The Barradas and Partners, Ciappa & Marinelli Builders Tower/Thing Two on the Longest Night Solstice Towers is nearing full frame-out, as all three levels and exterior sheathing has been completed, and most of the interior is framed, with the stairs to follow. Doors to the outside have been hung on every level, and most of the 12″ x 12″ box windows have been installed. Once the crazy weather subsides, we should be seeing the exterior Tyvek house wrap completed, and the facade going up. Tower One has completed electrical rough-in, so plumbing rough-in will proceed next (domestic piping will be all copper, and heating will be PEX, or cross-linked polyethylene, which has become more popular in the last 10 years), then drywall installation. The buildings will be fully-sprinklered as well, so the main riser will follow along the stair paths, then branch out along floor joist cavity paths.
Architect John Barradas‘ Longest Night Solstice Towers Project had tower two (or “thing two” as John and Ciappa & Marinelli Builders like to call it) nearly framed to its top out height when I came by for a look this past Friday, February 14th. Tower one’s electrical rough-in is coming close to completion (the wiring job looks very nice), and it’s quite an interesting sight at night with the lights on.
The pictures from February 14th (at the end) contain shots inside tower one and two- tower two’s layout is slightly different (accommodating the elevated path and entry at a different orientation for example), but the functions are the same on each floor- kitchen/living on ground, two separated bedrooms on second, master bedroom and bath on third, and a laundry and storage area on roof level with a terrace.
Tower two has a distinctly different feel being closer to the sidewalk and street, and the view is altered now from inside tower one, however, what I find most interesting about this project is the way in which concepts in other forms of art synthesize within the design. Architecture is a difficult art form since the end result must serve specific functions and be able to accommodate different living and/or working preferences, so it’s fascinating seeing it pulled-off like this. A door is an opening, a window is an opening: the openings are intended to lose the sense of what you would call “the middle ground” of a perspective, a term commonly used in photography and painting. John uses Edward Hopper‘s “Rooms by the Sea” (1951) as a reference, where the open door goes straight to the sea, with nothing in view in between, which is the design intention of using doors on each level.
Another theme is an idea coined by Colin Rowe, in his phrase “grid, frame, lattice.” It’s a way of thinking about the built environment as parts of a whole, in the geometric interpretation. We have a city “grid,” we have individual lots with buildings, our “frame,” and within that frame we have “lattice”: the joists that make up the flooring, the studs that form the walls, the structural elements that form the building. Downtown Ithaca is our grid, the square footprint, symmetry, and situating of the towers represent the intended frame, the floor joists will be left exposed to reveal the lattice, the fencing around the frame is a lattice, the vertical strips on the outside are a lattice, etc.. Architects have a term, “parti,” which is meant to describe the root idea or inspiration of a design, and I never fully understood what that meant until I came across this project.
I’ve written a bit about this topic before, but just this past Monday Joe Minicozzi of Urban Three came back to Ithaca to deliver his talk at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance Annual Dinner. It’s a powerful presentation and argument on how assessed taxable values of property relate to value in a local economy, and that “smart growth”, density, and especially downtowns typically represent a huge value prospect compared to suburban and commercial strip development. The presentation has evolved since last year to include more information on municipal cost comparisons as well, which compound the importance of the argument, since they’ve uncovered that the municipal costs of sprawl typically outweigh the costs of dense development patterns, implying an inherent subsidy in the property tax system that benefits sprawl over density. (Joe brings up a good point in that we’ve known this to be true since the 1970s, when Richard Nixon commissioned a study called “The Costs of Sprawl“, which was updated again in 2000 and 2005)
Luckily enough for those that missed it, there’s actually quite a good video online of a presentation he’s done in Missoula, Montana (about 68,000 people), so here it is:
Here’s a photo update of the Barradas & Partners / Ciappa & MarinelliLongest Night Solstice Towers project with photos taken at different stages during the past few weeks. Work is well underway on the second tower: the foundation walls were built and sealed on top of the foundation footers, joists and subfloor for the ground level were hung, ground floor walls assembled, and floor joists for the second level were just finished-up today. There’s now a poster of the project design near Seneca Street, on the fencing that surrounds the site (to be used for growing vegetables this Spring and Summer) for those interested in taking a look.
If you’ve travelled down Seneca Street in the recent past, you may have noticed a rather unique project going up like nothing else that exists in Ithaca. This is the Longest Night Solstice Tower project by Barradas & Partners Architects, and Ciappa & Marinelli Builders (they built the 2009 GIAC project, and work on many custom houses). Barradas has a particularly interesting design portfolio, and this project is no different: the inspiration for the design comes from several historic precedents that may not be common knowledge for most people, and was certainly not known to me before learning about the project.
