News Tidbits 10/17/15: Pressing the Issue

17 10 2015


1. It looks like the Amabel housing development has another site plan. New pedestrian paths, a relocated community garden, and some substantial tweaks to the layout of the house, including a small access road for three homes near the southern termination of the loop road with Five Mile Drive (older plans here).

Marketing for the project hasn’t officially started, but New Earth Living LLC’s (Susan Cosentini’s) website does have interior renders for one of the proposed house styles, as well as an informational PDF. Plans call for Net-Zero energy efficiency homes, meaning that the amount of energy generated on site will power all the project’s energy needs. Example homes included in the PDF range from 1,184 SF to 2,083 SF – it looks like there will be four home models with alternate configuration options. Prices have yet to be announced.


The Amabel project, proposed for 619 Five Mile Drive just southwest of the city of Ithaca’s boundary line, has been in the works for the past couple of years, a sort of grand follow-up to New Earth Living’s Aurora Street Pocket Neighborhood in Fall Creek. The project will have about 30 single-family homes at full build-out.

I know some of the more pessimistic readers here may call this suburban sprawl with a green sheen, but it’s a lot better than a cul-de-sac.


2. The village of Lansing sent off their updated Comprehensive Plan to the county planning department this week for review and approval. Now, planning should be the village’s forte, since the village of Lansing was founded in the 1970s as a backlash against the construction of commercial and residential properties along Triphammer and Route 13, including what’s now The Shops at Ithaca Mall. The plan was last updated in 2005, and draft of the new plan can be found here.

The village seems to note with some distress that although population growth has slowed, traffic has continued to increase (due in large part to significant growth in Lansing town; many town residents pass through the village to get to employment centers in Ithaca). North Triphammer Road has already been widened, but there are concerns about the ability of infrastructure to handle further traffic increases. The village also notes a strong rise in the 55+ population, as well as the same affordable housing issues that plague Ithaca and much of the county; in Lansing’s case, the median household income can afford a $171,000 home by their estimate (2.5 x $54,721 = $136,800 qualifying mortgage, + 20% down-payment), but the average house in Lansing costs $258,000 (affordable to a household making ~$82,500; note all the numbers are 2010 values). The plan also shows that fair market rent in Lansing increased 64.1% from 2005-2015, meaning that unless a renter had an annual wage increase of 5.8%, they paid more of their income towards housing year after year.  29.4% of homeowners and 39.1% of renters pay above the HUD’s 30% of total income threshold for affordability. The village is concerned it will price aged residents right out of their homes.

In an effort to combat the growing problem, the village wants to focus new housing along main thoroughfares with easy bus access and bike infrastructure, and is aiming for smaller homes and apartments geared towards aging-in-place and senior communities. The village notes that 500 to 600 units of housing could potentially be developed over the next few decades (note Lansing averages ~10 units per year), mostly on the large, low-density home lots near the lake. These would almost certainly be geared towards the highest income brackets, but the benefit of greater supply might relieve pressure on other homes.

On the business end, the village would also like to encourage Cornell to relocate back-office and research operations to village sites. There’s also a push for senior-oriented businesses and a possible rethinking of the malls, not an uncommon thought in this age where malls are struggling and dying off.

There are arguably two senior developments planned that already fit their “want” category – the 12 senior units planned for the Lansing Meadows PDA (the ones planned next to BJ’s on Oakcrest Road), and 62 senior units for the CU Suites site on Cinema Drive (photo from last week above). Other residential growth will be fairly “organic”, with new homes built at the whim of owners and mom-and-pop builders. A new commercial medium-traffic zone along Hickory Hollow Drive might open some more business opportunities; as for Cornell, they seem to be more focused on their East Hill Village plans, but research park tenants are always a possibility.

The village plans to update its comprehensive plan again by 2025.


3. On the topic of plans, here’s a progress report just released by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency regarding its five-year plan.

If you wanted another reason why housing in Ithaca is so expensive, the plan alludes to it here:

“A spike in local construction costs has delayed the start of construction on a planned four-unit first-time homebuyer project and a public facilities project that will improve a public recreational area. We anticipate these projects moving forward once they have been able to close their funding gaps.”

The four-unit homebuyer project is the townhouse project planned by INHS for 402 South Cayuga Street (shown above). INHS director Paul Mazzarella said the project was due to receive bids last month, and if they were within INHS’s budget, it would start construction. It hasn’t started.

