ITHACA, NY -- The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to recommend the expansion of the East Hill Historic District to include 19 properties on North Aurora Street, East Court Street and Linn Street.
According to Bryan McCracken, the city’s historic preservation planner, the current boundary of the historic district is essentially arbitrary. After surveying the 19 properties, McCracken said they were found to reflect the characteristics and historic context of the rest of the East Hill Historic District, which comprises properties built between 1830-1932 with textbook examples of architectural styles of the time.
“[These 19 properties] fit many, if not all, of the architectural themes and historic themes that made the East Hill District significant,” McCracken said. He cited specifically the Italianate and Italianate Second Empire architectural features on many of the properties, and said there are “very few fine examples of this style in the city.”
He also pointed to William Henry Miller, a prominent architect and Cornellian, who designed two of the properties in the area, including the Livermore Building where Tompkins County United Way currently resides. McCracken also noted that some of the properties reflected the contribution of women in providing housing to the Cornell community during a time when job opportunities for women were limited.
McCracken said there’s no definitive reason for why these 19 properties weren’t included in the first place. However, he said his best guess is that when the historic district was originally created, an owner or group of owners in the proposed district objected to being included, and it was easier for the surveyors to just exclude that chunk of the neighborhood.
Historic preservation does often come with extra costs for homeowners, as exterior alterations are regulated and any proposed change requires either staff review or a full Landmarks Preservation Commission review depending on the type and extent of the project. This process could potentially preclude homeowners from adding modern upgrades or require them to use a particular type of material for a more costly renovation.
Donna Fleming, the Common Council liaison that sits on the Commission, asked how members would respond to property owners who complain about the burden of being part of a historic district .
McCracken responded that the designation would only affect exterior renovations and that there are resources to help ease the costs.
“With local designation there are incentive programs available to you to help maintain your home, and a local property tax exemption that provides abatement on any increase in assessed values associated to repairs or alterations to your historic property,” he said. “There are state and federal tax credits available to assist you in funding the work you may propose.”
Commission Chair Ed Finegan asked if there were any concerns about the designation dramatically altering the property value.
Commission member Katelin Olson said historic designation generally stabilizes neighborhoods.
“There’s a correlation that has been demonstrated between historic district designation and increased property value,” she said. “[…] There’s stabilization in neighborhoods in historic districts because you know massive change won’t happen quickly like it could in other places.”
McCracken echoed this, sharing that designated neighborhoods don’t see the rapid fluctuation other neighborhoods might see. Neighborhoods that were affordable before designation tend to stay affordable The opposite is true too — affluent neighborhoods tend to stay affluent.
Property owner Micah Beck, who owns 321 N Aurora St. with his brother, said he doesn’t think there’s any reason he and his neighbors’ homes belong in a historic district.
“The main focus points continue to be that […] the line of the current district is messy and the buildings are old and various people have lived in them for a while,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve heard any consistent architectural value beyond individual cases. Our own property is essentially a rectangle clad in aluminum siding that’s rather recent. I don’t think the people who lived in these properties constitute a group of great historical interest, nor do I think that such a consideration should carry any weight unless that person is overwhelming.”
The commission also read a letter for a homeowner named Susan, who echoed Beck’s points.
“None of the buildings possess special character or historic or aesthetic interest or value as part of the cultural, political, economic or social history of the locality, region, state or nation,” she said. “They were simply a hodgepodge of design elements that have changed throughout the years […] There’s no historical or legal reason for our wedge to be included in this bureaucratic nightmare.”
Fleming seemingly agreed.
“I have to confess, I’m not really sold on this,” she said. “It seems like the criteria being used to advocate for this designation could be used with any other block in Fall Creek or one of any other neighborhood […] The criteria don’t seem strong enough to me and seem they could be applied in so many places. It’s a bunch of houses built at the same time period for roughly the same reason.”
Fleming’s support will be important going forward as the designation requires Common Council approval, so McCracken took his chance to make his case.
“I think what’s significant about this wedge and these properties [is] they have a high level of architectural integrity,” he said. “Especially the Italianate. They have not changed much over the last 100 years. That can’t be said for every neighborhood in the city. It’s the retention of the original historic fabric.”
Commission member David Kramer agreed, and said he feels it’s been a missed opportunity for a long time not to include those properties in the East Hill Historic District.
“You turn from Aurora Street to E Court Street and there’s nothing like that row of Italianate and Second Empire,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in the city, so beautiful and so pristine […] I feel strongly this is just a wonderful addition to the East Hill Historic District.”
The designation will go before the Planning and Economic Development Committee of the Common Council before going in front of the entire Council for a vote.