April 3, 2008

Common Council Adds Plot of Land to Future Hotel Site

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Last night in Ithaca City Hall, the Common Council voted to approve the sale of a 2,140-square-foot plot of city land to Long Island developer Jeffrey Rimland of Ithaca Properties, LLC. The plot on the corner of Green St. and Aurora St., in addition to adjacent land the developer already owns, will be the site of a $17 million, 102-room hotel that will be leased by a chain.
The Common Council’s vote followed that of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, which unanimously approved the sale on Feb. 28.[img_assist|nid=29465|title=Making requests|desc=Audrey Cooper petitioned the Common Council for uniform wages on behalf of the GIAC Board yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Voting on the hotel development plan was split into three resolutions. The first two, which passed with votes of 9-1 and 8-2, respectively, concerned environmental issues associated with the project. In passing these two resolutions, the Common Council evaluated the environmental implications of the project.
The third resolution, which passed with a vote of 9-1, approved the actual property transaction at a price of $30,000.
The vote was the subject of heated debate. Consideration of the hotel project began with a series of statements during the public comment period of the meeting, issued by local business leaders, workers’ rights advocates and ordinary citizens both supporting and contesting the sale of the land.
Much of the controversy surrounding the sale of the land, a process that took over two years, concerns the way in which the future hotel will compensate its employees. Several local workers’ rights organizations, including the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, have called for promises from Rimland that the future hotel will pay its employees “living wages.”
For example, Audrey Cooper of the Multicultural Resource Center said that all employees in the Ithaca area should be guaranteed living wage.
“Any person willing and able to work 40 hours per week should not face homelessness or severe poverty because of low wages and rising costs of living,” she said. “Paying employees less than living wages is a moral wrong.”
The Alternatives Federal Credit Union in Ithaca currently defines the living wage without health insurance as $11.18 per hour, 156 percent of the state minimum wage. Rimland has agreed to pay his housekeeping staff and most of his other staff a “living wage,” although not all employees would receive this benefit.
On the other side of the debate were groups such as the Ithaca Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.
Fred Bonn, director of the ICVB, stressed the financial gains projected for the project. “This is a great engine in terms of generating pedestrian traffic in the downtown area,” he said. “The $2.2 million that it is expected to create each year in revenue alone will greatly benefit the community.”
Other supporters of the project stressed the increased tax base that would result from the project, the benefits to small businesses in the area and the fact that Rimland has not asked for tax abatements.
The same issues arose as the members of the Council discussed the situation prior to voting.
Maria Coles (D-1st Ward), who voted against all three resolutions, said that her decision ultimately rested on who she wanted to benefit from the use of the land.
“I wanted to see community housing built on this property as originally planned,” she said.
Coles, too, referred to the problem of hotel employee wages. “I consider that the minimum wage comes with subsidies,” she said, calling these subsidies “those bare things that allow people to get by — food, housing and medical care.”
Jennifer Dotson (D-1st Ward) also voted against the second resolution, stating that she did so because of what she perceived to be inadequacies in the process by which the Common Council addressed the environmental problems associated with projects such as this one.
Other members of the Common Council expressed similar concerns, although they ultimately voted in favor of all three resolutions.
Daniel Cogan (D-5th Ward) felt that the economic benefits outweighed the potential costs.
“While it might seem crass to think this way, we have to consider the tax benefits and other financial benefits of this project,” he said. “When we are facing huge expenses and trying to pay them without raising taxes, it’s projects like this one that will expand our tax base in ways that will allow us to do so.”
Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward) concurred with Cogan, saying, “The moral obligation of the Council is to be the responsible fiscal guardian of the city.”
Mary Tomlan (D-3rd Ward) summed up the views expressed by the approving members in her closing statement.
“I do hope that all of us who really care about living wages redouble our efforts, but this project is important for tax reasons and also has benefits in the life it will provide the downtown area,” she said.
The developers’ building plans will have to be approved by the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board and the agreements regarding wage rates will have to be fulfilled.
Scott Whitham ’90, of Ithaca’s Thomas Associates branch, will be the chief architect for the project. He stated that, because the approval of the project was uncertain up to the point of last night’s vote, no detailed blueprints had been developed yet.
Several local businesses have expressed their enthusiasm for the project.
Adam G. Perl ’67, owner of Pastimes Antiques, looks forward to the prospect of increased revenue for businesses in the Commons.
“As far as I’m concerned, anything that will bring more people downtown — especially out-of-towners — is good for business and should be encouraged,” he said.