News Tidbits 1/31/15: History Comes Alive

31 01 2015

With no new projects before the city planning board, and the town cof Ithaca ancelling its planning meetings twice in a row (something that happens only once every couple years), the end of January is shaping up to be a slow period. But that’s not to say there’s no news at all.

1. From the twitter account of local firm Jason K. Demarest Architecture:

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No details in the tweet, but I’m getting the impression that the Shen family, who own the Simeon’s building, hired Demarest as the architect for the reconstruction. If that’s the case ( it seems likely, given that the firm handled the expansion of Simeon’s resutaruant in 2009), and this is a preliminary design, then I can only express the greatest of joys that the south facade will be sympathetically rebuilt to its former charm and glory. Fingers crossed.

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2. Sticking with the history theme, the city ILPC (Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Council) is considering another historic district, a seven-building district in central Ithaca being called the “Titus-Wood Historic District“. I can think of two reasons for this plan:

I. A historically notable carriage house at the back of 310 W. State Street has been threatened with demolition, much to the dismay of local preservationists. If designated, demolition becomes much more difficult (an “economic hardship” clause has to be invoked and approved by the council).

II. The West State corridor is a target for development under the new Ithaca Comprehensive Plan, which could potentially put the other buildings at risk in the long term.

There’s been no major opposition to the proposal so far, so this is probably good for approval at their next meeting.

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3. Also in the same ILPC meeting, a single-family home at 421 N. Albany Street is being considered for historic designation. The house was home to a precursor of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity who have sought to purchase the property and restore it as a historic fraternal landmark. The African-American fraternity (the first fraternity of its kind) is also raising money to build a monument at 411 East State Street (shown above, zoning appeal application from last summer here). The 411 East State site is owned by Travis Hyde Properties, and the national fraternity appears to have negotiated use of that part of the property for its monument.

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4. Courtesy of the Ithaca Times, we now know the renovation of the furniture store at 206 Taughannock will yield seven apartments and commercial space. The Lehigh Valley House building being renovated next door (covered by Ithaca Builds previously) will host a satellite office of the IPD on its ground floor, with six condos on the upper two floors. 206 Taughannock is being developed by Mark Zaharis, and Lehigh Valley House by Tim Ciaschi.

If Ithaca has any sort of “warehouse district” like the larger cities, Inlet Island is probably the closest comparison. Traditionally, it’s been a blend of commercial and industrial uses, and low-income families whose homes were lost to the construction of the flood control channel in the mid-to-late 1960s. In recent years, with the passage of more amenable zoning and increasing interest/rising land values in Ithaca city, the island and West End have started to receive attention from developers. In the past year, the aforementioned two projects and the 21-unit 323 Taughannock have been proposed and/or started construction, and interested parties are rumored to be waiting on the sidelines, ready to propose their own projects based on the success of these pioneers. Among those interested parties are Tom[kins County and the city of Ithaca, who are busy persuading the state to sell or move out of underused properties so that they can be made available for development.The city has had a strong interest in redeveloping the island for decades.

I think the potential is here for substantial development, and so far, the projects underway are doing well; it’s not remiss to suggest there will be more in the next couple years. But the idea of development is still controversial, with concerns of traffic and loss of local character. I have no doubt it will be a spirited debate.

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5. The charitable trust of the Al-Huda Islamic Center has officially purchased the land that will hold the Ithaca area’s first stand-along mosque. The vacant parcel at 112 Graham Road in Lansing was purchased for $64,900 on January 29th. The special permit for a religious building was approved by the village back in August of last year. The cost of construction is expected to be in the range of $600,000, which is to be raised through donations. I have no idea how close they are to their goal, but the land purchase is auspicious.





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.





Ithaca’s Sanborn Maps

16 12 2014

This post was inspired by two events – a reader messaging me and asking about historic maps, and another reader telling me about the history of the Cayuga Place/Lofts @ Six Mile Creek site. In both these cases, I ended up looking at Sanborn Maps.

