Editor’s Note: Below we are republishing three takes on the fight over the “Old Library” site in downtown Ithaca.

Tompkins lawmakers were deadlocked at a recent meeting on whether to accept the Franklin Properties/STREAM Collaborative proposal for the site or the Travis Hyde Properties proposal, which was recommended by a county committee.

Below are three pieces about the competing plans: 1) By Anna Kelles and Katie Stoner, who support the STREAM proposal; 2) By Travis Hyde Properties about its project; 3) By Gay Nicholson, president of Sustainable Tompkins, in support of the STREAM project.

To submit a column, contact me anytime at jstein@ithacavoice.com.


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Become an educated home buyer

1 — Written by Anna Kelles and Katie Stoner:

On Tuesday, June 16th, almost one hundred residents attended the county legislative meeting to witness the proceedings concerning the fate of the Old Tompkins County Library. The public comment period went for over two hours and an overwhelming majority of the comments were in support of the Franklin reuse development proposal. Twenty-five individuals spoke in support of the Franklin project, and six spoke in support of the Travis Hyde proposal – 5 of them who are part of the Travis Hyde team.  Legislator Dan Klein stated, “…it’s overwhelming, hundreds of people supporting this proposal. The City didn’t want to be on the record, so people registered their opinions as citizens….we heard from two Common Council members, the Director of Planning, members of the Conservation Advisory Board, members of the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as several church elders from the churches in Dewitt Park – all spoke in favor of Franklin. No one from any institution spoke for any other proposal – that speaks volumes.”

Despite the huge outpouring of public support for the Franklin proposal, including hundreds of emails and phone calls for weeks prior to the meeting, six members of the legislature voted for the Travis Hyde proposal. Their rationale mirrored the arguments laid out by the subcommittee with minimal consideration for the public support expressed during the privilege of the floor that evening.  The Travis Hyde proposal, however, failed to get the majority vote and the night ended with a 6-6 tie.

The primary argument of legislators in support of the Travis Hyde proposal, most adamantly voiced by Mike Lane, Mike Sigler, Martha Robertson, and Jim Dennis, was the housing crisis we are experiencing in the city and the need for density.  Indeed, we have a shortage of housing in this city, including; senior housing, homeowner options, affordable housing, and rentals. What we need is smart growth to meet this need. According to Smart Growth America, smart growth means “building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.”  Readers can learn more about smart growth, including the ten principles and examples from around the country here.

If, in a panic, we throw up building after building butting up to the sidewalks with no floor level public use and no greenscape we will create a cold hard city with no engagement between our built environment and each other.  This is what buildings like the massive dormitory-style Travis Hyde building will create.  The proponents of the Franklin project want density, badly; we just want smart urban density scaled to and suitable for the culture and character of the historic Dewitt neighborhood.

Martha Robertson stated that we need buildings of at least 60-units to be the preferred model for all developments.  However, building more appropriately sized and engaging 20-30 unit rentals and condominiums throughout the city would more than meet our needs.  How can we be sure?  The city comprehensive plan just identified over 1,000,000 sq. ft. of undeveloped and underdeveloped land within the city limits that they would like to see developed including all along the W. MLK/State St. corridor and the waterfront.  In fact, the city rezoned the entire W. MLK/State St. corridor last year from a one-story zone to a four-story zone with no front or side yard setbacks and no minimum parking requirements to further encourage this development.

Mike Lane stated that we need housing so badly that all three of these proposed developments should be built.  He received vocal approval from legislators Robertson, Sigler, and Dennis.  We agree!  In light of this statement the solution is simple. Given that the Franklin proposal is an adaptive reuse of the existing structure, approve the Franklin proposal for this site. The Travis Hyde and Cornerstone proposals both rely on new construction, and therefore can be modified to fit other sites within the city limits.   Finding sites for all three proposals takes advantage of the invested time, money and efforts of all of the development teams.

Legislators Lane, Robertson, Sigler and Dennis argued that the Travis Hyde project is an example of mixed use.  According to Placemakers, “mixed-use makes for three-dimensional, pedestrian-oriented places that layer compatible land uses, public amenities, and utilities together at various scales and intensities. This variety of uses allows for people to live, work, play and shop in one place, which then becomes a destination for people from other neighborhoods.” The Franklin proposal is the only one that truly epitomizes the principles of mixed-use, with the condominiums, community space, cafe, and holistic healthcare cooperative surrounded by an inviting green landscape and entryways designed for pedestrian access. Although the Travis Hyde project has multiple uses this is not an example of mixed use as required by the RFP selection criteria.  Their proposal includes senior rentals, space for Lifelong Activity Center, and office space that will serve a small segment of the population and will not foster engagement of this senior population with the larger community.

