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.
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.
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.