News Tidbits 9/6/14: What Makes A Neighborhood?

6 09 2014

1. A trio of notable articles from the IJ. The first one is about the 128 West Falls Street development (previously discussed here), and the negotiations done with neighbors in order to make the project acceptable to the neighborhood. The developer (Heritage Builders) and the neighbors worked together for a compromise. Some of the neighbors are still upset about their being any development at all (in which case, I must ask why does one live in an inner city neighborhood with vacant land), but if most of them are on board, I’m glad they and the developer were able to address each other’s needs and concerns and come to a reasonable solution. There are still people willing to make compromises, thankfully.

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2. Article number two has already been foreshadowed by Ithaca Builds, namely that old Elmira Road is getting a more pedestrian-friendly makeover. Bike lanes, sidewalks (only on the north side due to budget cuts), curbing, all in an effort to make it more friendly to all street users, from walkers to bikers to drivers. And it’s only going to take three days? Color me surprised.

At least one building on Elmira Road will be getting a makeover soon – a renovation prepared by local firm STREAM Collaborative will turn the old BOCES Building at 214 Elmira Road into the the Finger Lakes ReUse Center’s new headquarters.

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Image Property of STREAM Collaborative

3. Piece number three is that, surprise surprise, Ithaca has a higher cost of living then most other upstate cities. Most upstate cities are a little below the national average (4-12% less). Ithaca is nearly 6% above. Ithaca has the highest cost of living outside of the the New York City and downstate metros. If anyone feels uncomfortable using numbers from a conservative think tank, here’s their government source. Personally, I always just go with Sperling’s. Taking a closer look at those numbers gives a big clue why Ithaca is more expensive – the housing cost is over 31% above the national average. Every other parameter is virtually average. except that one.

I’ll give an example: Syracuse and Ithaca are only about 50 miles apart. On a scale with 100 equaling the national average, Syracuse has a score of 88.9, Ithaca 113.4. Quite a difference. Food, utilities and transportation are cheaper in Ithaca. But housing is astoundingly different – Ithaca’s 131.2 to Syracuse’s 45.4, which is what causes the disparity. Granted, I know that for many, living in the Syracuse area is undesirable (and I say this as someone originally from the Syracuse metro). Ithaca is in demand, ergo, prices for homes and apartments go up. But as middle-income families feel the pinch, spiraling housing costs pose a serious concern to the region’s economic well-being.

4. Now for a piece from the Cornell Daily Sun, an informative piece they did about the recently-approved 205 Dryden (Dryden South) project by Pat Kraft. No shocking revelations, but the interview with Kraft is a nice asset. I do take some umbrage with his complaint that the Collegetown form zoning makes it feels like he’s not developing anything, and he’s being told what he can build. There are reasons for that. Certain landowners have a blemished track record, and this is better than years of bickering with city agencies because of someone’s artistic license, or more likely, profit maximizing through value engineering.

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5. Stone Quarry is getting really nasty, really fast. INHS has retained the services of Philips Lytle out of Buffalo (the same law firm that handled the indefinitely-postponed 7 Ridgewood project). Meanwhile, neighbors are demanding that the HUD funds for the subsidized project are withheld, on the grounds of environmental issues, not having enough time for community notice and comment, and that the project is “incompatible” with the neighborhood. They’re considering a legal challenge to stop the project, which was approved during August’s PDC meeting. There’s a ton of documentation that’s been uploaded in recent days – a 1,189 page environmental assessment report for the site, public notices, and so on, and so on. The city has also released point-by-point rebuttals to the filed complaints, and formally requested that HUD release the approved funds. If I had a workday where I just had to write rebuttals all day long, I might be hitting the bottle when I go home. IJ news summary of it all here, Voice summary of the events of the PDC meeting, including angry neighbors and the mayor’s outspoken support for the project here.

I’m going to call out one statement, this being from a group called the SRNA (Spencer Road Neighborhood Association) – they describe the neighborhood as being full of affordable housing, and run off some examples. The first is an 18-unit townhome project at 324 Spencer Road, called the Belmont Apartments. I’m familiar with this development because they advertise their townhomes as “NEW” on Craigslist, even though they were built in 1995. Rents there run from $1100-$1250, which is about equal to, or a little above the area mean. It’s middle-income, market-rate housing. Affordable in context is the cute word agencies substitute in for low-income housing, so using it to describe a market-rate, middle-income project seems misleading.

