This is an opinion piece submitted by Vicki Brous on behalf of the Little Commons project team. It is one of four proposals submitted for consideration of the Green Street Garage redevelopment. For an overview of the four projects, visit The Ithaca Voice’s previous coverage here. Each team has submitted an opinion piece. Read about Ithaca-Peak Development‘s proposal here. Read about The Vecino Group‘s vision here. Read about Visum Development’s vision here.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca is not a large city, and as such, every development decision needs to reflect the impact that it has on the greater good of the community and its future. The redevelopment of the Green Street Garage, by virtue of its prominent location in the urban core, presents a particularly important opportunity to act on principles of equity, sustainability, public space, and economic progress.

The Little Commons team, led by John Driscoll, STREAM Collaborative Architecture + Landscape Architecture DPC, in conjunction with Harold’s Holdings and Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, was moved to gather our collective expertise to generate a carefully considered proposal, designed for what most belongs here: architecture including height and scale that fits into the historic neighborhood; a building that will gracefully fulfill the need for economically viable housing and commercial space in this critical location; a vibrant and active public space with a variety of innovative uses; and sustainable design that will help carry the city towards its net zero benchmarks by the year 2050.

As an alternative to monolithic student housing, we are designing a “village” where a diverse demographic of families, young professionals, and empty nesters, are encouraged to live synergistically, truly making a home here. The entire residential component of the project will be affordable both in terms of per unit cost and long-term energy efficiency. INHS will be heading up the development for the residential units, ensuring that an experienced and trusted institution within the local community will be responsible for guaranteeing real affordability, and the experience to back it up for the life of the project.

Although smaller in stature than the other proposals, the project is by no means petite. The project adds 76 new affordable housing units, and it creates a generous new programmable outdoor public space that connects the transit hub of Green Street to The Commons. You can envision using the park space to enjoy an outdoor movie, a festival, or to stroll during an evening walk. The project also activates the ground level with a flexible public space and small-scale market and retail, providing previously missing amenities including opportunities for local institutions such as GreenStar grocery and the Ithaca Farmers Market. The project also adds an additional 134 parking spaces to the garage, contributing to the vibrancy of the downtown economy.

What distinguishes the project is that at five stories, or 60 feet, the human-scaled project can be stick built from wood, a renewable resource. The building, whose shape, street trees, and small façade typology have been considered for their sustainable impact, is a net-zero project that will utilize solar panels and a microgrid system to collect and store energy. It will also most certainly take less time to construct, allowing for less disruption to business, and to existing parking structures.

Many of the projects in the area have struggled to employ local labor due to the height and extensive steel work, that has provided an advantage to regional companies. We intend for this project to be a model in terms of workforce development. By designing for net-zero outcomes, construction teams in the various trades will be learning methods that will lead to sustainability related careers in a post-carbon future. In addition, a living wage is a mandate for this project. From the design and construction to the retail jobs, a living wage is a policy for all project partners.

With the addition of new projects including the Marriott, the Hilton Canopy, Harold’s Square, the Hotel Ithaca renovation, and others, it is of great concern to the team that a parking study has not been completed. It remains unknown just how much parking is needed and the true cost and feasibility of operating and reconstructing a facility. The project team has allocated $2 million for the reconstruction of the central deck of the garage. It is known that all of the project teams will likely need supplemental grant funding, tax incentives, and creative financing to reach their goals. With the knowledge brought forward from the team at McGuire, who has worked in the parking industry, we feel that the estimated $17 million for repairs to all of the parking decks may not be necessary. We know the $2 million contribution is not sufficient but there are creative ways to leverage that investment to solve the parking situation through a public private partnership. In addition, with new auto technologies that are rapidly changing, and traffic demand management, a thorough study of parking needs should be conducted before decisions are made.

The team at Little Commons would also like to see the feasibility of the conference center space that was requested in the RFP. What the project team is proposing is taking existing space with limited day use such as Cinemapolis and Coltivare, theatres, and hotel space, in addition to the 16,000 square feet of new commercial flex space and creating a modern, urban conference facility that is innovative and sustainable. As communities consider the role of convention or conference centers in their economic development plans they should consider the long-term requirements for upkeep and ongoing subsidies. It takes more than a conference center to get people to visit the City and there are other sites that have infrastructure built, that in combination may be more appropriate for this use than the construction of a new dedicated conference facility.

Last, but certainly not least, each of the Green Street redevelopment proposals was produced in a vacuum with no public input, with no feasibility studies, and only the directions provided by the City of Ithaca and the IURA in the RFP. We would encourage the community to think broadly about the redevelopment and demand an active and engaging public meeting process that allows for the final plan to be cognizant of the community’s needs and adapted accordingly. The Little Commons team is committed to this process and hope you can join us for the ride.