October 30, 2002

Cornell Office Project Reviewed by Board

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At a special meeting of the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board, officials gathered yesterday to discuss the potential impacts of two new developments designed to bring commercial and residential space to Ithaca’s downtown area.

Among the plans reviewed were those of the Ciminelli/Cornell Office and Hotel Project, which aims to deliver space for University offices, a conference center, and a 110-room Hilton Garden Inn hotel to the northwest corner of Seneca and Tioga streets, according to representatives from the Buffalo-based Ciminelli Development Company.

Groundbreaking on this project, which will create 170,000 square feet of office, retail and hotel space in a nine story structure, is scheduled to begin next May. The hotel is expected to begin admitting guests in August of 2004.

In addition, the board reviewed plans for the Cayuga Green Project, a development which includes provisions for 200 housing units, retail stores and two parking garages to be built in the uncovered parking lots adjacent to the Tompkins County Public Library near the intersections of Cayuga and Green Streets.

According to Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81, the Cayuga Green concept evolved out of the need to provide adequate parking for the 300 new Cornell employees who will occupy the new downtown offices. Marketing research also showed significant demand for new housing downtown, and thus the project was created to satisfy these needs.

It was the Cayuga Green development concept, however, that drew the most contentious comments from board members.

Board Vice-Chair Steve Ehrhardt voiced his criticism of the uncertain nature of some components of the Cayuga Green Project.

“Ciminelli clearly has a project … I don’t know that the city has a project with Cayuga Green,” said Ehrhardt, referring to the “lack of specificity” of the city’s plans.

He, and others, were particularly curious about the proposed intermodal transportation center, which was planned as a TCAT bus depot for the ground level of one of the new parking garages. Although the transportation depot was included in the original plans submitted to the board, it was scrapped in the past week because of cost issues.

According to Cohen, the transportation center would require a subsidy from the three parties of TCAT and a substantial capital investment.

“We don’t see the feasibility of it,” said Cohen, and therefore plans have been altered to add retail space in place of the transportation center.

However, to some board members, this change represents the level of uncertainty in the City’s plans for the Cayuga Green Project.

G.P. Zurenda, Jr., another Planning and Development Board member, worried that despite the plans for the garages, which include architectural details to mask the exterior of these structures, “We will approve two beautiful parking garages and will get two concrete hulks” if the city runs into budget issues.

Dan Cogan M.S. ’95, chair of the Cayuga Green Client Committee, felt this would be unlikely. He noted that the costs of this exterior skin, meant to make the garages look like an office building, only amounts to about $3 million.

Board members also worried that the multitude of retail spaces available might make it difficult to find enough willing tenants to occupy those spaces.

Responding to these concerns, Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership, stated that his organization was actively soliciting retailers, saying “there have been leads.” He continued, “There is developer interest [in the housing component], and developers have been very bullish.”

In the coming weeks, the planning and development board will continue to pour over project details, to determine the construction’s potential impact on the downtown area, including traffic issues, noise concerns and restrictions on pedestrian traffic. After the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is approved, the City will hold a public hearing to allow community feedback.

Archived article by Michael Dickstein