What is this project?
The Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, per its mission, “secures and manages resources to improve the social, physical, and economic characteristics of the City of Ithaca by expanding access to quality affordable housing, strengthening neighborhoods and the local economy, and supporting other community development activities.” To this end, they have identified the Green Street Garage as a suitable property for development, and an ideal site at which to create affordable housing and additional parking in the Ithaca urban core.
The garage is actually three adjacent structures. The center section has Cinemapolis on the ground floor and two levels of parking above. In 2007, structural reinforcements were made and it is engineered to accommodate four additional levels of parking on top. The east section is in need of significant structural repairs. The west section is also in bad shape structurally, and so will be demolished as part of this redevelopment.
The IURA released an RFP (Request for Proposals) earlier this year for designs that would meet the housing and parking goals, and four proposals were received by the deadline of July 31st. The proposals are currently under review and the IURA Economic Development Committee (EDC) will hear presentations from the four teams at 3pm on August 21st at their regular meeting in the Common Council Chambers in City Hall. They will take no action at this meeting, but will accept written comments and questions from the public for possible discussion.
In September, the EDC will make a recommendation to the IURA who may, later in the month, select a preferred developer.
The full RFP and other documents can be downloaded here:
What does ‘affordable housing’ mean?
According to Federal guidelines, no more than 30% of household income can go to housing costs for it to be considered ‘affordable’. Both the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County use this same metric, although they base it on 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI). The AMI is recalculated annually by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and is based on household size -- the larger the household, the greater the income.
Affordable housing is a priority for the City of Ithaca and for Tompkins County, and both recognize that there is a shortage here of quality homes for households that are at or below the AMI. Housing prices continue to rise faster than incomes, and the low vacancy rates for rentals mean that there is little to choose from.
Much more detailed information can be found in the Tompkins County Housing Needs Assessment:
How much will this cost the taxpayers?
Taxes and Parking
Currently, taxpayers in Ithaca are paying to subsidize parking in the central core due to deficits from construction, maintenance, and operation of the garages and meters. The Green Street Garage will need $17 million in repairs and construction to remain open. Part of this proposal is to eliminate that burden from the City by shifting the cost to the developer.
Each of the projects in this RFP will likely seek tax abatement. The tax abatement program does not cost taxpayers; it provides a period of time in which the property owner is exempt from additional property taxes, as a way to encourage development in the core and not outside of the City. In fact, as a City-owned property, it is currently tax exempt. The privatization will put it back on the tax rolls, so after abatement it will generate taxes for the remainder of its days. You can read about the program here:
What’s going to happen to the City Hall building, next-door?
The City has been exploring options for relocating City Hall for many years. In fact, the current location of City Hall was only meant to be a temporary location. The building itself is of some historic significance and we believe the overall form and character add great value to the streetscape. Ultimately, we would like to see the current City Hall converted to affordable housing.
Why is it called ‘Little Commons’?
The Ithaca Commons has, since its inception over forty years ago, been the defining element of the urban center. Mayor Ed Conley’s inspiration and long-term vision created a vibrant and active public space that enlivens our community in different ways, some seen and others less visible but no less important. It’s part of the story of Ithaca, and one that must be considered when we decide what to build. By virtue of its proximity to The Commons, the Green Street Garage Redevelopment Project will be necessarily in dialog with its senior neighbor, and so can add another chapter to this story. Our proposal is for a modest, respectful addition, and so is given the name, ‘Little Commons’.
How many new housing units will this create?
There will be 76 new homes here, 72 of which will be classified as affordable. The units in Little Commons are broken down by percentage of Area Median Income (AMI). Twelve units are reserved for residents making less than 30% of AMI; 24 units for those making less than 50%; 26 units for less than 60%; and ten units for less than 90% of AMI. The remaining four units will be rented at market rate. The properties will be managed entirely by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS), a local leader in the effort to find and create housing for people of modest incomes in Tompkins County. You can read more about them here.
This lot is zoned for 140’ maximum height; why is the building only 60’? Couldn’t you get more housing here if it was taller?