Legislator Robertson stated that the old TC library would be stripped down to its very bones leaving only the steel frame and cement foundation and therefore, the difference between demolition and construction of the two projects would be marginal.  In truth, the difference in energy use, time expenditure, and materials used between the two projects as a result of preserving the foundation and frame is tremendous.  Embodied energy is the amount of energy it takes to mine, make, mold, transport and assemble material for a building. A foundation and steel frame are the most dense, heavy materials of a building and require the greatest amount of energy to produce and use. The current frame and foundation represent 70% of the physical material of the building and approximately 90% of the embodied energy (the equivalent of the energy sequestered by 470 acres of trees in 1 year or 1,364,665 miles traveled) thus preserving them represents significant energy and material savings.  As a result of preserving the frame and foundation, demolition for the Franklin proposal would take one month compared to 6-12 months for the Travis Hyde proposal.

Although we have a huge need for both homeowner options and rentals, there is only one developer in the last few years who has built density in the form of condominiums.  A 6-unit adaptive reuse project is being completed on the west side above the old Lehigh Valley House.  According to the owner, the units were spoken for before they were finished and he could have sold double the number of units.  Senior women who were looking for downtown locations that also had covered parking and an elevator purchased a majority of these units.  Despite the demand, very few developers are building condominiums because the return on investment is significantly less than for rentals, which in contrast, make up the lion’s share of new construction. The Franklin proposal is the only other project to come along in years willing to build condominiums – 22 units on less than one acre!  This is indeed the urban density we need and will make a small dent in balancing the scales between rental construction and construction of homeowner options.

Several opponents of the Franklin project in the legislature argued that the proposed condominium’s asking prices are too high and will prove to be cost prohibitive.  In fact, at $300/sq. ft., the Franklin units are squarely in the middle of the market price for condominiums in downtown Ithaca.  Several Realtors who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, outlined comparable sales data within the city. They stated that demand for these units is high and people have already asked to be placed on a waiting list for the Franklin project.

 The community, along with a few of the legislators, wanted affordable senior housing.  The Franklin team is listening. Although Lifelong’s decision to align exclusively with Travis Hyde has complicated matters, the Franklin team recognizes the imperative to secure the future of Lifelong if they are selected and is still pursuing an alternative solution.  They have proposed a new but historically-sensitive three story structure that could be constructed on an open lot immediately west of the Old Library project including two stories dedicated to Lifelong and a third story reserved for affordable senior housing units.

Legislator Nate Shinagawa stated that, although sometimes it is prudent and in the best interest of the community to make an unpopular choice by voting in opposition to the public will, this is not one of those times.  He emphasized the need for legislators to balance listening to the people with exercising one’s judgment as the informed representative of the people. In light of this balanced consideration, Shinagawa felt that the overwhelming support of the public who expressed logical and intelligent arguments for the Franklin proposal were sufficient to win his support. He specifically cited the benefit of fostering homeownership, which contributes significantly to the local economy.  He also highlighted the importance of preserving the integrity and character of the neighborhood, and acknowledged the Franklin project’s unique ability to meet this need. Legislators Carol Chock, Dan Klein, Dooley Kiefer, Will Burbank and Leslyn McBean-Clairborne also identified this intelligent outpouring as a strong influence for their support. We hope that all the legislators who voted in opposition to the Franklin development will take heed to these words and stand with the people for the Franklin proposal.

The next legislative meeting is scheduled to take place on July 7th at 121 E. Court Street. Eight votes (the majority) are needed for either proposal to be selected. The meeting is open to the public to voice opinions, share information, and express a proposal preference.  For anyone who wants to voice their thoughts to the legislators prior to the meeting, you can email the county clerk Catherine Covert: ccovert@tompkins-co.org.

2 — From Travis Hyde, originally published on developer’s blog

Travis Hyde Properties and HOLT Architects are excited about being selected by the Tompkins County Old Library Committee as the preferred development team for the Tompkins County Old Library site.We understand the significance of this project and would like our community to know the strengths of our development project and team:

  • Travis Hyde and HOLT Architects have been rooted in Ithaca and Tompkins County for 40 and 50 years respectively and have worked together on many City and County buildings and developments.
  • Being local, our team understands the unique culture of our area and has a vested interest in its success. We live and work in this community and contribute to its vitality, and want to make a successful project that gives back to our Ithaca and Tompkins County home.
  • Our proposed development “DeWitt House” meets Architecture 2030 goals and has a potential for achieving LEED Platinum certification. HOLT Architects has designed 11 LEED pending or certified buildings in Ithaca – including the Travis Hyde Gateway Commons.
  • The DeWitt House will bring a core density of residents to Downtown who will support local businesses and bring increased vitality and economic benefit to the heart of our city.
  • The DeWitt House fulfills a community need; it removes obstacles to independence and helps serve the needs of our more varied population, as well as maintaining a vital community organization in Lifelong.
  • By partnering with neighbor Lifelong, we can provide greater green space and a community asset that fits comfortably within the mixed neighborhood context, with shared use by the public.
  • Our decision to rebuild the Old Library site stems from extensive analyses of renovation and reconstruction as possible paths to creating the most efficient, financially viable and sustainable building that returns four parcels to the tax rolls.
  • Our development addresses the underserved middle demographic with units in the median affordability range.