Sanborn Maps were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to gauge the amount of fire insurance a site needed. A bunch of things come into play when gauging fire insurance – other structures nearby and their uses, geographic features, width of adjacent streets, fire walls, railroads, building materials, and so on. These maps, as exhaustive of a task as they must have been for surveyors, were crucial in determining the right price for insurance coverage. According to the wikipedia article, agents “relied upon them with almost blind faith”. The company was very successful and produced maps into the 2000s, and Sanborn was an early investment of Warren Buffett in the 1960s. Today, the maps are owned by their successor, Environmental Data Resources Inc.

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With all that noted, Sanborn Maps are a veritable treasure trove of information. Ithaca and Tompkins County were included in the first Sanborn volume published in 1867, and every few years henceforth. While the 1867 map doesn’t appear online, 1866 maps from a rival publisher can be downloaded from the Tompkins County Public Library here. The 1866 Ithaca map was the same one I used in my “A Walk Down Varick Street” post from last Spring. The other Sanborn volumes listed on TCPL’s website date from 1893, 1904, 1910 and 1919. Between published volumes, updates would be sent out on “slips”, sheets with the updated lot details that one could paste into place on top of the old map. There are also 1888 and 1898 copies, which are proprietary and therefore can’t be linked. The same holds true for any map not published by the government after 1922, which takes out the Sanford Maps from 1929, 1957, 1961 and 1971. These newer maps can still be accessed for academic use at Cornell’s Olin Library.

So for the sake of example, I’m going to use the Lots @ Six Mile Creek site and its surrounding block, since I’m already acquainted with it.

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I’ll lead off with the 1866 map. #13 Cayuga is a small hotel, #16 a doctor’s office, #18 a “Select School” and #19 a livery (horse stables). All the others (excluding the one labelled “Tannery”) are homes.

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Fast forward 27 years to 1893. On the corner of S. Cayuga and E. Clinton are 3-story rowhouses. A carpet maker sits to their north, and the hotel next door has expanded in the past couple decades. The corner Livery is still there, as are most of the homes. A machine shop sits where the doctor’s office used to be, while Reynolds & Lang (a maker of farm equipment) and George Small’s Planing Mill fill out the east end of the block.

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Now for another jump, 11 years forward to 1904. The hotel is now a “Farmer’s Hitching Shed” with an earth floor, and the small 2-story building next door is the Forest City Hotel. Many liveries filling in what was once open space, and the planing mill and farm equipment factory have updated names as a result of new business partners.

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Only a few years later in 1910, the planing mill has moved and the Star Theatre and a bowling alley have taken its place. A concrete garage now sits next to the creek, a bicycle shop and a clothing store sit next to the livery on the corner of Green and Cayuga, and the Forest City Hotel has become Mobb’s Hotel.

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By 1919, it all starts to get a little jumbled. The change in orientation doesn’t help either. The Star Theatre is now a furniture warehouse and the corner livery is a garage.

Without linking to the images of the later maps, I can at least describe what happens. By 1929, Cayuga Street is automobile row, with Hudson-Essex, Nash and Buick dealerships. A large parking garage is built on the east end of the block. Some houses on Green come down for the Cayuga Press printing plant. The 1961 map shows nothing but Cayuga Press and autocentric development, parking garages and car dealerships and gas stations; the corner townhouses are gone, as are most of the other houses. The whole block is levelled for parking lots and a department store by 1971. The vacated store became the library in 2000, the parking garage went up in 2005, and the apartments have followed. But you can read about the recent work here.

For a budding history buff, the Sanborn maps are a great way to kill a few hours. It also makes one realize just how much downtown Ithaca has evolved over the decades.





The Past and Future of Mixed-Use

13 09 2014

 

I figured I’d change this up from the standard construction update format. There hasn’t been enough development news tidbits this week to merit putting up a new entry; better luck next week, ladies and gents.

I was impressed by the Ithaca Times recent editorial, “The Mixed-Use Future“. It’s a piece that upholds the value of mixed-use projects and that single-use neighborhoods shouldn’t be maintained strictly because that’s the status quo.

