange system for all of the City Harbor buildings and the Guthrie medical office building, and it had to be built as a standalone building that will be encased into one of City-Harbor’s interior parking garages as the Point East apartment building is built out.

According to Guthrie, the new office building will host space for a walk-in clinic, Orthopedics/physical therapy, Radiology services, Gastroenterology, Urology, General Surgery, Neurosurgery, Nephrology, Ear, Nose & Throat and Audiology units, the mix of which was determined by there own in-house analysis of what services were being insufficiently provided in Ithaca and Tompkins County. Concurrently, Guthrie is building a cancer treatment center in Cortland.

The current plan is to open the new Ithaca building in February 2022. You can see the exterior is largely complete with some Trespa Meteon high-pressure fiber laminate panels yet to be attached to their rails at top and at rear (the yellow material is mineral wool insulation). The rest of the exterior uses synthetic stucco, modular brick and a stone veneer base. The sidewalk and curbing is in, but the property has yet to be paved, and landscaping will probably have to wait until spring.

About fifty staff will work out of the building initially, about three-quarters of whom are new hires to conduct Guthrie’s expanded offerings, with more positions to be hired on as the building is filled out. Welliver, a frequent collaborator with Guthrie, is the contractor for the project, and HBT Architects of Rochester is providing design/engineering services.

The Outlook Apartments (815 South Aurora Street)

Visum Development and Modern Living Rentals’ three-building, 66-unit, 153-bedroom apartment project is well underway on South Hill. The project, geared towards Ithaca College student, has been in the works for the past several years, and not without its share of controversy. Legal challenges have been filed against the project in state courts, and while this has caused some legal headaches for city staff as the legal process continues, the project is moving forward at this time.

Work continues on the concrete masonry block stairwells and elevator cores – the large gap seen in the last two photos is for a corner column of windows. Insulation and waterproofing have been wrapped around the foundation, and the lower floors of the buildings are being assembled with insulated concrete forms (ICFs), which are uncommon but not unheard of in local multifamily projects (the Thurston Avenue Apartments and Ithaka Terraces among other examples). ICFs are dense blocks with steel reinforcing bars that interlock. After they are fastened together, the concrete is poured in to provide the necessary strength and rigidity. ICFs tend to be more expensive, but are quicker to build and more energy-efficient.

On the subject of cost, the Planning Board and development team had a spirited debate over exterior finishes, requiring a few meetings to come to an agreement. The ground level will be faced in brick, and aluminum panels will face South Aurora/96B, while the top floor will use less expensive EIFS synthetic stucco, scored to appear brick-like.

According to online rental postings, one-bedroom units will go for $1,800-$2,000/month, and two-bedrooms from $2,000-$2,450/month. A handful of larger units run about $950-$1,000/month per bedroom. Units will include complementary Wi-Fi, in-unit washer/dryer, air conditioning, furnished living spaces, and community amenities such as a gym, rooftop patio and outdoor grilling area. More unusual is the extensive tenant programming, not unlike the colleges – “community events onsite like outdoor movie screenings and yoga classes or sign up and, for an additional cost, you can partake in curated day trips and weekend breaks to explore the Finger Lakes”.

The project is aiming for a completion by August 2022. It appears the larger pair of buildings (A & B) may finish first, with the smaller third building (Building C) to be completed at a later date. Welliver is in charge of the buildout of the larger pair, and Plumb, Level & Square is handling “Building C”. Ithaca’s STREAM Collaborative is the project architect.

Arthaus Ithaca (130 Cherry Street)

In the home stretch on the West End is the Vecino Group’s Arthaus low-moderate income housing development on Cherry Street, on what was previously the AJ Foreign Auto repair shop. The $28.8 million project is physically complete and in the process of leasing up tenants.

Rochester-based Cornerstone Property Management will be managing the property, which includes 123 apartments (48 studio, 55 one-bedroom, and 20 two-bedroom) and a complementary one-bedroom apartment for the property manager. Units are geared towards those making 50-80% of area median income (AMI); the income limits, which are based on a combination of AMI and household size, can be found here, along with the monthly rents for each unit, as well as rental applications in case any of you readers are interested.

83 of the units are for the general affordable housing market. As for the other 40 units, The Vecino Group has partnered with Tompkins Community Action to utilize them for supportive housing dedicated to youth formerly in foster care and homeless youth ages 18-25. The building will have an on-site gallery space managed by its neighbor the Cherry Artspace, as well as space for supportive services, a community room, fitness room, indoor bike storage and a flexible gathering/workspace.

Apart from the dark scoring between the fiber cement façade panels, the E-shaped building is accurate to its renders. Missouri-based Vecino is a large enough firm that they used their in-house architecture and construction team to design and build the Ithaca Arthaus. Alongside Vecino on the project team are Fagan Engineers of Elmira doing the civil engineering work, local firm Taitem Engineering as energy consultants, and Ithaca’s Whitham Planning and Design for landscape architecture and community outreach.

Brian Crandall

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