Bank Alley continues to take shape as Raulli & Sons secured the Bernie Milton Pavilion roof assembly on the structure last week. Syrstone continues to spread stone base and install pavers along Bank alley, and future planters and benches are taking form along the eastern extension to Aurora Street. Power & Construction has already completed wiring and round footings for the pole lamps, which will permanently replace the temporary lighting as the surfaces phase progresses.
The Ithaca Commons Rebuild Project crews have begun laying pavers over top of stone bases along Bank Alley, and several sections of concrete have been poured along Bank Alley and the east end for the floor and planter boxes, along with tube pours for the pole lighting systems. Steel sections of the new Bernie Milton Pavillion arrived in mid-October, and crews have been welding together the frame for the roof at the end of Bank Alley. The Home Dairy Alley also received a new concrete walkway. Previous design posts here (part one link) and here (part two link).
Vitale Contractors has been working away on the Old Elmira Complete Streets project, excavating old stormwater drains, and installing new piping and precast concrete vaults, and backfilling with new stone. The new stormwater infrastructure has made it past the halfway point, and once complete, we should expect to see sidewalk and curbing forms lining the north side of the street.
The $1.3m Old Elmira Road Complete Streets Project is being funded with a $680,000 grant from the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council, sidewalk assessments as determined by the new Sidewalk Policy (paid by the property owners), and the remaining sum from the City of Ithaca.
The Old Elmira Road Complete Streets project has Vitale Contractors mobilized along the north side to excavate the side of the road and install new sewer, precast concrete manhole vaults, backfill with stone, and install curbing and new concrete sidewalks. Trees have been cleared along the shopping plaza east entrance and excavation has begun at the southwest end, and will continue northeast until the traffic circle.
As announced a few weeks ago, the Commons Rebuild Project has hit another set of delays with NYSEG utility work, and won’t be completed until next Spring. While the news is certainly a bummer, the deck should be paved with concrete by early November, so I look forward to the center section being opened-up again for pedestrians.
Pedestrian malls are quite uncommon (and not always successful) in the US nowadays, so on a recent trip to Charlottesville, Virginia (college town of the University of Virginia), I visited the Historic Downtown Mall. Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall is sizeable (seven blocks), highly successful, and it’s easy to see why: it’s in the dead-center of town, which is not far from UVA’s campus, and is anchored at one end by a large hotel and conference center (The Omni Charlottesville), Regal Theater, and the other by a public pavilion for outdoor events (the nTelos Wireless Pavillion), Downtown Transit Hub, City Hall, and Visitor’s Center.
The major blemish here is a failed hotel project: the Landmark Hotel, which was to be opened by now, but stalled back in late 2008 when the construction lender folded, the borrower defaulted on payment, then the FDIC took over, then the bank was officially dissolved, and now the property has been bought by another developer, but the City is claiming that the building is unsafe, so construction has not resumed. The original developer is CNET-founder Halsey Minor (see how to blow a fortune).
In any case, I was thoroughly-impressed by the place: large movable planters, sprawling open dining areas, plenty of lighting, directory signs on each block, brick and concrete pavers, and cross-streets allowing traffic fit well here. Charlottesville, like Ithaca, is a big tourist destination, so the retail mix was similar, and certainly loaded with restaurants and cafés. It was hard not feeling envious, but with any luck, Ithaca’s new mall will wrap-up in time for next summer. If you’re ever down in Hooville, it’s worth checking-out:
The Landmark Hotel project:
Vitale Contractors start work on the Old Elmira Road Complete Streets Project next week, as plans were finalized and bid out earlier this year in June. The City of Ithaca received a grant of $680,000 from the Southern Tier Economic Development Council (our EDC regional council) to complete the work. Previous City policy holds that adjacent property owners are assessed for 50% of the cost of installation of curbing, and 100% of the cost for sidewalks, but according to the new sidewalk policy, the creation of a work credit would lessen the assessed burden.
The plans were completed by the City of Ithaca Department of Public Works, and include bike lanes, new sidewalks, and curbing from Route 13 to the roundabout with Spencer Road. Complete Streets is a planning concept and transportation policy that aims to safely include all transportation users (pedestrians, motor vehicles, cyclists, people of all ages), rather than focusing solely on motor vehicles.