Mixed-use projects are something that have only recently picked up steam, as urban areas embrace new urbanist concepts in an effort to add vibrancy to decaying downtowns. Ithaca has arguably been one of the most successful examples in upstate. But it had to work to get there, and the process hasn’t been without acrimony.

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I’ll rewind the clock back about 15 years to the start of the new millennium. Ithaca’s downtown was quite a bit different from today. There was no Gateway Commons, Breckenridge, Seneca Place or Cayuga Green. The Commons was plagued with high vacancies, severe enough that then-mayor Alan Cohen was mulling over reopening it to vehicular traffic. The big news at that time was the county library’s plan to move into the old Woolworth’s on Green Street (which they purchased at low cost, the owner had struggled to fill the building after Woolworth’s closed in 1998).

The last two newer developments I mentioned, Seneca Place and Cayuga Green, are closely tied together. They and the Cayuga Street garage all depended on each other as the sort of “pie-in-the-sky” redevelopment plan that Ithaca desperately wanted.

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In the early 2000s, their working titles were the “Cayuga Green at Six Mile Creek” and “Ciminelli/Cornell Office/Hotel” projects, and collectively they were called the “Downtown Development Project“. Cayuga Green has heavy city involvement. At the time, the swath of land surrounding the library on its block was all city-owned surface parking, with the helix for the Green Street parking garage to its east (it was actually kinda neat looking for a parking garage ramp; a photo can be found here).  The first phase of Cayuga Green would also be the lynch pin for the Ciminelli project; the city would convey the parking lots to the IURA, who could sell them off and partner with a developer to build a parking garage to serve the Ciminelli building and some of Cayuga Green. This phase would become the current Cayuga Street garage, which opened in June 2005 with 700 spaces, 34,000 sq ft of first floor retail, and a nearly $20 million price tag. The 185,000 sq ft Ciminelli project was constructed concurrently and also opened in 2005 as Seneca Place on the Commons, with the Hilton Garden Inn for its hotel occupant, Cornell as the primary office tenant, and retail space that would fill up over the next couple years.

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Phase II focused on a couple things (IIA and IIB, technically). The Green Street Garage would be redeveloped, the helix torn down, and a movie theater would go in the renovated space under the garage. The city owned the top two floors of the 3-story garage, and used eminent domain on the owner of the first floor. Originally, there was to be either 36,000 sq ft of retail on the first floor, or an intermodal transit center (a hub for TCAT and Greyhound/Trailways, essentially). The garage would add two more floors and have space for 1,082 cars.

Perhaps thankfully, this was never done (though the zoning was raised from 60′ to 85′ for the land that the Green Street garage sits on). The Cayuga garage picked up more retail space as the plans were rewritten. A 12 screen national theater chain was proposed for the retail space of the Green Street garage, but given the plans for an expanded theater at the mall in Lansing, it became clear that such a project wasn’t feasible. By good fortune and negotiation, Cinemapolis agreed to take the space, and the theater shrank from 12 to 5 screens and went into the Green Street garage.

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IIB and Phase III are the residential portions, Cayuga Place Apartments and Cayuga Place Residences (Cayuga Green condos). As originally proposed, there was going to be 70 to 80 apartments with ground-floor retail, and anywhere from 40 to 122 condos. The city IURA had entered a contract in 2002 with Cincinnati-based Bloomfield/Schon to develop the units. The apartments were first proposed in 2005, and with abatements approved, the 68 units and 15,000 sq ft of retail space opened in 2008. The condos are a lot more complicated, bouncing between several iterations and layouts (here’s a few versions 1, 2, and 3, here’s 4 and here’s 5) before settling on the 45-unit design currently under construction. Part of the problem was financing, especially during the recession; a later problem was that the land along Six Mile Creek is not that great for construction. It will have taken 15 years, but the downtown redevelopment project will be complete next year.

