ITHACA, N.Y. — When is a construction boom really a boom?

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Many articles here on the Voice, and on other local news websites, refer to the Ithaca area as being in the middle of a construction boom. New apartment building here, solar-powered townhomes there, micro-apartments, luxury apartments, hotels, and more cranes than a zoo.

The truth is, the numbers don’t appear to back that up. At least, not when one looks at all of Tompkins County.​

For this analysis, all the numbers were pulled from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Building Permits Database. Building permits are issued before construction starts; Single-family homes usually take 3-6 months, and larger apartment buildings and complexes can take a year or more. So a lot of the larger projects underway now had their permits issued in 2014.

The numbers were presented in five categories – the total for the whole county, the city of Ithaca, the town of Ithaca, Lansing village and town, and Dryden village and town. These municipalities represent over 70% of the county’s total population.

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Looking at the chart above and using the yellow line that shows the permit total for the county, we can really pick up two periods were there “construction booms” – 1986-1989, and 1999-2002. The spike in 1994 is something of an aberration, the result of Cayuga Heights issuing permits for the Kendal at Ithaca senior living campus (the building permits database counts 420 units in both the apartments and specialized care units).

From 2011-2014, the city and all the towns and villages in Tompkins County issued housing permits a total of 943 units. For 1986-1989, permits were issued for 2,328 units. For 1999-2002, permits were issued for 1,653 units. The county is adding housing, but to call it booming would be untrue.

In fact, the county’s coming out of one of its quietest construction periods in recent history. The nation experienced a deep recession during in the late 2000s. But Tompkins County didn’t, and the economic and student population growth without adequate housing growth is the one of the reasons why there’s an affordability issue today. More detailed coverage on just how far short Ithaca is on new housing can be found here.

This also leads to why it feels like a construction boom – it’s all about perception. If you moved to the region sometime after 2006, you’ve never known a construction period as busy as it is now. If you lived in the region before 2006, there were hardly any slower years except for the big downturn the local economy had taken during the 1990s.

There might also be another facet to that perception. Where it is, rather than how much there is.

The pie charts below illustrate where permits were issued, using the same communities as above, but as a proportion of the county’s total. 1990-1994 was selected because Cornell and Ithaca College weren’t building new dorms during that time period. The Kendal at Ithaca spike was also removed for the chart (outlier filtering, for all the statistics nerds out there).

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Comparing where the construction was taking place 20 or so years ago to where it’s happening now, there’s less construction proportionately in rural and suburban areas, and more construction in the urban center of Ithaca. Granted, there are still a lot of folks building homes out in Dryden and Lansing, but recently, more of the new off-campus construction has been looking into the city rather than outside of it.

That’s where the other part of perception comes in. How often do travelers head down the county roads of Newfield, or the tucked-away cul-de-sacs in Ithaca town? Unless they live there, probably not too often. But the city of Ithaca draws people in, as the economic and cultural center of the county. There’s many more eyeballs that are going to see a new apartment building going up in downtown, versus a new housing development in Lansing. Further to that, the development in the city tends to be multi-family and apartment housing, which have a much bigger visual impact than single-family homes on one-acre lots.

The result is that not only is there the perception of a construction boom, there’s also the belief that most of the new builds are in the city, and not much elsewhere. In fact, Ithaca city makes up less than one-quarter of the total. But the city has increased its proportion of new construction in recent years, and with the greater visibility mentioned earlier, it gives the impression that a lot more is being built overall.

“Construction’s good for the economy, there’s local contractors that benefit. the long and short of it is that the conclusions are absolutely correct. what you see downtown is multi-unit – big cranes, construction trucks, they’re on a larger scale. People are noticing that a lot more,” said Heather McDaniel, vice president of Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD).

“There has been a switch nationwide, that we’re seeing more building in downtowns, people are starting to move back to [Ithaca’s] downtown for its vibrancy and activity.”

Heather McDaniel of TCAD
Heather McDaniel of TCAD

McDaniel expressed support for the urban revival underway in the city of Ithaca.

“[The county has] a healthy economy, but our municipalities are still struggling financially, and they’re looking for ways to increase tax revenue to support services people demand.”

“It makes better sense economically to build a little more density in existing community centers, where there’s access to employment and public transportation, and there’s infrastructure there already. There’s a real interest in downtown Ithaca.”

So maybe “construction boom” is an inaccurate term to use, at least for the county and most communities. But for the city of Ithaca itself, it definitely feels like a boom.

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Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at