Students returning to the chaos that is Collegetown and wondering what the heck is going on could do worse than sit down in front of Brian Crandall’s blog “Ithacating in Cornell Heights.” Crandall, a recent Cornell graduate, has been following development in both the city and the town since June 2008. He is a relentless data miner, obviously intimately familiar with not only the document archive for the City of Ithaca planning and development board, but also the various government and financial websites that record the filing of permits and loan applications.
Construction has been going on all summer in Collegetown, with the focus at the very center of the neighborhood—College Avenue and Dryden Road—both of which have been impassable for several weeks. This impassibility caused a one-week delay in the opening of the new Greenstar Cooperative Market at 307 College Ave. (see separate story on page xx) because tractor-trailer delivery trucks simply couldn’t get to it. Developer Josh Lower is building five stories of apartments above the grocery store; “Collegetown Crossing” is scheduled to be home to the fall semester students.
This building has been six years in the planning. It was the focus of a prolonged discussion over how much parking should be required for a given building. In the end (2014) the city opted to change its ordinance for central Collegetown to an approach called “form-based” zoning. In traditional zoning a polygon is drawn on a map and within that area a single category of use is allowed: residential, commercial, or industrial. With its storefront businesses and apartments on the upper floors, Collegetown has long had “mixed use” (MU) zoning along commercial streets, but the new approach focuses on the size (height and mass) of buildings rather than their uses.
MU-1 and MU-2 form the axis of Dryden Road and College Avenue with the latter arrayed around the central intersection and allowing for the tallest (80 feet high) buildings. CR (Collegetown residential)-1 through CR-4 allow for progressively less dense housing toward the edges of the Collegetown neighborhood.
Crandall chronicles the struggle of College Avenue Neil Golder with the advent of the “Collegetown Form Overlay Districts” prescribed by the city and followed by developer Todd Fox. Fox purchased the parcel at the corner of College Avenue and Bool Street, which is in a overlay district that allows five-story buildings up to 70 feet tall to be built. It is, in fact, the very eastern boundary of the same district in which Lower is building Collegetown Crossing at 307 College Ave.
Golder has lived at 203 College Ave. for decades, but just added solar panels to his roof last year (2015), one year after the new zoning was introduced. Fox’s proposed building would at the very least shade out Golder’s panels, and Golder is further charging that the tall building would change the character of the neighborhood. He sued the City of Ithaca and Fox, but his case was dismissed on a technicality—the plans for the building that he cited were not the latest ones—and he has vowed to bring suit again.
John Novarr of Novarr-Mackesy, which is responsible for the rather monumental Collegetown Terrace development on East State Street in “Lower Collegetown,” has purchased for $4.75 million the three frame houses (119, 121, and 125 College Ave.) down the street from Golder’s home. He plans to build four to five-story townhouses in their place; they will include 50 to 50 units.
Novarr made the purchases through an LLC (limited-liability company), which has become a local trend. When creating an LLC in New York State, one does not have to list all the partners and investors who have contributed to its formation. Many of the buildings that you see rising in Collegetown now and increasingly in the future will be nominally constructed by LLCs. In an October 2014 cover story (“Boomtown over Cayuga”) and a more recent one in April 2016 (“Going Up Again”) the Ithaca Times documented the influx of non-local investment money into the regional market. In the aftermath of the 2008-2011 college-town real estate has been recognized as a safer place to make money than the stock market.
The Dryden South building at 205 Dryden Road is, like Collegetown Crossing, almost complete. Developer Pat Kraft, following the form-based mixed-use model, will relocate his store Kraftees in the ground floor (it has been on College Avenue since the old Dryden Road building was demolished) and put 10 apartments (40 bedrooms) in the floors above.
However, right next door at 209-215 Dryden Road, John Novarr is erecting a much larger building that is not due to be complete until spring 2017. To be called the Breazzano Family Center for Business Education and will be an extension of Cornell’s Johnson business school. It being Cornell, there is a nifty little video (available at Crandall’s site) that leads you through the plan and purpose of the center. It will be 76,000 square feet of classrooms, faculty and student offices, “break out rooms,” plus commons and social spaces. The video tour shows it to strongly other recently-built Cornell campus buildings: an airy interior finished in metal and wood and offering all the 21st century amenities. Rather than looking out on other campus buildings, however, this will offer views of restaurants, cafés, and apartment buildings, a bit more like NYU than Cornell. §