The Newfield UFO

29 09 2015
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Image property of the Cornell Daily Sun

October 24, 1967. It was a typically crisp October night in Newfield. The hamlet and town were even quieter than they are now, just the scattered homes of farmers and a few commuters, tuned-out from the tumultuous world around them. They knew of the Soviets and Sputnik, of Johnson and the Apollo program, but were so far removed that it would serve only as a vague interest, coffee talk. By any account, it should have been just a normal, serene night in the hills and valleys southwest of Ithaca.

But at about 9:30 PM, the strangest set of events unfolded in the hamlet. A 12-year old boy named Donald Chiszar said he witnessed a “craft” hovering about 130 feet above the ground. There were markings on the craft, which he could not recognize, and a large window. Two humanoid figures could be seen in a saucer-shaped craft. “But then all of the sudden it leveled off real fast and disappeared”, Chizsar claimed. The visitors were “[r]ough-colored and brownish” beings with “big, wide hips”.

Though no one else claimed to see the craft up close, many other folks in Newfield that evening reported seeing strange lights. Red and white, or green and white, flashing in some kind of sequence. Stanley Orr, driving on 13 to Ithaca the night before, reported “two large, stationary red lights” visible from his car, but at no time thought they were a flying saucer, until he had heard about Chizsar’s experience.

Overnight, people in Newfield began to see UFOs everywhere. On October 30th, more than 100 sightings were claimed by local residents. So started the “Great Ithaca Flap“, as it would be later known.

Now, these sightings caused quite a stir. People wanted an explanation. Many of the witnesses were convinced that what they saw was not of this earth. Residents of Newfield invited UFO experts and an Air Force Lieutenant from the Hancock Air Force Base to a meeting at a local home, so they could hear about their experiences.

One of the UFO experts was intrigued by the stories, but said the lights could be easily mistaken, just tricks of the eye. The air force lieutenant, Gerald White, was less accommodating, saying that it sounded like airplanes to him, traveling along one of the major air traffic conduits out of and into New York City. Newfield laid below one of those routes. Cornell astronomers were rather incredulous as well.

The sightings continued well into November. One of the UFO investigators, William Donovan, set up shop on Newfield’s Main Street, and went about interviewing witnesses and examining sighting locations. A meeting was held in Ithaca, and the claims of sightings were in the hundreds. Although the police and military were skeptical, residents felt like the truth was being hidden from them. Some residents felt the UFOs were related to the Synchrotron (a particle accelerator) on Cornell’s campus; it was reasoned that being one of the few facilities able to bring atomic particles to near-light speed would attract alien visitors, and some of the “flight paths” came from that direction. The local papers picked up the stories and relayed them with interest. Folks crowded the secluded pull-offs and star-lit fields, hoping for a glimpse of something extraordinary.

Finally, in December, Donovan stated that he could find no proof that Newfield was seeing flying saucers. He didn’t offer ideas as to what people saw, he just said that there was no hard evidence that Newfielders were seeing UFOs.

Or course, that didn’t stop the college students from having fun with the news; students launched laundry bags filled with burning fuel, and in one case a local pilot fitted a strobe light to his plane to instigate the UFO-watchers below. Eventually, the sightings tapered off as interest waned. A year after the sightings, Donovan was charged with fraud on an unrelated matter. Occasional reports of UFOs still come in from all over the county.

So was there a UFO in Newfield on that cool October night? Well, probably not. A UFO tracking website reported on the case several years ago, and received the following email:

“I stumbled over references to UFOs over Newfield NY in 1967.
I guess I have a confession.
 
I was a student at Cornell University’s College of Engineering in 1967. I was curious about hot air balloons, and wondered whether or not I could make a working model. I took a dry cleaning bag, sealed up the openings at the top, built a framework to hold the bottom open, and then placed a “heat tab” from a Boy Scout Heat Tab stove on the frame.
 
I then brought the bag out to the “dust bowl” between the University Halls dormitories, lit the pellet, and held the bag upright to keep it from catching fire. Within a few minutes, the bag arose and began a journey, sailing out of sight to the southwest direction.
 