The second is the primary reason why I’m writing this whole thing – discussions of a 14-15 townhome development at 661-665 Spencer Road by local low-income services group TCAction (that address also happens to be their headquarters). I checked the minutes they cited and I can’t find any record of that. It could have been said and just not recorded in the minutes, but that seems like an odd thing to leave out. The three duplexes at 634, 636 and 638 Spencer check out, and they were built in 2008/2009.

Like many projects lately, tempers will be flaring, so for those of us without a dog in this fight, we might as well break out the popcorn and watch this boxing match play out from our ringside seats.

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6. Here we have the projects memo for proposals to be discussed at September’s Planning and Development Board meeting on the 23rd. No curveballs here; the project memo only reviews projects that have already been seen and have had initial comments (sketch plan), so everything here has come up at least once before. 128 West Falls Street will be looking for PDB declaration of lead agency (the board’s agreement to conduct formal design and environmental review) and recommendation to go to the BZA for zoning variance. The Hampton Inn downtown is looking to obtain PDB declaration of lead agency, as is the Chain Works District on South Hill. The Chain Works is probably the vaguest proposal they’ve had to review, because it’s over 15 years and the developers have only a couple ideas fleshed out on the Emerson site’s redevelopment. It also makes a few voters wary because once the environmental review is complete and the developer’s T1, T4 and T5 zones are approved, the developers have an enormous degree of freedom to develop the site as they see fit because it’s a PUD, a Planned Unit Development. They’re also using the town’s equivalent, called PDZ, for the portion of the 95-acre site in Ithaca town. For more about these details, Jason at Ithaca Builds offers a great summary here.

307 College and 323 Taughannock are up for final approval, and 327 Eddy for preliminary approval. There’s also a couple of minor zoning changes up for review.

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7. Here’s your morbid amusement for the week – the Lansing school district might have difficulty installing its new septic system because it could be disturbing a previously-unknown Native American burial ground. I think we have a plot point for the next Stephen King novel.





Redefining Collegetown

2 09 2014

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.

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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.

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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.





News Tidbits 8/30/14: There Never Seems To Be Enough Housing

30 08 2014

1. In a glance at the economy, some good news: over in Lansing, a new research building is under construction, and expected to add jobs. the new “Northeast Dairy and Food Testing Center” is a 50-50 collaboration between local firm Dairy one Cooperative Inc., and Chestnut Labs of Springfield, Missouri. The new 17,000 sq ft building at 720 Warren Road is a $3.5 million investment and will add 11 jobs at the outset, 3 through Dairy One and 8 through Chestnut Labs. 4 more jobs would be added over the following two years if all goes to plan.

According to the TCIDA report, Chestnut opted for Ithaca as its first satellite office because of a desire to expand into the Northeast and its proximity to Cornell. Although construction was supposed to begin last fall, it looks like we can expect construction to be completed this spring. I have yet to see a rendering, but the design is supposed to be by Syracuse-based Dalpos Architects.

2. Revised renders for 327 Eddy. The 28-unit, 64-bedroom Collegetown project looks nearly the same, except for one crucial detail – the east courtyard and stairwell have been transposed (mirrored), with the east courtyard on the south face and the stairwell on the north face. A few more windows were placed in the west courtyard as well. This is a smart suggestion, whoever’s it was; the 100 Block of Dryden obscures the blank faces of the side wall and stairwell, making it less prominent. The side with more windows faces down the hill, and given the relatively historic building next door, the views are likely to be more protected, and it’s more aesthetically pleasing from most vantage points.

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3. As reported by the IJ last Wednesday, the much-anticipated Harold’s Square project will be getting another revision. The building was originally supposed to be one floor of retail, three floors of office space, and six floors of apartments, with a penthouse level consisting of conference, mechanical and exercise rooms. Now, the top two floors of office space will be apartments instead. Currently, the building has 46 apartments approved, and any changes will likely need to be approved by the planning board. The article also notes that high construction costs in the growing economy are forcing businesses to rethink their development strategies, although the exact same thing happened during the recession due to the tight bank loan market. There’s always a reason.