To begin chronologically, one of the earliest tower house precedents is out of Shibam, in modern-day Yemen, with towers dating all the way back to the 3rd Century AD. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with tower houses made out of mud brick reaching up to eleven stories high. They were originally designed for defense from Bedouin attackers, and each floor has only one or two rooms.
Another precedent is the famed medieval town of San Gimignano, in Siena-Tuscany, North-Central Italy, also containing a UNESCO World Heritage site: the town center, with 14 conserved towers. Many towns and cities in Italy contained house towers in the past, but San Gimignano provides the most well-conserved example all in one compact cluster.
Towers haven’t always yielded successful and long-lasting settlements however- the bundles of tower buildings that made up the former Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong is a good example of basically what not to do. The close proximity of tall, compacted-footprint buildings with few open spaces forced the development of complex, maze-like pathways from one building to the next, with very little open room to travel, hang laundry to dry, vent air, or deal with waste. Construction was essentially unregulated, and apartments were typically very small, sometimes without any utilities. After a longstanding struggle between residents and the Hong Kong authorities, the inhabitants were evicted starting in 1987 and the city was demolished in 1993.
To turn to a more recent and notable modern example, these two structures sit on the coast in Kobe, Japan: designed by Tadao Ando, the 2003 4×4 House is an iconic tower house project (he’s quite a famous Architect, check out the Church of Light, and the Water Temple). Each level is just one room, with some levels serving multiple functions, much like Barradas’ project.
I had a tour of the Longest Night Solstice Towers project with Architect John Barradas a couple weeks ago, and even though the first tower is not yet finished, it’s an interesting space to walk through.
The design calls for two identical towers connected by an overhead elevated walkway above a shared foundation path. The foundation footers are quite generous, and the foundation walls provide a crawl space for plumbing and maintenance access. The stair tower is located along the northern wall, and the structure itself is all wood framing (with a vertical guy-wire at two corners, and a central framing column along the interior center wall forming the stair tower). There’s room for two parking spaces in the rear yard, and a shared central area between the towers.
All the doors above the ground level open to the inside, with protective outdoor railings, serving as both a window and a door to fresh breeze- essentially making an enclosed terrace out of a room with an open door. The 12″ x 12″ windows are block glass, serving as small clerestory windows on each level. The ceiling joists will remain exposed, and although it doesn’t look it from a distance, the exterior is all wood. The towers will be fully-equipped with sprinkler systems.
The first level of each will contain a living area, kitchen, and a bathroom with toilet, sink and standup shower. The second level will contain two mirrored bedrooms with separate sinks in the shared hallway, and the third level will contain the master bedroom, along with a private bathroom. The top level contains space for laundry and storage at the top of the stairs, and a door to the outside roof terrace, with the stair tower roof designed to collect and funnel rainwater into the terrace garden.
First Level for living space, kitchen, and full bathroom.
Second Level for two bedrooms and two sinks.
Third Level for master bedroom and bathroom.
Top Level for laundry, storage, and the roof terrace.. and a really nice view.
The lot is quite small and skinny (33′ x 93′, 3069 square feet) and is zoned R-3b, so this project is building to the maximum stories allowed, and in addition, the foundation connection between both buildings is an intentional design feature that deems the project a singular structure by code. It allows for the separation and privacy of two separate dwelling units (houses), which would’ve been non-compliant under the current code if they were separate structures, because of the small lot size. It’s a rather clever workaround, and given the immediate area, the project seems to be building an appropriate density. It would be interesting to see how a series of tower houses would function at similar proximity, especially since they could easily be designed differently to accommodate a variety of configurations for small to large families, or for accessibility.
I think what impressed me the most was the focus on getting the most out of each square foot, but still allowing for adequate space at each level. The material choices are modest and pragmatic, and the design of each feature from door swings to closet dimensions is slick and well-thought out. I look forward to seeing this project as it nears completion- it’s an intriguing example of design that “makes things work while still pushing the envelope.”
I decided to post this since I have a hunch that folks interested in development in the area are also interested in zoning and taxation (I am too). The following post goes nowhere near a full analysis of the situation as far as land taxation in the City of Ithaca, but I hope it will provide some food for thought. It’s largely inspired and replicated from a talk I went to by Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, an urban design/analytics consultancy based in Asheville.
In the past 20 years Ithaca has seen an enormous amount of development happening where “the cars go.” I’m not going to argue the ethical pros and cons of this type of development, but every taxpayer should be aware of some of the incentives at play. One of them is taxation. All across the US, cities generally tax the land of large, strip-mall and suburban-style parcels at less per acre than downtown parcels, but still have to provide the same, or sometimes more infrastructure and public service.