Within the same moments, I had drawn an audience of about a hundred freshmen students, curious as to what I was doing. Once the bag lifted off, some of the students began trying the same trick. Some succeeded while others failed. My success was based on the fuel: the heat tab.
 
I must say that my creation was a sight to behold. The heat tab produced a constant glow, and the clear bag took on the light in a way which magnified the existing light. It was strange, to say the least.
 
The next day, I was surprised to see an article in the Ithaca Journal titled, “UFOs Spotted over Newfield“. It didn’t take more than a split second to make the connection that the UFOs may have been the bags we sent aloft from Cornell. The direction and the timing were right!
 
Is there any possibility that my college prank was the cause of these UFO sightings over Newfield?”

It would seem Newfield has more to fear from curious college students than space aliens.





Urban Renewal Part II: When Things Don’t Go To Plan

21 08 2015
Photo from C. Hadley Smith Collection

Photo from C. Hadley Smith Collection

For Part I, click *here*.

Once the federal funding for Project One came through in December 1964, the gears had started to turn. In Spring 1965, the president of the Hotel Ithaca bought the Clinton House for use as a temporary facility while the new hotel was built. Funds and plan details were formally accepted and approved by the Feds and Common Council in May 1965, and the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA, which still exists today) was incorporated.

The IURA was long a sore spot among city councilmen because Democrats were opposed to it and Republicans were in favor of it. The city was a little less one-sided with its politics back then.

In 1966, two developers were designated for two properties in the Project One area. One would build a set of retail spaces, the other would be responsible for what would be the nation’s largest Woolworth’s department store.

For those too young to know, Woolworth’s was a major discount and department store chain – a sort of Walmart or Target of its day (and more like a Kmart towards the end), which was from the 1880s to 1990s. The Woolworth’s was supposed to draw people into downtown, and would be on the corner of S. Cayuga and W. Green Streets.

Problems arose when Woolworth’s said it would need even more parking space than planned. The city, fearing the department store would end up in the suburbs, rushed to condemn three properties on the edge of the project area, two car dealerships and a repair shop. The buildings were demolished, acres of parking laid, and the store opened in the winter of 1968/1969.

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Image property of QPK Architecture

It was not an attractive building by a long-shot, but the store did draw people downtown, and it remained open until about 1998, when the entire chain went under. Today it’s the county library, and the entire block has once again been redeveloped, which was previously written about here.

The closest Ithaca got to that chic modern hotel was the Ramada that opened in 1972 (later Holiday Inn, and now the Hotel Ithaca). That fell just outside the Project One boundary line. The original 1970s hotel, without the “Executive Tower” built in 1985, can be seen in the lead image.

The Hotel Ithaca fell to the wrecking ball in 1967, around the same time that the 2, 4 and 5-story buildings across the street from the Carey and CSMA also came tumbling down. Until the Marriott currently under construction, the city struggled to find a developer interested in the site; the site was developed in 1975 into the new Rothschild’s Building, but the older 1870s structure further up the Commons was demolished, the last of the federally-funded urban renewal demolitions.

After several years of attempting to find developers for the old Rothschild’s site, two local developers finally managed to cobble together enough funding to build Center Ithaca in 1981. Center Ithaca went bankrupt not long after opening, and Rothschild’s closed up in 1982, so the whole block over there has been pretty underwhelming ever since urban renewal touched it.

If anything, the south side of the tuning fork did worse; the potential bank tenant never followed through on its original intent, the city tried for years to sell the property. After several years they finally managed to get rid of the vacant lot. The Trebloc Building was originally planned to have two floors, but financial troubles reduced it to one. The abomination opened in 1974.

The Ithaca Commons, which also  opened in fall 1974 and was completed the following spring, falls outside of the realm of Urban Renewal as discussed here because it was funded with local bonds, rather than federal monies. The idea of a Commons didn’t start to gain traction until about 1971, after most of the urban renewal projects had left their mark on downtown Ithaca.

