ITHACA, N.Y. — Sometimes, the meetings of the city of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) drag on for hours, full of tension and uncertainty and with emotions running high. This was not one of those months. In fact, with a runtime of just around 73 minutes, it might be one of the shortest PEDC meetings ever covered by the Voice.
For those who like the play-by-play, however brief it is, read on. A copy of the agenda can be found here.
IDA Labor Reporting Data
First up for discussion last night, a presentation by Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD) staff regarding local labor use in projects who have had tax abatements approved by the county Industrial Development Authority, which TCAD administers. The topic is something of a follow-up; it came up last month in the course of discussion about the difference between the IDA and city’s review of the CIITAP program, which awards tax abatements to qualified projects in Ithaca’s urban core. Local labor in tax-abated projects has been a part of IDA policy since April 2016, but having specific percentages has been something city electeds have pushed for. However, the IDA needed a sampling of projects to be built over a few years so that it could have actual data to work with and determine what that requirement should be. Quick note, as of yesterday, TCAD is now known as Ithaca Area Economic Development (IAED).
President Heather McDaniel and Director of Development and Strategy Kurt Anderson, who replaced Martha Armstrong and had the luck of starting just before COVID blew up, led the PEDC through the slides. Here, local labor is defined as Tompkins and its six neighboring counties. Projects are required to submit proof they issued bids to local firms and provide monthly labor reports on contractor’s subcontractors, and the zip codes for where their on-site crews live, which helps the IDA determine who’s local and who’s not, and which trades are more likely to rely on local labor.
No surprise here, but according to Anderson the number varies. In the case of GreenStar’s new $14.8 million flagship store, the project was 67% local labor. They used a local contractor, who in turn used more local labor. The average wage to construction labor was about $25/hour, and local labors were paid $5-10/hour more than non-local labor. Meanwhile, the $52.7 million City Centre project used 33% local labor, and labor was paid an average wage of $28/hour, with $5-10/hour more for local labor. In this case, the decrease in local labor was largely tied to ironworkers and sheet metal workers for steel assembly, a lot of whom came out of Buffalo. Carpenters were 67% local and made an average of $60/hour. Harold’s Square, a similar downtown project with a $43 million price tag, used 67% local labor for the data that they had, with an average construction labor wage of $25/hour. Local electricians made $10/hour than non-local electricians working on Harold’s Square, and pipe-fitters made $20/hour more than non-local pipe-fitters. McDaniel noted Harold’s Square value is based on only about half the data and is likely an overestimate of local labor because certain trade groups with minimal local presence, like ironworkers, weren’t tabulated yet.
“I’m just curious, we like the use of the local labor, but it costs the developer more to use it, so we compensate with the tax abatement. I’m sure it’s not a wash, I’m just not sure who comes out ahead,” said Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward).
“The labor piece is very complicated. We talked to Marcus (Williamee) with the steamfitters, and sometimes they don’t bid on the jobs because they’re so busy, and they like to bid on the jobs with the general contractors that they know and they’ve worked with. They bid on Harold’s Square, but they did not bid on City Centre or the Organic Nature (GreenStar) project…I think there are a lot of different things going on and were just trying to get a handle of them, because we don’t want to drive up the costs of construction so that developers do not want to invest any longer,” replied McDaniel.
“I think it actually makes a lot of sense that when projects are receiving tax abatements, that they are associated with wages that are getting paid back to people who live in or around the county. Local contractors will still need to be competitive. I don’t know if it will necessarily result in higher costs with local labor, but it makes for a much more vibrant local sector with electricians and plumbers and contractors. I think it’s a good thing,” added Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward).
“I haven’t heard anyone mention it yet, but local labor spends their money locally…these are good jobs and we have a highly-skilled construction workforce, electricians and plumbers, and we know they do good work. I’m very glad to see this,” said Brock’s non-committee colleague, Councilor George McGonigal (D-1st).
The presentation was purely informational, but keep an eye out for updates. The next step is pulling data from neighboring counties and delving into the local analyses further, and getting input from local labor groups and developers. The goal is to have a revised, more numerically explicit local labor policy in front of the IDA for a vote by early next year.
In this fairly uneventful month, there was just one action item to vote on to send to council, and that focused on Cayuga Medical Center and Park Grove Realty’s Carpenter Park project between the waterfront and the city’s Northside neighborhood. The planning board gave preliminary approval to the nearly $90 million mixed-use project in September after two years of visiting various city boards and committees, and the project is currently seeking tax abatements from the IDA. A Planned Unit Development (PUD), a.k.a. “Do-It-Yourself Zoning” because the developer proposes the code for the site in exchange for community benefits, was approved by Common Council in December 2019. However, it is heading back before the council, and the PEDC by extension, to seek a couple of new stipulations as proposed by the city’s Planning Department staff to address some areas of potential concern.
The first is that the PUD is not considered to be legally adopted until an agreement is executed between the development team and the Ithaca Community Gardens. The gardens’ executive board will take ownership of a reconfigured garden space as part of the PUD, but since the terms of the agreement still needs to be worked out, the Planning Department wants to make sure that the gardens aren’t shortchanged on promised infrastructure improvements and support funding from the developer – the two sides will need to make a mutually-agreeable and executed deal before the PUD is considered valid. The second is that the developer obtains the deeds for all the land associated with the project (“obtain and record title in fee simple”, in formal legal terms) before the PUD can go into effect. The sale price for the city-owned land is still being negotiated.
