September 21, 2000

C.U. to Build New Downtown Office

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In order to branch out further across the world of higher education, Cornell will have to deepen its roots in the local Ithaca community, President Hunter R. Rawlings III said yesterday.

And so he put his money where his mouth is.

Standing before the Tompkins County Trust Company central office yesterday morning, Rawlings announced the University’s intention to construct a new office building on the site. The location will house about 300 University staff members — as well as other corporate and retail employees — and it represents a burgeoning tie between the University and its municipal partners.

“A vibrant downtown will help the University in recruiting students, faculty and staff,” Rawlings said.

Ithaca Mayor Alan J. Cohen ’81 helped steer the project — assessed at $17 million — to bring Cornell facilities from adjacent communities to the University’s own neighborhood. By 2004, the University envisions staff moving from investment services on Terrace Hill and from development offices at the Business and Technology Park into its new home on the Ithaca Commons.

Cornell will fund the project by redirecting some of its current rental expenses, such as rental fees for the business offices in adjacent communities.

With Susan Blumenthal, chair of the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, Cohen undertook the idea and presented it to University officials and trustees — and President Rawlings.

“Last year it kind of coalesced, and President Rawlings said this is something we need to put our good faith and credit behind. He believed in his heart that we need a strong community around the University for the University to be as strong as it can be,” Cohen said, noting that Rawlings came to Cornell from the University of Iowa with praise for his commitment to that school’s community.

Cornell expects to commit its presence on the Ithaca Commons for 20 years, but an official site has not actually been selected yet by the administration. Rather, the University considers the Tompkins County Trust Company site the best available at this point in time, according to John E. Majeroni, University director of real estate.

The building project includes the creation of 70,000 square feet of office space for the University’s use, which will make Cornell the primary tenant in the 130,000 square foot building. Other businesses, perhaps high-technology firms, will occupy 50,000 square feet in the building, and the remaining space will be devoted to storefront property.

“We want the building to deliver the biggest possible impact to the Commons. I see this as a way for the University to more specifically focus its collaborative efforts on something that is going to yield tangible results,” Cohen said.

Cohen estimates that one person working downtown will spend four times as much money among local businesses as a visiting shopper. If the worker also resides downtown, she/he will spend eight times as much.

To accommodate the surge of activity in the Commons business district, Cohen plans to recommend a parking garage that could hold between 600 and 800 cars to the Common Council.

Meanwhile, the University and the city will begin their necessary reviews to get the project underway immediately.

First, the University will seek building developers on local, regional and national levels, and it will select a firm to oversee the project by the end of the year.

At that point, the developer will acquire the site chosen by Cornell, and it will contract tenants for the office and retail space, Majeroni said.

Construction may start by 2002, as soon as the municipal process concludes. Then, after another 18-24 months, the building will open for business.

“This project alone will put us halfway to the goal of attracting 1,000 new jobs to the downtown area by the year 2010,” said Mack Travis, president of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership.

With a strategy for transforming many aspects of the city, and especially focusing on the Commons as the commercial and cultural center of the city, Ithaca will incorporate the University building into many goals for its own growth and development.

Speculating on a prime location for future city parking, the Mayor said that “something on Green Street would be my preference.”

Cohen, anticipating a significant influx in downtown commerce and its potential ripple effect on development, said that a garage should have the capacity to hold up to 800 cars.

“Frankly it doesn’t make sense not to go higher [than a 600-car capacity for the parking garage],” he said.

To cover the costs of adding new parking, the city will rely on the use of bonds instead of funding the work up front with cash, but Cohen regards the project as an investment that will bear its value in the years to come.

“It’s always a great time to see a development initiative, [but] can we build a garage and pay for it [all in cash right now?] No,” Cohen said.

Initially, however, the city will see revenues from property taxes as all University expenses in the construction project will be on the city books and not subject to exemption. Thus, the city can draw taxes from the University project — via the chosen developer — as well as future sales tax receipts.

“Over 30 percent of the consumer base for downtown retail is downtown workers,” Cohen noted.

In recent years, the city has sought to define the direction in which it is going. City officials see the Cornell project as a catalyst that will bring the city substantially closer to its goals.

“This is an excellent contribution toward making the City of Ithaca the best small city in America,” Travis said.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch