The Maplewood Redevelopment, Part I: History and Planning

28 08 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Essentials of Campus II

14 05 2009


I knew that sooner or later, I would have to cover what is perhaps the most iconic building on campus. So here we are.

All citations, unless otherwise noted, are from Morris Bishop’s A History of Cornell (Cornell University Press, 1962).

Prior to renovation in the 1960s, the building was simply known as “The University Library”, even as other libraries were built across campus. It was Andrew Dickson White’s belief that “A large library is absolutely necessary to the efficiency of the various departments. Without it, our men of the highest ability will be frequently plodding into old circles and stumbling into old errors.” (77) The library was appropriated in September 1867 to the tune of $7,500 (175).  The amount was up to $20,000 by 1880 (213).

Daniel Willard Fiske was appointed the first librarian. He was also head of the university press and an instructor in German, Swedish and Icelandic. It was his belief (and rather progressive for the time) that the library should be a reference library, open to enhance both faculty studies and student interests. As a result, his goals was to obtain, by purchase or gift, extensive book collections, such as the library of Goldwin Smith (6,000 books), Charles Anthon (3400 books) and the like. A.D. White was also known for buying rare books on his overseas trips (both with his own funds and with university money). As a result, by 1873, there were 34,000 books and 8,000 pamphlets in the libe—a substantial figure for an American university. When it first opened, the library boasted that it was open longer than any other U.S. university — nine hours a day.  (108)

Fiske himself was easy to irritate and known for holding deep grudges from insults or perceived slights. Because the first university Vice-President William Russel was known for a gift of mockery, the two absolutely despised each other.  However Fiske was also very kind and generous; he was particularly fond of the Psi Upsilon fraternity men, and was once chastised by White for giving an inordinate portion of his salary to the chapter and its needy brothers (108). He also was chastised for offering a glass of ale to a student, to which he responded that the student interrupted him in his drinking time with a friend, and he felt obliged to offer a glass (108).

Since Fiske was in Egypt when the university opened in October 1868, the actual first librarian was a prominent local lawyer, Thomas Frederick “Teefy” Crane, of “Give My Regards to Davy” fame. Crane studied languages in his private time, and as a result he also was the German instructor at opening.  Crane enjoyed the experience enough that he himself went abroad, came back and switched places with another professor to become the instructor of French, Spanish and Italian in 1870. (109)

So, now we get to the “Great Will Case”. Jennie McGraw, aged 37, received a large inheritance after her father’s death in 1877. Already battling tuberculosis, a number of men offered to marry her, some of which were gold diggers I’m sure. One of the men who courted her was Willard Fiske. He wrote love poems to her, but he never showed them for fear of being called out as a gold digger. Anyways, as the rich and bored are wont to do, McGraw arranged to have a fabulous house built off of University Avenue, bordering Fall Creek, and then bought thousands of dollard of furnishing for it (224). In the meanwhile, both McGraw and Fiske went abroad to different parts of Europe in 1879. There is no record of contact in Europe between the two prior to April 1880. During this time however, Fiske used his influence on A.D. White to work over affairs back at Cornell. Locals assumes that because White was known to have lent Fiske money, and the two were close, that he and Sage were buttering him up so that if he and Jennie were to get hitched, that her fortune would be given someday to Cornell. (225).

In April 1880, Fiske went to Rome to join Jennie, now invalid and near death. The courtship between 48-year-old Fiske and the dying 40-year-old McGaw was short. They became engaged in Venice. Fiske announced it in a letter in May 1880 to A.D. White (along with a request for money). As one can imagine, some people looked upon Fiske’s behavior as mercenary. The two were married in Berlin on July 14, 1880 (226). At the time, Fiske signed a letter giving up his rights to Jennie’s property, under Prussian law.

The two spent the winter on the Nile, and then returned to Europe. By June 1881, the two were informed in Paris that Jennie had only a few weeks to live. Her dying wish was to pass on in Ithaca, so they made the trip back by September. I know, more than a few weeks, but whatever. She saw her mansion, newly built, and said (as she was propped up from her pillows) “it surpasses all my expectations”. It was the only time she ever saw the mansion, as she died September 30, 1881. When she died, Judge Boardman (of Boardman Hall) asked for the will. No one could find it, which would really suck for all parties because then they would have to use John McGraw’s will, and then the inheritance would go to John McGraw’s brother and his five kids since Jennie had no hubby or progeny.  Luckily, they found it in a secret pocket in a handbag that had been dumped off as junk in Fiske’s attic (227).


