Article number four in the Collegetown history series.
I think one of the more enduring themes of Collegetown has been the desire to redevelop it. It’s a theme that comes up pretty consistently, starting in the post-war period, when urban renewal had become the planning concept du jour. Thankfully, we can find some of these plans in online archives.
And they are terrifying.
Here we have one from the Cornell Daily Sun archives, published April 22, 1959.
Someone’s channeling a little Le Corbusier here. This was one of seven designs conjured by about 40 junior architecture students in spring 1959, under the direction of Professor Thomas Canfield. The project called for the capacity of 4,000 residents in a 0.25 sq mi area (the population in the area in 1959 was about 1,100). They were told to plan for 4,000 residents because “there is a tremendous market for housing that is now unavailable. The site would attract many non-suitable if it offered suitable amenities.” All models were supposed to have a hotel, bank, theater, and parking for 2,700 cars (the capacity at the time was 500).
6 of the 7 proposals called for high-rise buildings, and virtually all of Collegetown from Eddy to Summit Ave, and Seneca to the gorge would have been demolished. A few proposals saved the Luthern Church on Oak Avenue, and one saved Sheldon Court. A bunch of isolated towers seems awful from the new urban standpoint that’s increasingly popular today, but in the late 1950s, this is what was in vogue. Demolish all the old, towers in the park, superblocks. massive freeways, seas of parking, it was the wave of the future. Ask Boston, Syracuse, Chicago, or any number of cities how that future turned out.
If you’re feeling really bored today, here’s a letter of protest against the design of Olin Library, also from the same issue. Olin was under construction at the time. I’m inclined to agree with the writer’s sentiments.
By November 1965, real plans were set into motion – under Ithaca’s Urban Renewal program, 62 acres of Collegetown was set for “selective demolition”, because the fire department determined that a high density of wood buildings was a fire hazard. Multi-story parking garages were also proposed, and a new bridge over Cascadilla Gorge. The work was supposed to begin in 1969, after a long process of Planning Board approval, Common Council approval, and state and federal government approval. Ithaca would only foot 12.5% of the nearly $5 million bill.
The urban renewal plan continued to evolve over the years. A lot of downtown businessmen, and later the operators of Pyramid Mall (now the Shops at Ithaca Mall), were not pleased with the idea of a business district in Collegetown that would isolate students from their properties. In 1969, 80,000 sq ft of office space and 200,000 sq ft of retail space was proposed in Collegetown – to put that in perspective, the mall in Lansing is 600,000 sq ft, and the token office building Cornell has at East Hill Plaza is 60,000 sq ft of office space. The plan also called for non-student low-income housing and industrial space at various times. By 1971, the plan was becoming more modest, focusing on an area bounded by Dryden Road, College Avenue, Eddy Street and Cascadilla Gorge. The Sheldon/Cascadilla block had received a large urban renewal grant in the spring of 1969, but issues arose with how to use it. Plans to tear down Cascadilla were met with protests, and with all the financial issues the city and university had in the 1970s, redevelopment gained little traction.
By the early 1980s, the plans were finally being fleshed out – with Cornell preparing to fundraise and build a new performing arts center, the university and the city partnered with an urban planning firm to build and renovate the parcels north of the 100 Block of Dryden Road and west of College Avenue, at a cost of $40 million ($115.6 million today). The plan called for 700 new units, 20 businesses, office space, and a 350-space garage (a mock-up from the 4/13/1981 issue of the Sun is included below). Funding for the project from state and federal sources was scarce, however. The city eventually sold their land to local developer Travis Hyde, who built Eddygate in 1985-86, and the proceeds helped cover the cost of the Dryden Road parking garage. Other lands in the initial plan were never purchased (the Avramis and Papp properties on the 400 Block of College Avenue, discussed previously here). Cornell fulfilled its commitments after years of fundraising and some tweaking of designs, with the renovation of Sheldon Court in 1981 (adding the top floor), Cascadilla Hall’s renovation in 1983-84 (adding the top two floors and 276 residents) and the Schwartz Performing Arts Center opening in 1989.
After that, the next substantial Collegetown redevelopment plans were the Form District debates of the past several years, click the links if you’re interested, but I’m going to avoid rehashing old entries this time around. As more structures go up and technology and social concerns evolve, I’m sure there will one day be more redevelopment plans for Collegetown.