Schwartz Plaza Construction Update, 6/2017

15 06 2017

One of the biggest complaints about Collegetown is the lack of public gathering spaces – there’s no real park or public plaza that can be utilized for gatherings and events. The gorges aren’t all that accessible and aren’t suitable for large groups, and places like CTB and St. Luke’s provide for small private gatherings and community events, but the lack of a sizable public social space poses a challenge to the neighborhood’s ability to provide for its residents.

As Collegetown’s raison d’etre, Cornell is stepping up to the plate to offer a space with the renovation of Schwartz Plaza. It’s not truly a public space as something owned by the city or county, but Cornell’s large, multi-faceted presence offers a reasonable facsimile.

Part of the purpose for building the Schwartz Performing Arts Center in Collegetown was to draw in people from outside the neighborhood, and mix the non-students with the students. When the building first opened in 1989, the plaza was intended as an outdoor reception area for Schwartz patrons, and the original design by English architect James Stirling, which called for a lively “forecourt”, was never built out. Instead, the plaza was walled off from the street and there was little exposure or interaction with College Avenue. As a result, outside of performances, Schwartz Plaza tends to be barren, its only social function comes from being close to a bus stop.

The stated goals for Schwartz Plaza’s renovation are to improve pedestrian circulation, increase safety by providing for better visibility, and to enhance aesthetics. To do this, Cornell will remove the 4-foot tall concrete wall that separates the plaza from the sidewalk, create a series of short stairs to facilitate “permeability” of pedestrians to and from the plaza, and adding new seating and landscaping to make the plaza more inviting – stone walls and pavers, wood-on-granite benches, recessed LED lighting, new bike racks and planters. It’s not really a new structure or even a change of use, but to make the plaza more effective for its intended use.

To quote the marketing pitch: “This project is expected to yield a lively new gathering space that serves as a catalyst for an enhanced pedestrian boulevard along College Avenue, the primary pedestrian gateway to the university. This project is conceived as a key node within a larger, future Collegetown public realm enhancement area.”

Being a fairly minor project, and having hosted some community meetings last fall to determine the neighborhood’s design preferences, this plan sailed through the city’s planning board review, in and out from February through March. I can’t seem to locate the SPR offhand, but the total cost is about $600,000.

As projects go, this one should be relatively short at about four months, May-August 2017. TWMLA is responsible for the plaza design, T. G. Miller for civil engineering work, and Taitem Engineering for electrical engineering. The contractor isn’t clear and (unusually) Cornell doesn’t have it listed on their webpages, but the invited bidders were all regional road/landscape construction firms.

In the photos, it looks like removal of the old plaza is underway, with the wall soon to follow. The plywood around the Vermont marble columns is for protection (way back, the columns were intended to be limestone and brick stringcourses, but it was value-engineered to marble and off-white Dryvit).

 


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3 responses

15 06 2017
CornellPhD

Did they have to make it a *sunken* plaza though? It’s like an unspoken rule of urban planning that those never work as well.

I kind of question the need for this anyway. Maybe as I get older the NIMBY in me rears its head, but this is just going to be a loud, drunken gathering place for undergrads on weekend nights. There aren’t many long-term residents in this part of Collegetown, and while there’s not much open space on this block specifically, there’s plenty a very short walk away on campus.

I may come around to it if it becomes a haunt for old guys who play speed chess like the plaza in Harvard Square, though.

16 06 2017
B. C.

I think it has potential to be a decent place in the warmer months. Part of its success will rely on Cornell getting people familiar with it, maybe host some events to help draw people to the plaza.

Point taken on the drunk kids.

20 06 2017
C.J.

Thanks, Brian, for these great posts. I love the weekly digest from WordPress; keeps me in the loop on all the planning and development happenings. I really appreciate all your research and insight!

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