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.





News Tidbits 8/16/14: Weighing the Arguments

16 08 2014

1. Although there might be five proposals still in the running for the old library space, if one goes off of public sentiment, there are two leading candidates – the DPI proposal for its 84-unit project (76 condos, 8 apartments), and Franklin/O’Shae’s 32-unit mixed use proposal, the one that re-purposes the original 1967 structure. I spent an evening in the office doing work while listening to the entire audio file for the August 12th meeting and its 28 speakers (not something I intend to talk about with my colleagues). The DPI proposal has some heavy hitters speaking on its behalf – former city councilpersons, the former head of Ithaca’s city planning office, Cornell and IC faculty, and so forth, talking about the need for market-rate condos in the city. The Franklin/O’Shae proposal, which has an online petition, went for an ecological tactic, saying that the project would result in less waste (the building wouldn’t be demolished), and it would minimize neighborhood disruptions. Some of the Franklin/O’Shae project supporters said that there were too many units in the other proposals and that they weren’t sustainable; condo proponents countered with the Danter study, which showed very high demand for condos in downtown, and that the DPI proposal recycles materials from the old structure, rather than the structure itself (which has had asbestos issues). Both sides’ arguments have valid points and flaws. We shall see what happens moving forward.

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2. INHS is going up to the BZA for variances for two projects – a single-family home to be built on a slightly too-small lot at “203” Third Street (near Madison Street), and a four-unit set of townhouses at a vacant parcel at 402 S. Cayuga, a piece of vacant land abutting the Y-shaped intersection of South Titus Avenue and South Cayuga Street. As usual for INHS, the five housing units would be marketed as affordable owner-occupied housing to moderate-income households. The townhomes are intended for completion by June 30, 2015, and the single-family home by December 2015.

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3. Over at Collegetown Terrace, a BZA-approved lot tweak is being requested to modify the lots, a split that would separate Buildings 5 and 6 from the lot where 7 would be built. 7 would have lot frontage on a private street rather than public street, which is why the BZA is needed. The whole reason for this split is financing for the massive project. The project is much easier to finance in smaller chunks, especially since it’s being built in phases. The key takeaway from this otherwise minor note is that Building 7 (120 Valentine Place) does not have financing for construction, so who knows when it will start. If the lot tweak is passed (and there’s no compelling reason for it not to be, since no changes to the design will occur), maybe end of summer/early fall; otherwise, it’s anyone guess.

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4. Meanwhile, another student-oriented project is on hold, perhaps indefinitely. The 45-unit project at 7 Ridgewood is being put on hold, as the person directing the proposal for developer CA Living, Cornell alum Stephen Bus, has left the company. Whether this project eventually continues, gets revised, or is cancelled completely has yet to be determined. But this is the second failure for the site, which had a proposal for an attractive 30-unit apartment building in the mid-1990s that also ended up being shelved.

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5. Seems legit this time – the Ithaca metro posted a 400 job increase as compared to June 2013, to 65,600 (0.6%). This is a positive sign and it’s important, because whether pro-development or anti-development, if the local job market tanks, everyone’s in trouble. Manufacturing and Other Services saw slight gains (100 each), while Hospitality/Leisure and Professional/Business Services saw slight losses (100 each). The big factor is that education and healthcare is up 1.2% year-to-year, about 400 jobs. As covered on the Voice, the statistics have had issues before; I wouldn’t be surprised if the same problem is occurring with Syracuse’s massive 3,300 job loss over the same time period.





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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The Great Collegetown Building Auction

5 08 2014

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Given that Collegetown’s been so active on the development front these past few weeks, I figured I’d run a couple of pieces related to its history and development. Here’s one of them.
The building at 402 College Avenue (the “Starbucks Building”) isn’t very old. It was only completed in 2005. Prior to that, the site was home to a 3.5 story, wood-frame house dating from the late 1800s. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to find photos of it; it wasn’t an especially charming structure, the first floor had been built out for small storefronts (similar to the Kraftee’s Building), and the rest of it was pretty rundown. You can see clips of it in old file photos from the county tax assessment office, here and here. The two storefronts, mid-century bumpouts, housed a number of shops over the years – in the 1960s and 1970s, University Delicatessen (Uni Deli), then Gould’s Sporting Goods in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s, one (402) was vacant, and the other (404) was occupied by the Razzle Dazzle beauty shop.

