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.

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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.

 

 





A Walk Down Varick Street

4 03 2014

I try and keep in track of the hotlinks to this site from other blogs. A while back, I noticed a link from a little-used community blog for Ithaca’s Lower Northside, aptly named lowernorthside.org. I decide to check it out, and stumbled upon a map it had included in one of its (few) posts. It’s an atlas of the Ithaca area dating from 1866. When Cornell U. was still a dream under construction, and Ithaca had yet to be incorporated as a city (something that wouldn’t happen until 1888). A lot has changed in 128 years, and it’s really a fascinating look back on an older incarnation of the city of gorges.

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Clicking on the image will pull up the fine print, or just follow the link above. Unfortunately, the commercial version of wordpress this blog uses doesn’t allow for embedded PDFs, otherwise I’d have cut out the extra step. Of course, for the sake of following along, here’s a map of the current-ish city of Ithaca.

In 1866, Ithaca was much smaller, posting a population in 1870 of 8,462, a number that probably had a bit of help from the newly opened Cornell U. and its 400 or so students. Tompkins county was only one-third of its present population, with about 33,000 people. The county had seen a massive population decline in the 1850s and was only just beginning to recover during this decade.

Ithaca was, as today, “centrally isolated”, having been bypassed for a major railroad in favor of Syracuse. However, the Cayuga branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western railroad had its terminus in the city, and there were steamboats one could take down Cayuga if they were coming out of the north. Ithaca was still expanding in all directions, yet to fill out Fall Creek or the Northside, and barely reaching where Collegetown is today. The small hamlet of Forest Home was still known by its original name, Free Hollow, and at the cruxes of dirt roads, small clusters of houses, churches, and small schoolhouses can be seen. A nice asset here is the inclusion of homeowners’ names; we see names that still live on as place and street names in Ithaca today, like Bryant (Park neighborhood), Coddington (Road), Renwick (Place/Drive/Heights Road), and Mitchell (Street). Ezra’s land is nearly vacant except for his own home, his farmland having but a few roads; and IC and South Hill are barer still.  Cascadilla Place is there, completing construction the year this map was made; the water-cure sanitarium was never used as such since Ezra Cornell, its biggest investor, swooped in and repurposed the structure.

Another notable name on the larger map, though perhaps not as important today, is Heustis. College Avenue used to be called Heustis Street, after landowner Lorenzo Heustis. The name was changed at the urging of local property owners in 1908. Similarly, Collegetown’s Linden Street, not yet in existence but forthcoming, had to beg the city and line their road with linden trees to get their name change from Hazen Street approved in 1924.

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Looking a little closer at Ithaca itself, a little re-orienting is required in some neighborhoods. The county fairgrounds were north of the city on Railroad Avenue (now Lincoln Street), in what is today a mostly residential area. No King or Queen Streets yet in Fall Creek, then a sparsely populated if growing neighborhood. Steamboats had their dock near where 13 passes the Sciencenter today. Llenroc (then “Forest Park”) shows up here near the cemetery, the grandiose mansion in the midst of construction in 1866, nine years from completion. Other streets had different names as well;  among them, Park Place was Varick Street (for Richard Varick DeWitt, local landowner; also an infinitely cooler name than a Monopoly space), Hillview Place was Mechanic Street, Esty Street was New Street, Cleveland Avenue was Wheat Street, and Court Street was Mill Street (residents despised it so much it was changed to Finch Street, then Court Street in 1924). Most prominently, State Street went by Owego Street at the time (the name change would come next year, in 1867). The contemporary Ithacan asking for directions might get a little confused.

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Some noted landmarks still stand – the Clinton House (1829), and the old County Courthouse (1854) on the public square. Others have seen the wrecking ball, some not all too long ago – the Cornell Library, brand new in 1866, made it to 1960, the old city hall to 1966. Urban renewal took its toll on the city, though perhaps not as extreme as Albany or Syracuse.

