The Maplewood Redevelopment, Part I: History and Planning

28 08 2017

Being as large and complex as it is, it was hard to figure out a way to present the Maplewood project clearly and coherently. After some thinking, it seems the best combination of clarity and detail will be to split it into three sections. This section, Part I, will be an overview of the site history and project planning. Part II will examine and break down the site plan with all of its contributing structures. Part III will be the regular construction update, which will be bi-monthly just like all the others.

Quick primer note – Maplewood Park was the name of the old complex. The new one is just called “Maplewood”. With the shorthand for Maplewood Park being Maplewood, it can get confusing.

Let’s start with the background. Love it or not, Cornell University is one of the major defining organizations of the Ithaca area. It employs nearly 10,000 people and brings billions of dollars in investment into the Southern Tier, Tompkins County and Ithaca. That investment includes the students upon which the university was founded to educate.

Traditionally, neither founder Ezra Cornell nor first university president Andrew Dickson White were fans of institutional housing. Their preference was towards boarding houses in the city, or autonomous student housing (clubs, Greek Letter Orgs, etc), where it was felt students would learn to be more independent. This mentality has often underlain Cornell’s approach to housing – it’s not a part of their primary mission, so they only build campus housing if they feel it helps them meet academic and institutional goals. If many potential students are opting for other schools because of housing concerns, or the university is under financial strain because it has to subsidize high housing costs in their scholarships, then Cornell is motivated to build housing in an effort to improve its situation and/or become more competitive with peer institutions.

With that in mind, being one of the top-ranked schools in the world means that, in the historical context of the university’s goals and plans, new housing is rarely a concern. Cornell will update housing in an effort to be more inclusive and to improve student well-being, but with labs, classrooms and faculty offices taking precedence, building new housing is rarely an objective. Only about 46% of undergrads live on campus, and just 350 of over 7,500 graduate and professional students.

From 2002 to present, Cornell has added 2,744 students, with a net increase in Ithaca of about 1900. The net increase in beds on Cornell’s Ithaca campus during that same time period is zero. While Cornell did build new dorms on its West Campus, they replaced the University “Class of” Halls. 1,800 beds were replaced with 1,800 beds. In fact, the amount of undergraduate and graduate housing on campus had actually decreased as units at Maplewood Park and the law school Hughes Hall dorm were taken offline, either due to maintenance issues, or for conversion to office/academic space. When the announcement for further decreases came in Fall 2015, I wrote a rare Ithaca Voice editorial, and even rarer, it brought Cornell out to the proverbial woodshed for poor planning and irresponsibility.

To be fair, while Cornell was the guilty body, removing housing isn’t a problem on its own. It’s when the local housing market can’t grow fast enough to support that, that it becomes a problem. The Tompkins County market is slow to react, for reasons that can be improved (cumbersome approvals process) and some that can’t (Ithaca’s small size and relative isolation poses investment and logistical hurdles). In the early and mid 2000s housing was added at a decent clip, so the impacts were more limited. But housing starts tumbled during and after the recession, and it was unable to keep up. As Cornell continued to add students in substantial quantities, it became a concern, both for students and permanent residents.

By the mid-2010s, Cornell was faced with financial strains, student unhappiness and worsening town-gown relations, all related to the housing issue. As a result, the past couple years have become one of those rare times where housing makes it close to the top of Cornell’s list of priorities.

In weighing its options, one of the long-term plans was to redevelop the 17-acre Maplewood Park property. The property was originally the holdings of an Ellis Hollow tavern keeper and the Pew family before becoming the farmstead of James and Lena (sometimes Lyna) Clabine Mitchell in the early 1800s. In 1802, James was passing through from New Jersey to Canada with plans to move across the border, but stopped in the area, liked it, and bought land from the Pews, then moving the rest of his family up to Ithaca. Apparently there’s a legend of Lena Mitchell attacking and killing a bear with a pitchfork for eating her piglets. Many of the home lots in Belle Sherman were platted in the 1890s from foreclosed Mitchell property.

