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Legislature Approves Sale of Old Library Site

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Legislature Approves Sale of Old Library Site

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Legislature tonight resolved many years of study and discussion about the future of the Old County Library site, authorizing sale of the property to preferred developer Travis-Hyde Properties.

The Legislature passed three resolutions regarding disposition—declaring the site, located at Cayuga and Court Streets in the City of Ithaca, just off DeWitt Park, no longer needed for public use; concurring with the City’s determination that sale of the property for the proposed Dewitt House Project will not negatively affect the environment; and authorizing sale of the property to Travis-Hyde’s Dewitt House Associates for a sale price of $925,000. The final vote authorizing sale was 11-3, with Legislators Carol Chock, Dooley Kiefer, and Leslyn McBean-Clairborne voting no.

The DeWitt House Project will construct a four-story structure of approximately 86,700 square feet (the third and fourth stories set back on three sides), with 58 apartment units; ground floor commercial space; a community room managed by the non-profit organization Lifelong; and 38 enclosed ground floor parking spaces. The authorization specifies that as part of the sales agreement the County retains a reversionary interest in the property—meaning that the property will revert to the County ownership should its use no longer be substantially residential.

Tonight’s action culminates four years of concentrated deliberation and review, which began with issuance of a Request for Expressions of Interest from prospective developers in 2013, then a Request for Proposals, followed by designation of Travis-Hyde as the preferred developer, and lengthy review by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission which eventually resulted in a Certificate of Appropriateness for the project and site approval by the City Planning Board.

In nearly an hour of deliberation, Legislators explored issues including how the project has evolved since it was first proposed; sustainability features; the demographic segment expected to be served by the project; and, as some members of the community have questioned, whether the established sale price is too low. Developer Frost Travis and architect Graham Gillespie said that while the concept of a courtyard building on the site has not changed, most design changes resulted from input from the City Landmarks Preservation Commission and Planning Board—and several legislators, even those who dissented in the authorization vote, thanked the developers for their efforts. Questioned about the project’s senior housing focus, Mr. Travis said that an age restriction hasn’t officially been set, but marketing will be focused on “independent living,” targeting a “mid-market” segment. He estimated monthly rental for a one-bedroom unit at about $1,600, for a larger two-bedroom with den about $1,000 above that.

Legislator Chock said she appreciates the developers’ work, but still can’t support the project—in part, because of concerns about its fit with the character of the neighborhood, its more limited involvement with Lifelong, and potentially decreased focus on senior housing, and that she’d prefer the site be retained for some public aim. Legislator Kiefer, who had long supported the concept of a ground lease, noted she still feels strongly about County ownership of the land.

Legislator Anna Kelles, who had been deeply involved in the issue before her election to the Legislature, said that while the project “is not perfect” and has not met all the needs initially put forward, ultimately, because of a great need for housing, she was willing to support it. Legislator Rich John said, “We don’t do perfect; we do what’s possible,” and predicted the project will bring alive a site that has not been optimally used for a long time. Legislator Martha Robertson said, “This is not just the least we can get…This is going to be a very good project.” Assessment Director Jay Franklin advised that he believes the $925,000 sale price still represents a fair market value for the property, and Legislator Jim Dennis added that the project achieves the desired goal of bringing more housing downtown.