The area that would become the Commons is already dense with buildings, though it steadily tapers in any direction and peters out after several blocks. Collegetown is hardly Collegetown, with only a few homes on Spring Street (Schuyler Place, 1924), Factory Street (Stewart Avenue, 1888), and Eddy Street. A tobacco barn, grist and cotton mills, and foundries provided local employment, as well as brewery just south of the current-day police station. Ithaca was a growing large town in upstate New York, with small industries and a developing core.

I’ve heard students derisively say that without Cornell (and presumably IC), Ithaca would be as small and unimportant as Watkins Glen. I think that’s an extreme judgement. Maybe Cortland-sized, or maybe it would have ended up like Elmira; but there was a village here before there was a university here, a village that is fascinating to examine on an old map.





That Time Ithaca Almost Had A Nuclear Power Plant

1 12 2012

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Let’s play a word association game. Think of a stereotypical resident of Ithaca. Now think of five words or behaviors that you would use to describe them.

I’m suspecting that most readers may have used “hippie”, “eco-friendly”, “green”, “environmentalist” for at least one of their five.

Back in the early 1970s, when the environmental movement was really taking off post-Rachel Carson, the state of New York, along with certain large power companies, was looking to build a few power plants, technologically-advanced nuclear facilities. A few of these plants were commissioned – Fitzgerald and Nine Mile Point, for instance.  I bring up these two facilities because I grew up in their geographic shadow. Certainly, the locals are glad for the hundreds of job provided; but there’s also the implicit acceptance that if something really major gets fouled up, you and all of your neighbors are screwed, and you’re reminded of this when the postings for iodine pill distribution are sent out. For anyone living in the span from Oswego down to Syracuse, you know they are there, you know they are dangerous, but you shrug it off and accept them for the economic benefits. Maybe not the best attitude, but that is what it is.

Well, the attitude was more cavalier in the swinging ’60s. The state was considering sites, and thought it would be great to place one near Ithaca – in Lansing, to be exact. In 1968, NYSEG announced their intention to build the “Bell Station Nuclear Power Plant” on the shores of Cayuga Lake, in the northwest corner of Lansing, about twenty minutes’ drive north of Cornell. The facility would have been just to the north of the Milliken Station coal plant. The Tompkins County Board of Supervisors approved the project.

Well, the public reaction was not as effusive. A grassroots group, “Trumansburg United to Save Cayuga Lake”, was formed, with the express purpose of derailing the project (it was claimed that thermal pollution from the plant would destroy the ecological habitat of the lake). Dozens of professors and environmental scientists at Cornell and IC spoke out against the project. The sour public opinion caused the proposal/approval to drag on for years (yet, the negativity was not as widespread as the local editorials made it seem). The Trumansburg folks probably would not have stopped the Ward Center Nuclear Reactor at Cornell, which was smaller and built several years earlier, because initially the concern was the lakeside location, not nuclear power. But by 1973, as the dangers of nuclear activity moved into the scrutiny of the public eye, the negative attention turned towards plants themselves.

On June 15, 1973, NYSEG decided to give up on the Lansing location, the public sentiment against the project being a major factor in their decision. As a result, they pursued a location in the town of Somerset, in Niagara County. In the early stages of construction, it was discovered that a fault line lay 40 miles away, which would have made retrofitting necessary, and the nuclear plant infeasible. So the facility was changed to a coal power plant, and this opened as the Kintigh Generating Station in 1984.

As for the land the plant was to be built on in Lansing, the state leased some of it out to neighboring farms, and the other half remained undeveloped woodlands. Recently, the town has been considering taking over management of the site, with a proposal being considered that would turn its 490 acres into a lakeside wildlife and recreational area.





Why Syracuse and Cornell Would Ever Be Mentioned in the Same Sentence

3 07 2012

I have a certain fondness for the Orange. I grew up in the Syracuse sphere of influence, where because of the lack of national sports franchises in the region (a few hardy souls follow the Buffalo Bills, who went 0-4 in a row in the Super Bowl in the 1990s; having not been to the playoffs in over a decade, beings a Bills fan requires grief therapy), the Syracuse Orangemen/Orangewomen, now using the extra PC term of Syracuse Orange, were the teams to follow, especially in football and basketball. When I was growing up in my hometown not too long ago, it was generally expected that if you were reasonably talented, you went to SU. And a couple dozen of my high school classmates did just that. I was the only one in my year that went to the Big Red, 50 miles southwest of University Hill.