Like many of the Mitchell lands, it looks like the property was sold off around 1900 – a Sanborn map from 1910 shows a brick-making plant on the property along the railroad (now the East Ithaca Rec Way) and not much else for what was then the city’s hinterland. It’s not clear when Cornell acquired property, but by 1946, Cornell had cleared the land to make way for one of their “Vetsburgs”, also known as Cornell Quarters. The 52 pre-fabricated two-family homes were for veterans with families, who swelled Cornell’s enrollment after World War II thanks to the GI Bill. Once the GIs had come and gone, Cornell Quarters became unfurnished graduate housing, geared towards students with families, and international students.

The Cornell Quarters were meant to be temporary, and so was their replacement. In 1988-89, the university built the modular Maplewood Park Housing, with 390 units/484 beds for graduate and professional students, and an expected lifespan of 25 years. The intent was to replace them with something nicer after several years, but given Cornell’s priorities, and housing typically not among them, it fell to the back burner. As temporary units with marginal construction quality and upkeep, poor-condition units were closed off in later years, and capacity had fallen to about 356 beds when the complex’s closure was announced in May 2015 for the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

Cornell had long harbored plans to redevelop the Maplewood site – a concept schematic was shown in the 2008 university Master Plan. After weighing a renovation versus a rebuild with a few possible partners, the university entered into an agreement with national student housing developer EdR Trust to submit a redevelopment proposal. The partnership was announced in February 2016, along with the first site plan.

The core components of the project were actually fairly consistent throughout the review process. The project would have 850-975 beds, and it would be a mix of townhouse strings and 3-4 apartment buildings, with a 5,000 SF community center to serve it all. The project adheres to New Urbanist neighborhood planning, which emphasizes walk-ability and bike-ability, with interconnected and narrow streets, and parking behind buildings rather than in front of them. Energy-efficient LEED Certification was in the plans from the start.

 

However, the overall site plan did evolve a fair amount, mostly in response to neighbor concerns raised through the review process. Many residents on or near Mitchell Road were uncomfortable with multi-story buildings near them, so these were pulled further back into the complex, and late in the process the remaining Mitchell Street multi-story buildings were replaced with very-traditional looking townhomes with a smaller scale and footprint. More traditional designs were also rolled out for the pair of townhouse strings closest to Worth Street, since neighbors noted they would be highly visible and wanted them to fit in. The building planned in the city’s side was also pulled inward into the parcel early on due to neighbor concerns – it became an open plaza and bus stop. The university was fairly responsive to most concerns, although the most adamant opposition didn’t want any multi-story units at all, and really preferred as few students and as few families as possible.

For the record, that is every site plan I have on file. Go clockwise from top left for the chronology. So from beginning to end, there were at least five versions made public. The final product settled on 442 units with 872 bedrooms, with units ranging from studios to 4-bedrooms.

It’s also worth pointing out that the town of Ithaca, in which the majority of the property lies (the city deferred the major decision-making to the town), had a lot of leverage in the details. The town’s decades-old zoning code isn’t friendly to New Urbanism, so the property had to be declared a Planned Development Zone, a form of developer DIY zoning that the town would have to review and sign off on. Eventually, the town hopes to catch up and have form-based code that’s more amenable to New Urbanism. The town also asked for an Environmental Impact Statement, a very long but encompassing document that one could describe as a super-SEQR, reviewing all impacts and all mitigation measures in great detail. The several hundred pages of EIS docs are on the town website here, but a more modest summary is here. If you want the hundreds of pages of emailed comments and the responses from the project team, there are links in the article here.

Some details were easier to hammer out than others. The trade unions were insistent on union labor, which Cornell is pretty good about, having a select group of contractors it works with to ensure a union-backed construction workforce. Also, at the insistence of environmental groups, and as heat pumps have become more efficient and cost-effective, the project was switched from natural gas heat to electric heat pumps, with 100% of the electricity to come from renewables (mostly off-site solar arrays).

Taxes were a bit more delicate, but ended up being a boon when it was decided to pay full value on the $80 million project. It was a borderline case of tax-exemption because Cornell would own the land and EdR would own the structures, and lease the land for 50 years; but Maplewood Park was exempt, so it could have been a real debate. Instead, EdR said okay to 100% taxation, which means $2.4 million generated in property taxes on a parcel that previously paid none. Some folks were also concerned if the schools could handle the young child influx, but since Maplewood Park only sent about 4 kids to the elementary school on average, and the new plan would send 10 students when the school has capacity for another 26, so that was deemed adequate.

