119-125 College Avenue (College Townhouses) Construction Update, 9/2018

16 10 2018

A little late in coming, but better than nothing at all.

119-125 College Avenue is developer John Novarr’s attempt to add something to Collegetown that’s not explicitly student housing. The plan is housing for Cornell faculty and staff, ideally visiting faculty who are in need of housing close to the university.

Most developers would probably have played their cards a little more conservatively in Ithaca’s most student-focused and most expensive neighborhood, but Novarr and his partners, doing business as the Novarr-Mackesey Development Company, have assets worth in the few hundreds of millions, so they can afford to be a little adventurous. Among Novarr’s local holdings are 1001 West Seneca Street (the Signworks Building), the Casa Roma Apartments, the Breazzano Center (on a fifty-year lease to Cornell), 312 College Avenue and the crown jewel of his holdings, Collegetown Terrace. he’s entering his mid 70s, but has no intent on slowing down; with the Breazzano wrapped up, work has commenced on 238 Linden Avenue and 119-125 College Avenue.

The first official word of this project was leaked, in a way. It was listed in July 2016 as a potential project to be sponsored for a Restore NY state grant. At the time, only a site outline was available, the plan was estimated to cost about $10 million, and the project was looking at an October 2016 site plan application with a Spring 2018 completion.

It was very early in the timeline; in fact, the sale of the existing three apartment houses hadn’t even closed yet. The three boarding houses dated from the late 19th century. A historical analysis by Bero Architecture stated that the white Queen Anne-style house at 119 College Avenue was built as a boarding house in the early 1890s, the white Italianate-style house at 121 College Avenue was built as a personal residence in the early 1870s, and the stucco-coated house at 125 College Avenue was constructed as a personal residence in the 1870s. The three properties fell under the same ownership in the 1960s, and had been owned by the Hills family for over forty years before their sale to a Novarr-associated LLC in July 2016. According to the deed filed with Tompkins County, the sale price was $4.75 million, far more than their combined tax assessment of $1.655 million.

The project has since its inception met the requirement of the zoning for the site – the three continent properties are CR-4, which allows up to 50% lot coverage, 25% green space, up to 4 floors and 45 feet in height, a choice of pitched or flat roofs, and requires front porches, stoops or recessed entries. This is the lowest-density zone for which no parking is required. The city describes the zoning as “an essential bridge” between higher and lower density, geared towards townhouses, small apartment buildings and apartment houses.

The original plan, first presented in October 2016, consisted of three buildingsthe two buildings at the front of the parcel were designed to emulate rowhouses, and a third building located in the rear of the property would have contained garden apartments. The two rowhouse buildings and rear apartment structure would have been separated by an internal courtyard, and terraced modestly to account for the site’s slope. Counting basement space, the built space would have come in at 49,278 square feet. The 67 units were a combination of studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. The project was called the “College Townhouse” or “College Townhouses”, but strictly speaking, these weren’t townhouses, the buildings only resembled townhouses by having multiple entries and stoops. The design incorporated a modern motif with glass expanses and a few different shades of colored metal and fiber cement panels.

The proposal made it through planning board review with only minor changes – for example, to give a little more visual interest, the squared-off bay windows were replaced with curving glass. The approvals process was fairly straight-forward, with site plan approval granted in January 2017.

This is where things go off the beaten path. The site had already been cleared (Novarr often seeks to clear sites before he has approvals, something that has caused consternation before), and then…it remained quiet. A vacant patch with only a temporary fence and only patchy meadow grass. This was not going to plan.

The issue turned out to be the result of revisions to the New York State Fire Prevention and Building Code. The revisions, passed in November 2016, prevented construction of buildings taller than 30 feet in the presence of above-ground power lines. It just so happens that above-ground power lines pass in front of the site. The code also made the rear garden apartment building illegal because it couldn’t be reached from the street by aerial apparatus. City staff weren’t aware the code changed until after site plan approvals were granted, someone dropped the ball on communicating the changes. The College Townhouses project no longer met code because the code had changed, and so the project team had to seek a variance from the state in November 2017, under the advisement that the power lines on College Avenue were likely to be buried in the next couple of years anyway. The argument win the state over, so it was back to the drawing board.

The revised design, showcased in February 2018, removed the rear building, and reshaped the front buildings to be narrower and deeper, separated by a large courtyard that a fire truck can navigate. Access to the courtyard comes via a mountable curb. If the day comes that the power lines are buried (in 2020 or so), the plan is to turn the courtyard into landscaped green space. The decorative entry shown in the above rendering would be built after the power lines are buried. While the footprint was greatly altered, the plan kept the same design motif as before (the new design added stainless steel and zinc panels on the walls facing the courtyard, not unlike the similarly-designed 238 Linden project), and still includes 67 housing units (90 new residents, assuming one per bedroom). Revised approvals were granted at the end of February.

Just a little clarification edit here: the power lines were one issue, and the rear building was a second issue. Both had the potential to interfere with a fire truck’s ladder or lift, and with the result of changes in the code, not only did the rear building became illegal, the buildings were now also too tall for a block with above-ground power lines, 45 ft vs the 30 ft allowed. So the design team consolidated the three buildings into two structures, separated by a large courtyard that can be entered and exited by a fire truck – the truck can just pass under the lines now to reach the back of the property.

It has taken some time to finally get underway, but it looks like ground was broken around late August. Excavation was well underway by late September, with shoring walls in place (steel H-beams with wood lagging in between) to hold the adjacent soil in place.

Local landscape design firm Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architecture guided the apartment project through the review process, but the designer of the buildings is Princeton-based ikon.5 Architects, the same firm that designed Collegetown Terrace. Welliver is the general contractor for the project, which given the 12-14 month timeline of earlier reports, is likely looking at an August 2019 completion.


Actions

Information

2 responses

16 10 2018
CornellPhD

The saga of this place is very confusing; it was surprisingly difficult to put together why the existence of power lines necessitated the creation of a drive-in courtyard and why their removal meant the courtyard could be enclosed and landscaped. Have to say kudos to the design team for figuring out a solution that worked both before and after the lines were removed.

My concern now is about that curved glass. It’s really hard to tell how that’s going to look from the renderings. I kind of wish they had stuck with the original, sharper design for the big street facing windows, but am kind of intrigued by what the final product would look like.

Finally, it’s kind of a shame about the old houses. They were a waste of space where they were and in typically Collegetown trashy condition but some had legitimate historic value and it would have been nice if they could have been moved rather than destroyed.

16 10 2018
B. C.

I should clarify. The power lines were one issue, and the rear building was a second issue. Both had the potential to interfere with a fire truck’s ladder or lift, and with the result of changes in the code, not only did the rear building became illegal, the buildings were now also too tall for a block with above-ground power lines, 45 ft vs the 30 ft allowed. So the design team consolidated the three buildings into two structures, separated by a large courtyard that can be entered and exited by a fire truck – the truck can just pass under the lines now to reach the back of the property.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: