Urban Renewal Part I: Ithaca’s “Project One”

18 08 2015

hotel_ith_1964

It was called “Project One”.

The year was 1964. The tax base of Ithaca, and especially downtown Ithaca, had been eroding for over a decade. Suburban big-box stores started to appear on the south side of the city in 1950, and up towards Lansing, plans were already underway for a new suburban supermarket and department store (the Shops at Ithaca Mall wouldn’t come along for another twelve years). New neighborhoods were sprouting in northeast Ithaca and Eastern Heights, and cul-de-sacs were paving their way onto West Hill and South Hill. Ithaca College was moving its staff and students to a sprawling campus just beyond the city line. From 1954 to 1960, 48 offices and retail stores closed or moved out of downtown Ithaca, a drop of 18%. The city councilmen were concerned.

So how were they to draw people and tax dollars back into the city? The city officials looked around. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was trendy to have that rambling ranch house set back far from the street, it was fashionable to attend indoor shopping centers away from the rain and the cold.

Image courtesy of Tom Morgan

Image courtesy of Tom Morgan

But most importantly, the trendsetters agreed, was that one could not live the high life, one couldn’t even dream of being a part of the jet set, without a big, luxurious car at their command. Two tons of chrome and steel, heralding you’ve made it in this world, and your car will take you anywhere and everywhere you want to be. And if a place wasn’t accommodating for your stylish set of wheels, then it wasn’t a place worth visiting.

The councilmen and the city officials were taking note of all those chrome-trimmed Bel Airs and Galaxies, with their bright colors and sculpted fenders. Following the results of a study conducted in 1959 and finalized in 1962, they came to the conclusion that in order to revive downtown, they had to catch up with the times, to bring downtown into the mid-20th century future with a swagger and a swing.

The plans were grand. In place of the nearly century-old Hotel Ithaca, a new hotel a block long, designed in the finest of modern taste. Out would go the decaying buildings of 60, 80, 100 years yore, in would come wider roads, ample parking, modern buildings and ideally, an influx of cash. Ithaca hoped it would bring new residents back into the city, while Cornell U., happy to give some money towards the effort, hoped it would bring in more industry and research organizations.

ith_urban_renewal_plan_1964_1

Project One was to be the first of three steps in Ithaca’s Urban Renewal plans. Plans in Project One called for the demolition of the Hotel Ithaca block and the buildings on the south side of the “tuning fork”, already built by that time (and taking out a number of buildings in the process). In their place, the new hotel would go, and a new bank office on the south side of the fork. In the model above, you can see what was once the Strand Theater (demo’d 1993), Restaurant Row and the old Rothschild’s Building (also gone now) still intact. There would be new auto dealerships, new department stores, traffic generators and tax generators.

Image from Cornell Daily Sun, 10/20/1966.

Image from Cornell Daily Sun, 10/20/1966.

The rest of Project One targeted about 26 acres of land bounded by State Street, Cayuga Street, and Six Mile Creek. Essentially, everything south of the Commons, and everything east of the present Hotel Ithaca/former Holiday Inn. Much of the area between Six Mile Creek and Cayuga Street was auto repair shops, dealerships and other car-oriented enterprises. Pritchard Automotive, a block further south, could be seen as the last vestige of when South Cayuga Street was “Automobile Row”.

The plans moved forward in fits and starts. Survey and planning work was brought to a stop in 1962 by Ithaca mayor John Ryan, who vetoed the plan. But following the election of Hunna Johns in 1964, the grand revitalization schemes moved forward again. The Common Council approved the federal application for Project One in June 1964.

ith_urban_renewal_plan_1964_2

After six months of delays, federal funding came through in December of that year. Cornell had already given funding to the tune of $500,000 (about $3.85 million today) to help pay for the projects, but the federal government would be the primary source of funds, which would pay 75% of the $6 million initial cost. Ithaca and the state of New York would each fund about $750,000. The city reasoned that it would bear the expense now for increased tax revenues in the future.

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Of course, not everything worked out as planned. Nowhere close, really. That will be covered in Part II.


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6 responses

18 08 2015
LW

I have the feeling that I will blink my eyes and I will not recognize Ithaca, where I have lived all my life. I suppose that is what residents said 100 years ago too! I am thankful that Tompkins County is a progressive county. Other counties and cities in the State of New York and elsewhere are declining.
Tompkins County always seems to find a way to move forward. Sometimes that turns out well and sometimes that turns out not so well but we are “movers and shakers.”

19 08 2015
CS PhD

Midcentury urban renewal projects often have head-smackingly stupid designs, but those plans for the south side of the Tuning Fork are actually decent: the big curving building creates a good streetwall along the Green/State corner, and the round building on the other corner provides a nice centerpiece for the main intersection downtown. Much better than the parking lot and one-story turd currently wasting space on that barren stretch of land.

19 08 2015
Ex-Ithacan

That 4th pic in this post shows how dense looking old downtown was. I remember my Dad worked part time in the gas station with the white facade near the bottom left of the pic. Going downtown use to be something of a big deal for me when I was a kid – pre urban renewal of course. Shopping in Rothchilds with my folks and catching the bus back up East Hill with packages for Christmas…….great stuff.
Look forward to the second part of this series, thanks BC.

21 08 2015
23 08 2015
David Harding

Ah, Rothchild’s. The wonderful toy section in the basement. The Boy Scout shop on the first floor. An elevator!

It was a major milestone when, at the age of ten, I was allowed to walk on my own down from Eddy Street to the Strand or the State Theater for a Saturday matinee.

A minor typo, I think. You refer to “about 26 acres of land bounded by State Street, Cayuga Street, and Six Mile Creek”, then go on to describe “the area between Fall Creek and Cayuga Street” as “Automobile Row”.

23 08 2015
B. C.

Whoops! Typo fixed. Thanks!

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