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There’s been an enormous amount of controversy. A 20-year abatement was used for Seneca Place, the labor used in some of the construction was from North Carolina, and the fight with one of the property owners (Thomas Pine, who ran Race Office Supply on the corner of Seneca and Tioga) was pretty ugly. The fight over the apartments and condos was even uglier in some ways, because the developer requested and received a 10-year tax abatement (and the ICSD was not game). Instead of bringing new, permanent jobs like an employer’s new office or factory, this was housing, and it was market-rate and premium housing at that. The retail portion offered jobs, if they could lure shops, and retail doesn’t exactly pay well either. Some, such as local megalord Jason Fane, said the project would fail. There have been problems, certainly. The Cayuga garage has struggled to fill its retail space. Only now with the impending addition of TC3’s Coltivare restaurant and learning center has it filled most of the space (Merrill Lynch took the leap a few years ago and rents some of the space; then there was that failed wine tourism center). It has taken years for the condos to begin construction. But, slowly and haphazardly, the project is building up and out.

Ithacans did a lot of soul-searching. Were the costs outweighing the benefits? Was growth downtown, or even in the county, a good thing?

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Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen opinions. I think that for all the problems and strife, that the city has benefited from the downtown projects. Through local character and some luck, the downtown residential units are full and most of the retail space is occupied. Seneca Place and Cayuga Green demonstrate that mixed-use can add life to underutilized parcels and spark interest in neighboring properties. Each project should be weighed carefully, of course. But thanks in part to active urban reinvestment, Ithaca is in a position many upstate cities envy.

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Back To The Future: Collegetown in the 1980s

20 08 2014

Entry #3 in the Collegetown history series.

I’ve gotten to know a few people over the past several years of writing about Ithaca development. One of those is a gentleman who I consider to be the patriarch for the online dispersal of Ithaca development news, the gentleman who goes by the online nom de plume of “Ex-Ithacan”, but by day, he’s mild-mannered Tom Morgan. Tom and I had talked about Ithaca development years before I started the blog; we first chatted online right before I started at Cornell in 2006, and we even met on one occasion, enjoying a late lunch at Viva downtown. He’s a super-terrific guy, and for me, a source of never-ending inspiration. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, but his comments are even-keeled and optimistic. Even though he lives well outside the area these days, he’s appreciative of the city of gorges and its many quirks.

Anyway, Tom’s been around the block many times, and his online flickr albums cover dozens of small cities from Iowa to Florida to Connecticut. After my piece about the “Great Collegetown Auction“, he contacted me, saying that he had some old photos that show what the original house at 400-404 College looked like. My eyes went wide as I looked through the four photos – although he couldn’t remember exactly when he shot them, we deduced a hazy date around fall 1986. There aren’t many online photos of Collegetown from before the 2000s, so these were a treat, from when Collegetown was in its first major redevelopment period. Tom has generously permitted his totally ’80s photos to be used for today’s post, a history tour of sorts.

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Photo courtesy of Tom Morgan (Ex-Ithacan)

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Same angle, nearly 28 years apart. This photo was one of those use to narrow down the years – Snee Hall, built in 1984, sits in the background of both, and the red Jetta in the older photo was first produced in that body style in 1984. More important are the two buildings under construction – on the far right, the Ciaschi Block is underway, replacing a worn-down house seen here in a photo dated September 1985. The Student Agencies building (409 College, second from left) is close to completion, some external scaffolding still up on the otherwise complete-looking structure. It was finished in 1986, the result of the student design competition that was the topic of last week’s post. Using these details, that’s how we came up with 1986 as the year this and the other photos were taken. The eastern half of the 400 block of College Avenue. The ca. 1912 Chacona Block (411-415 College, far left) looks virtually the same, and 403 College Avenue (second from right) only has cosmetic upgrades – an updated entryway and a paint job. Before Stella’s, it was the home of the Triangle Bookstore, and a grocer before that.