On the tougher end, traffic is a perennial concern, and Cornell wasn’t about to tell graduate and professional students and their families to go without a car. Streetscape mitigations include raised crosswalks, curbing, and landscaping, EdR is giving the town $30,000 for traffic calming measures (speed humps and signage) to keep the influx of residents orderly and low-speed. A new 600,000 gallon water tank also has to be built (planned for Hungerford Hill Road).

One of the thorniest issues were the accusations of segmentation, meaning that Cornell was falsely breaking their development plans up into smaller chunks and hiding their future plans to make the impacts seem smaller. This has come in the context of the Ithaca East Apartments next door, and the East Hill Village Cornell is considering at East Hill Plaza. However, neither were concrete plans at the time, and still aren’t – to my understanding, Cornell had some informal discussions about Ithaca East but decided against it early on in the process. And they only just selected a development team for EHV.

In the end, many of the concerned neighbors and interest groups were satisfied with the changes, and actually lauded Cornell and EdR for being responsive. The EIS was formally requested in May 2016. The Draft EIS was accepted in August 2016, public meetings on it were held in October, and the Final EIS was submitted at the end of October. After some more back-and-forth on the details (stormwater management plan, or SWPPP), the Final EIS was approved right before Christmas and the project was approved in February 2017, starting work shortly thereafter for an intended August 2018 completion. With the wet summer, the project managers asked for a two-hour daily extension on construction (8 am-6 pm became 7 am -7 pm) to meet the hard deadline, which the town okayed with a noise stipulation of less than 85 decibels.

Rents for the project, which include utilities, wireless and pre-furnished units, are looking to range from $790-$1147 per bed per month, depending on the specific unit. Back of the envelope calculations suggest affordability at 30% rent and 10% utilities, for 40% of income. Cornell stipends currently range from $25,152-$28,998, which translates to $838-$967/month.

On the project team apart from Cornell and Memphis-based EdR are Torti Gallas and Partners of Maryland, New Urbanist specialists who did the overall site plan and architecture. Local firms T.G. Miller P.C. and Whitham Planning and Design are contributing to the project as structural engineer and public relations representative respectively. SRF & Associates did the traffic study. Although not mentioned as often, STREAM Collaborative did the landscape architecture for the project. The general contractor is LeChase Construction of Rochester.

So that’s part one. Part two will look at the structures and site plan itself. And then with part three, we’ll have the site photos.





Picturesque Ithaca

20 01 2015

Images from “Picturesque Ithaca”, an 1896 photobook of the city of gorges. Photocopy courtesy of the Tompkins County Public Library.

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The recently-incorporated city of Ithaca, 1896. At this time, the city was home to about 12,000 people, and Tompkins County had only 33,000 people, less than a third of what it is today. Ithaca College was just starting as a small conservatory downtown, while Cornell had a little over 2,000 students.

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I never knew the Colonial Building used to be home to the city post office (but now that I check, it served that role from 1882-1910). That, the Sage Block (orange brick) and the Miller Building (red brick) seems to be the only ones standing and still recognizable 119 years later. The lower photo is easier to recognize – the “American Crafts by Robbie Dein” store now sits in the foreground building, and most of the other buildings are still present. One could call that block of the Commons one of the most historic in all of Ithaca.

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It wouldn’t be a good picture book if it didn’t have at least a couple Cornell photos, and its students and alumni were likely the target audience for this publication. In the top photo, once can make out McGraw Tower, The pyramidal steeple of McGraw Hall, and the windows of the now-demolished Boardman Hall in the distance. The lower photo shows the Ithaca trolley (defunct 1935) that once ran past the college library (renamed in 1962 to Uris Library, for donor/trustee Harold Uris ’25). Both photos also show a relatively lush quad and library entrance, likely lost to the Dutch Elm epidemic that ravaged the campus in the mid-20th century.