Ithaca’s a small labor pool, so you either truck in labor from elsewhere and incur the wrath of construction unions, or you go local and pay a premium. But even then, with the relative burst in activity as of late, the local pool is getting tapped out and that’s driving prices up. Non-profits like INHS don’t have a lot of wiggle room in their budgets, and city government just won’t build if they can’t get affordable bids for infrastructure work. It also impacts programs that provide low-cost home repairs to those with low and fixed-incomes, because those low-cost repairs are no longer low-cost, and fewer people are able to be served.

One could one look at this as either a reason to limit approvals (which the construction trade unions are opposed to) or introducing more out-of-town labor to the market (which the trade unions are also opposed to). Stuck between two metaphorical rocks.

So long story short, in a region where the cost of housing is climbing dangerously fast, the city has a lot of work left to do meeting its affordability goals, with many actions/programs falling well short of annual numbers needed to meet the 5-year goal statistics. Hopefully some progress will be made in the upcoming year.


4. The mayor has dealt State Street Triangle a serious blow by announcing his opposition to the State Street Triangle, first reported on his facebook page and picked up by every news outlet in town, Svante Myrick cited the student housing focus and massing concerns for his opposition (he explicitly stated the height, 11 stories and 116 feet, was appropriate for its location, the 300 block of East State Street in the heart of downtown Ithaca). This is a big setback because apart from his social influence, the mayor sits on the county IDA, which is the governing body that votes on tax abatements.

A couple of the outlets have reached out to Campus Advantage, which is busy trying to formulate a response. They’ve hired a PR firm for whenever they’re ready. It could be the end of the project, it could still go on, it could be drastically altered. The chips have been tossed into the air, let them fall where they may.

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5. House of the week. This week, a trip out to Maple Ridge in Dryden. Maple Ridge is a housing development within the village that had the unfortunate luck of launching right before the Great Recession. After struggling, it’s been picking up in the past couple of years with five houses built since 2013. This modular home is the “Cayuga Lake” model offered by American Homes in Dryden. The pieces have been assembled and fastened together on top of the poured foundation, and some finish work has started. The uncapped foundation section is most likely a future garage. Modular homes tend to move through construction pretty quick, and this one will likely be finished in time for the holidays.


6. The county and city hosted a meeting discussing possible waterfront re-development plans for the NYS DOT site on Thursday night. Three plans were presented, two mixed-use commercial and residential, and a third that the Journal describes as just being “hotel”, but given the 7.66 acres on site, is probably mixed-use with a hotel component.

The third option is a little bit of a throwback because the city long-saw the waterfront as prime for a hotel. But the market has shifted towards downtown and Route 13, and with the market adding new hotels at a pretty good clip over the next few years (Marriott, Canopy, Holiday Inn Express), a hotel in that area is pretty unlikely. Local lawyer/developer Steve Flash proposed a five-story hotel on Inlet Island in 2007, but in the days before the waterfront zoning allowed five floors, the project was opposed and shelved.

An initial cost of the move is being pegged at $14 million, but it isn’t clear if a potential buyer would pay that directly, or the county/city, who then get reimbursed by a buyer. $14 million is quite an amount, but given the site’s potential, it’s feasible (but don’t expect any outside-the-box thinking; a developer will want to minimize risk since they have to make such a huge initial investment).

If anything is clear, it’s that, contrary to the opinion of at least one speaker at the meeting, most folks would like the snow plows and road salt stored somewhere else.


6. I don’t comment on politics. I don’t comment on candidates. But I will comment on issues. And, probably no surprise to readers here, I find it worrisome when anti-development candidates come forward.

By and large, development in Ithaca isn’t happening “for the sake of development” like in the 1990s, when the local economy was mired in recession. It’s happening because the Ithaca area has added 6,000 jobs in ten years, mostly in healthcare and education. Cayuga Medical Center has added over 500 positions in 10 years, and while Cornell’s direct employment hasn’t changed much, the university has added nearly 2,500 students. That has created demand for thousands of units, but when combined with the slow pace of development within the county over the past decade, the result has been a critical housing deficit.

This is one of the major reasons behind the current affordable housing crisis – high demand, plus insufficient increases in supply, have resulted in very low vacancy rates and have made it a seller’s paradise when it comes to housing.