Like much of downtown, the Commons struggled with high vacancy rates for years, and the mix of stores never quite met the city’s expectations – where the city leaders envisioned department stores and “everyday retail” such as drugstores, neither of those have been historically successful on the Commons, and the use of the Commons as an open-air drug market was an unexpected, unpleasant surprise. It’s really only been in the past 15 years that the Commons has enjoyed low vacancy and strong tenant interest.

See, Ithaca’s urban renewal never quite stopped the overall trend of movement to the suburbs. With each decade, development sprawled further and further out, and it still is in parts of Ithaca town and Lansing. For the Jon and Jane Q’s just looking to buy groceries or hit up a fast food place, downtown Ithaca wasn’t on the radar.

But there were folks who were still drawn to the charm of a built-up downtown, where emphasis was on two feet rather than four wheels. It was an eclectic bunch – older residents still heavily invested in downtown, and younger, poorer, counter-culture types settling in the area during 1960s and 1970s. Ithaca’s dilapidated downtown, where many retail chains feared to tread, is where a lot of the region’s unique “vibe” sprouted, albeit unintentionally.

And, as things go, what’s old is new. There’s a renewed interest in denser, walkable communities, whether for sustainability, cultural amenities, or simply to experience something different from the cul-de-sacs and strip malls that many Gen X’ers and Millenials grew up with. Ithaca, with a stable, growing economy and plenty of fresh blood flowing in and out of the community, was poised to capitalize on this, and his done so with a fair amount of success in recent years, attracting both national retailers and keeping most of its character intact. Had it not for the renewed interest in walkable downtowns, newer urban renewal projects such as Cayuga Green would likely have been as unsuccessful as Center Ithaca.

The car, once a defining aspect of America’s cultural scene, is now more likely to be treated as an appliance, like a washing machine or microwave. It does what one needs it to do, but the allure isn’t what it used to be. Parking lots used to be eye-catching splashes of color, coral and peach, turquoise and sea green; and now, beige, grey, and subdued reds and blues. The symbolism is there.

ith_urban_renewal_plan_1964_2

Urban renewal in the tear-down and pave everything sense was stopped for two reasons – money and opposition. But money was the much more important one.

In the later 1960s, funds for urban renewal started to dry up. The city dropped projects two and three and combined elements of the two for a second phase of downtown, and a proposal for Collegetown. The Collegetown proposal was submitted (much to the chagrin of Collegetown landlords), but much of it got lost due to competing interests in the bureaucratic quagmire, and never moved forward under its original intent. The end result was the parking garage, Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, and the Eddygate mixed-use complex, all of which came to fruition much later in the mid and late 1980s.

Meanwhile, residents began to rise up in protest after seeing so many historic buildings demolished in favor of projects that were never built, or were downright ugly. Although too late to save buildings like the Hotel Ithaca and the old City Hall, groups like Historic Ithaca were important in keeping buildings such as the Clinton House and DeWitt Mall from meeting the same fate.

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It would be unfair to cast those who supported urban renewal as malignant or devious. No city official, no mayor, no one with a vested interest in downtown Ithaca set out to wreck it. They were trying to revitalize it, and they were listening and applying the auto-centric, “old equals bad” thinking that had been popular in the years leading up to renewal. The results left a lot of hard feelings, and a lot of unmet hopes.

Yet, the issues that faced downtown Ithaca fifty years ago, the problems that the city’s political and business leaders were never quite able to solve, eventually became assets. Old buildings, now loved for character. Walkable streets, now appreciated. Mixed retail, offices and housing, contrary to single-use zoning, now embraced. Ithaca’s old bones, once a persistent ache, have assisted Ithaca in becoming the vibrant city that it is.

Buildings and streets can be planned. But the people occupying them? Maybe not so much.

Not everything can be planned. And that’s a good thing.





Urban Renewal Part I: Ithaca’s “Project One”

18 08 2015

hotel_ith_1964

It was called “Project One”.