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The old old Ithaca High School, the Ezra Cornell Library, the old Masonic Block, and the Trust Company and Ithaca savings Bank Building. All ornate, all lost to history. The old high school burned down in February 1912 and was replaced with the old high school (now DeWitt Mall). The Cornell Library fell victim to urban renewal; it was demolished in 1960 for a drive-thru bank extension and is now a parking lot. The Masonic Block (old old Masonic Temple) dated from the 1870s and seems to have been demolished along with the library (they both were still standing in 1959). The Ithaca Savings Bank building was designed by William Henry Miller and built in 1887, but the building was destroyed in a fire in the early 1920s, and replaced by Tioga Place (M&T Bank) in 1924.

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Upper right, the old Triphammer foot bridge. Not heated, wooden, and probably as safe as standing under a flagpole during a thunderstorm. The bridge at lower left looks to be the College Avenue Stone Arch bridge looking northward to Cornell campus.

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Of the four mansions above, three still stand. Ezra Cornell’s is now the Llenroc (Delta Phi) Fraternity House, A.D. White’s House still sits on Cornell’s campus, and the Henry Sage residence was donated to Cornell, used as an the school infirmary for several decades and is now Sage House, home of the Cornell University Press. Schurman’s residence at lower right was torn down in the early 1920s to make way for Baker Lab.





The Brains of Uris Hall

27 12 2014

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I feel that for all the attention the Wilder Brain Collection gets in Cornell promotional material, the display itself is relatively tucked away in the bowels of Cornell’s Central Campus. The brains are featured in the “welcome” display of the Department of Psychology, on the second floor of Uris Hall (third if entering from the auditorium side).

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The display itself is pretty modest – eight brains, with page-long biographies of each of the individuals featured, seven male and one female. Perhaps thankfully, none of the brains featured belong to children or young adults, sparing anyone from a fun, happenstance conversation about youth mortality. The collection actually numbers about 70 specimens currently, most of which are stored in a basement closet in Uris Hall (unfortunately, Cornell is not accepting donations from the newly departed).

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The brain collection used to be much larger, however. It was started by Cornell professor Burt Green Wilder in 1889. Prof. Wilder established the “Cornell Brain Society” with the goal of determining if differences in the size, shape, weight and appearance of the brains could be established between the grey matter obtained from “educated and orderly persons” versus women, murderers, the mentally ill and racial minorities. I’ll give female readers a moment to roll their eyes. The eventual conclusion was that there were no detectable differences, at least none apparent to 19th century methods or the naked eye. This might seem obvious now, but in the 19th century, this was still a largely unexplored realm. For instance, phrenology, a psuedoscience where skull measurements were used to determine ones traits and behaviors, was still accepted in some quarters in the late 1800s.

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Over time, the number of full and partial specimens collected by Wilder and his successors numbered over 600. Unfortunately, as the years wore on, the brains fell into obscurity, and were not well maintained. By the time Prof. Barbara Finlay assumed the curator role in 1978, many of the brains had “dried up” or were “carried out of the basement via buckets“. This led to the purging of most of the specimens, and the eight selected for display were chosen if only because the psychology department was able to find enough information to write brief biographies on each of the donors.

Briefly, the eight donors are:
Burt Green Wilder (1841-1925) – The founder of the collection, Wilder was a surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War, and a professor of neurology and vertebrate zoology at Cornell from 1867-1910.

Helen Hamilton Gardener (1853-1925) – An author and prominent suffragette, Gardener donated her brain to the collection to prove that a woman’s brain was in no way inferior to a man’s.

Edward Titchener (1867-1927) – A prominent psychologist and Cornell professor, Titchener coined the word “empathy” in a 1909 publication.

Henry A. Ward (1834-1906) – A naturalist who pioneered the business of collecting specimens (specifically rocks and minerals) and selling them to colleges and museums. He was also Buffalo’s first automobile fatality.

Jeremiah Jenks (1856-1929) – An economist and Cornell professor from 1891-1912.

Sutherland Simpson (1863-1926) – A Cornell physiology professor (1908-1926). Simpson had intended in his younger years to become a ship captain, but depending on the source, either a hand injury or a letter from his mother caused him to rethink his plans, and instead he applied for the position of laboratory boy in the physiology department of the Univ. of Edinburgh, which started a long and fulfilling academic career.

Simon Henry Gage (1851-1944) – the most recent of the displayed brains, Gage was associated with Cornell from his 1873 enrollment to his death 71 years later. He was an anatomy and physiology professor and co-designed Stimson Hall on Cornell’s campus.