The Ithaca Commons Rebuild Project Team gave a presentation this morning on the phasing for this Summer and Fall (Phase 3), as the paving and the bulk of the remaining work wraps up this November. Michael Kuo, the Project Manager has agreed to share slides from the meeting that help to explain the rest of the project.
As was reported in the news and at the meeting, the team was able to value engineer certain portions of the project in order to re-integrate the gateway structures, and playground, which is being designed by Play by Design, a local firm specializing in custom playgrounds that has built hundreds of projects throughout the world. The City of Ithaca has agreed to install the mechanical vault and run plumbing lines for the future water feature, which is expected to attract donor funding to build at a point in the future.
In the last six weeks since work resumed in earnest, the telecom mains and services have been run, along with water service upgrades that have involved digging-up and connecting the mains to water, fire sprinkler system lines, and telecom piping into each building (commonly called “laterals”). Once connected, the piping is tested and then the old services disconnected and taken out. The crews have averaged about 2-3 each day.
A new electric duct bank is currently being installed by NYSEG, along with a new gas main, replacing the old galvanized steel gas piping with high density polyethylene yellow gas pipe (HDPE), a similar material to plastic bottles actually, but much stronger. After the gas main section is replaced on the 200 Block’s north side, NYSEG will then cut open and replace the lines on the south sides of both blocks, then back around the northern side of the 100 Block from the west.
As the underground utilities are completed in each wing of the Commons, the paving program will begin in July, as crews will grade and prep surfaces for pouring a concrete base, on top of which, the concrete surface pavers will be set for the final walkable layer. Because the concrete can be poured section by section, and dry time is relatively fast for concrete, the surfaces will be opened-up to pedestrian traffic, starting with Bank Alley, then the east 200 Block, and west 100 Block.
Per each wing, the concrete base is poured, then pavers set, which should take about 3-4 weeks in each phase
Phase 1: Bank Alley (mid-June to late June)
Phase 2: 200 Block (late July, possibly August)
Phase 3: 100 Block (starting in October)
Here’s the phasing for the Bank Alley wing:
Scenes from the last few weeks:
Odds are, if you poll people on the street in Ithaca and ask them to name the most pressing problem in the City, the prevailing answer would be the lack of affordable housing. Over the years, we’ve managed to run up a housing market demand that overruns housing supply.
The Breckenridge Place ribbon-cutting ceremony last May 26th presented a startling reminder of how the lack of affordable housing threatens vulnerable populations, and why it’s so difficult to accomplish.
Among the speakers was Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, whom spoke of his own experiences growing up with housing uncertainty, and at times, literally homeless. It’s important for us to define housing as a basic need in society, but also housing that is located near downtowns, civic institutions, and economic centers, so that residents are able to take full advantage of social and economic opportunities. Svante made the same point by recalling that his family had lived in a nicely-furnished affordable housing complex for two years, but it had been very far from a town center, which severely reduced the benefits of the housing due to the lack of reasonable mobility to places of work, to basic needs like groceries, and to local resources.
Downtown affordable housing developments are tremendously difficult projects to accomplish, primarily due to the cost of building and financing projects under current building codes, costs, and site availability. Not to say building codes, costs, or site availability are to blame: codes keep people safe, costs are largely predetermined due to wages, materials, and technology, and site availability due to existing productive structures and planning considerations.
At the ceremony, Paul Mazzarella, director of Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, introduced Stuart J. Mitchell, CEO of Pathstone Development Corp. (project partner-developer), whom emphasized the complexity of the financing and planning involved in Breckenridge. Generally nowadays, affordable housing projects are complicated public/private/not-for-profit deals that leverage a slew of public and grant funding sources with private equity to finance the construction. The legal and tax benefits of each corporate structure are utilized to take full advantage of each of the funding nuances in order to make the project happen, a bit like putting together a financial puzzle set.
Programs like the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), NYS Homes & Community Renewal programs (NYSDHCR), and federal neighborhood revitalization grants are typically oversubscribed, especially programs for urban multifamily housing development. LIHTC is said to be oversubscribed 3 to 1 with project applications each funding cycle. Organizations like Smart Growth America’s LOCUS are actively pushing federal and state governments to gear their programs towards smarter (denser, downtown) developments in order to re-align incentives with the existing and future sustainable American market for housing.
