August 26, 2005

Hotel, Office Space Boosts Downtown

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The newest piece of Ithaca’s skyline is finally completed. After a year and a half of construction, expectation and even a little controversy, Seneca Place on the Commons officially opened for business on July 26.

The new building, located at the corner of East Seneca and Tioga Streets, can’t help but draw attention. Nine stories tall and right off of the Commons, it is downtown’s tallest building. And with a Hilton Garden Inn hotel and 93,000 square feet of office space, city and University officials alike are excited about the prospects Seneca Place will bring to downtown’s economy.

“Already, we’re seeing more people downtown. You’re certainly seeing the Cornell workers appearing in the restaurants and shops downtown,” said Gary Ferguson, director of the Ithaca Downtown Partnership. “The hotel is beginning to generate activity.”

Cornell is Seneca Place’s anchor tenant, with a guaranteed, 20-year lease of about 71,000 square feet of space. The University has actually been involved in the project from the very start; it chose the developer, Buffalo-based Ciminelli Development Co., and its commitment as the building’s anchor tenant was crucial in ensuring that the project went forward in its planning stages.

According to Ciminelli Vice President David Chiazza, the entire building — including land, construction and “soft” expenses, such as furniture — cost about $32 million. He added that the mixed nature of the building — combining hotel, retail and office space — is relatively rare outside of large, urban cities.

“Cornell can’t remain a great university if Ithaca doesn’t remain a great place to live,” said Cornell Real Estate Director John Majeroni. With almost 300 Cornell employees already at the building, and a total of 500 expected to work there eventually — including the hotel employees — Majeroni said that the building will help downtown reach an economic “critical mass.”

“It’s been a great partnership between the city and Cornell,” Majeroni said.

According to Ferguson, the benefits to downtown go beyond the simple increase in pedestrian traffic that the building brings.

“The other thing that it’s done is, it’s helped stimulate more interest in downtown from investors,” he said. He sited as examples the Gateway project, an office and retail project downtown, and the Cayuga Green project, which includes a parking garage and plans for housing and a movie theater.

“I think the impact on downtown of this project has been substantial,” Ferguson said.

The Cornell employees at Seneca Place will perform “functions that don’t have to be right on campus,” Majeroni said. Most of these workers are at alumni affairs or the Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Majeroni said that until now many of them have been based out of Lansing.

Despite the economic boost, some Ithacans have complained about the building’s height and the hotel’s pickup and dropoff zone, which cuts into the sidewalk. But Ferguson said that height is well within the zoning limits and that Ciminelli is working with the city to solve the sidewalk problem.

“The building’s the building. Nobody’s going to say ‘take a floor off the building,'” Ferguson said. “The city and developer are talking and seeing what they can do to make that process easier,” he added, referring to the discussions about how to address concerns about the sidewalk.

Ithaca Director of Planning and Development Thys Van Cort said that the city and Ciminelli are both sincerely committed to reaching a solution to the issue, which he said mostly affects handicapped people such as the blind.

“There is a discrepancy between the approved site plan and the building as built in that area,” Van Cort said. “The area between the columns and building is narrower than what was specified in the [site] drawing.”

As for the building’s height, Van Cort said that issue was resolved long ago, when the area’s zoning was changed to allow such buildings. Overall, Van Cort was typical of those enthusiastic about Seneca Place and its greater role in revitalizing downtown.

“Of course, the goal for the city and for the Downtown Partnership is to keep downtown as the commercial and cultural heart of the city and to strengthen its position,” he said. “[The Seneca Place and Cayuga Green] projects together will do a great deal to meeting the goals that were set for downtown.”

Archived article by Yuval Shavit
Sun City Editor