Committee Proceeds toward $40 M Center of Government

Planning recommendation paired with call to sell the “Red House”

By Robert Lynch, August 17, 2023; Expanded Reporting at 11:45 PM

Randy Brown, Greg Mezey, Deb Dawson, Yes; Mike Lane , No on motion to draw up plans for a “Center of Government.”

In an action-filled Thursday morning meeting, a committee of the Tompkins County Legislature voted 3-1 to “proceed with plans for a Center of Government building” on the site of the Key Bank and Wiggins’ Law Office Building adjacent to the Courthouse.

The committee also voted by that same margin to resolve a long-standing community controversy and to proceed with selling the so-called “Red House” at 408 North Tioga Street, a property Tompkins County purchased in 2019 as part of its first-preferred site for the Center of Government. 

The committee’s companion resolution to target the Key Bank Corner for the massive County office building—now officially projected to cost $40 Million—would affirm long-held legislative intent that the “Red House” site, one block away, would not be used for the new building.  While some legislators had called for deconstructing (tearing down) the Red House and using its site for parking as part of a larger, County-owned parcel, Fall Creek neighborhood residents, historic preservationists, and some Ithaca City officials have urged that the Victorian mansion, currently in a state of disrepair, remain standing.

“There has to be some action,” Legislature Chair Shawna Black told the committee Thursday in support of moving ahead with Center of Government designs on the Key Bank corner.  “The longer that we sit on our hands and do nothing, the more scrutiny we’re going to receive from our public and rightfully so.”

“We’re not maintaining them,” Black said of the bank building and law office structures Tompkins County bought for a combined nearly $3 Million, largely for the value of the land on which they sit.  “We’re not doing a great job of (maintenance) because we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t know where we’re going with these buildings, and so they’re just sitting there.”

Urban decay, Ithaca style. Obscene graffiti scrawled on the former Wiggins law office. Nobody removes it.

“I think we’ve heard loud and clear from the community, from Fall Creek, that they’re an eyesore; they’re a nuisance,” Black said.  “And we do have to take swift action.”

“I know there are folks that are impatient,” Infrastructure Committee Chair Mike Lane responded.  “But please don’t say it’s because we have sat on our hands.” 

Lane noted that Tompkins County, which bought the Key Bank and Wiggins’ parcels in 2021, couldn’t raze either building until now because the bank’s lease hadn’t run out until last month and some leases in the law building still have time to run.

Thursday’s recommendations set the stage for a vote by the full County Legislature, perhaps as soon as September 5th, on moving ahead with plans for the Center of Government, as well as with sale of the Red House.

Thursday’s pair of motions relating to the “Red House”—the first of declaring the site no longer needed for governmental use; and the second placing the house on the market—were surprise additions to the committee’s agenda.  Members indicated their introduction followed a recent closed-door executive session of the full Legislature, one that likely came at the end of its meeting two days earlier.  The minimal discussion over either of the “Red House” resolutions recommended in committee likely signals that legislators agreed to spare and sell the building during their prior executive session.

Likely spared the wrecking ball; the “Red House”

Dryden legislator Mike Lane cast the lone dissent on both the Center of Government and “Red House” sale resolutions.  Committee members Randy Brown, Deborah Dawson, and Greg Mezey supported the motions.  Committee Vice-Chair Lee Shurtleff did not attend.

Though their names were never explicitly attached to the document, not was their specific sponsorship mentioned at the meeting, Dawson and Mezey were the two who drafted the “member-filed Resolution” that brought the Center of Government Issue to the floor, according to the Legislature’s clerk.  In so doing, the duo bypassed Chairman Lane’s reservations.

“If this member-filed Resolution passes, then it’s basically a foregone conclusion that we’re going to have to destroy the Key Bank building right away,” Lane surmised.  Other committee members were not so sure.  But should the full Legislature pass on what the committee recommended, it would likely set procedures in motion toward the wrecking crane.

