ITHACA, N.Y.—On the one hand, Tompkins County has made significant progress in its plans towards a new office building to host its departments. On the other hand, it is now the owner of two sites: the original site they planned to build upon at the 400 Block of North Tioga Street, and the more desirable site one block to the south they managed to pick up earlier this year.

As the county draws up plans for their new digs, the question becomes, what exactly are they going to do with the buildings they purchased on the 400 Block? We already know what the short-term plan is for the buildings themselves. In the short-term, the county plans to maintain ownership of the 400 Block properties for use as parking and for temporary office space as the existing Tompkins County Annex comes down and the new building is under construction.

Beyond that is where it gets murky. The one running theme is that it would likely be sold off again, but perhaps split into pieces, some for the construction housing and some for office renovation or potential redevelopment.

It’s some of this uncertainty that the Tompkins County Legislature’s Downtown Facilities Committee hoped to address in their meeting Wednesday. At the moment, they wanted to focus on the housing idea—namely, the construction of affordable housing along Sears Street, which abuts the western edge of the parcel. Several homes had existed there for nearly a century, built when Sears was still a part of Utica Street, before they were demolished in the early 1980s to make more room for parking at Fall Creek Orthodontics, the previous owner/occupant of 410-12 North Tioga Street.

Previous to the meeting, county planners reached out to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) and Tompkins Cortland Habitat for Humanity (TCHFH) to gauge their interest. The two non-profits manage Community Housing Trusts (CHTs) for affordable owner-occupied housing, which is what the county wants to see built on Sears Street.

CHTs are locked into a below-market price and property tax assessment and essentially operate as 99-year land leases where the lower-income homeowner owns the house on that land and leases the land rather than owning both the house and the land, reducing the overall costs to the home owner. Habitat said it was not interested, so INHS, represented by Director of Real Estate Joe Bowes and CHT Manager Leslie Ackerman, was the only organization to speak before the committee, and share plans of what a development might look like.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is not some massive, skyline-altering proposal. INHS floated two ideas—four single-family owner-occupied homes, or two side-by-side duplexes. Each unit would be 2-3 bedrooms and aiming for a for-sale price point of about $174,000. Buyers would have to have an eligible income at or below 80% area median income, which varies depending on family size, but means at or below $50,200 for a one-person household and at or below $71,700 for a family of four. The utility systems in the homes would not use fossil fuels.

INHS is expecting to pay fair-market price for the Sears Street swath of land, which would be up to the county to determine how it comes to that price, but INHS is expecting to be in the range of $120,000. The land is shown as parcel “6.2” in the screenshot at right. It would be subdivided into individual home lots, the final layout of which would be dependent on whether the housing built is single-family detached homes or duplexes. At the county’s behest, there would be a small space between lots to allow for a sidewalk from the North Tioga properties to Sears Street.

The total project cost (land purchase, construction, soft costs) would come in at a little over $1.5 million. Costs may be able to be reduced a little if they go with modular units (like the Belle Sherman Cottages or 402 South Cayuga Street) – the issue would be that they would need to use the parking lot for the crane for at least several days, and the county may want to use the parking lot for their own construction staging area for the new office building. The duplex option would also be a little less expensive to build since they share walls.

The planning timeline would expect a sale of the property to INHS in mid-2022 with construction in later 2023 and early 2024. Single-family homes are easy enough to get permits for, but INHS would still need to apply for local and state funding, which is harder to obtain for owner-occupied affordable housing. To be clear, all of INHS’s plans are totally dependent on the county’s plans, and if they even want INHS to be the developer of the Sears Street portion of the property.

Concept sketches shown by INHS during the meeting. The single-family detached layout is at left, the duplex layout is at right. Both concepts call for four units. Blue lines are lot lines, red lines are the buildable spaces within the lots as allowed by city zoning.

The county legislature had some thoughts, but were overall receptive to the concept. Legislator Mike Lane (D-14th District) asked if INHS would be open to leasing the land from the county rather than buying it, and then the homeowners would sub-lease the land while owning the homes in the CHT, and Bowes said that if it was feasible, INHS was open to the idea. Legislator Dan Klein (D-7th District) wanted as much parking for county staff as possible, and asked INHS to make the lots as “skinny” as possible. Bowes said they could explore it, but that skinny lots would likely require a zoning variance from the city of Ithaca.

“Stitching this street back together into a residential street would be amazing for Sears Street,” said legislator Leslie Schill (D-2nd District), a Cornell campus planner by profession. Schill questioned if more density might be a good idea, but her colleague Leslyn McBean-Clairborne (D-1st District) expressed a strong preference for the single-family detached homes, and she did not like Klein’s “skinny” lot idea either.

“I’m just curious to know when you have a ground lease, what impact that has on the assessed value of the house, in determining how much tax you pay,” asked legislator Deborah Dawson (D-10th District).

We petitioned the state a few years back, and we got Real Property Tax Law 467-j passed, which allows me to assess these properties without taking into account the land value, and only the improvement value or the maximum resale value,” said Tompkins County Director of Assessment Jay Franklin. “So if they’re gonna sell it for $174,000, that’s what the property owner would have their taxable value based on, even though the house would probably be worth $400,000.”

Legislator Martha Robertson (D-13th District) thought most of the logistic issues could be worked out, but did feel that $120,000 may be too low a price for the county to sell at. In response, Bowes said that they could explore options and attempt to find more funding to pay the higher price.

“If you increase the (sales) price, we increase the whole project cost and we have to go find that money, but that’s what we do for a living,” he said.

The big debate at this point seems to be those who want more density or open to the duplex idea, like Schill and Dawson, and those more in favor of single-family detached homes, like McBean-Clairborne and Anne Koreman (D-5th District). There was no strong consensus towards either idea.

“I think the legislature needs to get together to discuss this amongst ourselves and figure out exactly what we want to do. We’ll host a special meeting and sit down to discuss this another time,” said Committee Chair Dave McKenna (R-8th District). “It’s a big decision…we should talk about it a lot more before we do it.”

A formal proposal from INHS is expected in the coming weeks, and the legislature will debate that once it’s submitted. The Downtown Facilities Committee will continue to debate what they want from a proposal at their next meeting, and let that shape the INHS proposal as it’s fleshed out and submitted in the next month or two.

Brian Crandall

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