If you plan on selling your house or rental property and retiring to Florida in the next couple of years, you’re in for serious bank! Everyone else, whether through rents or increased tax assessments, ends up with a much greater burden. Housing costs are a big player in how Ithaca became the 8th most expensive city in the country.

If there are thousands of people coming here for work or retirement, and new housing isn’t there to absorb them, the wealthier folks moving in will simply pay a premium on what exists, and price out the existing working and middle class who can’t afford those premiums. Which some people are okay with.

Ithaca doesn’t need to “slow down” development, because that’s one of reasons why the affordability crisis is as bad as it is. What Ithaca needs is to be proactive about development, and generally it has been under Mayor Myrick. The city has actively worked to reformulate general guidelines like the Comprehensive Plan (first all-new plan since 1971!) and is starting work on part II, working on neighborhood-specific themes. Myrick’s government has also identified and maintained targeted development areas, like Collegetown’s Form Zoning and downtown density. The mayor has even come to bat for the $30k-$50k/year working class folks that “breed trouble” and need affordable housing, like with INHS’ 210 Hancock project.

Affordability is a long-term effort and a multi-pronged approach, by keeping vulnerable families in their homes, and providing new homes to accommodate the growing economy and population.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but hell, it’s a start. Sticking fingers in ones’ ears isn’t going to make the housing crisis go away.

Fast Facts: Ithaca College Employee Headcounts

12 05 2015

All facts come from Ithaca College’s Office of Institutional Research. All enrollment values are for the fall semester of a given year, i.e. 2001 means fall 2001.

Since the blog has previously taken a look at Cornell’s faculty and staff headcounts, it seems only fair to take a look at Ithaca College’s as well.


Over the past decade or so, Ithaca College’s employment has grown. Since 2002, headcount has increased by 302 people/20.1%, about 1.68% per year on average. During the recession, employment at the school actually increased at a faster pace than the average, a stark contrast to the hundreds of jobs that were cut at Cornell.


Breaking the numbers down into faculty and admin/staff components, faculty employment has grown by 155/26.96% since 2002, somewhat faster than the 147 person/15.86% growth in staff employment.

For the sake of comparison, Cornell employed 7,075 non-academic staff in 2002 and 7,018 in 2014, a 57 person/0.8% decrease. The Big Red also employed 2,756 faculty/academic staff in 2002, and 2,763 profs and lecturers in 2014, a 7 person/0.3% increase. (note, Cornell numbers are for the Ithaca campus only).

In other words, we have over the past decade or so, one school that has seen only small enrollment growth but large employment growth, while the other has seen large enrollment growth and no employment growth. I can’t vouch for whether one school’s grasp of their situation is better than the other, but the differences between the two make for an engaging conversation piece.


Here’s something more apropos to current events – the split between full-time and part-time faculty at IC. In 2002, 18.41% of male faculty and 26.92% of female faculty were part-time. In 2014, 28.42% of male faculty and 33.71% of female faculty were part-time. Although Ithaca College has added 155 faculty over 12 years, only 57 of those positions are full-time. Part of the the growth in part-time faculty can be attributed to the growth in graduate students, who are considered part-time faculty at IC if they are teaching. But regardless, it’s clear that Ithaca has become more reliant on part-time staff to meet its teaching needs.

Not to take an official stance on any union-organizing, but double-checking with some previous Voice write-ups, the graph above means that there were 226 Ithaca College faculty that were earning no more than about $16,000/year.

Cornell doesn’t have part-time faculty listed in their data, but I assume grad students with TA assignments fill that role. As of 2014, 6.6% of non-academic staff at Cornell (468 of 7047) are considered part time, while 25% of non-academic IC staff (268 of 1074) are part time. So maybe that’s another piece in the conversation comparing schools.

News Tidbits 3/21/15: Imagine If It Was Trader Joe’s…

21 03 2015

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1. Yet another chain restaurant entering the Ithaca scene, this time Louisville, Kentucky-based Texas Roadhouse. There’s 24 separate documents on the city website, and I’ll link to the most useful ones here – the Building Application here, the elevation drawings here, the Full  Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) here and overall site plan here. I wrote about this for the Voice, and I’ll recapitulate the salient details here-

-The site location is 719 South Meadow Street, the northern end of big-box land. The site was previously home to a Cellular One and a 1980s one-story masonry building that was demolished in 2013, leaving the current vacant lot.

