ITHACA, N.Y.—In the villages of ancient Greece, the agora was a public open space used for assemblies and markets. It was their public square, their place to gather for special occasions and the center of their social lives. It’s a presence that Ithaca’s Lambrou Real Estate and its business partners hope to capture with their “Agora” proposal for Ithaca’s waterfront.
The project, which has been in the works for two years, was implicitly brought public with the competition to redevelop nearby city-owned property across the water on Inlet Island. The Rimland-Flash proposal emphasizes connectivity to the neighborhood as part of its submission, with a substantial overture to Lambrou’s project, to be developed alongside their business partners Edger Enterprises and Elizabeth Classen. Steve Flash, who had previously worked with the development team on marine matters on the inlet, was the one who first suggested a complementary inclusion in their Inlet Island submission.
“It was in the Inlet Island submission packet before even JoAnn (Cornish, City Planning Director) and Lisa (Nicholas, Senior City Planner) saw it. It may have caused a kerfluffle. We should have announced it a while ago, but we were waiting to see what would happen on Inlet Island,” said Costa Lambrou.
Plans for the site, which runs along the eastern side of the waterfront from West Buffalo Street northward, call for a board mixed-use development. Lambrou said that while their goal is to create a new waterfront neighborhood, the Agora site is a miniature neighborhood within itself. Most prominent in the plans, and perhaps most in spirit to the name “Agora,” is the adaptive reuse of the former Space @ GreenStar warehouse into what the development team is calling an “entertainment hub,” featuring partnerships with Dan Smalls Presents (DSP Shows). Luna Street Foods, and Lucky Hare Brewing. The concert venue will accommodate 600-700 people for public events, organized and promoted by DSP Shows, with food/drink and microbrewery spaces alongside the live entertainment area.
“It’s in its super-early stages, but there are some parts that are more concrete. The Dan Smalls piece is pretty locked in, we’re looking for sources of funding because it’s not a small task a 17,000 square-foot warehouse up to code for assembly. That’s going to take quite a bit of insulation and plumbing, HVAC and electrical, it’s boring stuff but it’s super expensive. Everyone involved is excited, Kevin Sullivan from Luna is involved, Lucky Hare would be on the finished side where The Space @ GreenStar was. They and Luna will operate like separate tenants in the building. Not totally set in stone yet though,” said Lambrou.
The entertainment hub is being designed to host events larger than The Haunt could, but also events less suitable for the seated affairs that the State Street Theater hosts. “The idea is to create a flex space there, so it can accommodate large standing shows that there is no where to do that here. State Theater is great for big, seated shows, The Haunt was great for smaller standing and dancing shows. We’re trying to hit 650 people and the Haunt wasn’t even half of that. Cleaner than the Haunt too.”
“I defer to Dan (Smalls), but according to him, and he serves on the State Theater’s board, they and this serve two very different purposes. This space is to poach shows from Syracuse, Binghamton…it hits this gap in the Ithaca market where a rock concert would be better suited here, though they could still use the State if they wanted. It would also increase the frequency and quality of those kinds of performers coming into Ithaca. It would also be an event space run by Kevin Sullivan, but much smaller than the conference center planned Downtown.”
In addition to the entertainment/events facility, the site would have additional commercial uses with a 40-60 room boutique hotel, with the idea being floated of each room being themed as a different well-known artist (the working name of the hotel is the “Artists’ Inn Residence”). A café and dining options would be including in the hotel building, as well as micro-retail space (units less than 1000 square feet, loosely like Press Bay Alley). “The idea is to put the quieter uses on and along the water where it’s quieter, and the brewery and the concert venue are closer to Fulton’s hustle and bustle,” said Lambrou.
Residential facilities are also included in the overall development package. A three-story apartment building called “The Lake House Apartments” would offer ground-level micro-retail and residential lobby and service space with rental units on the floors above. Although no unit counts were contained in the Rimland/Flash submission, Lambrou estimated it would be within the range of 20-50 apartments, saying that rentals were de-emphasized in the project because of the large number being built or expected to be built elsewhere in Ithaca. Also included are plans for approximately 20-30 for-sale townhouse units, located on the northern end of the site to provide greater privacy. Several single-family and duplex units recently purchased by the developers on the 300 Block of North Fulton Street between West Buffalo and West Court Street would be given or sold to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services to be renovated into for-rent or for-sale low-to-moderate income housing.
Arguably, the most controversial aspect would be the fairly sizable amount of parking, particularly along North Fulton Street between the renovated houses. At least four houses on North Fulton would come down to create an interior parking lot to serve as overflow parking. Lambrou noted that a regional concert venue is going to have a substantial need for parking, and here it would be split between the Agora site and the Rimland/Flash “At the Helm” site across the inlet, which would be accessible by both West Buffalo Street and a pedestrian bridge over Six Mile Creek, connecting to Inlet Island just north of the new Boathouse Landing project at 323 Taughannock Boulevard.
“Most shows start at 9 p.m., 10 p.m. People are off the lake by then, the Boatyard Grill is winding down, Island Health and Fitness is winding down, there will be a glut of parking over there at that time. That’s the idea behind the pedestrian bridge, it links the sites and continues the city grid in a way, making it easier to get to either side. We strongly believe in the shared parking aspect,” Lambrou said. To be clear, the Agora project is not dependent on the Rimland/Flash proposal.
As plans go, the Agora project would be split into three phases. The entertainment hub is first, followed by the for-sale housing, followed by the hotel and apartment building. Those plans are liable to change depending on who is selected for the Inlet Island parking lot redevelopment—for instance, if the Morse proposal is selected with its Cambria Hotel, the boutique hotel would be dropped from the Agora plan. “It’s risky enough to build another hotel in Ithaca, let alone two more in Ithaca,” he quipped. Lambrou expressed optimism that the worst of the pandemic seemed to be over and business was improving for retail tenants like GreenStar, but the spiking price of construction materials was a major risk factor for their plans as well as those of other developers around the area.
“The price of a 2×4 at Home Depot used to be $2, now it’s $7.50. That’s at Home Depot, you get a little bit of a bulk buying in bulk, but even that is 2-3x more, and steel is 2-3x more. There’s going to be some very interesting development over the next few years with the pace of real estate. With these escalated prices, it would have blown our budget with City Harbor. All these projects are getting approved and everyone’s got these great ideas, but it’s a question mark as to how many of these will actually be built,” said Lambrou.
Should the rising construction costs not prove to be an impassable obstacle, the plan is to get the entertainment hub before city boards within three or four months, with the townhomes to follow at an undetermined later date, since once they’re built, the north end of the site will not be disturbed further. The hotel and apartments will follow after that. In the meanwhile, existing boat slips along that segment the waterfront are being repaired and refurbished to take advantage of what’s been a sustained if pandemic-spurred uptick in boating over the past year.