Certainly we could, but bigger isn’t always better. As architects, we have to consider the overall context in which any new building is placed. Does it respect the scale and form of the neighborhood? Or does it tower over everything around it and dominate the streetscape? Do the people living in the upper floors have a visual connection to the street below, or are they isolated and removed from the nearby urban life? One can argue this either way, but our approach is one that looks at The Commons, with its four- to five-story historic mixed-use buildings, and sees a successful example to follow. It’s a form that has been successfully used in other cities, in the US and around the world. We think of it as a ‘human scale’. In other words, a building that doesn’t dominate the sidewalk activity below but interacts with it instead in an equal relationship.
How much parking will there be?
When all is said and done, there will be a total of 379 parking spaces (these are all approximate numbers at this point). Right now there are 128 spaces in the center garage section and 117 in the west section, so 245 total. After the west section is torn down and four new levels are added to the center section, there will be a net gain of 134 new parking spaces.
What kind of stores will be on the ground floor?
Local grocer Greenstar has expressed interest in expanding its downtown presence, and to do so here. The configuration of the ground level will be suited to smaller businesses, an indoor farmers market, pop-up stores, and other similar local businesses that can’t afford or just don’t need 3,000 square feet of space downtown. The success of Press Bay Alley provides a model of what can happen in micro-retail spaces. And just as those storefronts open to the plaza, the street-level facade at Little Commons will also be openable, allowing a more accessible market and a more active streetscape.
What happens to Cinemapolis?
Cinemapolis remains in place, and its entry space will be greatly improved and form a major anchor to one corner of the new public park. Rather than feeling like one is entering from a parking garage, the approach will be from the new, open public space between it and the Little Commons. There will be a marquee to provide additional visibility, and two outdoor screens for evening ‘walk-in’ movies, lectures, and other special events. We are proposing that Cinemapolis would own and operate their space independently rather than their current lease arrangement with the City of Ithaca.
Will this be a sustainably-designed building?
Yes, absolutely! Our integrated design team is well-versed in the design of carbon-neutral buildings and we will bring our extensive experience in sustainable best practices to bear on this project. The goal is to build all of the residential units and the market to exceed the draft City of Ithaca Green Building Policy by employing features of LEED and the stringent criteria of the Passive House Institute (PHIUS). This performance goal requires three objectives to be met: limits on HVAC loads; limit on overall source energy use; and air tightness requirements that are confirmed by blower-door testing. No natural gas will be supplied to the residential units with limited natural gas for commercial kitchen use in the market. All of the units will use heat pumps for heating, ventilating, cooling, and domestic hot water. Each apartment will have a smart thermostat with sensors to determine the occupancy of the spaces, enabling controlled shutdowns and setbacks to occur automatically, reducing electricity use.
In practice, all this means that the operational costs for the building will be lower than in a less energy-efficient building, creating dwellings with lower monthly bills for utilities.
A solar array will be located on the top of the residential building and the center garage area to maximize the amount of power produced. Solar panels will also be installed vertically along the south façade of the center deck to increase the generation capacity. By cutting the usage of the building to a reasonable minimum, and in combination with off-site community solar, this will enable the building to meet net-zero energy standards.
Who designed this project?
The preliminary planner for this project was John Driscoll, a native Ithacan and design professional. John assembled a team of designers led by STREAM Collaborative Architecture + Landscape Architecture DPC. STREAM is headed by Noah Demarest AIA, ASLA, LEED AP, CNU, who also grew up in Ithaca and the surrounding area. STREAM is a Local First business offering a wide array of services related to community design, architecture, and landscape architecture.
Key collaborators on the design include Taitem Engineering and Fagan Engineers along with input from Studio Ferrari Architecture and of course John Driscoll who continues to guide the project to meet his original vision.
How can I express my opinions about this project or give feedback?
Our approach is based on a respect for public opinion, and we’re very much interested in what you think of our design and the project. The simplest way is via our Comment Page, here.