-The construction time period is expected to be from September 2015 to Spring 2016. The project will begin the PDC review process in April. The construction cost is pegged at $1.35 million, including landscaping and parking improvements.

-About 30 construction jobs and 40 permanent (albeit food service) jobs will be created, according to the application. Jeff Stein at the Ithaca Voice says that an email from Texas Roadhouse corporate expects 170 permanent jobs, so I’m not sure which figure is correct.

-The 7,163 sq ft store looks to be the standard corporate design theme for the 430-restuarant chain.

One of the things that continues to amaze me is that, here on the blog, news like this is not a big attention-getter, it’s worth a blurb and not much more. On the Voice, where the audience is more general, people go nuts when they hear about new chain places moving into Ithaca. The lovers and the haters, and sometimes even attacking each other in the comments. In the first 24 hours after the Roadhouse article was published, it was shared 300 times on facebook, and had 2600 likes. Any other real estate or business article would be lucky to get 1/20th of those figures. I never cease to be surprised.


2. Looks like another town of Ithaca project is hitting the dustbin. The 68 acres involved in Rural Housing Preservation Associates Troy Road project have been put up for sale. Originally proposed in February 2014 as a 216-unit project, the original design met with stiff resistance from neighbors and town officials. In November, a smaller, 130-unit plan (shown above) that included on-sire orchards and clustered housing was much better received, and the town planning board declared itself Lead Agency for site plan review, but the project never progressed further. In consideration of other dead mutil-family projects (such as NRP’s Cayuga Trails and Holochuck Homes’ 106-unit townhome development), the town is having a difficult time providing new housing, partly due to developer problems and partly due to local opposition and red tape.


3. The writers over at the Ithaca Times have an article up this week about the Kendal at Ithaca expansion currently underway. In order to stay on schedule, Kendal had to do their groundbreaking in January, with the intent of finishing in January 2016. Even with the appalling winter we’ve had this year, the director of Kendal claims the project is only three days behind schedule.

The Kendal expansion will add 24 senior apartments and 13 skilled patient care beds to the current 212 apartment and 35 beds on-site. The $29.3 million project is expected to add about 20 jobs when complete. Local architecture firm Chiang O’Brien is handling the design of the building additions.

4. More bad news from Cornell, at least for this blog’s sake. From a Cornell Daily Sun writeup about a town hall-style budget meeting conducted by outgoing President David Skorton:

“Cornell can also cut costs further by reducing campus construction, a step Skorton recommends the University take. 

‘Much of the construction you’ve seen on campus over the last 20 years has been supported by debt,” Skorton said. “We are at the point now, for at least a few years, where we need to very, very seriously reduce construction of new space.'”

I could imagine a couple impacts from this. First off, this probably won’t affect projects with permits in hand and funding in place, like the Gannett addition or Upson Hall’s renovation. But through the rest of the decade, there could be a serious curtailing of new construction. This would hurt the local construction industry, for whom Cornell is a good chunk of their work. Skorton’s explanation also works as a reason to not build any new dorms, and that’s worrisome. The rapidly increasing student population has not only been crunched by tight supply, it’s spreading into adjacent neighborhoods and raising rents for permanent residents, and contributing to strains in town-gown relations.

One thing is clear. The impacts of Cornell’s latest budget issue will be felt throughout the community.


5. Looking ahead at the agenda for next week’s city Planning and Development Board meeting, here’s what to expect:

A. Final Site Plan Approval for the 4-unit, 9-bedroom INHS affordable housing project at 402 Sough Cayuga Street

B. Public Hearing and possible approval for the Lake Street Bridge Replacement

C. Discussion (no actions expected) on INHS’s 210 Hancock development – some minor tweaks have been worked into the plan, such as moving the new Lake Avenue north of the playground and adding a crosswalk.

D. Sketch Plan for 215 W. Spencer Street by Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative. This should be interesting. Readers of the blog will know I’ve mentioned this site a couple of times – it was a vacant lot that was sold by the IURA to local rental developer PPM Homes a couple weeks ago, and apparently they’re wasting no time with getting their plans in motion.

