After a winding path that started several months ago and has featured some rare contentious moments between city legislative officials, the Chacona Building in Collegetown will not receive a historic designation.
Representative of how back-and-forth the debate has been, the vote ended up tied 5-5. Mayor Svante Myrick, who had already stated his opposition, then broke the tie serving as the final vote.
The Chacona Block property is currently owned by Student Agencies, a non-profit organization with deep roots in the Cornell community. They have argued that in order to best maintain and stabilize the ailing building, it would be easiest to not have the extra scrutiny that comes with landmark designation. Historic preservationists had made the case that the building's roots in the community and the mark that its architecture left on the city both merited a landmark designation to ensure the building would live on as a marker of Collegetown's past. (more details on its history in the link below) Student Agencies had submitted a Memorandum of Understanding to the city that stated a commitment to temper any future changes to the building, keeping in mind the historic value of the property but not having to seek approval from the Ithaca Landmark Preservation Commission (ILPC).
The designation effort very nearly died at October's Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting, but was eventually sent to Common Council for review, though accompanied by a recommendation that the designation not be awarded. The divisions that had deadlocked the negotiations at PEDC were still evident. Alderpeople Cynthia Brock and Steve Smith, both PEDC members, reiterated their comments that the building's historical significance and architectural impact do not measure up to the level of a landmark in the city. Alderperson Donna Fleming, speaking on the topic for the first time, echoed many of those points. A major portion of their argument revolved around the potential future value of the site to the community, which they felt outweighed maintaining the historical significance of the building.
Temporary-Alderperson Michael Decatur and Alderperson Graham Kerslick both said they understood the fears of Student Agencies, but that the landmark designation should not be viewed as a death knell for, as Kerslick called it, "adaptive survivability." In other words, there are still mechanisms to help conduct moderate rehabilitation to support the building's stability. Decatur was an early "pro" vote, and had basically been the only voice staunchly supporting the designation at the PEDC meeting.
"Those of you that know me know I support the Collegetown Plan," Kerslick said. "Having said that, I think I always supported that because I wanted to insure there was a balance [...] For me, it would be a significant loss to have [the Chacona Building] not there."
Alderperson George McGonigal also joined them in speaking in favor of designating the building, lamenting the loss of architectural diversity in Collegetown with the advent of apartment buildings and commercial chains.
So the debate essentially came down to Alderperson Seph Murtagh's vote. He had already expressed his angst over the decision previously, calling it the toughest decision he has faced during his time on Common Council. While he weighed the good Student Agencies has done and hesitated due to the perceived financial hardships the organization had claimed it would face as a result of the designation, he eventually voted for the designation in the interest of, somewhat similar to the others, balancing the future and past of Collegetown and attempting to protect both.
"Nowhere in the Comprehensive Plan does it say we should be accomplishing these goals by incentivizing the demolition of an iconic building in the heart of Collegetown," Murtagh said.
As for the public comment portion of the meeting that dealt with Chacona Block, a range of opinions were present. The majority spoke against designating the block, though many of them were connected to Student Agencies in some way. George Avramis, owner of the nearby Larkin Building, actually spoke in favor of the historic designation. He fought his own battle against historic designation recently when the Larkin Building was given historic status, limiting his future options with the property, but said if Larkin was deemed designate-able, Common Council would have to deem Chacona historic as well to maintain consistency and fairness.
"I think 411-415, the Chacona Building, should be held to the same standard that I am," Avramis said.
The preservationist community has come out strongly in support of the ILPC's August recommendation for historic designation.
John Schroeder, a member of the Planning Board who has been one of the louder public voices in favor of preserving Collegetown buildings, once again spoke in favor of the designation. He was followed, with similar sentiments, by City historian Mary Tomlan. Schroeder said despite his appreciation of Student Agencies offering the Memorandum of Understanding, he said in order to make such an intention official, they should support the designation.
"To make that binding, they should support the historic designation," Schroeder said. "I believe they're sincere, but to really do what they say that want to do, then landmark the building [...] No protection is certain unless its landmarked. I urge [Common Council] to take that step in the interest of the community."
Follow Matt Butler on Twitter @AllegedButler