The house was owned by the Papayanakos family. In 2002, the only resident left in the home was Constance Papp (she opted to Americanize her surname), a retired Ithaca school teacher. She had lived in the building since 1958, or 44 years, and was 86 years old in 2002. Starting around 1996, the building was falling into serious disrepair, enough that the housing units were no longer up to code. But since Papp was the only resident, and made no attempt to rent the other three units, the building inspectors didn’t push the issue.

Starting in 2000, Papp called the IPD on multiple occasions to report burglars. While none were found in any case, the police did report the serious housing code violations. Papp refused to let the building inspector in, and it took a neighbor and two IPD officers to help him execute the warrant.

The interior was in shambles. There was water damage to her bedroom ceiling, the heating was busted, garbage strewn about in the living room, and pigeons had taken residence in the attic and third floor. It was a safety hazard, both to its resident, and to neighbor properties in the event of a fire. The other units were declared unsafe, and the old woman was given a reprieve once her unit was cleaned. But, showing signs of significant mental illness a year later, she was considered unfit to manage the property, and moved to an assisted-living facility west of Ithaca, where she passed away four years later.

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With no one to manage her affairs, a guardian was appointed, and it was decided to sell the building on her behalf, by way of a public auction of the parcel. Although it was in awful shape, it sits on the most trafficked corner in the city, making its potential tempting to many. Given its possibilities, the opening bid would be a cool $500,000. A lot of the big players in Collegetown real estate were there: Jason Fane, who I’ve tapped many keys about; Mack Travis (the retired president of what is now Travis Hyde); and Bill and George Avramis. The Avramises are the third largest owners in Collegetown by property value, behind only John Novarr and Fane; given that Novarr’s rise is pretty recent, the Avramises were likely the second-largest back in 2002. Bill Avramis, the father, has been in the Collegetown market since the 1970s; his son George is a more recent addition.

The description of the auction from the Sun is pretty engrossing, so I’ll quote it:

 

Elias Shokrian accepted the opening bid and initially seemed to have won by default with no word from the crowd until Philip Youen raised his hand. For several minutes, still, [auctioneer Christopher] Anagnost waited through long pauses to move from one bid to the next.

All that changed when Jason Fane moved in, bidding 600,000 dollars. From there, Youen, Fane and Mack Travis quickly pushed the bidding up nearly 100,000 dollars.

With a high and perhaps a closing bid in mind, Anagnost turned to Fane.

He obliged with a 15,000-dollar advance and appearing satisfied, Anagnost prepared to end the auction with a call for final bids. He nearly declared the property sold before George Avramis entered the fray.

“700,000 dollars,” Avramis said.

Having already outlasted three prospective buyers, Fane wasted no time in advancing the bid further. Slowly and incrementally, Avramis and Fane bid each other to 800,000 and then 900,000 dollars.

The crowd assembled in the courthouse — mostly spectators — was looking exclusively to Avramis and then back to Fane for each ensuing bid. Finally, with Avramis at 925,000 dollars, all eyes turned to Fane.

“My congratulations to George,” Fane said, withdrawing abruptly from the auction.

Fane had reached his limit and Avramis later conceded that he was approaching his as well.

Immediately following the auction, Avramis said he would consider saving and restoring the building or tearing it down and paying a high price for the land. He said he would settle on specific plans for the property by the closing.

***

Closing was 30 days after the auction (therefore, April 10, 2002). While the current site was underutilized, historically compromised and in poor shape, the biggest issue to rebuilding was parking – any new build would require a parking space for every two tenants, within 500 feet of the parcel. The Avramis family had been eying the parcel for a while, making offers to buy the house (and being refused) as far back as the late 1980s.

Well, being the large landowners that they are, the Avramises found a loophole of sorts, which they used with the city’s benediction. It may have taken a year of back-and-forth, but the city agreed that George Avramis could supply parking at 211 Linden, a parking garage owned by his mother Maria. This allowed him to move forward with a 6-story, 20-unit, 35 bedroom building designed by Jagat Sharma. Given the recent zoning changes, I’m inclined to wonder if the Avramises have any plans for redevelopment of some of their other properties.

