- By Dan Veaner
While a town center is obviously not a pressing issue -- it has been talked about for over two decades, but the property is still a mostly empty field -- townspeople are split on how it should be developed, or even if it should be developed. The Town paid close to $400,000 for the property, and certainly stands to make a profit on its sale. The outcome could be anything from haphazard suburban sprawl to a carefully planned community with an attractive, consistent look and feel to the buildings, with walkways and parking, shopping, recreation, and homes, including single family, apartments, and condominiums.
The Town of Lansing originally purchased the 153 acres from New York State in 1993 for about $100,000. That purchase included deed restrictions that only allowed recreational use.
A Town Center committee was formed, and, working with local developers came up with a concept for a town center that met just about every desire of the community a large number of whom participated. Town officials reached out to the State and came to an agreement on how much it would take to buy off the deed restrictions. In 2012 Lansing paid the State an additional $294,800 to lift the deed restrictions, paving the way for a town center.
The idea sat fallow for a while, then three developers responded to an RFP (Request For Proposal). Together their plans were a very close match for the concept design the committee and the public had come up with. One of the sticking points was infrastructure. A plan for a municipal sewer, about the fourth over many years, had failed, and the Town did not want to be responsible for the cost of waste management. The developers agreed to pay for a package plant they would share, as well as roads and sidewalks, and even some small parks or green spaces. They also agreed to respect existing walking paths, adjusting the locations of potential buildings to accommodate them.
Around the same time the sewer project was under discussion, then Economic Development Committee Chair Andy Sciarabba and Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD)'s Heather Filaberto pushed for a plan to create a Lansing Town Center Incentive Zone to promote development on the property. Lansing Planning Consultant Michael Long says the Incentive Zone is still in place even though nobody has used it since it was approved by the County around five years ago.
Here's how it works: qualified developers, working with the Lansing Town Planning Department, would apply to the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) with a special 'pre-application' outlining the proposed project's benefits to the community, and a detailed description of the project. The IDA would partner with the Town. The Town Board would pass a resolution telling the IDA that they want to see a project receive some sort of incentive, such as a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes agreement that might be a 10 year abatement starting at 100% of the increase in property taxes, then incrementally rising to the full assessment value at the end of the PILOT. Incentives would also include a sales tax abatement on construction materials, furniture, fixtures, and equipment, and the state portion of the mortgage recording tax would be abated.
One developer was prepared to pay $11,000 per acre for their affordable housing project. Another was ready to shell out $1,400 per acre for a mufti-storied senior housing project. Even if all the land were not sold, the Town stood to make a profit on its investment. Do the math -- if only half the land is sold at the lower of those two prices the Town more than doubles its investment. Keep in mind that even if those aren't the prices the assessor's report lays out, they are real prices developers said they were willing to pay for real projects they were contemplating at the time.
However, the deals fell through. Actually it seemed more like they just faded away. At least one of the developers had signed paperwork saying they intended to purchase acreage from the Town. The Town didn't seem in any hurry to sell the land, even with clearly interested developers. When the developers disappeared there was no reported effort by the town to pursue the deals.
But the land continues to be attractive to developers. Last year the Town reportedly received an offer on the east portion of the land, and Lansing Supervisor Ed LaVigne says he there has been interest from other developers. Over the years previous supervisors have reported the same.
Former Supervisor Kathy Miller, who had chaired the Town Center Committee before running for the Board, envisioned a Town Center on the land that would include residential development, a small retail and professional shopping area, and, perhaps, a new town park, a business park, or other features. The currently active version of the Lansing Comprehensive Plan supported the idea, and a telephone survey of residents designed to inform the update of the plan that is expected to be completed later this year also suggested that many Lansing residents would like a town center.
LaVigne envisioned a more organic town center development, working its way up from the south of town where sewer and water are already installed, and has said he is interested in selling the Auburn Road land and keeping the town government out of the development business.
Last year Cornell's Design Connect program, in which graduate students research an aspect of design or planning for municipalities, presented a report on Form Based Code, a way of determining what a specific neighborhood will look like. Form Based Code is not zoning, but is a regulation that governs a specific piece of property in very specific ways. In many cases it is more restrictive than traditional zoning.
The reason Form Based Code is important to Lansing is that it can require any new building to follow specific design criteria that can make neighborhoods more visually cohesive and attractive. For example, developers in the center of Ludlowville could be required to build in the style and materials of Ludlowville's brick block, or likewise using traditional brick construction near the Rogue's Harbor Inn to match the style of that historical landmark.
In the case of a town center it would make a critical difference between haphazard building or an attractive, unified visual look. The latter could raise property values by making neighborhoods more attractive (and in the case of Ludlowville or Rogue's Harbor, more historically themed), and be good for tourism if only by making Lansing neighborhoods more attractive to visit and do business in.