Edward Rulloff (1819/1820-1871) – The famous murderer, previously written about here and here. Wilder collected his brain after he was hanged, and declared it to be the largest on record.

There are a lot of brains on Cornell’s campuses, though perhaps they’re a little busier than these.

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Canines at Cornell

25 11 2014

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During my four years at Cornell, dogs were something of a rarity. I knew a couple of grad students who had dogs, and a couple of fraternities with house dogs, and that was about it. A member of my chapter tried to push a proposal through our alumni Corporation Board to permit the adoption of a house dog, but the board declined, citing concerns about liability (and given the possibility of someone being bitten at a party or something, I didn’t disagree with their decision).

Before the 1950s, dogs were far more ubiquitous. For one, the Vet School was located where ILR is today, and then-president Mallott cited the incessant animal noises, including barking dogs, as one reason to move out of the A.D. White House at the start of the 1950s (Altschuler and Kramnick 36; I wager that the student riot in front of his house in 1958 reaffirmed his off-campus preferences). But even outside of the kennels and vet offices (dogs weren’t allowed in lecture halls in the vet school), dogs were accepted and even welcome on the quads, in academic buildings, libraries and even cafeterias. Some thought it was the result of an alumni donation with a stipulation to allow roaming digs free rein of the quads.

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But the hospitality towards canine companions was fading. In 1948, they were banned from the Willard Straight cafeteria, and the following year, the Cornell Sun waged a campaign to have rowdy rovers removed from campus Libraries. In 1953, Malott (what is with this man hating on dogs?) had Fido banned from the graduation ceremony. By December 1959, dogs were banned from all campus buildings aside from the Vet School. The reasons for banning dogs were fair enough; dog fights, interrupting a symposium on segregation, destroying books; but some students and faculty still mourned the disappearance of canines from the classroom. One misogynistic professor told the Sun in 1959 he “surveys the situation before each class and throws out any wild puppies. Dogs are like co-eds knitting. I’m willing to put up with them if they stay quiet. Who knows? Like the co-eds, they might learn something.”

A special focus of the anti-dog sentiment was on a 5-year old, three-legged husky named “Tripod”, who became a sort of quad-wandering unofficial campus mascot in the mid and late 1950s. “Tripod” had three legs as the result of a car accident in November 1953, from which “he hovered for many weeks between life and death“, and his back left leg was paralyzed and later had to be amputated. Officially, he was the house dog of Kappa Delta Rho (KDR) and named Chinook, but like many dogs, wandered campus at his whim. However, Tripod chased a cat to death and was reported to have snapped at students. Eyewitness reports to the Sun claim he was chasing the cat when it ran into the path of a patrolling campus police car, but the police report suggests he mangled the cat, which then crawled under the car. The Sun was not inclined to believe them. His former owner (Roger Burggraf ’56) claimed him, and once his army tour was completed in Spring 1959, said he would return the husky to Alaska. Tripod had a fraternity-hosted feast in his honor on October 17, 1958, and while it’s not stated whatever happened after he was picked up by his owner the next day, I hope that he lived out some happy days in the last frontier. His now 82-year old owner did return to Alaska, worked as a dog trainer, and was awarded Alaskan of the Year a few days ago, so I have every reason to be optimistic.

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The removal of dogs took a pause during the 1960s, when civil unrest was the forefront of concerns and soft-hearted professors didn’t care to raise a complaint to the occasional four-legged attendee. Dogs could still walk untethered on campus outside of buildings. But after a large ill-tempered dog bit four students during a chemistry exam in 1973, (AK 233), the university started enforcing a 1971 rule requiring all dogs on campus be leashed (although I don’t think a 1972 recommendation for mandatory dog registration was approved). Tompkins County followed suit in 1980.

Gone are the days of dogs frolicking free on Cornell’s campus. Legally, anyway.

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[1] Altschuler, Glenn C. and Issac Kramnick. Cornell: A History, 1940-2015. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014. Print.





Cornell Provosts Climb the Ladder

21 10 2014

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It’s pretty clear the the president of Cornell is first in command of the university. However, being that Cornell is a university with tends of thousands of students, thousands of employees, and multiple campuses, it stands to good reason to have a chief academic officer of sorts, a general supervisor of college affairs while the president represents the university’s “public image” and acts as chief fund-raiser. In comes the provost, a position created in 1931 by the Board of Trustees to manage the university’s myriad affairs. The provost is a sort of COO while the president is CEO.