In my mind, I often draw parallels to Cornell and Syracuse. They were both established in the Reconstruction Era – Cornell in 1865, and Syracuse in 1870. Both are large institutions – the combined student enrollment for Cornell is 20,939, and Syracuse is 20,407. In terms of the prestige factor, both are well-regarded, although Cornell, with its Ivy League gilding, is usually considered the more respected of the two. US News & World report ranks Cornell in a tie with Brown for 15th (roughly constant for the past few years), and Syracuse 62nd (a drop of about 12 spots since I started college in 2006). That all being said, if Syracuse had had what I wanted to study, and it was better ranked in that field than Cornell, I would’ve gone to Syracuse, lack of ivy notwithstanding.

The two are physically close, superficially similar, and their history is intertwined, which is what I want to touch on with this entry. Collegiate snobbery aside, Cornellians and Syracusans undoubtedly owe a fair amount of their history to each other.

First of all, Syracusans can thank Ezra Cornell (or curse him, perhaps) for being located where they are today. Andrew Dickson White and Ezra Cornell were state senators in the early 1860s, when the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act was passed; Cornell represented the Ithaca area, and White was elected out of the city of Syracuse. While they both united under the common goal of establish one strong university with those land sale proceeds, they differed on location. White wanted Syracuse to be home to the new school, and for the college to be seated on what is now University Hill. He believed that Syracuse, a burgeoning transportation hub, would make it easier to recruit faculty, and that the city would serve the university better. However, Ezra Cornell strongly disagreed; he detested Syracuse as a den of sin, citing an incident where he was twice-robbed of his wages as a young man while working in the city. Old Uncle Ezra offered up his farm in Ithaca if White agreed to keep the school out of Syracuse. White relented, and in following fashion, named the school after its biggest benefactor. On a final note, while Ezra gave $500,000 (1865 dollars) and his property to his fledgling institution, he gave $25,000 (1865 dollars) to those who supported a Syracuse school, so they would support the bill establishing the Ithaca school. In turn, this money was used to assist moving Genesee College from Lima, New York, to Syracuse, and helped SU to be established.

In many ways, the relationship between Cornell and Syracuse could be described as antagonistic. Cornell had the first school of forestry in the state, from 1898 to 1903. At that point, Bernhard Fernow had ticked off enough Adirondack land owners and wealthy vacationers that the governor vetoed funding for the school, which led to the Board of Trustees shutting it down. However, several years later, under the influence of Syracuse trustee Louis Marshall, a new forestry college was established in Syracuse, semi-associated with SU (SUNY ESF, in 1911). Rather than completely give in, Cornell continued a much smaller forestry college within the agriculture school, which annoyed the bean counters in Albany enough that they officially made SUNY ESF the primary forestry school in the 1930s, relegating Cornell to only “farm forestry“. In exchange, Syracuse had to drop all ambition of its own College of Agriculture. Today, the forestry department at Cornell is known as the Department of Natural Resources.

Competition for state money has always been a sticking point for Cornell and Syracuse. While Cornell lost the battle for the forestry school, Syracuse lost the battle for the ILR school (Industrial and Labor Relations) while it was being conceived in the late 1930s. Post WWII, academic competition between the two schools has given way as they diverged in their interests; the primary contests between the two institutions these days involve sports, where Syracuse usually has the upper hand.

So, as much as students at the two schools may taunt and jeer at each other, both institutions have played a crucial role in helping to develop the other. However, given my orange and red sympathies, I will forever be unwelcome at SU vs. Cornell games for the rest of my life.