Had it been another buyer, the results could have been very different. The house could still be there. It could be another Fane parcel. A few seconds of decision-making made all the difference. Funny how that works.





News Tidbits 8/2/14: It’s Gotta Go Somewhere

2 08 2014

Here’s the semi weekly digest for your mid-summer doldrums…

1. Yet another round of Carey Building design tweaks. Updated renders and more here. At least now the renders include the proposed Hampton Inn to its north, which shows just how dense this corner will be (not unlike its historical precedent, when the massive Strand Theatre occupied much of the block). Better yet, that blank wall on the west face has windows and will be home to a “art wall” for a mural. The roof and facade have been tweaked since the last update, and I think it’s fair to say that this is a substantial improvement over the initial proposal.

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2. I had the updated PDF of the 323 Taughannock Boulevard proposal stored away for the next news update, but Jason at IB wrote an in-depth article about the development in the meanwhile, which is much better than a blurb on this blog. Most notably this time around is the inclusion of color renders, which is just as much a hodgepodge of influences as the design itself. The 20-unit, 23,000 sq ft, $3.5 million waterfront development would be under construction in the first half of 2015, if approved. Replacing a run-down waterfront bar, it has the potential to pioneer development of Ithaca’s waterfront, where controversial zoning was passed in 2011 to allow for larger projects such as this.

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3. Now for something different. The project on Troy Road in the town of Ithaca is trapped in the red tape. At last check, the developers, the perhaps disingenuously-named Rural Preservation Housing Associates, were trying to figure out where to go, as they’re having difficulties gathering enough support from the town board for a Planned Development Zone. This PDZ is required because the project proposes 166 units; the max under cluster zoning, which doesn’t require a Town Board-approved PDZ, is either 153 or 154. According to a recent town Planning Committee meeting, the alternative to the 154 or so clustered units is up to 104 units of even more sprawling single-family housing (52 lots with two units each), which is within zoning and could be rented out if they have trouble selling. The developers have been considering community meetings to quell public dissent and to learn what would get the PDZ apartment development passed. For the record, they’ve said they are open to prohibiting undergrads from renting and occupying units, which is possible since students are not a protected class under the law.

TL;DR – it’s a mess. I’ll add that in with the Biggs parcel issue, and the (weakening) opposition to INHS’s Greenways in East Ithaca, that the town has achieved the trifecta of development battles on all of its hills.

There was an interesting housing study that I came across for the Troy Road parcel, created by some Cornell City and Regional Planning (CRP) students for a course. The first phase as designed by the students would have 14 affordable (owners making 80% of county median income) housing units with 11 1180 sq ft. 2-bedroom and 3, 1355 sq ft. 3-bedroom homes, utilizing state tax credits to keep sale costs between $140k and 155k. Their proposal would have require changing the current zone from low density to medium density, which would have made such a project a non-starter.

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4. Meanwhile in Lansing, they’re weighing in on 102 townhomes. If Ithaca were an island, anti-development could be great. But since other towns are building housing and adding residents that will travel through the town to get to the employment centers in the city, then the residents of the town of Ithaca had better figure out a more effective strategy to managing growth other than knee-jerk no’s.

5. Some members of Ithaca’s West Hill community listserve is engaged in a thought exercise – seceding from the town and making their own village to specifically oppose any development proposed in their community. This isn’t without precedent; the village of Lansing was founded in 1974 due to fears stirred up by the construction of Pyramid Mall. West Hill, in turn, fears housing, especially low-income housing, due to the negative influence from low-income, high crime apartment complexes such as West Village. The “Minority Report” that they gave to the town planners was described as “a polemic of the proposed [Comprehensive] Plan as a whole, and offers few comments on any specific goals and recommendations“, and the town spent six pages excoriating the bombastic report. It’s another TL;DR for most, but the gist of the West Hill Minority Report is that the town encourages sprawl and ghettos and should only allow very small areas for development, even deconstructing some currently-built areas due to an increasingly unsustainable environment. I understand their angry reaction due to the high crime in southwest Ithaca, but all this is the administrative equivalent of over-correcting a car in a skid.