"Currently Form Based Code is not in effect," Long says. "It's a concept that may be looked at down the road and applied to specific locations. Across the street would be a great place for it. Ludlowville would be a great place for it, because you're doing infill in the context of a development area. The Rogue's harbor intersection, in my mind, is the center of Lansing. Usually the historic center where the roads all meet is the 100% block."
Long says he would like to try Form Based Code in Ludlowville as a pilot project. If that is successful he says it could be applied elsewhere in the Town, including the so-called 'town center' land.
Even if it is developed with no master plan, the road frontage is an obvious place for commercial development because of the traffic leading from Cayuga and Cortland Counties to Ithaca and Cornell University. LaVigne says he is not ruling out Form Based Code when it is eventually developed.
"You don't want it to stand out like a sore thumb," he said. "You want it to blend in and be inviting. That is what we are discussing. If a pilot project is successful you can use that as a springboard to move forward in that direction, because you have something that is not just a concept."
LaVigne and Long say the next step would be another RFP, which they say would be more specific than the last batch after the land is assessed. While the last responses were pretty specific, with ground plans showing building locations, roads, and a sewage treatment plan, Long says the Town is looking for something more.
"In the past the idea was to try to get some excitement about it. There were some thoughts and some energy. We're trying to take it from a concept and get it to reality," Long says. "So people really have a legitimate chance of submitting something specific that the Town can react to. In the past there were concepts that in general terms the Town supported. I think a majority of the people in the Town liked the ideas. The town has this huge asset sitting there and it would be great to have somebody develop it and do something with it."
When the last batch of RFP responses were solicited town officials were in reactive mode -- see what comes in and see if we like it. It is not clear whether the current government will approach it in the same manner. On the one hand, LaVigne says he wants to sell the land and let developers do what they want with it.
"As far as I'm concerned if somebody wants to buy the land they can do with it as they want as long as it's allowed within that zone," he told the Star.
But on the other hand he says that Form Based Code could be applied to at least part of the parcel, especially the potential commercial area that people driving through town will see. In other words the Town wouldn't dictate what is built, but could potentially govern what it looks like.
Not all of the land is usable. There is some question about disturbing part of it on the southeastern corner that suffered ground contamination when it belonged to the Highway Department. It is usable as-is, but major construction there is dicey without expensive investigation ane possible clean-up. Parts are wetlands. A historical railroad bed that was part of the now defunct Ithaca-Auburn Short Line is part of the pathways system, and would have to be leveled even if anyone wanted development there (nobody does).
But quite a bit is prime real estate for whatever might arise. The Town has leased parts of the property to local farmers for years, and has discussed keeping some of it for agriculture. There is much land that makes sense for residential development, and it has been suggested that the northernmost portion that abuts the state boy's correctional facility would be less attractive for homeowners and therefore more attractive for a business park of some kind.
"We want to establish a dollar per acre value for road front commercial," Long says. "Part of it is farmed, so that may have a different value. As we divide the land up we'll get more specific as to how it would be laid out. The idea is to make it so there are a lot of options. Somebody may want to come in and buy the entire parcel and develop their own plan. Or maybe somebody wants a third of it. They can see what makes the most sense for them, and it gives the Town more options."
The future of the acreage is uncertain, but there is some movement. A few months ago the Town Board voted to allot up to $20,000 to have the land assessed. LaVigne signed a contract for $7,000 and says he hopes to present the assessment information to the Board at its June meeting. Once that is done, presumably a new RFP will be crafted with the hope that developers respond.
It has been suggested that a 'blank slate' in the heart of a town is an opportunity to make the town whatever the townspeople want, with careful planning and working closely with developers to make it happen the way the Town wants it to. New development means new property tax revenue. Nobody wants to say no to that, especially in the uncertain environment created by uncertainty about the future of the Cayuga Power Plant, the Town's (and school district's) biggest taxpayer.
But the Town hasn't been especially sparky in the past about making something happen. The opportunity is certainly there. It remains to be seen whether the current government will sell the land, and how much it wants to be involved in planning the eventual outcome.
At its most involved the Town will be very specific in the wording of the RFP, and then apply Form Based Code requirements to some or all of the property. That will require a lot of work on planning the space, as well as the specific look, design and/or materials used in construction. At its least involved the Town could just put up a 'For Sale' sign and see what happens.
"Let's put the RFP out there and we might be pleasantly surprised," LaVigne says. "Now, since we'll have the land properly appraised as a starting point, when we have these RFPs we'll have a little more specificity. You're going to get a lot more serious offers if you know what the amounts are, than if it's just land for sale."