I really can’t say this change-up in use really surprises me. Ithaca’s office market is not that great. The biggest employers here are colleges (who house offices on or very near campus), research/labs (who need specialized spaces), and tourism (hotels). It’s extremely tough to build office space in the Ithaca market because there’s so little demand for it. Seneca Place downtown was able to be built in 2004-05 partially because they secured Cornell as a tenant. But I’ve heard through the rumor mill that Cornell doesn’t fully use their space post-recession, and the university keeps renting it out as flex space and as a gesture to the community. On the other hand, apartments go like hotcakes, since the residential supply is much less than demand, and the success of recent projects indicates apartments are a safe investment in downtown.

Here’s what I expect – the building will be a little shorter, since residential floors have lower floor-to-ceiling ratios than office spaces. The exterior will be revised, mostly the low-rise section facing the Commons. The massing may change up, but given that there were 46 apartments on six floors initially, at a minimum I think another 20 apartments to be proposed.

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4. The Stone Quarry Apartment project by INHS has been approved. It wasn’t a pretty process, but it’s been greenlighted for construction, which is expected to begin this fall with an intended completion in October 2015.

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5. On the topic of affordable housing, another protested project is coming up for review, the 58-unit Biggs parcel project near Cayuga Medical Center. The project needs an approved SEQR from the town of Ithaca before it can move forward; the sketch plan is to be discussed at the September 2nd meeting, there will be no vote at that time. The working name of the project has gone from Cayuga Ridge to Cayuga Trails; I’m just going to keep calling it the Biggs parcel. There’s only a tenuous little overlap between the opposed parties here and those against Stone Quarry, but if the Ithaca West list-serve is any indication, the argument against the project is one part logic, one part bluster. There have already been allegations thrown around from both sides with this project, which is co-sponsored by the rural equivalent of INHS, Better Housing of Tompkins County, in a partnership with project developer NRP Group of Cleveland. While this Jerry Springer-type showdown continues to unfold, here are some updated renders of the project, courtesy of RDL Architects of suburban Cleveland:

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Nothing to write home about, simple and colorful. But there’s a good chance these never leave the drawing board. If it does somehow get approved, construction will start in Spring 2015 and last 12-14 months.

6. In other West Hill developments, EcoVillage is building their 15-unit apartment building/common house in their third neighborhood, TREE. Article from the Ithaca Journal here, and photo gallery here. I only reach EcoVillage once in a blue moon because it’s so far out of the way from other developments; my last photos are from spring 2013. At that time, the first set of houses were going up for the 40-unit neighborhood. According to the EcoVillage website, the first TREE residents, with homes designed by Jerry Weisburd, moved in last December. When all is complete by next spring, EcoVillage will actually be a fairly sizable village, with virtually 100% occupancy and a population around 240. Unlike many West Hill developments, EcoVillage has had comparatively weak opposition from West Hill residents. Lest they change their mind, EcoVillage adds a neighborhood about once a decade, so they have probably have nothing to worry about until the 2020’s.

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News Tidbits 8/23/14: Soooo Much Rendering

23 08 2014

In the news this week are a bunch of updated renders. The Planning Board meeting is next Tuesday and the city needs to have all their updated building proposal files in order. Let’s take a look.

1. This one was approved in July, but it’s worth noting that Cornell has been given the green light to begin construction with its addition to the Gannett Health Center off of Ho Plaza. This is probably about as smooth as the approvals process for a large project gets. Cornell knows everything the city wants (and vice versa), sending enough detailed renders and assessments to write a book, so the city is left with few questions that need to be asked, and any recommendations or suggestions from the board are addressed promptly. The finalized renders by Ithaca-based Chiang O’Brien can be found here. Looking back at the initial proposal, most of the differences are in the roof/skylight layout, and some of the window and facade banding was tweaked. The $25.5 million project is all clear for its March start date, for a completion in fall 2017.