I wanted to present the current picture in Ithaca, and coincidentally, Paul gave a great presentation on housing trends in Ithaca and Tompkins County to the City Planning Committee last February 12th, and has agreed to share the slides here on the blog. Here’s a selection of slides from the presentation with brief explanations:
Housing sales cost trends show that from 2000 to 2013, prices have increased about twice as fast as income growth, and the fastest in urban areas of Tompkins County, especially in the City of Ithaca. The largest percentage of price gains have been in the lowest quartile of the housing market, essentially pricing-out many buyers from the lower end of the market.
Regionally, we have the greatest gap between median purchase price and median family income:
Affordable (defined by a multiplier of median income) home sales volumes have slipped:
Fair Market Rents (FMRs, defined by the federal government at the 40th percentile of median family income) have increased dramatically from 2000 to 2014:
Tompkins County’s FMRs are almost twice as expensive as some nearby counties:
Rental housing in Ithaca is clearly dominated by student housing, which has been the intended consumer for most new multifamily rental development since 1980, however, rental housing development has not kept pace with demand for new units.
The vacancy rate for apartments in the Ithaca urban area is 0.5%, which is far below the 5% rate considered to be a good rule of thumb for a desirable and competitive market. If not enough units are left vacant, the market is incentivized towards supplying sub-standard housing for the revenues the units command. In addition, the burden of finding housing imposes a cost to consumers. There are demographic changes that drive this housing demand: the City of Ithaca has seen minimal population growth (just less than 1%) from 1990 to 2010, while the County has seen growth around 8%. Part of the discrepancy can be traced to the lack of affordable and new housing created in the City.
Employment is arguably the major driver, since living closer to work is desirable; from 2000 to 2013, the change in private employment looks like this:
The New York State Comptroller’s Office recently published a report (March 2014) on housing affordability in New York State, and the figures statewide are quite grim. According to the State, housing affordability is defined by housing costs being a portion of 30% or less of household income. Housing costs are defined not only by rent or mortgage payments, but also utilities, insurance, and real estate taxes. Severe housing burden is a 50% cost-share of household income.
Tompkins County’s numbers may be skewed due to the fact that student households with ACS-sampled low incomes but high rents are included in the Census Bureau statistics, and thus, the reported percentage (47.8%) of rental households above affordability thresholds may not be accurate. The percentage of owner households above the affordability threshold is likely to be much more accurate, at 21.8%, since students generally do not own the property they live in.
Regardless, the reality in Ithaca is that many people are priced out of the market for housing, and the solutions are not easy. Breckenridge was the first affordable housing development in the downtown area in 30 years.
The Second Part in this series will put on “Developer Goggles”: I’ll present and explain a traditionally-financed development pro forma (cost, financing, and cash flow analysis) with up-to-date construction cost information, financing terms, and typical operating revenue and expenses to show a developer’s financial view of building and operating a sample project in Ithaca.
My thanks to Paul for sharing the presentation on housing trends. You can find out more about the mission and history of INHS at their website: Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services
Press Bay Alley at the end of Green Street across from Life’s So Sweet will be hosting a new tenant Amuse: Modern Cottage Industry starting July 1st, in addition to Boxy Bikes, which was announced back in February. Amuse will be a gift shop (photos here), and both retailers will be open during Ithaca Festival May 29th-June 1st so you can check them out.
In addition to the added retailer debuting this Summer, the building now has complete metal coping along the roof edge, and a fresh paint coat base in preparation for a talented mural artist to bring this canvas to life.
The Commons Rebuild project entered Phase Three this past month, as Vacri Construction is back on site digging-out trenches for the installation of telecom pipe ducts and utility vaults (the large pre-formed concrete blocks with manhole access). The duct bank run along the western end near Cayuga Street is being worked on right now.
In addition to the duct piping and vaults, NYSEG is installing a new gas main along several of the outside edges of the construction fence to replace the old one. The concrete slab is cut and removed in sections, then several feet of soil is dug out to install the piping. The gas main is not part of Vacri’s contract, but since the gas main is quite old, NYSEG requested to replace it during the same timeframe since the project presents an ideal opportunity to do so. As of now, the concrete is cut, but not yet removed.