The building in the middle, 405-407 College Avenue, looks like a renovation and addition might have taken place; but it wasn’t a wrecking ball that claimed the old building, it was a devastating fire. In October 1998, a fire broke out in the Chang-An Gourmet restaurant on the first floor, and quickly spread through the wood-frame building. Luckily no one was killed, but the building was totally gutted. It was then replaced by the current structure, which was developed by Travis Hyde, designed by HOLT Architects, and opened in 2000.

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Morgan

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Now for the west side of the 400 block of College Avenue. Not as different as in the first photo set; Sheldon Court’s fifth floor was added in 1981, and Bill Avramis built 406-410 College in 1979-1980; there were three floors and a disco planned, but I dunno what happened. The old Papp House at 400-404 house is visible, and this is the only good photo of it online to my knowledge (a slice of it appears in this 1968 photo by Mike Harris). As written about a couple of weeks ago, the Papp house was replaced in the mid 2000s, after Bill Avramis’s son George won it in an auction.

Funny that Porsches are parked on the west side of College Avenue in the present-day photo in set 1, and the old photo here in set 2. Cornell students never tire of having flash to show off their cash.

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Morgan

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Oh my, I have seen the old NYS Liberty Plates since the late 1990s. Probably the last time I saw an early ’80s Mercury Capri, for that matter. Looking west, down the 100 Block of Dryden Road. I know I don’t have a photo from this angle, so google is picking up my slack. Eddygate and its 64 units were brand spanking new in 1986. Most notable are the house with a bump-out on the left, and a woody lot that no longer exist – they would be replaced with Jason Fane’s Collegetown Plaza in 1988-89. The three older buildings down the street are still there, with coats of paint or freakish ornamentation.

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Photo Courtesy of Tom Morgan

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Last but not least, the northeast corner of College Avenue and Dryden Road. Once again, the Ciaschi Block is underway, and the five-story building in back, Jason Fane’s Collegetown Court (208 Dryden), was nearly new, having been completed in 1985.  The makeover of Fane’s building at 202-204 Dryden is a recent event. Johnny’s Big Red Grill sign was still up when I first arrived on the hill, but it was taken down in 2009 when the IFD expressed concerns with the deterioration of the brick facade, and renovations commenced. The sign went up for auction on EBay, and it was bought by a Cornell alum, Carolyn Coplan ’76. She offered it to the university and several local preservation groups, but no one had the money for restoration and storage. It eventually ended up at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.

The building on the edge of the old photo, “Collegetown Convenience Store”, is better seen in the September 1985 photo mentioned earlier. Although not a part of this photo set, a Mike Harris photo from 1968 shows a gas station used to be on that site. The building is not long for this world, if John Novarr has his way. It’ll be interesting to see how Collegetown will look in another 28 years.





The Great Collegetown Building Auction

5 08 2014

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Given that Collegetown’s been so active on the development front these past few weeks, I figured I’d run a couple of pieces related to its history and development. Here’s one of them.
The building at 402 College Avenue (the “Starbucks Building”) isn’t very old. It was only completed in 2005. Prior to that, the site was home to a 3.5 story, wood-frame house dating from the late 1800s. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to find photos of it; it wasn’t an especially charming structure, the first floor had been built out for small storefronts (similar to the Kraftee’s Building), and the rest of it was pretty rundown. You can see clips of it in old file photos from the county tax assessment office, here and here. The two storefronts, mid-century bumpouts, housed a number of shops over the years – in the 1960s and 1970s, University Delicatessen (Uni Deli), then Gould’s Sporting Goods in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s, one (402) was vacant, and the other (404) was occupied by the Razzle Dazzle beauty shop.

The house was owned by the Papayanakos family. In 2002, the only resident left in the home was Constance Papp (she opted to Americanize her surname), a retired Ithaca school teacher. She had lived in the building since 1958, or 44 years, and was 86 years old in 2002. Starting around 1996, the building was falling into serious disrepair, enough that the housing units were no longer up to code. But since Papp was the only resident, and made no attempt to rent the other three units, the building inspectors didn’t push the issue.