Many of Cornell’s provosts haven’t been content with being second in command, the latest example being Provost Kent Fuchs leaving to become president of the University of Florida. Fuchs (pronounced “fox”) has been in the provost position since 2009. His predecessor, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, who left to take over as president of  the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Let me run down the list of provosts since WWII and see what happened with each provost:

Arthur S. Adams (1946-1948): Bid adieu to Cornell when he was appointed president of the University of New Hampshire. He may not have liked UNH much, because he left in 1950 to head the American Council on Education, and from there on a number of other academic leading roles. He passed away in 1980.

Before someone calls me out for not including the provost in 1945, there was no serving provost from 1944-1946. Former Ag school dean Albert Mann (1931-1936) and former Packard Motors executive H. Wallace Peters (1936-1943) both retired after serving as provost.

Cornelis de Kiewiet (1948-1951): Departed when he was selected as president of the University of Rochester, a position that he served in from 1951-1961, from which he retired and spent the rest of his years working as a proponent of investing in higher education programs in Africa. A rather unattractive brutalist dorm at the UofR is named after him.

Forrest Hill (1952-1955): I should note that provosts under President Mallott seemed to have less power than more recent ones; Mallott enjoyed his authority, something that also led to the student riots of 1958. Hill left to head the Overseas Development for the Ford Foundation, and established rice-breeding institutes that increased yields substantially, and helped propel the “green revolution” of the mid-20th century. Forrest Hill retired to Ithaca in 1976 and passed away 12 years later.

Sanford Atwood (1955-1963): Left in 1963 to serve as president of the prestigious southern college Emory University, where he was president from 1963-1977 (and where has a building named in his honor). While at Emory, Atwood became best-known for standing behind a professor who declared a belief that “God is dead”, which didn’t go over very well at the traditionally Methodist institution. He retired from Emory and passed away in 2002.

Dale Corson (1963-1969): The only recent case of a provost becoming president, as a result of James Perkins’s resignation following the Willard Straight takeover. Corson, for whom Corson Hall is dedicated, served as Cornell’s leader from 1969-1977, and lived in Ithaca up to his passing in 2012 at the age of 97.

Robert A. Plane (1969-1973): Left Cornell to serve as president and CEO of Clarkson University, where he served from 1974-1985. After he retired from that position, he became a winemaker, and eventually came back to work for Cornell as head of the university’s Ag Experiment Station in Geneva from 1986-1990. After he retired again,  he served as president of Wells College from 1991-1995, though the college was still all-female at the time. He’s totally, completely retired now, and still kicking at the age of 87.

David Knapp (1974-1978): Left to become the president of the University of Massachusetts, where he served as president from 1978-1990, and retired from his professorial duties in 1993. It was Knapp who suggested changing the name of the College of Home Economics to the College of Human Ecology, while he was dean of the college.

W. Keith Kennedy (1978-1984): For whom Kennedy hall on the Ag Quad is named. He retired at the end of his term, but served on a number of Cornell committees and Ithaca-based foundations and boards for the rest of his life. Kennedy passed away in Ithaca in 2011 at the age of 92.

Robert Barker (1984-1991): Retired from Cornell in 1995, according to the Office of the Provost website, and moved to Washington State.

Malden “Mal” Nesheim (1989-1995): Note the overlap with Robert Barker; Barker served as “senior provost and COO”, the only time that position has ever existed, from 1989-1991. Nesheim became provost emeritus in 1995, and is a professor emeritus of the Nutritional Science department, taking part in various committees well into the 2000s.

Don Randel (1995-2000): Left in 2000 to become the president of the University of Chicago. Left U. Chicago in 2005 to take over as president of the Mellon Foundation. It appears he’s since retired.

Carolyn “Biddy” Martin (2000-2008): Left to take over of the University of wisconsin at Madison. Left that position in 2011 to become president of Amherst College, a small but prestigious liberal arts school in Massachusetts.
W. Kent Fuchs (2009-2014): Leaving to take over as president of the University of Florida.