The will stated that Fiske would get $300,000, $550,000 to her uncle and his kids, and $200,000 for a library at Cornell, $50,000 for McGraw Hall improvements, and $40,000 for a university hospital. The university also gained her land estate, including the mansion (valued at $600,000+), which A.D. White thought would be a dream home for an art gallery (227). Fiske, as custodian of the mansion, was to continue to occupy the house, and this raised issues. Namely, that he was known for being very needy financially; he offended Henry Sage by having parties in the room she died in no more than two months after her death; and Boardman simply didn’t like him, perhaps because of a rumor that Fiske suffered from marital indiscretions while in Europe. (228).

Here’s where the real fun begins. In May 1882, the state changed Cornell’s charter a little bit, but in one embedded section, it removed a portion detailing that the university couldn’t receive or hold personal property equal to or more than $3 million dollars. This was very convenient. In June 1883, Fiske was about to settle his affairs by going abroad, when an apprentice lawyer in Elmira told him of the change, and that state law said that a wife can’t leave more than half of her property to charity. As you might guess, the sh*t hit the fan. (228).

So, we have two lawsuits, one to break the will by Fiske on the grounds of Cornell’s underhanded actions, and then another one by Jennie’s cousins, out for more of the fortune. Fiske sailed for Europe, leaving a surrogate to handle things (Judge Marcus Lyon). White sailed after him to beg him to reconsider, but then Sage cabled White to tell him he was to make no offer to Fiske. Most of the Ithaca and Cornell crowd hated Fiske now anyway. After much media attention (like an OJ Simpson trial for the 1880s), in May 1886, the ruling was in favor of Cornell. White wanted to let Fiske save face by offering concessions; Sage would hear none of it. Fiske appealed the judgment, and it was overturned in August 1887, so Fiske won the suit, and the McGraws won theirs. So Cornell appealed to the Supreme Court (231). Meanwhile, the friendship between White and Boardman/Sage had deteriorated to animosity, although Sage made an offer to build a library himself if they failed to get the inheritance. All the while, Fiske was living in a luxurious Italian villa.

In May 1890, the Supreme Court ruled against the university. However, they did say that Cornell’s endowment could be used for any university purpose, which was a small consolation. in the end, Cornell paid $180,000 in legal fees to David Hill, the apprentice lawyer of Elmira, and $100,000 for the McGraws’ counsel. One of Jennie’s cousins bought the mansion for $35,000, much to White’s anger. The house was sold by the McGraws to Chi Psi fraternity in 1896. Its furniture was auctioned off, mostly purchased by the other McGraws. Fiske’s lawyer never took another case—it was rumored he drank himself to death during the celebration (232).  Henry Sage donated $500,000 for the library to be built, as was done in 1891. Willard Fiske returned to hobnobbing with the rich and famous, and book collecting. When he passed in 1904, he donated his library as well as his estate to the university. He also requested to be buried with his wife in the mortuary of Sage Chapel; when the university granted the request, the Sage family severed all ties to Cornell.  (232).



Long-winded, isn’t it? Well, I’ll go on for a just a little while longer. I have to make up for some lost time.

The actual cost of the libe was $227,000, with room for 400,000 volumes (Cornell owned about a quarter if that at the time) (271).  When received ,the Fiske fund was used for salaries and upkeep, and later book expenses; the library was already overcrowded by 1906. The library expanded in 1936 with the construction of more stacks on the south and west wings. The Great Depression was quite hard on the libe, and the head librarian at the time, Dr. Otto Kinkeldey, frequently complained about the lack of space and funding.  A special library fund would be set up in 1941 (531).  The library was internally reorganized in the late 1940s (576), and the Cornell University archives were created about the same time (600).

The library was renamed for Harold Uris ’25 in 1962, since he donated significant amounts to its renovation. In 1982, the glassy west wing was added, adding 214 seats , and was paid for my the Uris Brothers Foundation [1]. The 173-ft tall Library Tower was renamed “McGraw Tower” for Jennie McGraw in 1962.

As for the Chimes and more details about the tower, we’ll save that for another entry. For the Clocktower Pumpkin, we’ll leave that to a wikipedia quote:

“On October 8, 1997 a pumpkin appeared atop the spire of McGraw Tower. Because of the danger involved in retrieving it, administrators decided to leave it until it rotted and fell off. However, the pumpkin rapidly dried out in the cold air and remained on the tower until it was removed with a crane on March 13, 1998 (it was planned that Provost Don M. Randel would remove it, but in a practice run the crane basket was blown by a gust of wind and knocked the pumpkin off). Some people had claimed that a real pumpkin could not stay up that long without rotting and that it must be artificial. However, subsequent morphological, chemical, and DNA analysis by both faculty members and undergraduates confirmed that it was indeed a pumpkin.

In April 2005, a disco ball was attached to the top of the tower. A crane was hired to remove the offending orb in an operation which cost the university approximately $20,000.” [2]