6. And then there were 5 – Since INHS is focusing on the Neighborhood Pride site, the non-profit is withdrawing from old library competition. Looks like John Schroeder can add DeWitt House to his entries in his “Unbuilt Ithaca” book draft. But don’t worry, they’ve already starting working towards redevelopment of the old grocery store, by issuing a request for qualifications (RFQ) for those interested and capable of designing their new infill project.

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7. At a glance, this call for bids on this parcel of city land at Five Mile Drive would seem to be wide open…except a local green housing developer has been targeting this plot for quite a while. It’s a bit like advertising a job when you already have someone lined up for the position. Oddly enough, I have yet to hear opposition this one; maybe it’s too far south for West Hill to care.

8. Lansing village is getting a mosque, according to the Star. The project, to be built at 112 Graham Road by the Al-Huda Islamic Center of the Finger Lakes, will result in a 4,828 sq ft mosque, with a small minaret if money provides.

Rendering courtesy of Lansing Star

Rendering courtesy of Lansing Star





That Time Someone Wanted a 10-Story Building on Stewart Avenue

30 07 2014

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In keeping with the history theme that is another facet of this blog, here’s a historical construction project to go with all the Collegetown news in the past week. After all, one giant proposal deserves another, 50 years its senior.

I owe reader “Ex-Ithacan” for suggesting this one, as he remembered the proposal when he was a kid, and inquired about it on the website Skyscraperpage.com. Although his source was the Ithaca Journal, I had a hunch the Cornell Sun would have also run a feature about such a large project, so I checked the Sun archives.

Oh hey, I was right. An article about the project, from February 16, 1965, can be found here, sandwiching some extraordinarily sexist advertisements. First, let’s try and put ourselves in the 1965 timeframe. Cornell was rapidly expanding, Collegetown was even more of a ghetto than it is now (let’s not forget old Ctown’s heroin sales and murder), and the big theme for cities was Urban Renewal, where cities desperately tore down their inner cores in an effort to draw in suburban-style development that might bring people back into the cities (retrospectively, this was by and large a failure). Anyone looking back at this time as idyllic in Ithaca is blowing smoke.

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The site in question is 403-415 Stewart Avenue. The site was home to a luxurious house belonging to Zeta Psi until WWII; after they moved out, it burnt down a few years later, and the site was reclaimed as it is now – a parking lot used by Cornell.

The parking lot was to be developed by a private group called “State and Aurora Corporation” into a 10-story building housing 70 luxury apartments. The intended clientele were Cornell faculty, Cornell retirees, and deep-pocketed locals. The building would have had a construction cost of $1 million (about $7.57 million today). Even at this time, zoning of the site allowed only 4 floors, so it needed a variance. Cornell placed a high value on the property, and since they owned the lot, one of the sale stipulations was that their staff would have had first dibs on 3/4ths pf the units, similar to what we’re seeing with the Greenways project off of Honness Lane.

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The design itself is a dated melange of modernism and brutalism, created by Sherwood Holt (no relation to Ithaca-based HOLT Architects). The 70 units ran the gamut from studios to 3 bedrooms, and the top two floors were designed to be larger “penthouse” units. There would have been 67 feet of frontage on Stewart Avenue, and 109 feet on Williams Street. I wouldn’t call it much in the way of frontage though, it looks to be built onto a podium. Zoning at the time required two parking spaces per unit, so this project would have needed 140 spaces. 70 were surface spaces on the south side of the lot, and 70 were in the pedestrian-unfriendly podium (an ordinance at the time required half of all new parking spaces to be “indoor” spaces).

Also like now, proponents and opponents had similar arguments to today’s debates. Mayor Hunna Johns promoted the revenue it would bring (which would pay for the city’s investment in sewer lines to the site), and because Cornell had expressed interest in building on the site, local officials feared another tax-exempt property if the private developer wasn’t granted approval. On the other end of the spectrum, about 50 local residents signed a petition against the proposal, saying it would burden utilities and cause congestion. It looks like the planning board had only minor suggestions for the development, so it’s hard to imagine it didn’t get ZBA approval.

