The DeWitt House project planned by Ithaca developer Frost Travis for the Old Library site at Court and Cayuga streets is still in limbo after a July 12 joint meeting of the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) and the city planning and development board.
The question of the night was whether the ILPC would issue a “certificate of appropriateness” for the 57-unit building. After about two and a half hours of deliberation and public comment, the ILPC decided to table their decision—if the ILPC gets new information, including visual renderings of how the building will look from different angles in the streetscape, they have 90 days to make a call on the project.
An approved certificate would find that the building is “consistent with other large buildings within the district, including the DeWitt Mall, Cayuga Apartments, and the court house.” A denial of that certificate would find that the project “does not sympathetically relate to the smaller residential scale buildings that comprise the area.”
Tompkins County planning commissioner Ed Marx was one of about a dozen public commenters to speak their mind during the hearing. Marx said that the Frost Travis project, which requires demolition of the old library building, was one of two projects that got good reviews from city officials and staff in January 2015.
“My strong memory of that meeting was there were two projects you thought could be developed on that site, and this was one of them,” Marx said. “This site has languished as having almost no benefit for the community for almost 20 years. And we have a great chance to fix that. If this goes away, I don’t know what will happen next.”
The other proposal Marx was referring to was an adaptive reuse of the old library building, designed by STREAM Collaborative. The Tompkins County legislature voted 7-6 in July 2015 to award the project to Travis.
Nancy Metzger, owner of the adjacent DeWitt Inn, had a different take on the DeWitt House plans.
“The legislature was warned about this moment,” Metzger said. “They were warned they were approving a building that was too big for a historic district. [Legislator] Martha Robertson said, ‘If it can’t be 57 apartments, it’ll be 40, and we’ll have still have more housing … it was kind of a given the building could not be successful at this size.”
Tom Shelley, a member of the Sustainable Tompkins board of directors, told the combined boards the proposal “looks kind of like a Hampton Inn.” City historic planner Bryan McCracken told the boards that he had 13 written comments about the project, a dozen in opposition. Proposed materials for the building’s façade include limestone, brick, and linear-fiber cement siding.
Katelin Olson of the ILPC took a look at lot sizes in the historic district compared to building sizes, and found that lot coverage of the proposed DeWitt House was about 54 percent, compared to about 38 percent for the DeWitt Mall and about 10 percent for the DeWitt Inn.
Susan Stein of the ILPC told the architects that the design reminded her of Robert Venturi’s Guild House, a Philadelphia low-income senior citizen housing project commissioned by a Quaker organization in 1960.
“Not that that design hasn’t been celebrated,” Stein said,” but I think it’s too institutional for this area.”
ILPC chair Ed Finegan asked Travis how flexible he could be in changing the size of the project.
“To support the site and the cost of construction,” Travis said, “we need to have this rentable volume to make it financially feasible and financeable with the lender.”
“If there’s design concerns, it’s worth having another meeting with ILPC,” Travis said later. “If this isn’t going forward because of mass and scale, we would like to know that. That doesn’t mean the project is dead in the water, but at some point the county’s patience will wear thin and they’re going to say fish or cut bait. If this is going to go through another [request for proposal] process, I would not participate.”
Architect Kim Michaels, of Trowbridge Wolf Michaels, responded to a couple of public comments that called the DeWitt House proposal a “trainwreck.”
“It’s a big building,” Michaels said, “[but] it’s not a trainwreck. It can be large and work with the neighborhood. It will be different, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be catastrophic. Density is desirable, and the addition it will bring to the neighborhood is a positive one … The design team has heard loud and clear size of it is a concern to this board. Do you believe that the size is mitigable in any way other than slashing units out of the building? … That’s really the crux of the question.”
The old library building itself is not considered historic. Designed by Victor Bagnardi, ground was broken in 1964 after the city’s first public library, gifted by Ezra Cornell and located at Seneca and Tioga, was demolished in 1959 for parking. DeWitt Park historic district’s “period of significance” is between 1820 to 1930, so the old county library, completed in 1969, is a “non-contributing resource.” The proposed project must be considered by the ILPC as how they affect historic context in the area.
According to a 1979 housing survey by Mary Donahue of the state division of historic preservation, “two fine homes were torn down to make the site for the new library—the 1830 Munn-Stowell house, acquired by Odd Fellows in 1904, the first brick residence in Ithaca, and the 1830 Gosman-Sage-Grant house,” a Greek Revival like those on Geneva Street.