The year was 1964. The tax base of Ithaca, and especially downtown Ithaca, had been eroding for over a decade. Suburban big-box stores started to appear on the south side of the city in 1950, and up towards Lansing, plans were already underway for a new suburban supermarket and department store (the Shops at Ithaca Mall wouldn’t come along for another twelve years). New neighborhoods were sprouting in northeast Ithaca and Eastern Heights, and cul-de-sacs were paving their way onto West Hill and South Hill. Ithaca College was moving its staff and students to a sprawling campus just beyond the city line. From 1954 to 1960, 48 offices and retail stores closed or moved out of downtown Ithaca, a drop of 18%. The city councilmen were concerned.

So how were they to draw people and tax dollars back into the city? The city officials looked around. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was trendy to have that rambling ranch house set back far from the street, it was fashionable to attend indoor shopping centers away from the rain and the cold.

Image courtesy of Tom Morgan

Image courtesy of Tom Morgan

But most importantly, the trendsetters agreed, was that one could not live the high life, one couldn’t even dream of being a part of the jet set, without a big, luxurious car at their command. Two tons of chrome and steel, heralding you’ve made it in this world, and your car will take you anywhere and everywhere you want to be. And if a place wasn’t accommodating for your stylish set of wheels, then it wasn’t a place worth visiting.

The councilmen and the city officials were taking note of all those chrome-trimmed Bel Airs and Galaxies, with their bright colors and sculpted fenders. Following the results of a study conducted in 1959 and finalized in 1962, they came to the conclusion that in order to revive downtown, they had to catch up with the times, to bring downtown into the mid-20th century future with a swagger and a swing.

The plans were grand. In place of the nearly century-old Hotel Ithaca, a new hotel a block long, designed in the finest of modern taste. Out would go the decaying buildings of 60, 80, 100 years yore, in would come wider roads, ample parking, modern buildings and ideally, an influx of cash. Ithaca hoped it would bring new residents back into the city, while Cornell U., happy to give some money towards the effort, hoped it would bring in more industry and research organizations.

ith_urban_renewal_plan_1964_1

Project One was to be the first of three steps in Ithaca’s Urban Renewal plans. Plans in Project One called for the demolition of the Hotel Ithaca block and the buildings on the south side of the “tuning fork”, already built by that time (and taking out a number of buildings in the process). In their place, the new hotel would go, and a new bank office on the south side of the fork. In the model above, you can see what was once the Strand Theater (demo’d 1993), Restaurant Row and the old Rothschild’s Building (also gone now) still intact. There would be new auto dealerships, new department stores, traffic generators and tax generators.

Image from Cornell Daily Sun, 10/20/1966.

Image from Cornell Daily Sun, 10/20/1966.

The rest of Project One targeted about 26 acres of land bounded by State Street, Cayuga Street, and Six Mile Creek. Essentially, everything south of the Commons, and everything east of the present Hotel Ithaca/former Holiday Inn. Much of the area between Six Mile Creek and Cayuga Street was auto repair shops, dealerships and other car-oriented enterprises. Pritchard Automotive, a block further south, could be seen as the last vestige of when South Cayuga Street was “Automobile Row”.

The plans moved forward in fits and starts. Survey and planning work was brought to a stop in 1962 by Ithaca mayor John Ryan, who vetoed the plan. But following the election of Hunna Johns in 1964, the grand revitalization schemes moved forward again. The Common Council approved the federal application for Project One in June 1964.

ith_urban_renewal_plan_1964_2

After six months of delays, federal funding came through in December of that year. Cornell had already given funding to the tune of $500,000 (about $3.85 million today) to help pay for the projects, but the federal government would be the primary source of funds, which would pay 75% of the $6 million initial cost. Ithaca and the state of New York would each fund about $750,000. The city reasoned that it would bear the expense now for increased tax revenues in the future.

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Of course, not everything worked out as planned. Nowhere close, really. That will be covered in Part II.





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:

simeons_1

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.





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.

map_1866

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.

map_1893

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.

map_1904

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.

map_1910

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.

map_1919

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.





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

30 07 2014

403_stewartave_1965_large

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.