Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Photography Editor

A building offers units for rental via front-facing signs, like many units throughout Ithaca at this time of year.

October 27, 2021

After Three Years of Planning, the Asteri Ithaca Aims to Expand Affordable Housing Options

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The recently-demolished Green Street Garage in Downtown Ithaca is getting a major upgrade. The old site will soon boast the Asteri Ithaca: a 12-story mixed development building with 217 affordable new housing units, a 55,000 square foot conference center and 350 refurbished parking spots. 

The three-pronged project broke ground in September and is part of a larger rebuilding effort offered by the Green Street Garage to respond to the acute need for affordable housing and spur new growth and development in Ithaca. 

According to Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, Ithaca is able to add affordable housing units annually thanks to the work carried out by the Vecino Group — which is developing the building — for-profit developers and the Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program. Even so, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in the Ithaca area, especially the downtown area. 

“There’s definitely a need for more housing at every level in Ithaca, but particularly at lower income levels,” said Alderperson Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward).

According to Murtagh, gentrification plays a major role in the shortage of affordable housing in Ithaca. Cornell draws students from all over the world who come from very different economic brackets that compete with local residents for housing.  

“When somebody is coming here from more expensive housing markets, they can easily afford to outcompete somebody who is a local trying to buy a house,” Murtagh said. “That is the biggest challenge we have.”

Nels Bohen, director of community development for the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, said the need for affordable housing in Ithaca is “enormous.” Ithaca has a cost-burdened population, with a majority of renters paying 30 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities. Limited land  and lack of vacant development sites in the area also makes the affordable housing issue difficult to overcome. 

There are different levels of affordable housing, which is typically calculated using the area median income. According to New York State Assemblywoman Anna Kelles (D-125th District), a project is affordable if the average area median income across all units falls below 80 percent, which is true of Asteri Ithaca. 

The building will offer housing that is affordable to households making 30 to 80 percent of the AMI. Working in partnership with Tompkins County Action, Vecino will dedicate 40 of the units to at-risk populations. 

Kelles said that this level of affordability is rare, especially in one of the most expensive parts of the city. Usually, affordable housing is built on the outskirts of cities, so putting the new units in a central location creates more “equity” in the city. 

“The people who are living there are being treated like everyone else,” Kelles said, “and have access to all the things that the downtown people would have access to.” 

By allowing individuals who work downtown to live close by, affordable housing also eliminates other hidden costs for these individuals, like transportation costs. 

“If people are working downtown somewhere, whether in the service sector or hospitality sector, or say as a bank teller, they should be able to afford to live downtown if they want to,” Murtagh said.

Construction on Asteri Ithaca has commenced following a long collaborative process between many organizations, including the City of Ithaca, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency and Vecino Group.

The opportunity for the Asteri Ithaca project arose in 2018, when the city provided the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency with the option to acquire the structurally deficient Green Street parking garage. The agency solicited proposals in June 2018 for a redevelopment project meeting the City of Ithaca’s Common Council’s goals: the expansion of public parking, the construction of affordable housing and the incorporation of a conference center. 

In December 2018, the Urban Ithaca Renewal Agency selected Asteri Ithaca from four competing proposed projects for the Green Street garage redevelopment. 

“I think what stood out strongest was that Vecino proposed the largest number of affordable housing units,” Bohen said, “and agreed that they would work to integrate the conference center into the project.”

In November 2020, the city granted Vecino Group Final Site Plan Approval. During the ensuing approval process, the affordable housing component of the project garnered overwhelming support. The main point of contention with the plan was the conference center, a development that the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Ithaca Alliance have supported for years.

Some Ithacans expressed concern that the conference center would waste taxpayer dollars. However, the financing scheme for the conference center does not lean heavily on local taxpayers. Rather, the cost is split between the city, the county, the developers and hotels in the area, which will source this funding from an added tax to hotel guests.

According to Kelles, the conference center has also garnered support from downtown workers, who see it as a way to stabilize their jobs and spur economic growth in the city. Hotels, restaurants and small businesses in the downtown area have many patrons on Fridays and weekends, but the Monday through Thursday period generally brings a lull in activity. A conference center will bring individuals into the city during this period.

“For hourly wage workers downtown in the gig economy, if there is more consistency in patronage, then there’s more consistency in their jobs,” Kelles said. “They’ll have more hours for work, better pay and more benefits because the businesses will be able to afford benefits.” 

The development of the project has even considered the effect on neighboring businesses. Its budget, for example, accounts for compensation for any interruption of business that may occur. 

Throughout the approval process, the developers formed written agreements with each of the neighboring property and business owners to accommodate their needs. Brett Bossard, executive director of the neighboring theater Cinemapolis, expressed gratitude for the attention the city and the developers have paid to their interests, especially after COVID shutdowns. 

“We have been very fortunate to have people at the city level who were really thinking about our interests and needs when the request for proposals was generated for this project,” Brossard  said.

Despite the long approval process, the Asteri Ithaca development has been received enthusiastically by the Ithaca community for its commitment to expanding affordable housing in the city and driving economic growth. 

“I think the project is just one piece that fits into the larger puzzle of trying to expand affordable housing opportunities in the city,” Murtagh said. “The community really supported it because they recognize that affordable housing is really needed.”