Make Your Pitch: What Should Ithaca Build on Green Street?

Categories Housing & Development, Ithaca

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By Josh Brokaw

The city of Ithaca plans to sell off the Green Street parking garage property to the developer that knocks the city’s proverbial socks off. The city is asking for a developer to propose a project that includes affordable housing — at least some, — a parking garage re-build, maybe a conference center, and whatever else the developer can think to throw into the project.

In September, preliminary plans developed by Jeffrey Rimland and Peak Campus were presented to a city committee for a two-tower, 15-story project that would also include a re-build of the Green Street parking garage. The poor condition of the Green Street garage, as documented in this December 2016 study by Stantech, seems to require that any proposal that hopes to make city officials happy will require re-building and perhaps expanding the parking garage.

Common Council decided to open up the process to ideas from other developers in October. Now, the Ithaca Urban Redevelopment Agency [IURA] is accepting “requests for proposals” from developers until January 23, 2018.

Demolition at Harold’s Square site with Green Street garage in background. Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers

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At least one local developer, Todd Fox of Visum Development, has expressed concern that the timeline for proposals was too short to get together all of the relevant materials. Visum is still interested in pursuing the project, though, as evidenced by four Visum staffers showing up to a meeting and site tour for developers on Tuesday, December 12, along with representatives from Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, Purcell Construction, and Springfield, Missouri-based Vecino Group.

Nels Bohn, IURA director, told attendees of Tuesday’s meeting that Ithaca is looking for a “preferred developer with a vision close enough to the city’s vision” to make a deal. Plans don’t have to be “ready to build,” Bohn said, and negotiations will likely be needed to set the final expectations on housing and parking.

“Below market housing is an important component” of this project, Bohn said. The city will be “willing to reduce the sale price in return for public benefits” — one of which would be apartments rented at below-market prices.

Members of the IURA board have indicated, Bohn said, that below-market housing is more of a priority to them in any proposal than establishing a conference center space. The Rimland/Peak proposal calls for an approximately 25,000 square foot conference center that would be placed where Tompkins Trust now has offices: in the building under the garage, adjoining Cinemapolis to the east. Tompkins Trust is moving those operations to its new headquarters when their building on Seneca Street is complete.

More TruthSayers Reporting: Conference Centers Don’t Make Money, But Ithaca is Ready For One

TruthSayers is not in the development business. [We usually get donations to keep this reporting going in the $5 to $500 range, if you want to give $2 million at this link, though, we’ll consider getting into landlording.]

Nels Bohn, right in cap, with developer representatives on a site tour of the Green Street garage. December 12, 2017. Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers

TruthSayers is in the business of stimulating those with power and money into conversations about how we make the places we live better — and any proposal that takes public land and potentially puts it into private hands needs plentiful conversation and care to make sure the people get the best bang for their buck.

In that spirit of public discussion and accountability, TruthSayers is issuing its own request for proposals about what the city of Ithaca should do with the Green Street garage space. Unlike the city, we won’t make you pay $500 to send in your plans.

What does downtown development that serves the public good look like to you? 

Answer that question, and if you want to draw up a design that takes into consideration all of the complex easements and property lines on this property, more power to you. But we’ll take simpler submissions as well: tell TruthSayers what you want to see in a newly-built downtown building. How much should rent be? Should there be communal kitchens? Will there be hammocks?

Ideas on how to build, say, a lovely project that keeps rent at $400 per month for 100 people and shows how to make it work financially will be of particular note for officials who prioritize the bottom line. But broad vision and fanciful proposals are encouraged as well.

It is TruthSayers‘ official editorial position, for example, that the top level should be a greenhouse, open to the public, with space for growing food. But if you want to argue that the entire Green Street garage area should be leveled for a petting zoo, we’ll take that suggestion, too.

Proposals are due on January 30, so we can forward them on to Common Council in time for their first meeting after developers have made their proposals to the IURA.

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Featured photo:  The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street building, London. Photo by Colin/Wikimedia.

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.
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Twitter: @jdbrokaw