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2. Hark, developer Josh Lower’s 307 College might be nearing preliminary approval. A few more tweaks to this 46-apartment, 96-bedroom project since last time; the brick has been differentiated in the front and back, and the blank wall on the northwest corner now has slit windows, created by angling the walls slightly inward. As a result, the windows to their east, and the second-floor windows on that corner have been reduced. They look a little odd, and I wonder if they couldn’t have just done an art wall instead. As with many Collegetown midrises, the design is by local firm Sharma Architecture.

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3. Another project getting a mild makeover is Steve Flash’s 323 Taughannock project for the waterfront of Inlet Island. Revised PDF here. Compared to the previous renders, the waterfront side now comes with more balconies, the fourth floor has been redone, and the “first floor” parking area has been tweaked. All-in-all, it’s a fairly substantial design modification by architect STREAM Collaborative. The project seeks to add 20 residential units to Ithaca’s underutilized waterfront. For the naysayers, the argument will need to be something other than ecological; the environmental study was completed by Toxics Targeting (the company run by aggressive environmental activist Walter Hang), and 323 was given the all clear.

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4. You want more renderings? You got it! Here we have revisions for the proposed 120-room Hampton Inn in downtown Ithaca. We also have project details from the Site Plan Review (SPR) – the project will cost $11.5 million, and is aiming for a construction period from Spring 2015 to Spring 2016. This project has been meeting with quite a few city officials, the Board of Public Works for the sale and transfer of the city parking lot to the developer, and the IURA for tax breaks. Looking over architect Scott Whitham’s refreshed design, the massing is still the same,but the facade materials have changed up. Gone is the yellow stucco-like material, and here comes the brick (hopefully not the stamp-Crete kind). At least the brick makes it more compatible with its neighbor the Carey Building.

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5. Last on the list, the 160-room Marriott. I thought this one was good to go, but apparently it still needs the Planning Board’s approval of the, uh, value engineered design, seen here. The protrusions on the top floor and roof have been trimmed back, the materials have been down-scaled, and the LED-light waterfall effect that was such a discussion point at the meeting last month is now being done with what the PDF calls panels (curtains, I think). The top few floors will be light blue, the middle floors medium blue, the lowest floors dark blue. The crown design has also been modified a bit. The start date for this has been pushed back so many times, I’ll sincerely be amazed when they have steel coming out of the ground.

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I should note that a couple other projects, 205 Dryden (Dryden South) and 327 Eddy have also been revised, but it’s just their A/C vents, a very minor detail that I’m going to save the bandwidth and not bother re-hosting. If you’re really interest, revised plans for 205 here, and 327 here.

With all of these projects noted, it would appear that we have nothing brand new on the agenda for the PDC meeting on the 26th. Stone Quarry and the Marriott are up for revised final approval. The Carey Building addition, 205 Dryden (Dryden South) and 307 College (Collegetown Crossing) are under consideration for final approval, and 323 Taughannock is up for preliminary approval. The only project being reviewed and not up for approval is 327 Eddy, which will be undergoing “Declaration of Lead Agency”, which is an obscure way of saying the Planning Board agrees to conduct the environmental and design review. The approvals would result in 160 hotel rooms, and 117 additional housing units in (82+18+40+96+24) 260 bedrooms, if I have my numbers right. With the exception of Stone Quarry’s rumblings, there’s not a whole lot of opposition left at this point, which means this fall and next year could be pretty busy, with a lot of hardhats on the streets.

6. Now for something different. The vacant parcel at 707 East Seneca, discussed here previously, is being offered for sale at $175,000, well above its assessed value of $100,000. The agent makes note the property could allow four units, but does not note that it’s in a historic district subject to stringent design guidelines.





Back To The Future: Collegetown in the 1980s

20 08 2014

Entry #3 in the Collegetown history series.

I’ve gotten to know a few people over the past several years of writing about Ithaca development. One of those is a gentleman who I consider to be the patriarch for the online dispersal of Ithaca development news, the gentleman who goes by the online nom de plume of “Ex-Ithacan”, but by day, he’s mild-mannered Tom Morgan. Tom and I had talked about Ithaca development years before I started the blog; we first chatted online right before I started at Cornell in 2006, and we even met on one occasion, enjoying a late lunch at Viva downtown. He’s a super-terrific guy, and for me, a source of never-ending inspiration. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, but his comments are even-keeled and optimistic. Even though he lives well outside the area these days, he’s appreciative of the city of gorges and its many quirks.

