April 9, 2002

Council Acts to Promote C.U. Downtown Office Building

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Ithaca Common Council members took legislative action last week to encourage negotiations in an ongoing property dispute between a Cornell developer and city business owners.

In a six-to-one vote last Wednesday, the Council voted to allow the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency to acquire the disputed land and sell it to Ciminelli Development, Cornell’s Buffalo-based developer. Negotiations between Ciminelli and the owners of the property, which lies on the northwest corner of Seneca Street and Tioga Street, began nearly eight months ago and have reached a stalemate with one of the owners, A. Thomas Pine. The two sides have been unable to reach an agreement over Ciminelli’s plans to purchase Pine’s share of the property.

Cornell enlisted the services of Ciminelli to establish a new University office building in the downtown Ithaca area. The developers’ plans also include the construction of a Hilton Garden Inn on an adjacent section of the contested property. City officials decided to pass the resolution in an attempt to hasten the negotiations process, which has come to a halt. According to Pine, his business enterprise, Race Office Equipment, has been negatively impacted by the publicity generated from the Council’s resolution.

“How dare the City and this developer, Ciminelli, attempt to rob me of the ownership and equity stake in my property!” Pine wrote in a statement released to The Sun yesterday. “Contrary to the remarks made by Douglass McDonald of the city development office stating that this is not a hostile step, the steps taken by the Common Council are indeed a hostile attempt to dispossess me of my property for the purpose of enhancing Ciminelli’s profit margins.”

Pine called Ciminelli’s proposal for Race Office Equipment to relocate into the new office building a “hollow public relations scam” that would cost him twice as much as his present rental expenses.

Common Council member Ed Hershey (D-5th), who helped pass the resolution, said that the resolution was meant to help facilitate a consensus that would benefit all parties involved.

“Those of us who voted for [the resolution] were persuaded that this would help move the process along,” Hershey said. “We knew that something needed to be done.”

The resolution enables the government to utilize eminent domain, a process by which a government can assume private property for public use with payment to the owner. However, city officials claim that eminent domain will only be used if the negotiators run out of other options.

“It’s not unusual for a major urban project to need some help from the public sector in acquiring the property necessary for the project,” said David Chiazza, vice president of development for Ciminelli.

Ciminelli plans to construct and take ownership of the building, which would garner about 300 new employees for Cornell, as well as 200 additional workers. The city views this promotion of downtown business, from both the employment increase and the attraction of a Hilton, as a great asset to economic growth.

“People have been saying for years that Cornell should have more of a presence in Ithaca,” Hershey said. “It’s a tremendous resurgence for the downtown area.”

The developers have offered several concessions to Pine, including the provision of a transitional space in which the business involving Race Office Equipment can continue during construction.

“Within the context of this project, it’s the collective goal of Ciminelli Development and Cornell University that we complete this project, which is very important to the region, with minimal disruption to local downtown business,” Chiazza said. “We believe we have operated in this manner and we have worked hard to bring this project about.”

In his statement, Pine claims that he had reached an agreement with Ciminelli prior to October 2001, but that Ciminelli backed out of the deal before it could be implemented.

“If the negotiations between Ciminelli and I truly reached a stalemate as the City and Ciminelli have claimed, why then are four other parcels, including the Town Hall, designated for acquisition by the city’s Urban Renewal Agency as well?” he stated. “After working a lifetime to earn a reputation as a fair and respected businessman, I will not see my hard-earned investments squandered under the pressure of the City of Ithaca, or this developer.”

Pine also sent a letter to Hunter R. Rawlings III on April 2, explaining his dissatisfaction with the actions taken by Ciminelli. Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, had no comment on the negotiations on behalf of the University.

The Council members who voted in favor of the resolution were Hershey, Paulette Manos (I-1st), Patricia Vaughan (D-3rd), Peter Mack (D-4th), and Daniel Cogan (D-5th). Carolyn Peterson (D-4th) was the only Council member who voted against the resolution, citing an inadequate amount of time to read new information pertaining to the agreement.

Hershey maintains that the resolution was intended to spur further negotiations in the dispute.

“I think in this case, the real danger was doing nothing, and allowing this thing to languish,” he said.

Archived article by Meghan Barr