May 1, 2003

Council Approves Downtown Project

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Three years in the making, the Cornell-Ciminelli project jumped one of its final hurdles last Tuesday after Ithaca’s Common Council approved a 20-year agreement.

In a 7-1 vote, the City agreed on some fine points of the project, which will bring 300 Cornell employees, Class A office space, and a new Hilton Garden Inn Hotel to downtown Ithaca. At issue were questions of property taxes as well as parking, which the city has pledged to provide through the construction of garages.

According to David Chiazza, vice president for development at the Buffalo-based Ciminelli Development Co., construction will begin in late summer, with a final completion date scheduled for the fall of 2004.

Reactions to the construction of the new hotel and office suites seem wholly positive.

Michael Stamm, president of Tompkins County Area Development, stated that “the project will have a spectacularly positive impact on downtown,” as the additional employees working in the area will boost retail and restaurant sales in the Commons.

Stamm noted that this expected economic impact on the downtown area is not simply a hypothesis, but has precedent. The increase in pedestrian traffic caused by the recent expansion of the architectural firm of Thomas Associates, located at 215 The Commons, benefited area retailers, restaurants, and coffee shops, Stamm said.

Although virtually all parties, including City officials and Cornell University administrators, have praised the project as an enormous step toward improving the vitality of downtown Ithaca, concerns about its implementation remain.

Council member Susan Blumenthal M.S. ’78 (D-3rd Ward), who stood as the lone dissenting vote on the agreement, worried about several risks, including the length of the agreement, and the City’s commitment to constructing parking facilities.

According to Blumenthal, “20 years is a long time,” and by entering into such a long-term contract, the deal effectively “ties the hands of future Common Councils.”

Even more troubling to Blumenthal is the fact that Ciminelli does not yet have complete site control. The corner lot located at the intersection of North Tioga and East Seneca Streets, currently owned by A. Thomas Pine, remains under negotiation. According to Chiazza, talks with Pine are “ongoing and reasonably productive.”

Although Blumenthal feels the negotiations will likely result in Ciminelli’s ownership of the property, “there is some potential that it won’t go smoothly.” She added that any delay would have negative consequences for the City’s $17 million investment in new parking facilities.

With construction of the garage set to begin in the next few weeks, a delay in Ciminelli’s groundbreaking could validate Blumenthal’s worst fear — that the garage will be complete, but will remain empty until the hotel and office open.

While these concerns are real, other officials believe that negotiations with Ciminelli and Cornell have limited the risks to the greatest extent possible.

David Whitmore ’96 (D-2nd Ward), who voted in favor of the agreement last week, felt that the Common Council had hashed out a fair agreement over the course of the six weeks of negotiation.

In response to the concern over the possibility of a vacant parking garage, Whitmore noted that Ciminelli would be in breach of the signed agreement if it failed to complete construction in an 18-month time period. Therefore, the City, which expects to open its garage in summer 2004, could seek legal remedy if Ciminelli misses its 2004 scheduled completion date.

The debate over these potential risks, however, may prove academic.

According to Stamm, “Projects of this magnitude in a community always involve risk, but Cornell’s commitment to renting space, and the reputation of Ciminelli developers, suggests the risks are worth taking.”

Archived article by Michael Dickstein