The Strange Case of Edward H. Rulloff

21 02 2012

Image Property of Rulloff's Restaurant, Ithaca NY

In some way, shape or form, most Cornellians are familiar with the Rulloff name. If you’ve ever lingered in Collegetown, you’re aware of Rulloff’s restaurant and bar over on College Avenue. If you’re a real campus adventurer, you might even be aware of Edward Rulloff’s brain, stored in preservatives over in Uris Hall. But, apart from the piece of news that he was a convicted murderer and noted linguist, not much else is shared. So this entry is to shine a little more light on the murderous man of many talents.

Edward H. Rulloff (officially John Edward Howard Rulofson) was born around 1820 to Rulof Rulofson, a second-generation American who had the unfortunate luck of being a loyalist living in New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. Unsurprisingly, he left for New Brunswick, where he was granted land and became, of all things, justice of the peace. Some articles suggest that Edward developed his talents as a result of an incident where his younger brother Rulof was critically injured due to  a beating from a school teacher (it took young Rulof several weeks to recover; the teacher begged for forgiveness, which was apparently given, and the brother became a prosperous lumber merchant in northern Pennsylvania).

Edward was, as an adult, described as a serious and studious individual, professorial, even grandfatherly. He was devoted to his research, often spending several hours a day researching and writing, in spartan accommodations – the life of a hard-nosed academic.  He went by numerous names and aliases – Edouard Leurio, Edward Rulofson, and his preferred name, Edward Rulloff. Edward Rulloff considered himself a self-taught but well-respected philologist – that is, a person who studies language formation.

Edward Rulloff’s research was that he believed there was “method” in the incongruities of the world’s languages (a sort of “key” for decoding languages). This pursuit was dubious at best; his theories were but one of dozens, with most of the others tying into “superior” and “inferior” languages and overt racism.  Besides the philology, Rulloff was a self-trained physician, an inventor, and a self-proclaimed expert on phrenology (a debunked science suggesting that bumps on the human skull were indicative of certain behaviors and character traits). However, he had never gained much wealth, which he wrote off to “misfortunes”, as he opined during his many forays into self-pity. He hoped to build his name on his manuscript, Method in the Formation of Language, and gain the wealth and respect he craved.

But there was more to Edward Ruloff than his elderly professor persona; as a young man, he served two years for embezzlement. Arriving in Dryden in the 1840s, he was arrested for several burglaries and robberies between 1845 and 1871, and was accused of beating his wife Harriet and their young daughter to death (it was alleged their bodies were dumped into Cayuga Lake; although never proven, he served ten years, possibly because the jury believed an innocent man does not flee to Chicago and then lure his brother-in-law out west on a wild goose chase), as well as poisoning his sister-in-law and niece. Although Rulloff was in and out of jail (and broke out of the Tompkins County jail at least once, only to be apprehended in Ohio after being recognized by an old prison-mate), he avoided real punishment due to a lack of evidence in his crimes.

Eventually, his luck ran out. After murdering a store clerk in Binghamton, Rulloff was sentenced to death by hanging. He was caught because he left behind his shoes fleeing the scene, and missing his left big toe, the lack of a left toe indent in those shoes made for an easy identifier of their owner.  His was the last public hanging in New York State, on May 18th, 1871. It is claimed his last words were  “Hurry it up! I want to be in hell in time for dinner.” His brain was collected by Cornell professor Burt Wilder, who declared it the largest he had ever examined.

As it would seem, Rulloff’s vicious behavior seem to have run in the family. His youngest brother, a notable 19th century photographer named William Rulofson, was known to have a vicious temper himself. William had ten kids from two wives, of which one of them, Charles, murdered his half-sister. The boy was nine years old.

…and to leave this entry off, here’s an excerpt from Rulloff’s Restauant’s biography of Edward Rulloff:

“Unrepentant to the end, Rulloff proclaimed in his final interview, published in the Ithaca Daily Leader the week before his death, ‘…you cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself alone at the lake shore, gazing at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.‘”

Sweet dreams.





