Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion column written by Anna Kelles, native Ithacan and founding member of the Dewitt Park Neighborhood Association.
It pertains to the Tompkins County Legislature’s upcoming vote on what to do with a major site in downtown Ithaca — at the Old Library. See here for more.
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On June 9th, a Tompkins County legislative committee met for final deliberations on the fate of the Old Tompkins County library. Three project proposals were under consideration from Rochester’s Cornerstone Group Ltd., Travis Hyde Properties, and Franklin Properties in partnership with the local architecture firm STREAM Collaborative.
Over 30 concerned citizens attended the meeting, almost exclusively in support of the Franklin’s adaptive reuse mixed-use proposal. Seven residents provided public comment in favor of the Franklin proposal and one in favor of the Travis Hyde proposal because of their exclusive partnership with Lifelong.
Attendees noted during the public session that the Franklin project is the only adaptive reuse proposal that will preserve the sturdy foundation and frame of the existing library building rather than add over 2000 tons of waste to our landfills. Compared to the 25% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the Cornerstone proposal and the undisclosed reduction in emissions from the Travis Hyde proposal, the Franklin project would reduce GHG emissions by 70% in accordance with Architect 2030 guidelines and surpass the goals outlined in the Tompkins County Energy Strategy.
Residents approved of the commitment by the team to exceed a living wage standard for all construction workers, building maintenance and medical staff and to hire a diverse local workforce. Several residents commended the preservation of greenspace as well as the preserved building setback from the sidewalk. The short tax abatement period for the Franklin proposal as well as the economic boost and increased tax generation in the walkable downtown community expected from the medical facilities and cafe were also lauded.
Franklin proposal set apart
Several other factors set the Franklin proposal apart from the others. There was a huge public outcry for homeowner options rather than more downtown rentals during the first phase of proposal review. The Franklin team was the only one to honor the input of the public and incorporate condominiums into their proposal.
The Franklin proposal is the only project that provides sufficient off street parking to accommodate all residents and patrons of the building minimizing traffic congestion from the development. Although the Tompkins County assessor’s report has not been made publicly available, simple mathematical estimations also show the Franklin project generating the greatest property taxes despite the smaller number of dwelling units because it will be approved and constructed sooner and the tax abatement won’t apply after all the condos are sold.
It is of great significance that the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) identified the Franklin Proposal as the clear preference to maintain the physical and cultural integrity of the neighborhood.
That the Franklin proposal is the community favorite is apparent from over 700 petition signatures and innumerable personal emails to county legislators. There has been almost no public support shown for either the Cornerstone or the Travis-Hyde proposals.
Legislator Michael Lane, opened the committee comments by acknowledging the overwhelming support for the Franklin proposal over any other. However, he likened the community’s preference to a Best In Show dog competition. According to Lane, we all see the cute bulldog and he steals our hearts, but the judges must choose a winner using the established selection criteria and not emotion.
He then stated that the Travis Hyde project was the best fit because most importantly they included Lifelong Senior Activity Center in their proposal, which he felt was a critical resource for the community. That it is a critical resource is undeniable. The irony, however, is that the inclusion of Lifelong was not an identified selection criteria to favor a particular project, as Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne pointed out later in the session.
If it had been a selection criteria then it would have been unethical to allow any one developer to build an exclusive agreement with Lifelong (as Travis Hyde did), particularly given that both other development teams were more than willing to partner with and support Lifelong in their proposals. In fact, Doug Sutherland from Franklin Properties presented an elegant partnership proposal with Lifelong to the committee during the session which included securing an entirely new facility for Lifelong at little or no cost to the organization, which they would continue to own themselves.
Legislator Dooley Kiefer stated that she was a particular fan of the Franklin project based on its clear environmental benefits. However, she wanted to see the option for a land lease included in a proposal so that the county could retain ownership of the land and provide a long-term lease to a selected developer. Given that a land lease is not possible with condominiums, she opposed the Franklin project. Again, the inclusion of a land lease option was not on the table as a selection criteria in the RFP designed by the committee itself and none of the three proposal have offered a ground lease. An ad hoc attempt was made to approve an amendment for language concerning a land lease option but it was rejected by majority vote of the committee.
Legislator Mike Sigler felt that both the Franklin and Travis Hyde proposals were of high quality and that ultimately he would be satisfied with either development. He chose the Travis Hyde proposal, stating that density was his main priority. However, according to the comprehensive plan, the city is preparing to rezone and promote significant development all along the W. MLK corridor and waterfront. There are also planned mixed-use developments at the Chain Works District site on South hill, and the affordable housing Neighborhood Pride development on the north side. In total there are over 1 million square feet of land targeted for development to increase density in the city limits. The RFP specifically asked for projects establishing senior housing and many seniors have spoken up for homeowner options. The Franklin proposal is the only one that meets both of these needs while contributing an appropriately increase in density for the neighborhood.
Before legislator Sigler motioned for a vote on the Travis Hyde proposal, legislator Kathy Luz Herrera asked for it to be on record that her vote was not an endorsement of any one proposal but rather a desire to push the vote to the full legislative body and prevent any further delays. The resulting 3-2 vote, therefore, hardly represents a majority but rather 2 votes for the Travis Hyde project, 2 votes against, and 1 vote favoring moving forward on any project.
Given the overwhelming community support and clear strength of the Franklin proposal compared to Travis Hyde proposal, residents in attendance left the committee meeting confused and disillusioned by the decision-making process, which veered from the original set of criteria of the RFP and did not align with the sentiment of the public. We can only hope as a community that the full legislature will recognize and respect the wishes of their constituents and vote for the proposal that most meets our needs: the Franklin Proposal.