A 0.47 acre parcel (shown above), 215-221 West Spencer is in an R-3a zone that allows for a 40′ structure with 35% lot coverage. That’s a max theoretical buildout of 28,662 sq ft (which if you give 20,000 sq ft for the housing units, and 1,000 sq ft per unit, we get a hypothetical 20 units), but whatever does get proposed will likely be somewhat smaller. STREAM Collaborative is a local architecture firm with a few other projects under its belt, including the 21-unit 323 Taughannock project on Inlet Island, and the Franklin/O’Shae proposal for the Old Library site (the proposal that reuses the Old Library Building). STREAM Collaborative was also responsible for the design of the Troy Road project mentioned earlier, so at least they won’t be going without work anytime soon. Noah Demarest has done pretty good work previously, so I have high hopes for this project.

Along with these four discussion topics, the PDB will review a minor subdivision to create a new home lot at 104 Campbell Avenue on West Hill, a review of application materials to see if any revisions are desired, and discussion of the Planning Board Annual Report, 2014 Edition.


6. It’s that time of the year for building new student rentals for 2015/16. Here we have a Craigslist posting for 318-320 Pleasant Street on South Hill. The rear portion (left) is an addition, a duplex with 3 bedrooms each. The owners of the 105-year old house are members of the Stavropoulos family, who run the Renting Ithaca rental company and the State Street Diner.

News Tidbits 3/7/15: All is Not Well on East Hill

7 03 2015


1. Leading off this week with a note of optimism – David Lubin, the developer of the proposed Harold’s Square mixed-used building in downtown Ithaca, says that plans for the 11-story building are still underway, according to a comment he made to the Ithaca Journal. Lubin says he’s currently in the process of lining up investors to finance the construction of the project, a challenging process once one tells investors that the project is in upstate New York. It’s not impossible to have a private project financed in Ithaca (if the Marriott underway down the street is any indication), but for a project costing $38 million, it’s no surprise that it’s taking a while. It’s easy to think that this one has slipped into the dustbin, but fortunately it has not.

Meanwhile, Ithaca Builds woke from its winter slumber to give an update regarding Lubin’s other big project, the Chain Works District for the old Emerson site on South Hill. Currently, the Chain Works District is in the process of writing up its Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS). A DGEIS is part of the State Envrionmental Quality Review (SEQR), where the leading agency looks at a project, determines if any adverse project impacts are properly mitigated, and if so, issues a statement giving a negative declaration (approval). In this case, the NYS DEC also needs to be on board, approving the contaminated site for residential use. This is a pretty complicated project. There’s 800,000 sq ft of space to be removed or re-purposed, in an environmentally compromised site split between two political entities who are conducting joint meetings with their planning boards in an effort to try and move this project forward (the town of Ithaca board deferred to the city of Ithaca for lead agency; and both have rezoned the site to their respective specialized mixed-use zones). According to IB, the Phase I and Phase II Environmental Site Assessments (ESAs) contain about 60,000 pages of paperwork. The official timeline (already behind schedule, according to city docs) hopes to have the DGEIS submitted shortly, with a declaration of significance sometime in the Spring. In theory, Phase I site prep could start this year, but who knows if that will happen in practice.

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2. The ILPC (Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council) had a chance to review the four proposals for the Old Library site. Perhaps no surprise, the favored proposal was the Franklin/O’Shae proposal at top, which keeps the 1960s library and its “intrinsic historic value”. Members did, however, express some concern with the current building’s environmental contamination (asbestos). As for the other proposals, council members generally liked the Travis Hyde plan, and felt the Cornerstone and DPI projects were insensitive to the site (although one member expressed appreciation that at least the Cornerstone plan had affordable housing). It sounds like there will be some major tweaks to the building renders in the full proposals due later this month, so it’ll be best to hold off on judgment until those revised plans are published.


3. Now for some bad news- Cornell is running into major financial problems, to the tune of a $55 million deficit. About half of that, $27.5 million, is expected to be reconciled with budget cuts (the other half will be covered by tuition increases). Considering the very large role Cornell plays in the local economy, this could have a chilling effect on local businesses that depend on Cornell or its employees. There are shades of 2009 here, when a projected $150 million deficit over 5 years resulted in 432 voluntary retirements, and hundreds of jobs lost.  The cut from 2008 to 2009 was a 5% reduction for the 2009-10 fiscal year, while the cut to go into effect for 2015-16 is estimated at 2-2.3%. Quoting an interview the Sun did with Skorton:

“[In the 2008 financial crisis,] We froze everybody’s salary for a year, paused construction, slowed down on hiring, developed a voluntary staff retirement incentive and 8 percent of the staff force was reduced … and [we had] a couple hundred layoffs, which is very, very hard to do,” Skorton said. “So that’s how the University acted in the worst crisis that ever happened. And so that’s a predictor of how it’s going to happen in this case.”

