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

30 07 2014


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 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.





7 responses

30 07 2014
Ithaca Person

“local officials feared another tax-exempt property if the private developer wasn’t granted approval” this is the case with: Ithaca College’s Circle Apartments, 312 College Ave, Collegetown Terrace and likely the Novarr development on Dryden. Check the signatures on the mortgages. We need to make this public knowledge that certain developers are working with Cornell and these properties will be off the tax-roles in time, I believe it is 2020 for 312 College Ave for example.
Check out “Integrated Acquisitions”.

30 07 2014
B. C.

There is ***absolutely no truth*** that Novarr-Mackesey’s Collegetown Terrace development is tax-exempt. And Cornell has an office in 312 College just like it has an office in Seneca Place downtown, it just leases space. IAD, the developer of 312, is a private company, they also own Warrenwood, Lansing West and Northwood, all suburban, private apartment complexes. You sir, have no idea what you’re talking about.

Click to access Integrated%20Acquisition%20and%20Development%20Response%20for%20Posting.pdf

30 07 2014
Ithaca Person

misquoted. 312 College is subject to property taxes, currently. But soon, the owner will not be paying taxes on it, since Cornell is tax-exempt. Have you looked at the mortgage of 312 College Ave? I have. Who signed it? Any Cornell officials? It’s an easy question to answer when you know what to look for.

30 07 2014
Ithaca Person

Look for Cornell real-estate employee signatures on the mortgages, despite Cornell officials swearing in front of Common Council that they have no interest in buying more property in Collegetown. We need a news story on this, Ithacating! The taxpayers in the area are already feeling the pinch. Losing more property off the tax roles is going to be problematic.

30 07 2014
B. C.

I don’t see a story here. You have no proof of your claims. You think you have a story, then take it to the Voice.

30 07 2014

I had a feeling you’d find the info about that proposal. You could host a show on the Discovery Channel about all things Cornell/Ithaca.
I also remember when drugs and the accompanying crime started to affect Collegetown. There were junkies nodding on stoops of buildings. I knew guys who were users or dealers or both. The families who owned some of the smaller apartment buildings (like my family) started to sell and move out of the neighborhood. The general shabbiness of the area began in earnest. Sad time.

As far as the property at Stewart and Williams goes, I recall going to the American Legion post located at that site with my Father when I was a youngster. I believe it was an old house/mansion looking place. It may well have been the frat house you mentioned (this was in the 50s).

Thanks for this post, I’ll have to explore the Sun archives and relive more old memories.

18 06 2015
Seven Years Later | Ithacating in Cornell Heights

[…] entries over the past year are the ones where I can combine history and development – the 10-story building once proposed for Stewart Avenue, the Collegetown history series I did last year, and that time Cayuga Heights stopped Cornell from […]

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