ITHACA, N.Y.—Local leaders and business groups had high hopes with this year’s $20 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant application. In their eyes, the city needed it, after the economic damage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, those hopes would be in vain, as this year the city was once again passed over by the state, this time in favor of applications from Endicott and Norwich.

Reading through Ithaca’s 106-page application, some of the economic turmoil created by the COVID-19 pandemic becomes clearer. From 2019 to 2020, hotel room tax collection was down 75%, and TCAT ridership dropped 95% over the same period. Over 50% of office workers who previously worked Downtown were still working remotely at the time of the submission earlier in the fall.

“The pandemic showed the vulnerability of Ithaca’s economy and its disproportionate reliance on higher education and tourism/hospitality. While these sectors remain key to the health and viability of Ithaca and Tompkins County, the need to diversify our economy to include more technology-based trade industries and to launch efforts to grow a small-scale manufacturing base became crystal clear,” states the application.

The application was designed to focus on several issues facing Ithaca, including insufficient housing options, lack of public transportation infrastructure, ways to attract and retain foot traffic, the lack of attractions in and around the Commons, and better parking infrastructure.

More specifically, the market lacks middle-market and low-moderate income housing options, and the city needs a new, preferably centrally-located bus depot to replace the Greyhound station that closed on the West End. The application also states a needs for an effective wayfinding system to locate places of interest (for which better signage and free Wi-Fi are suggested) and options to appeal to families and younger shoppers more focused on “experiential” services.

One statement that’s likely to stir controversy has to do with parking. “We have a parking shortage in the urban core. We’ve had to turn away companies with extensive in-house workforces due to the limited parking supply. Increasing our inventory of public parking spaces is critical to the future growth and success of Downtown Ithaca.” That said, the report does emphasize that it’s critical Downtown Ithaca maintain its walkability and focus on multi-modal options (bikers, buses, walkers).

Through the course of several meetings, include some public hearings, the application settled on a selection of 23 projects, focused on economic growth, the provision of new downtown amenities, and “transformational infrastructure”. For the purposes of the application, what was defined as Downtown Ithaca was expanded more broadly westward along State Street and into the West End, and southward to include the Chain Works District site.

According to estimates provided by Downtown Ithaca and other grant stakeholders, the $10 million in new investment had the potential to lead to $147 million when leveraged, and the creation of 210 new jobs.

Several initiatives in economic growth included a new “Innovation Center” at the Chain Works site, a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) small business support program, co-working space for new and emerging businesses, a Downtown small business loan program and an office space conversion program – the Gateway Center at 401 East State Street is highlighted as an opportunity to renovate into 30-40 apartments on the upper floors.

A number of streetscape improvements were proposed, including South Cayuga Street and West State Streets, a redesign of DeWitt Park, expansions to the Creekwalk, and infrastructure for electric vehicles. Amenity proposals included a new walk-in medical clinic, a “Family Fun Center” in Harold’s Square, and renovations to convert Center Ithaca’s food court into a modern food hall concept. A new low-moderate income housing development with about 50 apartments at 409 West State Street was included in the grant.

There is a glimmer of good news embedded in the report as well; the Chain Works District project has officially started on the renovations for phase one, which will result in about 171,000 square feet of industrial/manufacturing space and and 179,000 square feet of newly-converted commercial and residential space.

It should be pointed out that, as the state allowed for up to $20 million per location, the Downtown Ithaca’s grant was for just under that. The state had raised the award this year from the $10 million of previous years, and stipulated that it could either go to one community as a $20 million award, or two communities as $10 million awards. At a glance, the only region that had a $20 million award was the New York City area. Ithaca had said that it would winnow its choices down to fit a $10 million award if the state requested it.

As for what happens from here, some of these projects may still happen, on longer timeframes. Others may never happen. Nevertheless, the application shines a light on the issues facing Downtown Ithaca in a pandemic-affected world.

Brian Crandall

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