An article in the Sun a couple of days later notes that faculty employment is at an all time high. With 1,652 faculty in Fall 2014, Cornell has now passed 2007’s 1,647. – but one observant commenter, who I will happily buy a drink if I ever meet in person, notes that Cornell’s total enrollment is up 2,050 students since 2007. Devil’s in the details, folks – Cornell could use this “all-time high” as an excuse to not hire more faculty during its latest financial crisis, even though the student-faculty ratio have been increasing for years. Let’s not forget that faculty-student ratios are a crucial part of college rankings.

All of this is rather disconcerting news, especially in a time where the national economy has been picking up. Cornell has real potential to not only cause a localized recession, but also fall behind its peer institutions.

4. On a somewhat brighter note, even with this appalling winter, the construction of Klarman Hall is only nine days behind schedule, according to the Sun. Atrium glass installation should begin in April, and East Avenue will be reopened to two-way traffic around that same time. Although this project is well underway towards a December 2015 completion, one has a right to wonder if it is wise for Cornell to pursue the Gannett expansion and Upson renovation (valued at over $100 million combined) during these perilous financial times.



5. The town of Lansing’s planning board is set to review some slight changes to the massive Village Solars apartment project at its Tuesday meeting.

First, a quick primer – while the whole plan is for about 300 units, the approved phases account for only 174 units, and are being built in phases. The photo updates I’ve previously featured here on the blog show the first phase underway, buildings “A”, “B” and “C” on the right (south), with 36 units total. There are four phases, with two sub-phases in phase 2. Phase 2 consists of D, E, G and H with their 41 approved apartment units, and phase 2A is building F, which has the community center as well as 10 more units.

The revised plan calls for moving 6 units from buildings G and H to building M, which is in phase 4. G and H are combined into one apartment building (G/H), leaving 35 units in Phase 2. There are a couple reasons cited for this change – when working with NYSEG to lay out the utilities, it was decided to make phase 2 all electric services, due to concerns that Lansing may not be able to provide gas service if the tense situation with the gas pipeline proposal on West Dryden Road doesn’t go in the town’s favor. One of the results of the utility infrastructure change was a difference in utilities layout, and it was deemed prudent to shirt the walkway northward. This impacted the site design, which is why the Lucentes are seeking to revise the PDA (planned development area, similar to the city’s PUD and the town’s PDZ).

The change isn’t huge, and isn’t likely cause too much consternation among board members. This is actually the first site plan I’ve seen for the project, since it was approved before the town uploaded supplemental docs to its webpage. More importantly, it’s much clearer how future phases could build out – if the ~300-unit project takes 8-10 years as projected, then estimating the construction of phase 2 and 2A from summer 2015-16 seems reasonable.


6. Planning board members had mixed reviews about the Simeon’s rebuild, according to the Ithaca Times. While some members were excited about the rebuild, others expressed concern with the proposed addition of a second-floor balcony, seen in the above render by architect Jason Demarest. The project is eligible for state tax credits designed to renovate historic buildings, but if the credits are granted, then the balcony would not be built. If the credits are not granted, the building owners are looking not only at a balcony, but the possibility of widening the bay windows a little (it turns out the bay windows were an early renovation to the original Griffin Building, and larger bay windows would benefit a planned expansion of Simeon’s to the second floor). Regardless, cast-iron ornamentation that was salvaged before demolition will be incorporated into the rebuild.

During the same meeting, the planning board accepted revised signage for the Marriott, and there was further discussion about the Canopy Hilton. Nearby residents expressed concerns that a downtown hotel will increase traffic, and complaints were made about the ingress/egress plan for both the hotel and the CSMA next door. No word on the land swap CSMA wants, but it doesn’t seem like they’re budging on their property’s all-important utility easement quite yet.

The Cornell Logo That Failed

13 01 2015

Let me start with a rhetorical question: What makes a college? Academics? Athletics? The physical facilities themselves? The logo?