Please feel free to read through our team’s 2014 and 2015 proposals for more in-depth information.

3 — From Gay Nicholson, president of Sustainable Tompkins

After hours of discussion at the June 16th county legislative meeting, the vote on the fate of the Old Library ended in a stalemate of 6 in favor of a large apartment complex for seniors (TravisHyde), and 6 in favor of a smaller adaptive reuse condo project (Franklin Properties) which had hundreds of petition supporters and inspired dozens of citizens to show up and speak in favor of the Franklin proposal.

The vote was pretty much split along geographic lines with those representing the urban/suburban core of the county (Chock, Shinagawa, McBean-Clairborne, Burbank, Kiefer) backing the project that had widespread neighborhood support (along with Klein from Caroline/Danby).  Those supporting the large 63-unit apartment complex came from the more rural parts of the county (Dryden, Groton, Lansing, Ulysses, Enfield/Newfield).  These rural reps stressed the need for adding housing to try and relieve the incessant demand that has driven up the price of shelter.  Residents of the historic DeWitt neighborhood around the old library spoke strongly about the importance of adding density appropriate to the scale and character of the location, and pointed to other building sites in planned growth areas where the TravisHyde or other projects would be less problematic.

Our community needs to have a thorough discussion about densification, the treadmill of constant growth, carrying capacity, and how to distribute costs and benefits as we add people to our community.  But first we should take a look at the question of who decides.

Legislator Shinagawa brought up the need for elected representatives to balance the role of Delegate (do what your constituents ask) vs. Trustee (be guided by your own knowledge, experience, and values).  Legislator Robertson emphasized the trustee role, believing many of the citizens speaking out were misinformed on the merits of the projects, and that the county legislature had a responsibility for the greater good of adding 63 vs. 28 housing units on the site.  Others like Legislator Klein spoke to the overwhelming preference of the people who would be most affected by the project – the neighbors.

This raises another realm ripe for public dialogue.  When Dryden led the county in the push for a ban on fracking, the principle of home rule was core to their case.  Gas drilling advocates accused anti-fracking activists of being NIMBYs (Not In My BackYard) and selfishly preventing economic gain for the greater good of the Southern Tier.  Activists responded that they would prefer to keep the risks of fracking out of everyone’s backyard and vigorously pursue a clean energy future for the greater good – but that at the very least the concept of local control should allow them to choose their own future.

Few people like the idea of their neighborhood being made a sacrifice zone for the economic benefit of others.  Robertson mentioned the ongoing and projected growth rate for Cornell, which will require finding housing for about 200 people every year.  But people in the DeWitt Park historic district don’t see why their neighborhood should make sacrifices to address Cornell’s or other employers’ expansion plans.  They are willing to accept more density, but want a voice in how much and what kind and to whose benefit.

We need to have a deeper discussion about rates of growth and limits to growth and what endpoint we have in mind for ourselves.  We are in an era where many people are demanding more transparency and democratic control of the public realm.  The trustee form of government is often seen as easily corrupted by special interests and as a source of the “business-as-usual” mindset that continues to exacerbate our twin problems of inequality and climate disruption.  The trustee role doesn’t work without trust.

But the delegate role doesn’t work without an informed and engaged populace.  Right now, it is clear that the Ithaca area has relatively high rates of engagement on local issues.  And it was telling that our county’s most experienced and knowledgeable urban planners and smart growth advocates came out to speak in support of the Franklin project.

We urge the county reps from our rural towns to think about this issue of home rule vs. the “greater good.” Americans of all political persuasions are often suspicious when officials cite the Common Good when they face grassroots opposition. It’s a tricky topic because of our nation’s history of oppression or exploitation by local majorities. And NIMBYism does occur. That’s why we have to work together to define the greater good and agree on the specifics of how to work toward it.  We have a housing problem, and we need to think about rates and densities and endpoints if we are to avoid degrading the quality of life so many have worked to create.

The path to a more sustainable community is going to be very hard work and it must be done together collaboratively, with humility, and through much trust building.  Listening to the people on the Franklin project will be a very good place for the county legislature to build trust for the conversations ahead on equity, energy, and the economy.