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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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?


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.

6-29-2014 320


The Great Collegetown Building Auction

5 08 2014

11-24-2012 167

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.


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.

This Old House

4 04 2012

In the years that I’ve written this blog, I have written many articles highlighting the history of the physical assets in the region, but as I’ve exhausted many of my sources, and my access to new sources has become more difficult post-graduation, I’ve tended to focus on new development in Ithaca and the colleges. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing, but there are occasions where the acknowledgment of historical assets must be given its due.

When I visited for my last photo tour back before New Year’s, I came across an aging Greek Revival house on the north end of downtown that was in a deplorable state. The red siding was tired, the Doric columns of the porch chipped with the paint worn off, the foundation crumbling and the windows damaged, with sills breaking off, and missing panes in some places. I resolved that before something happened to it (most likely the wrecking ball), I was determined to take a few photos and share the house before it becomes confined to the old yellowing photos of times long ago.

Officially, the house is 102 East Court Street. Historically, the house is the “Judd House“. The house was built in 1828 – the same year Ezra Cornell had arrived in the budding town of Ithaca, which has hardly twenty years old. An estimate establishes the house as having about 3,100 sq ft, 4 bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms. Furthermore, the assessed value of the house is $190,000, although given its condition the land it sits on is probably worth more then the physical plant itself.

Property of Cornell University Library (A. D. White Collection)

A casual online search reveals a photo from Cornell’s A.D. White Collection, which shows the house in a much better state of affairs in what the vehicle to the left suggests is the 1920s. Furthering searching indicates the house was most likely designed by Ira Tillotson, the same architect for the Clinton House, which is a contemporary to this home. The once-stately residence was built for Capt. Charles Humphrey, a veteran of the War of 1812, on what was then the corner of Cayuga and Mill Street. The house and a long-removed barn were constructed for a cost of $2,105.56, which places the cost of construction likely somewhere in the upper six digits to $1 million-plus today. The name Judd House comes from long-time owners of the house in the 1900s, who apparently took great pains to keep the house in good shape. Sadly, that is not the case today.

In a perfect world, someone would come along and renovate and restore the venerable house to its former glory (perhaps INHS? A Cornell or IC faculty member with ambition)? It would be a shame to lose such an asset to Ithaca’s history. However, the decay is advanced and renovation would be expensive, or may not even be viable given the precarious state of the foundation, which is continually harmed by the freezes and thaws of the Ithacan year. As time creeps forward and winters take their toll, the long life of this home may be coming to end.

The Cornell University Airport

15 02 2011

It generally goes without saying that Cornell has had a dramatic impact on the way Ithaca and Tompkins County have developed over the past 150 years. In some respects, Cornell’s influence has been indirect – for example, the development of the Collegetown neighborhood to meet the desires of Cornell students, or the development of Cornell Heights and Cayuga Heights to provide faculty a leafy respite from their academic duties. In some ways, Cornell’s influence has been more direct, such as the Seneca Place building downtown or…owning the airport.

The first airport in the county was actually down where Cass Park is today. For those who live under an ivy-covered rock, Cass Park is just up Route 89 from the city, across the inlet from the Farmer’s Market:

The first airport (which the airport website claims was the second airport to be created within the state), which was called the Ithaca Municipal Airport, was built in 1912. It wasn’t much; a simple hangar and a rundown dirt strip were built initially, and the facilities were expanded somewhat by the Thomas “Aeroplane Factory” which was built next to the airport in 1914 (Turback 29). Three years later, the company merged with Morse Chain to become one of the largest employers in the county. Apart from the testing of military planes, and some leisure flights (the airport was the home base of aerial photographer and future airline pioneer Cecil Robinson), there wasn’t much in the way of air traffic.

By the 1940s, passenger planes began to catch on with (wealthy echelons of) the public, and it became clear that the municipal airport wasn’t going to cut it. For one, it was prone to fog banks from the lake and flooding – a major flood back in 1935 wiped out much of the airport. Space was inadequate, and as planes were growing in size and speed, expanding the facility was neigh near impossible because it abutted the city, the lake, and the slopes of West Hill. The farmland to the north of Cornell was recognized as the prime site for a future airport (Bishop 553), and the city of Ithaca was very interested in building a new airport on that land, but there was one very big and still relevant issue – getting taxpayers to cough over their hard-earned tax dollars to buy the land and build another airport outside of the city was nothing short of political suicide.

Enter Cornell.

