Mayor Svante Myrick's proposed budget calls for a small increase to IPD

ITHACA, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick announced Wednesday that he will not vote for a tax abatement for a controversial 11-story building proposed for 301 East State Street.

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Does that mean the project is dead in the water?

The answer is unclear. On the one hand, the body responsible for granting the abatement — the Industrial Development Agency — is comprised of multiple voting members. They could have enough supporters to approve the abatement over Myrick’s vote.

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Mayor Myrick announced his opposition to tax breaks for a proposed development on Wednesday

On the other hand, several city officials say that Myrick’s position is likely to have an outsize impact on the IDA’s deliberations.

And the developer, the Texas-based Campus Advantage, has said that it cannot proceed with the project without the tax abatement.

“The mayor is on the IDA board, and I think for city projects they look to his leadership — as they probably should,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

“I think from Day 1 it was pretty clear that the developers and the mayor would need to be on the same page if it were to proceed.”

Campus Advantage responded to a request for comment on Thursday with a two-sentence statement.

“Given this new information, we are going to look at adjustments to the project,” it said. “In the meantime, we will be in touch if there are updates to share.”

Myrick’s position at odds with those of key Ithaca business leaders

Myrick gave two primary reasons for opposing the abatement for the Trebloc site building proposal: 1) That it doesn’t do enough to draw in a diverse population that extends beyond students; and 2) It would have too great of “visual impact” on the site.

“I intend to vote against a tax abatement for the project,” Myrick wrote in a Facebook post, “and I’ve encouraged the developer to withdraw their application completely and go back to the drawing board.”

The position puts him at odds with two business groups in the county that normally align with Myrick on development: 1) The DIA; and 2) The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce.

Ferguson, of the DIA, defended the project as a badly needed improvement on a site that is woefully neglected and under-used.

“I respect the mayor immeasurably, but this is a case where I would like to see this developer hang in there,” said Ferguson, who stressed that the project had improved significantly since its initial iterations. “In terms of aesthetics, they’ve come a long way.”

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Rendering of the proposed project

Similarly, Jennifer Tavares, president of the Chamber of Commerce and an IDA board member, said in a statement that the site is prime real estate and that the developers had worked hard to meet residents’ concerns.

“I commend the project developers for the time invested in listening to the community, and their efforts to incorporate numerous requests into their project,” Tavares said.

“The project proposed to pay a living wage to its employees, to incorporate LEED building standards, and to utilize local labor to the greatest extent possible — all things that community members have been requesting of new developments seeking tax abatements.”

Tavares highlighted that the project would have added about $7.5 million in increased tax revenue over the first 10 years, and $1.6 million per year after that.

“This new revenue is desperately needed,” she said.

Is tide turning on development in Ithaca?

Over the last several years, largely under Myrick’s leadership, the city and county have approved a large number of controversial developments projects: On Spencer Road; on the city’s Northside; on many Collegetown sites; and elsewhere in the city.

Mayor Myrick and Gary Ferguson, of the DIA, at the Commons ribbon-cutting ceremony
Mayor Myrick and Gary Ferguson, of the DIA, at the Commons ribbon-cutting ceremony

Without the mayor’s support, the Campus Advantage proposal appears to be headed for a different ending.

Why is this proposal struggling to win approval? Is it because of the nature of the specific project? Or is reflective of a more general shift in attitudes about development in Ithaca amid a furious building spurt?

Myrick’s statement suggests that his opposition is rooted in the specific shortcomings of the project.

He begins the announcement, for instance, by emphasizing that he still thinks the site should still be developed. Myrick’s statement does not say that the proposal should prompt a more fundamental rethinking of development priorities.

“I believe that the State Street Triangle site is the ideal place to build housing because it is located precisely where downtown, South Hill and East Hill intersect,” he wrote.

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Another rendering of the project

But some involved in local government say that they hope Myrick’s opposition to the Trebloc site proposal marks a broader shift toward stricter guidelines for developers than was the case for Myrick’s first term.

“(Myrick)’s saying this building doesn’t fit with the community. But it’s a divergence from his voting patterns, and I think that’s of note,” said Anna Kelles, who is running for the Fall Creek on the Tompkins County Legislature.

“This is an important step, but it’s not the root of the disease itself — and that is the abatement program guidelines, which need to be looked at and incorporate living wages and local labor and promotes sustainable infrastructure.”

(Both Kelles and her opponent, former Legislator Nate Shinagawa, have announced their opposition to the State Street project.)

Like Kelles, Sean Gannon — who is running as an independent candidate for Common Council — said that he hopes Myrick’s stance on Trebloc represents a change in attitude about development caused by a public outcry. Gannon appeared at City Hall last night and criticized the pace of the city’s development.

“I think (Myrick’s) backing up,” Gannon said. “I think it shows he’s listening.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.