Flooding in Ithaca: Because Blizzards Aren’t Bad Enough

4 09 2011

This kinda ties into the last entry, which discussed the historical context of hurricanes (a.k.a. tropical cyclones if you follow the research literature) in the Ithaca area. Irene, while it had devastating impacts in some towns in the Capital Region and the Catskills, left Tompkins County with 1-2 inches or rain, hardly more notable than a particularly rainy summer day. I went down to southern Connecticut to enjoy being exfoliated by high winds on a beach, and a decent though not amazing storm surge. Then I came back to my Albany home to find roof damage, and a 60-foot ash tree that crashed down in front of the duplex across the street and on top of a Honda Civic. I’ve had better weeks, meteorologically speaking.

As I mentioned previously, the two worst floods in Ithaca occurred quite a long time ago – in 1857 and 1935. However, this is not to say that Ithaca hasn’t been flooded in modern times. The flood control channel down by Cass Park is there for a reason. Also, here’s a youtube video that starts with the flooded intersection of Mitchell and Pine Tree next to East Hill Plaza from way back in December 2010.

But comparatively, that’s small potatoes to some of the floods Ithaca has seen. The 1857 flood was massive. It also hails from a much different time in Ithaca’s history, before the colleges, and when the town itself had a few thousand people. Although sources are severely lacking, the downtown area was underwater for several weeks. This was before the era of effective flood control, and since downtown Ithaca is basically surrounded by steep hills on three sides and a lake on the fourth, the drainage system is about as far from optimal as you can get. Add to that some relatively impervious soil, and it becomes a big soggy problem.

Flooding is not unlikely with the spring thaw, or rapidly evolving early winter storm systems that start off with a warm moist tongue of air, dumping heavy rains before the area freezes over (certifiable proof that Mother Nature hates us all). But the two worst floods are summer events – June 1857 and July 1935, respectively.

The flood of June 17, 1857 seems to be the result of a highly localized warm-season precip event directly on the Six Mile Creek watershed (the creek just south of the Commons), which gives me the impression of a wet microburst or a cloudburst type of event. Both tend to be local and related to intense thunderstorm activity (and here’s a fun thought for when you go to sleep – they are notoriously difficult to forecast, and microbursts are one of the biggest reasons planes won’t land near thunderstorms). Anyway, the raging torrent washed out two dams, whose debris then slammed into the Aurora St. bridge, collapsing its stone arches and sending the whole shebang surging through the town. Hell, you can quote Dear Old Ezra on that one.

Some measures were taken to improve flood control, including more or bigger dams (like the one on Beebe Lake in 1898), and these were damaged by further floods, including events in 1901 and 1905. But nothing quite prepared the ares for the disaster that was the July 1935 flood.

The July 8, 1935 flood, from the descriptions I can find, seem to indicate an intense and prolonged mesoscale convective system (big effin thunderstorm complex), or something of similar intensity, with tropical moisture but nothing TC-based.  At the very least, it was definitely associated with thunderstorms on the evening of July 7th, in an area spanning from Hornell to Binghamton.

The 24-hr. rainfall total of 7.9 inches in Ithaca (the weather station was on the Ag Quad) is impressive. The local creeks almost immediately began to flood, and as drainage brought more water through the streams, they began to tear away at their banks, and flood Cayuga Lake downstream. The damage went throughout the county, from homes washed away in Enfield to cottages being washed from the lakeshore up by Trumansburg. A passenger train was stranded, and all the train tracks in the county were washed out or impassable due to debris. Most state parks in the area were badly damaged and downtown was once again flooded. Eleven people lost their lives in Tompkins County as a result of the flood (with 52 being lost in total, and $26 million in damage [1936 dollars, equivalent to $409 million today]). The damage to Ithaca was about $1.8 million in 1936 dollars, or $28 million in 2009 dollars.

As for the university, being on higher ground protected it from the wrath of the waters. Barton Hall was used as an emergency shelter for almost seven hundred people. The damage to campus was estimated at $10,000-$12,000 (1936 dollars, about $250,000 today), mostly due to the hydroelectric plant being flooded and some trail and bridge damage.

So, maybe it’s not on a Biblical scale, but there’s something to be said about living on higher ground and away from creek banks in the Ithaca area. Or you can just look at the Beebe Lake Dam after a good rainstorm to get a faint idea of how much worse it could be.