Starting in 2000, Papp called the IPD on multiple occasions to report burglars. While none were found in any case, the police did report the serious housing code violations. Papp refused to let the building inspector in, and it took a neighbor and two IPD officers to help him execute the warrant.

The interior was in shambles. There was water damage to her bedroom ceiling, the heating was busted, garbage strewn about in the living room, and pigeons had taken residence in the attic and third floor. It was a safety hazard, both to its resident, and to neighbor properties in the event of a fire. The other units were declared unsafe, and the old woman was given a reprieve once her unit was cleaned. But, showing signs of significant mental illness a year later, she was considered unfit to manage the property, and moved to an assisted-living facility west of Ithaca, where she passed away four years later.

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With no one to manage her affairs, a guardian was appointed, and it was decided to sell the building on her behalf, by way of a public auction of the parcel. Although it was in awful shape, it sits on the most trafficked corner in the city, making its potential tempting to many. Given its possibilities, the opening bid would be a cool $500,000. A lot of the big players in Collegetown real estate were there: Jason Fane, who I’ve tapped many keys about; Mack Travis (the retired president of what is now Travis Hyde); and Bill and George Avramis. The Avramises are the third largest owners in Collegetown by property value, behind only John Novarr and Fane; given that Novarr’s rise is pretty recent, the Avramises were likely the second-largest back in 2002. Bill Avramis, the father, has been in the Collegetown market since the 1970s; his son George is a more recent addition.

The description of the auction from the Sun is pretty engrossing, so I’ll quote it:

 

Elias Shokrian accepted the opening bid and initially seemed to have won by default with no word from the crowd until Philip Youen raised his hand. For several minutes, still, [auctioneer Christopher] Anagnost waited through long pauses to move from one bid to the next.

All that changed when Jason Fane moved in, bidding 600,000 dollars. From there, Youen, Fane and Mack Travis quickly pushed the bidding up nearly 100,000 dollars.

With a high and perhaps a closing bid in mind, Anagnost turned to Fane.

He obliged with a 15,000-dollar advance and appearing satisfied, Anagnost prepared to end the auction with a call for final bids. He nearly declared the property sold before George Avramis entered the fray.

“700,000 dollars,” Avramis said.

Having already outlasted three prospective buyers, Fane wasted no time in advancing the bid further. Slowly and incrementally, Avramis and Fane bid each other to 800,000 and then 900,000 dollars.

The crowd assembled in the courthouse — mostly spectators — was looking exclusively to Avramis and then back to Fane for each ensuing bid. Finally, with Avramis at 925,000 dollars, all eyes turned to Fane.

“My congratulations to George,” Fane said, withdrawing abruptly from the auction.

Fane had reached his limit and Avramis later conceded that he was approaching his as well.

Immediately following the auction, Avramis said he would consider saving and restoring the building or tearing it down and paying a high price for the land. He said he would settle on specific plans for the property by the closing.

***

Closing was 30 days after the auction (therefore, April 10, 2002). While the current site was underutilized, historically compromised and in poor shape, the biggest issue to rebuilding was parking – any new build would require a parking space for every two tenants, within 500 feet of the parcel. The Avramis family had been eying the parcel for a while, making offers to buy the house (and being refused) as far back as the late 1980s.

Well, being the large landowners that they are, the Avramises found a loophole of sorts, which they used with the city’s benediction. It may have taken a year of back-and-forth, but the city agreed that George Avramis could supply parking at 211 Linden, a parking garage owned by his mother Maria. This allowed him to move forward with a 6-story, 20-unit, 35 bedroom building designed by Jagat Sharma. Given the recent zoning changes, I’m inclined to wonder if the Avramises have any plans for redevelopment of some of their other properties.

Had it been another buyer, the results could have been very different. The house could still be there. It could be another Fane parcel. A few seconds of decision-making made all the difference. Funny how that works.





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

30 07 2014

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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 Skyscraperpage.com. 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.

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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.

403_stewartave_1965

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.