Anyway, Tom’s been around the block many times, and his online flickr albums cover dozens of small cities from Iowa to Florida to Connecticut. After my piece about the “Great Collegetown Auction“, he contacted me, saying that he had some old photos that show what the original house at 400-404 College looked like. My eyes went wide as I looked through the four photos – although he couldn’t remember exactly when he shot them, we deduced a hazy date around fall 1986. There aren’t many online photos of Collegetown from before the 2000s, so these were a treat, from when Collegetown was in its first major redevelopment period. Tom has generously permitted his totally ’80s photos to be used for today’s post, a history tour of sorts.

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Photo courtesy of Tom Morgan (Ex-Ithacan)

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Same angle, nearly 28 years apart. This photo was one of those use to narrow down the years – Snee Hall, built in 1984, sits in the background of both, and the red Jetta in the older photo was first produced in that body style in 1984. More important are the two buildings under construction – on the far right, the Ciaschi Block is underway, replacing a worn-down house seen here in a photo dated September 1985. The Student Agencies building (409 College, second from left) is close to completion, some external scaffolding still up on the otherwise complete-looking structure. It was finished in 1986, the result of the student design competition that was the topic of last week’s post. Using these details, that’s how we came up with 1986 as the year this and the other photos were taken. The eastern half of the 400 block of College Avenue. The ca. 1912 Chacona Block (411-415 College, far left) looks virtually the same, and 403 College Avenue (second from right) only has cosmetic upgrades – an updated entryway and a paint job. Before Stella’s, it was the home of the Triangle Bookstore, and a grocer before that.

The building in the middle, 405-407 College Avenue, looks like a renovation and addition might have taken place; but it wasn’t a wrecking ball that claimed the old building, it was a devastating fire. In October 1998, a fire broke out in the Chang-An Gourmet restaurant on the first floor, and quickly spread through the wood-frame building. Luckily no one was killed, but the building was totally gutted. It was then replaced by the current structure, which was developed by Travis Hyde, designed by HOLT Architects, and opened in 2000.

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Morgan

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Now for the west side of the 400 block of College Avenue. Not as different as in the first photo set; Sheldon Court’s fifth floor was added in 1981, and Bill Avramis built 406-410 College in 1979-1980; there were three floors and a disco planned, but I dunno what happened. The old Papp House at 400-404 house is visible, and this is the only good photo of it online to my knowledge (a slice of it appears in this 1968 photo by Mike Harris). As written about a couple of weeks ago, the Papp house was replaced in the mid 2000s, after Bill Avramis’s son George won it in an auction.

Funny that Porsches are parked on the west side of College Avenue in the present-day photo in set 1, and the old photo here in set 2. Cornell students never tire of having flash to show off their cash.

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Morgan

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Oh my, I have seen the old NYS Liberty Plates since the late 1990s. Probably the last time I saw an early ’80s Mercury Capri, for that matter. Looking west, down the 100 Block of Dryden Road. I know I don’t have a photo from this angle, so google is picking up my slack. Eddygate and its 64 units were brand spanking new in 1986. Most notable are the house with a bump-out on the left, and a woody lot that no longer exist – they would be replaced with Jason Fane’s Collegetown Plaza in 1988-89. The three older buildings down the street are still there, with coats of paint or freakish ornamentation.

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Morgan

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Last but not least, the northeast corner of College Avenue and Dryden Road. Once again, the Ciaschi Block is underway, and the five-story building in back, Jason Fane’s Collegetown Court (208 Dryden), was nearly new, having been completed in 1985.  The makeover of Fane’s building at 202-204 Dryden is a recent event. Johnny’s Big Red Grill sign was still up when I first arrived on the hill, but it was taken down in 2009 when the IFD expressed concerns with the deterioration of the brick facade, and renovations commenced. The sign went up for auction on EBay, and it was bought by a Cornell alum, Carolyn Coplan ’76. She offered it to the university and several local preservation groups, but no one had the money for restoration and storage. It eventually ended up at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

The building on the edge of the old photo, “Collegetown Convenience Store”, is better seen in the September 1985 photo mentioned earlier. Although not a part of this photo set, a Mike Harris photo from 1968 shows a gas station used to be on that site. The building is not long for this world, if John Novarr has his way. It’ll be interesting to see how Collegetown will look in another 28 years.