The last one doesn’t really seem like it should be a contributing factor. But there have been claims that it made all the difference for Cornell, causing it to lose prestige in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It seems like the silliest thing in the world, but here’s the argument. In 1999, Cornell was 6th. By 2004, it had dropped to 14th. One of the reasons for this was brand image – a clunky website, bland brochures, and the logo.  Quote:  “Imagine a flag of the old Soviet Union: a field of red, and in the middle in plain white letters, Cornell.”

Most folks familiar with the 1999-2004 logo not-so-fondly describe it as the one that looks like a J.C. Penney knockoff (J. C. Penney had a similar logo from 2000-2006). Well, funny story about that. From the 2006 NPR interview:

Ms. HEATHER GRANTHAM (co-chair, Cornell image committee): The company that designed that logo originally was the same company that designed the almost identical big red box for J.C. Penney. It’s not Cornell. It’s not Ivy, it doesn’t have that history, and so we really wanted to make that push to revert back to some form of the original crest.

It must have been a busy week for the logo designer (who oddly enough, I can’t even find the name of online). Given the complaints above, and J.C. Penney’s market tumble, I’d be hesitant to hire this company.

The student-led Cornell Image committee made it a priority in the mid-2000s to bury that logo in favor of something more traditional and “Ivy” – the simplified emblem by Chermayeff and Geismar Inc. that Cornell still uses today. It was hoped that it would make Cornell look less like Michigan and more like Harvard. The committee also had goals of reducing class sizes, limiting enrollment and increasing financial aid to minorities, all ways to game the rankings.

Some of those things may have happened (Cornell improved its financial aid, but enrollment has climbed), but rankings haven’t really changed much, hovering between 12th and 16th since the logo was changed at the end of 2004 (for the record, Cornell is currently ranked 15th by U.S. News & World Report). The rankings the NPR interview used were cherry-picking anyway. Cornell spent most of the 1990s hovering between 10th-14th; 1999 was an anomalously good year. So the change isn’t very effective on paper, but I do prefer the current logo to the old one.

News Tidbits 1/10/15: Where Will All the Students Go?

10 01 2015


1. I’ll lead off with this supplement to the Voice opinion article I wrote. Here’s the work sheet I used for the bedroom tally for student-centric housing. I chose to leave it out of the submitted article because 95% of readers checking the Voice would find it obscure or just wouldn’t be interested. If you’re coming here, then you’re probably in the other 5%. Question marks are present because the county’s online records provide total number of units in mixed-use buildings, but not bedrooms (yet residential-only structures have bedroom numbers, go figure). Anyway, there is the off-chance that enough new projects will be proposed in the next 12-18 months that we could still meet the projected need by 2018, since it’s about 500 rooms short at the moment…but I’m not optimistic. There are few large sites left in Collegetown, and even fewer sites in other adjacent neighborhoods. If Fane comes back down to Earth with a project that fits zoning for 330 College Avenue, and Travis Hyde’s Ithaca Gun apartment project ends up being student-centric, then perhaps there will be another 200 or 250 bedrooms to the total. The rest of the balance will need to come from small or medium-sized projects. Anyway, that’s all speculation. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

I wasn’t being totally facetious with the suggestion of Cornell building more dorms though. A few hundred rooms could take some of the edge of the housing problem, and it’s less Cornell has to pay out in rent stipends to financial aid recipients. But even if Cornell was mulling it over, it would take years to go through planning and construction.


2. If this were in Ithaca, I’d have splurged pages of writing over it. But it’s not. Construction permits have been filed for Cornell’s second academic building at its new tech campus on Roosevelt Island in NYC – a 189,000 sq ft structure designed by some of Cornell’s favorite alumni architects, NYC firm Weiss/Manfredi. They’re the same ones who are handling the Vet School renovation, and who designed the Sesquicentennial Commemorative Grove that opened last fall. The building is the one on the right in the above image, the one that looks like an ice cube breaking apart. Building number one, the design in the left foreground, is already underway.

For the record, I’m still not a fan of the tech campus.

3. The Ithaca Times has done an interview with Bill Manos that’s worth a read. It has your standard anti-regulation rant (the same one you get from your retired Fox News-watching uncle), and he calls the sale an “opportunity from Heaven” that he didn’t see coming. He says the sudden closure was so the new lessees could renovate the diner and have their new restaurant (called “Old Mexico“) ready for the Spring. I don’t think that exonerates the “bad manners” of giving his employees only eight days’ notice, but hopefully they’ve all been able to move on like he claims in he interview.