So, since WWII and excluding Corson, 8 of the 12 provosts have gone on to serve other schools, and only 3 of 12 stayed with Cornell through retirement. The position is often a high-level stepping stone for administrators with grand aspirations. Not to say they don’t care about Cornell, not true at all; but there’s a good chance that Cornell won’t be throwing a retirement party for the next provost.





Riots in Collegetown

14 10 2014
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Photo courtesy of the Cornell Daily Sun

Entry number five in the Collegetown history series.

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There’s a lot to dislike about Collegetown. The litter, the students, the traffic, the students, the noise, the students. For as much value as it is to the city’s coffers, I’m willing to wager that a survey of 20 random Ithaca residents on the worst neighborhood in the city would turn up a near tie between Collegetown and specific sections of crime-plagued West Hill. To some, Collegetown could hardly be a worse place.

But it can; take for instance, student rioting.

Rioting could fall into two fairly broad categories – violent social commentary, or drunken idiocy. Syracuse can provide an example of the latter. Collegetown’s riot may be a little alcohol-infused (particularly the second one discussed here), but mostly they were the result of social unrest.

Today’s clock is rolling back to May 1972. That spring had been a long semester at Cornell. Carpenter Hall had been taken over a few weeks earlier, with students demanding that Cornell Aeronautical Lab stop government research (much of their research focused on defense and military concerns), that trustees with a hand in Gulf Oil force the company out of Portugal’s African colonies, and that the ROTC be permanently disbanded. The administration, then under President Dale Corson, said it was “prepared to talk and listen but not negotiate“. The protestors refused to budge, but stormed out to Day Hall when an injunction was about to be served.

May 11 started just like any other anti-war rally, with 200-300 students protesting in front of Day Hall at around 10 PM. But when they decided to march to Collegetown, things spiraled out of control. Several students went to the First National Bank on the corner of College and Dryden (the corner where the failed Green Cafe is now), smashed the windows, and tried to set the bank on fire with homemade torches. IPD responded to the rioters with tear gas. Eight protesters were arrested and two policemen sustained injuries, one of which was a broken leg. The rioters, dressed in Halloween masks and being in a destructive sort of mood, retreated to campus, where they smashed the windows of the Campus Store and Day Hall, to the tune of “Day Hall must fall” chants. They marched on to Barton because of its ROTC affiliation, smashing several more windows while Cornell police watched in their riot gear, but did not intervene. By 1:15 AM, the rioters called it a night and dispersed. The damage to Collegetown was estimated to be thousands of dollars, which would be in the tens of thousands when adjusted to 2014 values.

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Photo courtesy of the Cornell Daily Sun

Corson and his administration were none too amused, and vowed to prevent any recurrence with the help of the IPD. That vow would be tested two days later, at a student block party on College Avenue near its intersection with Catherine Street. The party had hundreds of attendees and had been well-publicized, but it lacked the necessary permits from the city (yes, even in the idyllic days of yore, there was red tape). Mayor Ed Conley, remembering the riots two days earlier, was not going to let it slide. The police were out by 6 PM and started to arrest students for minor infractions such as noise violations. The proverbial stick was poking the hornet’s nest, and Cornell’s provost tried to step in on the university’s behalf and offer up party space on campus. But students declined, and unrest began to boil over by 9:30 PM. The officers turned to tear gas to keep the street clear, which fomented the students and encouraged them to act out. Bottles, rocks and obscenities began to fly. Soon the battlefield had migrated up College Avenue, where IPD threw tear gas into buildings in an effort to gas out what they thought were unruly students taking refuge, but ending up gassing innocent bystanders as well. One store-owner accused the police of starting a fire with a canister thrown into his deli. The rioting continued to 2 AM, and resulted in 29 arrests, including 13 Cornell students. Accusations were thrown around about who started it and who did what damage, and a report some time afterward laid blame on the students, the IPD, the mayor and Cornell (so essentially, everyone was at fault). In retrospect, the May 13th episode was regarded as a giant mistake. The May 11th incident was still a flash point months afterward, a drug-infused example of organized crime per the district attorney and a witchhunt per the students.

Not to condone the drunken throngs losing their dinner on the sidewalk, but I suppose I’d rather put up with that than burning buildings and riot gear.