The Hurricane That Flooded Ithaca

25 08 2011

Hurricane Agnes (1972). Image property of NOAA.

Ithaca weather is generally known for cool-season events (blizzards, ice storms and the like). I figured that with the current panic attack starting to set in on the East Coast regarding the impending arrival of Hurricane Irene, this entry is rather timely. Plus, most of my department is having a collective weather-gasm that makes doing work next to impossible (quoting one faculty member, “The Weather Channel has entered [for a disaster-addicted public] total ass-kissing mode”).

Anyways, Ithaca had actually seen some tropical-born activity over the years. I phrase it that way because typically, the storm has weakened into a remnant low or turned extratropical (i.e. becomes more like your standard cold-core mid-latitude low-pressure storm system) by the time the cyclone has passed into and over the region. Hurricane Hazel in 1954, for instance, passed over as an extratropical system with winds still at hurricane strength, but because the Allegheny Mountains wrung out most of the moisture from the east side of the storm, the region was mostly spared (Toronto was not so lucky). Wikipedia identifies 84 tropical cyclones that have impacted the state of New York, and as you might imagine, the majority of these have affected New York City and Long Island.

Reasonably, when a storm transitions to an extratropical state, it doesn’t just stop raining. Occasionally, if the conditions are favorable (i.e. moist environment and perhaps some topographical effects coming into play), the rain can be heavy and prolonged, resulting in flooding. This is exactly what happened with Hurricane Agnes.

Hurricane Agnes was the first named storm of the 1972 hurricane season. As a tropical cyclone, Agnes wasn’t particularly special; about the most unusual thing was that it was a June hurricane, a bit early in the year since the first hurricane isn’t usually until early August. Agnes formed off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and moved directly north through the gulf, strengthening into a Category 1 storm with sustained 1-minute winds of 85 mph. The TC (tropical cyclone) made landfall over the Florida Panhandle, moved northeast into Georgia while weakening into a tropical depression, and then passed over the Atlantic and redeveloped into a tropical storm before swinging back west and making a second landfall near New York City with 70 mph winds. Agnes merged with a non-tropical low on the 23rd, and this system impacted the region until it finally moved out late on the 25th.

This was a very dangerous combination. The combined system had large amounts of tropical moisture from Agnes, and was slow moving thanks to the non-tropical low. Therefore, rains of 6-12″ occurred over 2 days, with the highest recording at 19″. In perspective, imagine getting three months of your region’s normal rainfall in two days. The resulting flooding for Pennsylvania and New York was disastrous. In Pennsylvania, 50 lives were lost and $2 billion in damage (1972 dollars) was incurred. The governor had to flee his flooding mansion and downtown Wilkes-Barre was under nine feet of water.

As for New York, the hardest-hit areas were a swath from Olean east to Elmira and Corning. In Elmira, the raging Chemung River destroyed or badly damaged most of the downtown area. One of Elmira’s big industries was railroads and railcars, but the railways were washed out by the storm and the bill for repairs was so high that the railroad companies opted for bankruptcy instead. In my own experience, talking with the older Elmira locals, they say the city never quite recovered from the “Flood of ’72”. In Ithaca, where the rainfall came out to about 7 inches, several bridges in the city and in nearby Brooktondale were washed out and the low-lying areas near several of the local streams were flooded. The lake level also rose enough to flood and damage the facilities at Stewart Park. Thankfully, Cornell and IC were out for the summer, and neither sustained major damage.

Image property of TompkinsREADY

The final toll in New York was 24 deaths and $700 million in damage (1972 dollars). Keep in mind, Ithaca has had worse floods, in 1857 and 1935. But neither one of those had tropical influence.

So, Ithaca is far from the action of the tropics, but not necessarily immune to the passage of tropical cyclones. As for Irene, Ithaca will be on the edge of the circulation at worst, it’s simply too far to the west and under the “protection” of a short-wave trough. But if I were at Weill Cornell, I would be very concerned right now.