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

18 08 2015


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.


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.


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.


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

The Urban “Renewal” of Ithaca

1 02 2011

So, the Cornell Alumni Magazine latest issue caught my attention. Its feature article, “Through a Glass, Darkly“, is a feature about visiting professor Mark Iwinski’s artistic work of superimposing photographic stills of Ithaca streetlife from decades past over the contemporary appearance of those locations today. Which, falling in line with my addiction to interest in local architecture in a historical context, was a worthy read.

The most obvious thought after reading it is that history has not been kind to Ithaca. It hasn’t been kind to the downtowns of many older cities and towns in the Northeast. From the late 1940s to the 1970s, “urban renewal” basically consisted of trying to suburbanize downtowns by tearing down underused structures, often pinning their hopes on one or two big projects. An example of its effects can be seen whenever you drive through I-81 in Syracuse –  in 1957, Syracuse’s primary African-American neighborhood (the 15th ward) was town down to make way for the interstate, which effectively cut off Syracuse University from downtown and contributed to the emptying out of that city.

Image property of syracuse.com

As the article mentioned, Ithaca fared better than its peers. First of all, in 1968, Route 13 was supposed to become a limited-access highway connection from Horseheads, through Ithaca and to I-81 in Cortland. However, the project lost state and local support, and the only portion completed was the three-mile section that leads north out of Ithaca to just past the Cornell Business Park in Lansing. So there weren’t large expressways bisecting the city.

Secondly, although Ithaca was fairly rundown by the 1970s, the preservationist movement also started to gain momentum around that time by saving the Dewitt Mall (the old high school) and the Clinton House from demolition. In a way, it could be said that when the Cornell Public Library was torn down in 1959, and gas stations started replacing Victorian homes near downtown, that the Ithaca preservationist movement was really born. However, as the article shows, not every structure could be saved; the Colonial old city hall was torn down around 1970 to make room for the Seneca Street parking garage. The original Hotel Ithaca, which dated from 1871, was torn down 95 years later and eventually replaced by the Rothschild’s Building, which in an ironic twist of fate the building was vacated by its primary occupant because they complained it was too old and inefficient. The Rothschild’s Building is slated to be renovated into residential units.

So Ithaca has a relatively intact downtown thanks to early preservation efforts, and with further redevelopment and infill, the city has enjoyed a better aesthetic appearance than most of its regional peers. For the record, although I am strongly pro-development, I don’t think preservation is a bad thing. It has its merit and each case has to be considered in all its pros and cons on an individual basis.

On a final note, progressive and meticulous Cornell is by no means an innocent party. Back in the 1990s, the university and the town of Ithaca engaged in several contentious meetings because the university was seeking to expand north campus with the Residential Initiative in the late 1990s. The decision in itself wasn’t a problem, but the decision to tear down one of the oldest farmhouses in the county was. Eventually, a deal was worked out where the Cornell and the NPO Historic Ithaca would have the building, known as the Cradit-Moore house, trucked up Pleasant Grove Road .3 miles (in one piece no less) and built onto a new foundation. Cornell wrote off the moving cost and Historic Ithaca sold the house to a private owner to write off the costs of building a new foundation. In case you were wondering, this is how  “Cradit Farm Road” on North Campus received its name.

The article was a good read, I enjoyed it immensely. It reminds me that while we continue to develop new assets, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye and wantonly demolish what we already have. Otherwise, it might be as empty as the lots behind Dr. Iwanski’s photographic stills.