This was a very packed meeting, so what happened regarding each topic is listed separately by the topic below.
Fate of The Nines site decided
The Nines situation has been written about again and again, but it appears the saga finally came to a close Wednesday night, as Mayor Svante Myrick, for the second straight time, broke a deadlocked historic designation vote by voting against landmarking the Collegetown restaurant and its accompanying fire station.
The decision means the owners are free to advance their plans to sell the property and allow it to be redeveloped, unfettered by preservation of certain portions of the property, which had been the compromised version of historic designation that had been approved by the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission and moved through city government until Wednesday night.
When owners Mark Kielmann and Harold Schultz announced in the fall of 2017 that they would be retiring and closing the long-beloved Collegetown restaurant, interest kicked up in redeveloping the site, led by Visum Development which has a mixed-use housing and commercial building planned for the site. This was the first historic status decision Common Council has made since its Chacona Block fight, which was marked by contention and lobbying.
With as much fervor as has been shown on either side of the pro-con historic designation debate, it was bound to play out with a similar vote count, albeit (hopefully) not a similarly angry debate. But it was clear the decision was once again weighing on city officials. Alderperson George McGonigal called The Nines the coolest building in Collegetown, while also noting that it was probably the "most difficult decision" he's had during his Common Council tenure. Eventually, it resembled the Chaonca Block debate more than could have been predicted:
Voting in favor of historic designation: Laura Lewis, Graham Kerslick, George McGonigal, Ducson Nguyen, Seph Murtagh
Voting against historic designation: Cynthia Brock, Stephen Smith, Deb Mohlenoff, Rob Gearhart, Donna Fleming
After Myrick broke the tie, the owners and their gathered supporters broke out in applause and tears.
"These are exceptionally difficult decisions, and I appreciate the comments about retirements and plans," Alderperson Graham Kerslick, who represents Collegetown, said. "In weighing all of these factors, it is important to recognize both the development and the history of the city [...] I think there are options that are available to owners that recognize the balance between the economic opportunity and the historic nature of this building and what it means to the community."
He said it was important to ensure the quality of life for all people, "including students but not uniquely students."
On the other hand, there were a few factors driving the anti-designation faction. Smith specifically has long maintained that, for him, the building simply doesn't rise to the level deserving the recognition of historic designation. Brock mentioned that something like designation, which would purportedly , while Gearhart said he had been leaning against it.
"Historic designation needs to be used judiciously," Mohlenoff said, while noting that certain emotional, sentimental aspects of the debate, like the retirement of the owners and otherwise, was out of line to include in the discussion.
Visum's development plans have been on hold for several months, though, as an effort to designate the Nines site, which includes the original No. 9 fire station, has been discussed at various levels of city government. The restaurant's owners have argued against designation, since the development limitations that come with historic designation would impact Visum's and any other developer's plans, and thus most likely lower the price someone is willing to pay for the property significantly. Kielmann and Schultz both spoke to this point during the public comment period.
There's been significant public sentiment on either side of the issue: Regardless of the outcome, the owners say the Nines restaurant is closing. The side against designation has visions of beneficial new development on the site, and argue that this would unfairly punish the Nines' owners for being successful by damaging their retirement plans; Shirley Kielmann, Mark's wife, called it "our 401K". Meanwhile, prior meetings have seen people in favor of the historic designation wax poetic about the soul of Collegetown, the importance of the No. 9 fire station to Cornell's expansion and the slipping grip on Collegetown's past in favor of density development.
Update: Here is a sketch of potentially what a Nines redevelopment could look like, provided by the ownership team.
Re-opening of the Commons Playground paused
Second Ward Alderperson Ducson Nguyen pump-faked a resolution the reopen the Commons Playground June 15, which has been closed for months after nearby construction began. Instead of discussing it with Common Council to begin, he'll put it before the Planning and Economic Development Committee first.
Nguyen said he's heard from constituents and business owners that reopening the playground would benefit local businesses, attracting more families to the Commons. But in the time since he entered it into the agenda, he said he'd heard some counter feedback from the Planning Department that made sense and felt he had overreached by going around the committee stage. He was encouraged to make the move by Murtagh, the chair of the PEDC. Some, or most, of the frustration stems from a sense from the city that they were deceived, or at least there was a miscommunication, by the Harold's Square developers about when the park would be eligible to re-open. Ether way, Nguyen said he does still want to push for the re-opening, though it's fair to assume there will be changes to the resolution before it reappears before Common Council.
The resolution debate pitted downtown merchants and some constituents against the Harold's Square development team and the city's Planning Department, which have both cautioned that the playground cannot be safely and responsibly opened as long as construction is still ongoing. Several merchants said that keeping it closed would have an indelible impact on family habits, meaning even when its reopened Ithaca families will not return to the Commons, hurting the businesses now and long-term. Local business owner Asha Senaker said after the Commons reconstruction and the introduction of a new parking system, she thought Commons businesses were finally going to reap the benefits of the promised downtown reinvigoration. She said that's changed since the playground was closed with the new construction.
Prior to the meeting, Planning Director JoAnn Cornish said while the city isn't happy the playground is closed, but after consultation with the development team the department thinks the playground should remain closed until safety can be guaranteed. She said the developers would want immunity from all liability if the protective structure around the playground is removed and the area is reopened.
"The Planning Department shares the concern and disappointment at the closure of the play area on the Commons," Cornish wrote in an email. "However, it is primarily the concern for anyone on or near the play area during this phase of the Harold Square construction that has led us over and over to the same conclusion. This was a collective decision by Building, Planning, Engineering, DPW, and other staff members, after discussing the pros and cons on many occasions."
She said as soon as the risk of injury is minimized, the city would like to see the playground reopened for use.
Other news and notes from a busy June night at Common Council:
- Quarterly Employee Recognition Awards were given to Denise Malone for her work with the Planning Department on behalf of the Workforce Diversity Committee, and two Ithaca Police officers, Tom Condzella and Mike Meskill, for their work with Officer Colin, who passed away earlier this year.
- Judging by public comment, it looked like there was going to be quite a bit of opposition to the Parks and Recreation Master Plan due to one line in it that would have allowed the consideration of certain park alienation. However, it was announced at the meeting's start that a revised version of the Master Plan had been introduced which did not include the park alienation portion. The Master Plan was eventually adopted unanimously.
- Money to support the replacement of the South Cayuga Street bridge and the Brindley Street bridge, both of which are receiving mostly federal funding, were both approved, as was $375,000 for structural improvements to the Dryden Road Parking Garage.
- There were 52 public comments (maybe a new record? Does anyone track these things?), which dealt with the Commons Playground, allowing or disallowing dogs on the Commons, the Green Street Garage redevelopment, the "alienation" of parks language in the Parks Master Plan, the Nines historic status, the Charitable Gifts Reserve fund, development in Northside, and a few others.