So why wasn’t it built? My guess is that Cornell did an assessment of its needs, and decided that it wasn’t a high priority to sell to the developer; and when the Ithaca real estate market crashed in the late 1960s, it probably killed the proposal for good. Cornell still owns the site, but zoning rules permit only a 4-story 40′ building (as they did in 1965). It’s outside of the Collegetown zoning, and if it ever gets developed is anyone’s guess.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

 

 





“Collegetown Dryden” Project Proposed

28 07 2014

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The Manhattanization of Collegetown continues. I’ve been waiting to post this one because the city was taking its time with uploading the supporting documentation; given that they had about eleven different projects at the six-hour marathon Planning Board meeting last Tuesday, I’m not going to fault them for taking a breather.

Anyway, this project, called “Collegetown Dryden”, is yet another addition to the Collegetown Boom. Located primarily in an MU-2 zone (i.e. the densest Collegetown zone, where no parking spaces are required), this project seeks to redevelop the Palms Block, a collection of four run-down structures that includes the brick building on the corner, the old Palms building, and the old Collegetown Candy and Nuts building on the corner of Dryden and Linden (the Kraftee’s Building is not included in this count; it is being redeveloped separately). The Palms building was recommended for historic preservation several years ago, but never gained significant traction. In January 2012, the recently-closed Palms and its two eastern neighbors (213 and 215 Dryden) sold for $3.75 million to local real estate development firm Novarr-Mackesey, the company responsible for Collegetown Terrace on East State Street. The old Tompkins Trust Bank on the corner was sold to Novarr-Mackesey in July 2011 for $1.65 million. Lastly, an adjacent house on Linden (240) that was bought for $475k in 2010 will be torn down and replaced. In sum, the firm has been collecting properties on this block for years and has been biding its time, waiting for the Collegetown zoning issue to sort itself out.

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Onto the proposal itself. Speaking professionally, I’d say it’s something different and visually distinct from Jagat Sharma’s ubiquitous Collegetown designs. Speaking informally, someone referred to it as the “Tron Building“, and I’m inclined to agree. If they changed up the odd window setup, I might like it. The design is by the same firm that did Collegetown Terrace, ikon.5 out of Princeton.

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The design as proposed has three unique structures, referred to as buildings “A”, “B”, and “C”, totaling 107,302 sq ft. Building “A” is the six-story structure at the corner of College Avenue and Dryden Road, and will have 2,000 sq ft of retail on the first floor. “B” is the six-story building fronting Dryden with a 9,000 sq ft “cellar” and 7,800 sq ft of retail space, and “C” is a three story residential building built over a one-story, 11-space parking garage fronting Linden Avenue. Together, they provide 141 units, all studios. This is unusual, but it has merit. Studios are going to be less expensive than units with bedrooms, and will be more accessible to students with less affluent income levels. I’m not saying it’s going to be cheap, definitely not with the high land values here. But it will be cheaper to rent than some of the other properties in inner Collegetown.

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Compared to Jason Fane’s 330 College juggernaut, this one is right at the very edge of legal zoning. It totals six floors and 80′ in the MU zoning sections (Buildings “A” and “B”) and four floors in the CR-4 (Building “C”). It’s all legal, no ZBA required. I’d also say that in comparison to some other developers, John Novarr seems a little more neighborly, which certainly helps in the approvals process. This was the type of development envisioned when the form guidelines were passed, so it should be feasible, unlike the non-starter proposed across the street. Look for this one to go through revisions and discussion, with possible approval by the end of the year. A multi-phased 2015-2017 construction time frame is likely.

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The Elephant in the Room: 330 College Avenue

23 07 2014

Note: After Jeff Stein of the Ithaca Voice sent me a photo of the rendering last night, I quickly wrote up and published this entry. Shortly after that, he mentioned that he wished to have the “scoop“, and since it was his photo, I obliged and rescheduled this for noon today. This updated version has the uploaded render from the city website. So if you saw this last night, then saw it was gone, you’re not going crazy. -BC

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Let’s be clear: this will not happen. What Jason Fane was thinking in proposing a 12-story building for the Green Cafe site has everything to do with seeing what he can get away with. The calculating businessman as always, shocking the board and meeting attendees with a massive proposal…my only guess is that he is willing to negotiate down. The likely goal is to end up with something still above the 80′ 6-story limit for that site, and apparently the way to do that is shock and awe.

A copy of sketch plan can be found here. Mostly site photos, but we can see the first floor layout (6,000 sq ft in three retail units, and some apartment space; the building also shares a rear corridor with Fane’s Collegetown Center next door) and a render from the angle of the third floor of the Ciaschi Block, but set too far back from the street to actually exist.