A Building Cornell Regrets, and That Time I Was Duped

16 09 2014

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Cornell’s a large campus with many buildings to its name. With some, form comes before function (Balch isn’t the most practical layout for a dorm, as eye-catching as it is), and others it’s function before form (Olin Lab, for instance). The goal is to have both a pleasing form and functionally efficient, which many of the more beloved buildings, like Willard Straight Hall, have been able to accomplish.

Some building accomplish neither. Some buildings do such a bad job at accomplishing form or function that they force the university to do an overhaul of its planning process.

There’s a few that could earn such a dubious distinction (old MVR north and Bradfield come to mind), but one resulted in a special amount of acrimony – Uris Hall.

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Let me do a quick summary. Uris Hall was completed in 1972 thanks to a generous donation from real estate developer Harold Uris ’25 and his brother Percy (who graduated from Columbia, which has a less offensive Uris Hall). According to the now-offline Dear Uncle Ezra’s 12/27/2005 edition, Cornell gave the donors the ability to dictate design preferences, and while they were in Pittsburgh, the Urises noticed how amazing the (then new) U.S. Steel tower’s facade looked (which uses cor-ten steel). They wanted to see that on the new building, so that’s why it was used on Uris Hall. Corten steel turns a rusty-gold with blue overtones when it reacts with common air pollutants, but because of Ithaca’s lack of air pollution to oxidize the steel’s surface, it’s a decades-long process.

Okay, so it’s ugly. But it gets so much worse than that.

For one thing, the upkeep of the facade gave the building an incredibly high maintenance cost, something that Cornell was not happy about. An October 2, 1973 Sun article notes that Uris cost about 81 cents per square foot to maintain in 1972-1973, compared to the campus average of 15 cents per square foot. When a building is 174,000 square feet, that cost really adds up (if you’re keeping score at home, that’s about $115,000 in 1973 dollars, or about $616,000 today). There were a couple primary reasons for this: large glass expanses of single-pane bronze-tinted glass resulted in huge utility bills and were too big for facilities equipment to clean, and the slowly rusting steel. Technically, if all had gone to plan, the rust would have formed quickly, and the oxidized surface of the steel would have created a protective coating and kept future maintenance costs low. In reality, the slow rusting resulted in a runoff of steel oxide film being deposited onto the glass, which had to be quickly cleaned off before it could etch into the windows. So every rainstorm was a race against time with inadequate equipment. These were things that the architect, Roy O. Allen Jr. of SOM, admitted had not crossed his mind when designing the building.

For what it was worth, Harold Uris donated another $1 million for the building’s maintenance, and the university reconsidered the balance of building design vs. maintenance costs. Corson himself declared that the university would not borrow money to construct buildings that would be a long-term burden on university finances.

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Well, I’ll admit I’ve been tricked. I ran a couple keyword checks to see if the article cited below checked out and nothing came up to suggest it was false. Apparently I used the wrong keywords. My mistake! I commend the 1970s Daily Sun for making it so believable. -BC

Ah, but when it rains, it pours! And when it pours, it corrodes the exterior steel, to the point where the entirety of Uris Hall had its structure compromised. So the university found itself in May 1974, two years after the building opened. The university was a little nervous about issues with Uris Hall and commissioned a team of civil engineers to examine the building. They found that only was the steel weak from corrosion, the building was liable to collapse in a matter of weeks. Harold Uris freaked out. Unable to bear further embarrassment from his namesake building, he threatened to take back a $1 million donation unless students were away from campus while emergency repairs were taking place at the end of May. This meant rescheduling student exams and reducing the exam study period from five days to two in order to accommodate. The university claimed that it was a chilled water/air conditioning issue that caused the abbreviated study schedule. In sum – a rich donor held the university by its financial balls and forced 15,000 students to undergo undue extra stress in order to hide an embarrassing mistake that was in some degree the result of his architectural tastes. The only reason all this news became public is because the outgoing arts dean refused to go along with the charade. Thomas Mackesey, the VP of planning who had signed off on Uris Hall, resigned as a result of the fiasco.

There’s probably more to the aftermath, but the Sun archives lack information for fall 1974 through early 1978. But at the very least, when it came to being a disaster of a project, Uris Hall wins the gold medal.