Cornell, in trying to meet the needs of its elite faculty, alumni and connections, knew the importance of having a larger, modern airport. Although a bit financially strapped at the time, Cornell noticed the large number of lots being sold off to make the first suburban homesteads and sought to act before the land values could increase any further in that area. On September 9, 1944, the trustees authorized the university to seek options on the land, and within three months had obtained 1,146 acres of land at the price of about $202,000 (about $2.5 million today – a relative bargain). The purchase was strongly debated and led to some sharp criticisms of the Day administration during the 1940s (Bishop 560). The construction of the facility itself was wedged in with many of Cornell’s other post-war projects, but the need of a new airport was not nearly as acute as the need for veteran’s housing or new academic space. The airport was not completed until 1948,  and ownership was transferred to the county in 1956. In the meanwhile, there were two airports in Ithaca – the old rundown one downtown, and the new one on East Hill. The transfer of ownership may have been influenced by a shift in focus from Cornell’s aeronautical program in Ithaca to the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, which operated as a division of the university from the late 1940s to the early 1970s next to the Buffalo Airport (it was later spun off as a private enterprise called Calspan Labs that at last check operates as part of Veridian Corporation). CAL’s heyday was from about 1955-1965 — when Cornell decided that having its own airport 200 miles from its recently donated aeronautical lab wasn’t such a hot idea. But mostly, it was a matter of finance – their were issues with the local passenger airline’s use of the airport, severe enough that if one of their planes landed on Cornell’s property, the pilot would be arrested (Bishop 561). The first six months the Cornell airport was open it incurred a $103,000 loss. The University invested $300,000 to build up the property and was hardly getting any return out of it – the trustees voted to prohibit further funding to the airport in June 1949. Although relations with Robinson Airlines were patched up by 1952, the airport limped along in financial hell until Cornell finally had a decent opportunity to unload it onto Tompkins County.

The county airport has operated since, and was renovated and expanded in 1994. Robinson Airlines was renamed Mohawk Airlines in late 1952, moved to Utica six years later, and was absorbed by another company in the 1970s, which after several mergers and acquisitions, is now an ancestor of USAir. As for the old airport, it closed in the 1950s, but the main hangar was renovated in 1975 to house the  Hangar Theatre, which has seen several renovations and expansions since then.The rest of the property was absorbed into Cass Park in the 1960s.

I doubt Harvard ever owned its own airport.

Let’s Go Downtown, Part II

14 09 2008

The Cornell Daily Sun Building on West State Street. Notably, the Daily Sun was not the first newspaper on campus, but rather took the title from the Cornell Era, which was founded shortly after the school opened, and then after twenty years or so began to take a different direction (literary journal) that would lead it into obscurity and termination. The Sun also holds the prestigious title of being the oldest continually-independent college daily in the U.S. [1]. I believe the printing press is on site, but if someone wants to provide a little more detail on that, please be my guest.

As for the building itself, it was built in 1916 and was the home of the Elks Lodge in Ithaca. The Daily Sun’s Alumni Association bought the structure in 2003 and completely renovated it over the next several months. The building also happens to be located next door to the Ithaca’s Journal’s offices (who don’t even print here—they print in Johnson City, near Binghamton [2]).

The Immaculate Conception Church is a Catholic Church in Ithaca that falls under the Archdiocese in Rochester. The building was constructed in 1898 and designed by architect A.B. Wood [3].

Across the street is St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Chruch. It was constructed in the 1900s.

Shortstop Deli is a popular sub/deli/convenience store near downtown Ithaca. The Deli was founded in 1978 by Albert Smith [4], although by my guess the buidling dates from the 1950s. Shortstop is also the company that owns The Hot Truck.

The Clinton House was built as an upscale office and hotel building in 1828-1829 [5]. Designed by Ira Tillotson, it is named for NY Governor DeWitt Clinton (DeWitt Park is up the street). The building has been renovated numerous times in its nearly 200-year history, which is clearly evident by the glass wall stairway addition in the rear of the structure and the colonial details that were added in a 1901 renovation of the building, after a fire destroyed the roof and upper floors. The building underwent renovations again in 1985-1987 and more recently in the mid 2000s, returning Clinton House to it’s “1852-1862 era appaearance”. The building is maintained by the NPO Historic Ithaca, but the last I heard they were seeking to sell it to a willing buyer.

Admit it, you’ve thought about going here if you haven’t already.

The Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) on Green Street. The building was originally a Woolworth’s department store until it closed in 1998, and it was renovated into the library space in 2000. Prior to that time, the library was located about five block farther north in a ca. 1968 building. The first library was a gift from Ezra Cornell to the city, but later went into private use, and it was torn down in 1960 [6].

So I had a special request for this photo. The State Street Theater was originally built as the Ithaca Security Garage Auto Company and Dealership, built in 1915. The building was renovated into a theatre by the Berinstein family and opened as a theatre on December 6, 1928. Due to changing times, the theatre struggled to remain open past the mid-century and closed by the 1980s. Slated for demolition in the mid 1990s due to a number of structural and health concerns, a grassroots effort to resotre the theatre took hold, and enough funds and renovated were completed in the late 1990s that it was reopened on December 5, 2001 [7]. Today, the theatre continues a slow but steady renovation, and hosts a number of live acts from music groups to comedians.

Yes, Ithaca has a Holiday Inn too. The low-rise portion of the building was built in 1972 as a Ramada Inn. The tower was built in 1984/85.

As I mentioned previously, the City Hall and Town Hall are two different structures for two different entities. City Hall dates from the 1930s. The original city hall, if you’re lucky enough to find an old photo of it, had the appearance of a country church.