I mean just look at it, it overwhelms the large 312 College and Collegetown Center buildings next to it. This thing is a goddamned behemoth of a building, as Ithaca standards go. It’s a lovely design, I think, I’d love to see this downtown on the old Tetra Tech/Rothschild’s property. Of course, that’s like saying a Mercedes SLS is the car you’d like to buy, but you make only 30K/yr. It’s not reasonable.

For the record, the never-to-be-built design is by Fane’s preferred architect, Jagat Sharma of local firm Sharma Architecture. The current site is that of the vacant Green Cafe, and before that short stint as a restaurant in 2009/2010, the one-story structure was used for meetings and storage by Bank of America. Built in 1998 and occupying 0.97 acres (including the apartment building attached), it has an assessed land value of $2.5 million, as it sits on what is probably the most expensive corner in the city. Everyone expected a redevelopment, just not this large.

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I can hardly believe I’m even writing about this. It’s so spectacularly overboard that it defies all common sense and logic.

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News Tidbits 7/17/14: It’s All About the Materials

17 07 2014

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Given the rate of development exposition and modification, this is becoming a sort of weekly digest. I’m perfectly okay with that.

1. First up, the omnipresent Carey Building addition by Travis-Hyde Properties. This one has been tweaked at least twice already (not counting the initial massing model), and here we have another update, though it looks to be mostly in the materials that the addition would be composed with. revised plans here. Depending on your definition of structural height, the addition would bring the Carey Building to 77’10” to the penthouse roof, 82’10” to the parapet, or 87’10” to the mechanical rooftop. To highlight some of the other changes, the roof-lines were tweaked, as were the windows on the east face. The west face is still blank, though the lighter color does make it seem a little less overbearing in the renders.

Also, contrary to the recent Times article, not all five additional floors are residential. The first floor of the addition (third floor from street level) is additional office space for the business incubator.

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2. Next up is 327 Eddy, owned by Stephen Fontana and designed by local firm Sharma Architecture. Cover letter here, application here, and drawings here. I remember thinking the sketch render looked a little weird with the brick above the courtyard, and the design has been tweaked as this proposal materializes out of the aether. We now have some dates and figures. This one would be starting in May 2015 and completed in August 2016. The estimated cost of construction is $5 million (like the other two Sharma applications for 205 Dryden and 307 College…they may just be making up a nice, round, semi-believable number). It will build up 68′ from the sidewalk of Eddy Street, and 60′ from the rear portion (the building steps up as it extends back into its steep lot). Still 28 units and 64 bedrooms, and it has 1,800 sq ft of ground-floor retail space.

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3. Greenways, the INHS affordable townhouse development off of Honness Lane (site shown in the lead photo), has been approved. Good.

4. Cayuga Ridge, the Biggs Property proposal out on West Hill, is not so lucky. This one has been tied up for a while due to neighbors’ opposition to the site’s development – it’s also turned into a veritable sh*tshow, with those against the development using the standard traffic and sprawl arguments (the latter being a little weird since it’s right next to the hospital and across the street from the Overlook complex), while some of those for the project have played the race card. A neighbors group sued to have the county’s land sale stopped for not following SEQR environmental regulations, and the ruling was upheld. While not dead, the sale of the property to developer NRP/Better Housing for Tompkins County is on hold while the town of Ithaca reviews the project and the SEQR is conducted, with the county as an involved party. It’s not the best location, but on the other hand, the affordable housing issue is rearing its ugly head. On a side note, unlike its city counterpart (INHS), Better Housing has some of the worst luck of any non-profit developer in the county. The Lansing Preserve failure from a few years back comes to mind.

4. Residential tax assessments are up 6.17% (about $1.27 million) in the county year-over-year, about triple the usual 2% rate. The cost of housing is rising much faster than anticipated, which is contributing to the area’s affordability issues. Construction projects such as Collegetown Terrace also help; for instance, that project’s value went up from $19.1 to $26.64 million, which results in an additional $275,000 in tax revenue (the tax revenue at $19.1 million was about $700,000). Don’t expect taxes on existing homes to go down with the increased revenue though, because rising healthcare costs eat away most of the gains.

 

 








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