The Student Who Designed A Collegetown Apartment Building

12 08 2014

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Here’s another installment in the Collegetown history series.

I like to imagine that it’s every architect’s ambition to have one of their designs built, a building they can touch with their hands. For some, it takes longer than others. Firms have their hierarchies, and companies have their preferred architects. Many budding designers have to start out small, designing housing additions or lobby areas or pavilions, slowly working their up to larger and grander projects. I imagine the Cornell students hard at work in Sibley and Rand Halls dream of the day that one of their designs becomes reality.

It just so happens that for one Cornell student, their big break came a little sooner than most. It happened while they were still a student at Cornell. The building they designed stands in Collegetown today.

I’m not talking William Henry Miller, or some architect from the much simpler times of the nineteenth century. For this, I only need to go back to the early 1980s.

At the time, the company Student Agencies, Inc. was based at 409 College Avenue, just like it is today. Student Agencies is a student-run business that operates Big Red Shipping and Storage, Hired Hands Moving, and produces the Cornellian yearbook and TakeNote, among other things. 409 College is the second building from left in the lead image, and I’ve included a google screencap below. Back in the Disco Era, the Student Agencies building was a rather ramshackle three-story house with a bump-out. You can see the outline of it here, in a photo of College Avenue ca. 1968. The building housed Student Agencies, and a restaurant called “The Vineyard”, a 1970s mainstay for bland Italian-like food until it closed in 1980.

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In the fall of 1980, Student Agencies decided to up their game with a new, modern apartment building, one of the first planned in Collegetown area. At the time, Collegetown was still something of a drug-ridden ghetto, lacking today’s high-end units and wealthy students; it was a no-go for many Cornellians. Student Agencies, being the shrewd businesspeople they are, decided to add a twist to their development by making it into a design competition. In a collaboration with Cornell’s architecture school, 4th and 5th year architecture students were invited to submit designs for a mixed-use structure on the site, within zoning constraints. The designs would then be judged on practicality and aesthetics. The judges consisted of the Chairman of the Architecture Department (Jerry Wells), another Cornell architecture professor (Michael Dennis), two Syracuse University architecture professors (Werner Seligmann, the dean, and Prof. Walter Danzinger), Mick Bottge of the Ithaca City Planning Board, and two Student Agencies reps, Peter Nolan and Ed Clement. The winner would not only see their design built, but also win $1,000 (about $2,893 today). Three runner-ups would receive $250 each, and $250 would be donated by SA to publish a booklet of the designs. $2,000 ($5,786 adjusted) was a lot less than hiring a design firm, and it also gave Cornell students an ability to showcase their talents in a practical event. Win-win.

27 designs were received. Now, I would sacrifice a goat to your deity of choice if it allowed me to obtain a copy of the booklet, but I’m afraid I’m out of goats. The winners were announced in March 1981, and the first prize went to Grace R. Kobayashi ’81. The runner-ups were Mustafa K. Abadan ’82, Dean J. Almy ’82, and George M. How ’82. Ms. Kobayashi’s five-story design called for a theater, retail space, and apartments on the upper floors. In an interview with the Sun, she mentioned that although the competition ran for three months, she created her design in only a week and a half. As for the award money, she added “realistically, the award money will go towards graduate school, but maybe I’ll go to Europe.”

Property of the Cornell Daily Sun.

Property of the Cornell Daily Sun.

Well, Ms. Kobayashi wouldn’t have to worry about grad school money. The following year, she received an extremely prestigious fellowship from the internationally-renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, to the tune of $10,000. The history gets harder to trace after that; she was selected as a fellow for the Amercian Academy in Rome in 1989, and had been a practicing architect in the NYC area at the time. Presently, it looks like she may be an instructor at the Pratt Institute in NYC. Mustafa Abadan is a partner at SOM, Dean Almy is an associate professor of architecture at UT-Austin, and George How went to work for equally-presitgious Kohn Pedersen Fox, and co-designed NASA’s headquarters. Sadly, he passed away in 1993 due to complications related to AIDS, aged 35.