Why land assessment?
Land assessment is synonymous with a “land value tax” or LVT, which is the levy on the land itself. LVT disregards buildings, fixtures, paving, etc., and all other improvements to the land.
This is an important distinction because it establishes an independent economic signal for the ownership of the land, thus a lower land assessment per acre signals a less desirable parcel, but a higher assessment per acre signals a more desirable parcel (if we were to use the assessor’s valuation as the basis for market price).
Many factors affect the land’s actual value, but land assessment can show us how governments view their value. Tompkins County assesses land values separately from the total assessment value, so when we look at our property tax assessment, there are two components: land assessment, and total assessment. Land assessment is lumped-in with total assessment, so if you subtract land assessment from the total, you get the assessed value of everything but the land.
The City and County both tax a flat rate on the total assessment. Unfortunately, it is not a split-rate system. What’s a split-rate? It’s when you shift the tax burden from the building assessment to the land assessment. Why would you do this? If more land is more expensive to hold, and more building is less expensive to hold, then you end up with more building on less land, meaning greater density. Density is important because it’s generally less expensive for cities to provide services to: fire trucks have fewer roads to travel, shorter water and sewer pipes provide more service to a greater number of people, fewer roads mean less potholes to fix, etcetera. Density also pays a greater share of tax revenue per acre. A one-family suburban-style home on one acre will pay less than a 30-unit garden style apartment complex on one acre. Cities rely on density for tax revenue.
From an urban design standpoint, there are also criticisms of taxing the non-land portion, since a higher finish-grade building will get taxed more than a lower finish-grade building since it has a higher value, meaning a higher risk for the developer (in future taxes, marginal construction expenses for higher finish-grade, and possible vacancy due to rent premiums to achieve a return on investment). It leads some developers to go with “run of the mill” designs, less expensive finishes, etc., but that’s another story. Many cities and school districts in Pennsylvania have actually turned to a split-rate system and have seen success- Pittsburgh is a notable example: in the midst of the steel decline, the city still fared quite well.
Henry George, an American writer and political economist from the late 1800s actually proposed that governments need only to establish a single tax on land; however, the idea never really took off in the US, but did in Denmark in 1903, and a few other countries around the world (this economic philosophy is referred to as “Georgism”).
Now the fun part: I have some images I took from a quick GIS analysis I did of Ithaca’s 2011 taxation and zoning. Each map is essentially a “heat map,” one for allowed maximum “zoning density,” and one for land assessment per acre. The zoning density measure is a bit crude- I just used allowed maximum building height multiplied by allowed maximum lot coverage, but it gives a rough idea of what sort of building volume is allowed on each parcel as dictated by 2011 zoning. The “zoning density” map is important to compare to the land assessment per acre map because, in a perfect and predictable world, each parcel (if flat and history and politics didn’t exist) should correlate with how it is zoned i.e., what amount of density is allowed.
There are multitudes of other considerations in deciding land assessment on each parcel and those that take the time to fight their assessment rises probably fare better, but it’s clear that there is some discrepancy. The take-home point here is that regardless of the minor discrepancies in land taxation per acre, look at the parcels where the cars go!
In 2011, Walmart’s parcel (easy target, sorry) had a land assessment of $189,000/acre and consequently paid $3,611/acre in land taxes (if we use the total millage rate in the City of Ithaca for 2011: 19.109240)…. meanwhile, let’s take one of Shortstop Deli’s parcels (the west one) and do a comparison. Shortstop’s parcel’s simple zoning density measure is less than half of Walmart’s, but its land is actually assessed at $463,776/acre, and consequently paid $8,862/acre, more than 2.4 times per acre than Walmart paid.
Unfortunately, similar comparisons yield similar results- take the William Henry Miller Inn for instance: this parcel paid just shy of $11,000/acre, and the office building next door on Aurora? Over $7,200/acre.
Obviously, these are just a few examples, but this analysis begs an important question for long term urban planning in Ithaca, i.e. How can Ithaca better achieve its desired “Smart Growth” if not enough incentives are there to do it? What are the other parts to this equation and what changes need to be made now to create the community that Ithaca wants in the future?
Purity Ice Cream will be developing a five-story apartment building in the back portion of the current single story building. The new construction will add between 20-24 market-rate apartments on the edge of the City’s downtown density zone.
Construction is expected to begin in the Fall of 2013. The front retail portion of the building has been an Ithaca landmark for decades (and Ithaca is said to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae), but several years back, production was shifted to a Byrne Dairy facility, so much of the building has sat mostly idle since then, thus the opportunity for redevelopment. The developer has also acquired a couple parcels down the street, which will serve as tenant parking due to the parking requirements per number of apartments as determined by current zoning.