January 26, 2010

New Low-Income Housing Planned For Downtown Area

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Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Solutions presented plans yesterday for an affordable housing complex near the Commons. The proposed building would stand on the corner of Seneca and Cayuga Streets, replacing the underused Women’s Community Building with 52 new one- and two-bedroom rental units.

“This is the first project in several generations that is going to provide affordable housing, which we refer to as workforce housing, right in the downtown area,” said INHS Executive Director Paul Mazzarella MRS ’79 at the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board’s monthly meeting last night.

The proposed project, envisioned and created by INHS in partnership with PathStone Corporation, will provide affordable housing for individuals and families making between $25,000 and $40,000, a demographic that would typically have difficulty affording the extremely high rents in Ithaca. By placing the development in the Central Business District, the workers would have greater access to the employment opportunities the Commons offers.

“We were trying to create a building that conveys community but is, at the same time, a place of residence. The treatment at the ground floor, being very transparent and welcoming to the community, is a really important aspect of the design,” said Steve Hugo, principal associate with HOLT Architects. “It needs to have real strength in terms of being part of the urban fabric of downtown.”

A majority of the discussion at yesterday’s meeting concerned changes to the design and proposed usage of the building, due to both aesthetic concerns and legal restrictions. Since the Women’s Community Building provided meeting space for various groups in the Ithaca area, prior incarnations of the proposal included a ground floor community space. The community space, however, violates the strict conditions of the project’s anticipated federal funding sources.

A majority of the funding for this program comes from the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. This program, implemented in 1986, provides tax refunds for businesses that invest in lower income housing. As part of the program, however, a number of restrictions are placed on how space can be allocated. To cope with these issues, the Planning Board and INHS proposed alternatives ranging from building additional apartment units, selling portions of the building for private use or developing other options for open public use of this central location.

Throughout the proceedings, however, little emphasis was placed on the Women’s Community Building, a facet of the Ithaca downtown since the early 1920s. Most recently, the building has been the winter location of the Ithaca Farmers Market and a sparse collection of community events. Overall, however, the building has been underused in recent years due to social changes and the creation of new and more suitable meeting spaces nearby.

“This afternoon I went down to the Women’s Community Building and I talked to the managing director there and she said it has been a pretty quiet place for this year. She said the average for this year was one meeting a week,” said Jane Marcham ’51, a planning board member who was originally critical of the removal of the community space. “I don’t see how a place can be made to work at that level of use.”

The plan for the project will be finalized by Feb. 9, at which time the planning board will vote on its authorization.

Original Author: Evan Preminger