4. Looks like the 6-unit, 18-bedroom project for 707 E. Seneca has seen some slight revisions as it goes to the ILPC (Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council) for further review (agenda here). About the only notable change I can find from the previous render is in the spacing of the dormer windows. Although the lot is undeveloped, it’s in a historic district, hence the extra step of ILPC approval. A lot of the major details have already been hashed out, so I imagine the council will only have minor suggestions, but we’ll see what happens. The ILPC is also set to review the Old Library proposals, and given their exacting approach, my inner cynic tells me it will be less about which project they like the most, but rather which one they dislike the least.

804Estate_112blair_rev1_1 804Estate_112blair_rev1_2

5. On another note, the two duplexes proposed for 804 E. State Street (formerly 112 Blair) has been upped to three. Details and drawings here. All are two units each with three bedrooms in each unit, so 18 total. They also look about as utilitarian as one can get away with; the easternmost house (building “D”) has a chamfered corner, and that’s about the only interesting architectural detail I see. Parking will now be shoehorned into the basement level  of all three buildings (12 spaces total; it’s a hilly site). The construction cost has been upped to about $600,000, but the construction timeframe of late Spring/summer 2015 is still the same. Although the lot is being cobbled together from slices of adjoining properties, it will still require an area variance from the zoning board because of how close the houses are to each other. Looking on the bright side, this development will replace a parking lot and works as appropriate infill for lower Collegetown.


6. I finally received an email response from the Zaharises regarding what’s underway at their old furniture store at 206 Taughannock Boulevard. Unfortunately, it’s not very descriptive:

We’re renovating the building into apartments. It looks quite different doesn’t it?!

Yes. Yes it does.


Fast Facts: Cornell Students By Major

11 11 2014

As always, all data is taken from the Cornell University Factbook. Numbers used in this entry are for undergraduate enrollments.

Offhand, I can think of two mantras when it comes to first-tier higher education:
– Go into a STEM field.

– If you’re at a really good school for undergrad (Ivy plus), go for business.

The logic in both is fairly sound. STEM fields are in demand and pay well (and as someone in a STEM position, I say that with a very big asterisk). The other is that our most brilliant minds can get the most return on investment by going into financial services such as investment banking, where you work for for a couple years at a place like Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan, go back for a couple years of B-school, and find yourself making $250k at 32 as a vice president of some random business activity. The popularity of that easily earned, highly lucrative business degree is the reason why Cornell started offered a campus-wide minor in business; one-sixth of Cornell’s students go directly the financial sector, which is actually down a little bit from previous years.

There’s also a third mantra, much more negative than the first two: humanities doom you to unfulfilled jobs in coffee shops or years of fruitless grad school labor. Unfair certainly, but the academic stigma, also known as “what are you going to do with that degree?”, is strong for liberal arts majors.

I decided to take the numbers and see if there were any trends in enrollment in certain fields over the years. Below are Cornell’s enrollments from 2002-2013 by CIP, “Classification of Instruction Programs“, which is used by government entities to track enrollments by study.


Looking at this, it’s easy to pick out some winners and losers over the past decade. Social Services, English, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Architecture have notable drops. Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture and Business have grown. Liberal Arts shows no strong trend. Computer Science shows an interesting parabolic shape, which can be attributed to the tech bubble bursting in the early 2000s, and taking a few years to recover before entering the current tech boom.

I’m going to take three years – 2003, 2008 and 2013, and split them into “STEM” and “non-STEM” for this next plot. The unknowns and multidisciplinary majors will be removed and I’m going to treat business separately. Non-STEM will be history, performing arts, social sciences, social services, psychology, philosophy, liberal arts, english, family and consumer science, foreign languages, education, personal services, communication, architecture, and area/cultural studies.  STEM will be physical sciences, nutritional science, math, biology, engineering, computer science, natural resources and agriculture. I’ve made an attempt to separate “hard” sciences from “soft” sciences, and I realize there’s plenty of room for debate which categories belong in STEM and non-STEM, but I’ll leave that out for now.


Over time, non-STEM is decreasing, while STEM and business are increase their share of the Cornell student population. It could be that there’s genuinely more interest in business and STEM, or Cornell students could simply be more pragmatic these days, choosing things that offer cold hard cash versus the educational enlightenment of the arts and humanities. Feel free to leave your comments.


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