As for the building, it would be a few years before it was built, finally beginning construction in 1985 and finishing in fall 1986. Today, it blends in seamlessly to the fabric of the 400 block of College Avenue, creating a fully built-out block of similar massing and scale, unique and yet part of a cohesive group that gives some some urbanity to Collegetown. I wonder how many other towns can claim to have a Grace Kobayashi design in their midst?





News Tidbits 8/9/14: Can You Infill Me In?

9 08 2014

1. The city’s trying to balance its budget with the help of some land sales. In this instance, the property in question is 707 E. Seneca, a property just outside inner Collegetown, in the East Hill Historic District. The land was conveyed to the city in 1982 for use as a park/green space (it had been a school playground), but the land wasn’t maintained, and ended up become an unkempt vacant lot. After a few rounds of voting during the spring and early summer, the city has voted to put it to sale through the IURA (Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency). According to the county, the lot’s assessed price is $100,000, not bad for 1/6th of an acre. The site would be sold with deed restrictions to keep it from becoming a parking lot, and any new build (likely a single family or student house) will have to match the rest of the neighborhood. But it’s future infill, it’s money in the city’s pocket, and it’s less tax-exempt property.

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2. Speaking of infill, a project that fell to the back-burner due to neighborhood opposition is making a comeback. Revised 128 West Falls Street plans here (original plans here). Readers might recall this Fall Creek infill project by Heritage Builders hit a wall when neighbors complained that the project was just too much. In the revised proposal, which architect Larry Fabbroni says was designed with neighbor input and support, the number of units remains the same (5), but the two large houses next to 13 have been completely redesigned. House #2 is now designed to look like two separate houses (but they share a foundation, so they aren’t), and House #3 is shorter and less, uh, avant-garde. A lot variance is still required, so if this project finally received approval, expect it to be no earlier than this fall.

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3. More than one person pointed out to me the Ithaca Times’ article regarding the Ithaca hotel boom. It’s actually a pretty thoughtful piece, but for those with not much time or short attention spans, here’s the spark note version:

-There’s still demand for more hotel rooms in Ithaca, but it’s getting closer to market saturation. R0om-nights (occupancies) are down, but rates are up, and compared to neighboring metros, Ithaca is still pretty damn lucrative, and demand is relatively strong for the time being.

-The convention center as part of the Hotel Ithaca is on hold. Major boo. The convention center has major potential to grow Ithaca’s hospitality market by giving the city the ability to host medium-sized (500+ person) conventions, because multiple hotels are required to adequately host those events. It would also help ease the weekend-weekday disparity, where demand is red hot for weekends, and tepid during the week.

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4. On the topic of Times articles, here’s a piece about Fane’s 12-story juggernaut. I’m just curious, do I qualify as the “local media” they cite? If yes, I’m flattered. But, at least their article isn’t just a rehash of what’s already been written. Called “Collegetown Tower”, the building would house 250-300 tenants, easily making it the highest capacity private building in inner Collegetown (I phrase it like that because Cornell’s Cascadilla Hall is in the same range). In an email to the Times, Fane envisions a “high-quality” food retailer and two other stores.

Although Fane says it’s a serious proposal, I still find it curious that there were no interior layouts created for the residential floors yet; I still think he’s just testing the waters to see what reactions are. Whatever the case, I can’t say I’m a fan of this:

“He stressed that if the project does not garner the necessary support at this time, he would wait until that time arrives.”

In other words, get used to that empty storefront. A 12-story, ~140′ building is unlikely to pass in a location where there was very contentious debate over 90′ (and even that had setbacks after 60′). 90′ feet barely passed the Collegetown Committee, and the opposition was so vocal that the city tried to reduce the zoning (and failed).

But don’t my word for it. The Ithaca Times came out against the height increase.

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5. I remember being confused about this when I saw it in the news, and my confusion was merited – the town did not deny Greenways, because it was never formally presented and voted on…also, per the Times article I quoted, I was wrong about it being approved in July, but it has received preliminary approval as of the 5th. The inherent risk in writing about these projects is misinterpretation, and I’m as guilty as the rest.

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