In the effort to be transparent, it turns out my initial suggestion was incorrect on the subdivisions for the site. I initially thought they were being split based on the tax parcels because each has its own IDA application. They’re actually being split by CCPUD-A, the Community Gardens site, CCPUD-B, the affordable housing site, and CCPUD-C, the parcel with both the mixed-use buildings and Cayuga Medical Center’s new office building and clinic.
Whitham Planning and Design’s Yamila Fournier spoke to the PEDC on behalf of the project team, while Ithaca Community Gardens President Marty Hiller wrote in on behalf of the ICG leadership. The two sides are on the same page with an agreement, with the only last-minute change of substance from the developers being a tweak to note that construction may temporarily limit garden access at times during buildout of the site (Hiller appeared to consent via text to Fournier). There was also some language cleanup because Project Growing Hope Inc. is written into parts of the December 2019 PUD resolution, but the formal name of the non-profit that manages the plots has since been changed to the Ithaca Community Gardens.
Councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th Ward) asked if there was any news on funding for the affordable housing yet, to which Fournier said the application was being reviewed by the state and they were in the “wait and see” period on whether they would obtain funding. As stipulated as part of the approvals, the project cannot move forward without the affordable housing getting underway. Councilor Brock noted the parcel split as designed may cause the mixed-use parcel to fall short of the approved PUD green space requirements, to which planning staff said they would need to check, but the planning board did not see that as an issue when giving their approval.
“The Planning Board did talk about this in their approval of the project, and there are 2.5 acres of green space in the project with the community gardens. The project as a whole does contain a large amount of green space, and that is something the Planning Board talked about when they looked at the whole project,” said Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas. Brock asked if this was “relieving” the developer of doing green space themselves by relying on the Community Gardens, but Nicholas said the Planning Board didn’t see it that way, and Fournier added that the developers are making significant infrastructure improvements and investment in support of the gardens.
The board was generally comfortable with the proposed language and the green space, and the vote to pass the revised PUD language passed unanimously, for vote of final approval before the full Common Council next month.
Dogs on the Commons
Let’s be frank. This is probably the most flouted law in Ithaca’s legal code. No animals are permitted on the Commons (yes, that includes you oddballs with cats in a harness) without a Special Permit (available to city residents who live on the Commons), unless the animals tending to people with special needs, or police dogs. However, people still bring their dogs, leashed and even unleashed, onto the Commons. Angry confrontations and police calls are not uncommon, and for a while, local resident Fay Gougakis’s diatribes about dogs on the Commons were a regular feature during the public comment at PEDC meetings. (The Voice’s office is on the Commons, and thankfully for our dog-loving staff there’s a back entrance off of North Cayuga Street that we utilize.)
This isn’t the first time the issue has come up. A plan to remove the ban for dogs on the Commons failed back in 2015. The topic comes up again every 18 months or so. The benefit is that a lot of window shoppers and restaurant-goers bring their pets. Arguably, it also frees the IPD from having to treat Riley the Outdoor Store dog like she’s public enemy #1. The drawback is that others may feel uncomfortable, dogs may be unruly and with little green space on the Commons, animal waste can cause problems.
Five years later, and the topic seems to be heading back before the PEDC. The Downtown Ithaca Alliance has agreed to install and maintain dog waste stations at the entrances to the Commons, if Common Council grants permission to have leashed dogs on the Commons.
“Everyone’s favorite topic. I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of public comment on it,” said board chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd Ward). “My position has changed on this. I was a no vote (in 2015). Since then I’ve adopted a dog. A leashed dog is less likely to do bad things. There are a lot of dogs on the Commons and the rules aren’t being enforced, and frankly aren’t able to be enforced because we don’t have the police staffing for it….it’s also been an impact to tourism, and a lot of businesses on the Commons are in favor of this.” For what it’s worth, at least 3 of the 5 PEDC members (Fleming, Brock and Murtagh) currently have dogs, and Lewis’s family has had dogs. Councilor Steve Smith (D-4th) seems to be the odd one out here.
“Making the rule on the Commons consistent with the ordinance on the books for the rest of the city makes a lot of sense,” added Councilor Lewis. “I do think it is important we have a statement about dog waste, that owners are responsible for dog waste, and I think we should have that included in this.”
There was some debate, initiated by Councilor Fleming, that dog urine could damage the sidewalk finishes or plants. Her colleague Brock acknowledged that perhaps the material finishes on the Commons were too “precious” given their use, but was reluctant to use that as a reason to dismiss the legalization of leashed dogs on its pavers. “There are going to be dog walkers going through whether there is a prohibition or not. I think recognizing that human nature is what it is, and providing for increased maintenance and receptacle bags is the way to go….I appreciate being able to walk my dog through other downtown tourism areas without worrying about whether my dog is allowed there. I’ve been consistent every time this has come up that I would support dogs on the Commons.”
A new “whereas” statement saying that owners must clean up after your dogs was added on a unanimous vote, and the vote to circulate for review and comment passed unanimously. This debate will be back before the PEDC next month, with a public hearing, with the potential to head to the full council in December. At the moment, the chances of passage look good, although councilor Fleming did quip she “didn’t like it” and still wouldn’t bring her dog to the Commons.