“I see no use for any of our vacant downtown facilities unless we have a plan to move forward with a Center of Government,” Greg Mezey said.  “I don’t think repurposing them is cost-effective or efficient.  I think it takes way too much to upfit and retrofit a building than it does to reconstruct one in an energy-efficient, sustainable way.”

Please don’t say it’s because we’ve sat on our hands,” there are tenants in there; Mike Lane.

Committee members have shown little interest in repurposing the two 1960’s-era structures that each stand in the Courthouse’s shadow.  A County Facilities Director’s projection in May—perhaps erring on the side of pessimism—estimated that retrofitting the Key Bank building alone would cost $4.9 Million.

“I don’t think it’s wise for us to rehab these buildings,” Newfield’s Randy Brown observed.  And because of the fact they stand in an historic district, and in light of past Ithaca City concerns, he said, “We can’t technically knock them down unless we have a plan going forward.”

But if the old buildings come down, what takes their place?  What would a Center of Government look like?  Preliminary sketches in the past have suggested a building four, five, even six stories tall.  It would occupy the footprint of the former bank, the law building, and maybe even part of the Assessment and Board of Elections’ building too.

Committee members specifically substituted the word “qualifications” for “quotes” in their Thursday resolution, making it clear that the design firm employed up until now on the project, Ithaca’s Holt Architects, would not necessarily secure the final contract.  Dawson suggested the County establish a “process to audition” for picking the winning architect.

“I remember several years ago, somebody brought forward a design of this very modern building that just would look crappy sitting in the middle of the downtown area adjacent to the historic buildings that we have,” Dawson said, employing her plain-spoken bluntness. “I’m really hoping that if we go forth with this that we will build something that resonates with the surrounding buildings.”

Brown described the current quest for a building to consolidate County government offices as a “once in a 100-year event.”

Given that magnitude, it was Mike Lane—and really only he—who threw down the caution marker during Thursday’s meeting.  Perhaps others will join him—or maybe not—when the full Legislature reviews the Dawson-Mezey Resolution next month.

“I think a $40 Million project deserves a lot more consideration,” Lane said.  “There is nothing wrong with Tompkins County preserving the area of its campus,” he added.  And Lane defines that “campus” broadly, extending across Court Street, leapfrogging over the synagogue, and going on to include the County-owned land where the Red House sits.

And as to the Center of Government Resolution, Lane stood his ground.  “I don’t think we’re ready for it at this point,” he insisted.

What’s more, the project’s cost keeps rising.  Just two nights earlier, Tuesday before the full Legislature, County Administrator Lisa Holmes, in a PowerPoint summary of capital projects, had tagged the Center of Government’s price tag at $35 Million.  (It had been priced at $30.6 Million in 2022.)  But in a fresh PowerPoint presented the committee Thursday, in what was called a “Project Approval Review” covering all departments, Holmes projected the Center’s cost at a full $40 Million, a figure some legislators in recent months had suspected as its true cost.

Maybe we could “audition” the architect? Deborah Dawson (l) with Shawna Black.

Holmes explained that the new total reflected both land acquisition and design expenses, moneys that the earlier capital plan had omitted.  She explained that the land has already been bought, and that design work was proposed to be paid from existing fund balances.

“There’s a lot more projects out there than there is money,” Mike Lane warned.  And he voiced frustration that those pushing forward expeditiously toward a Center of Government often show less interest in building a new Public Safety Building, a facility that could rival the downtown office building in cost.

Considering that it’s gotten a full vetting behind closed legislative doors, expect the Red House to be put on the market soon, even over Mike Lane’s objections.  Moving forth with a far more mammoth undertaking, namely the Center of Government, could prove the greater challenge.  And if the Dawson-Mezey Resolution doesn’t pass, then what?

“I think if the Legislature does not move forward, I think we should consider selling those buildings,” Deborah Dawson told the committee.  “We’re not in a position to maintain an empty building.”