ITHACA, N.Y. — When it comes to Ithaca’s ever-evolving neighborhoods, few things are ever certain. But in the case of Ithaca’s West End neighborhood, which comprises parts of State Street, Route 13 and the Waterfront, there are two “known knowns”, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld.

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One, that there’s been a lot of interest in the city’s West End neighborhood as of late. Two, the city wants to guide that interest towards a denser, more walkable environment, not unlike parts of downtown and the State Street Corridor that serves as the city’s east-west artery.

A number of projects, most of them small in scale, have come forth in the past several years – new condos and apartments on Inlet Island, the Iacovelli apartments on West Seneca Street, the new Planned Parenthood building, and the expansion and renovation of Purity Ice Cream on Cascadilla Street.

“It was important for us to be invested in the neighborhood,” said Purity owner Bruce Lane. “This side of the city has been neglected for many years, the highway sort of makes West End an island, where people just drive by, it’s not pedestrian or bike friendly. We wanted to do our part to improve the place.”

Lane, who purchased Purity in 1998 with his wife Heather, just finished adding about 2,600 square feet of commercial office space for lease in what was warehouse and storage space, and is just starting to look for tenants. “As an entry point to Ithaca, I wanted to make something that looks nice and I think we accomplished that.”

Five blocks away at 619 West State Street, renovations are currently underway on what was a small retail strip, turning what had been a mostly-vacant building into the new headquarters of HOLT Architects, as well as renovated spaces for two other tenants. HOLT will be moving about thirty staff from its office downtown to the new West End location.

HOLT Principal Quay Thompson cites several reasons for the move across town. “We’ve been here [downtown] for 30 years and we’re growing. We looked hard at several spaces, we desired to own our own space, and there was also a desire to be a part of Ithaca’ West End. The new space will be much more collaborative, we’ll have multiple conference rooms in our new building. We need space for people to get together and work together to solve problems. We didn’t really have that opportunity in our existing facility.”

According to Thompson, the new building will be net-zero energy, meaning that it makes as much energy as it uses. HOLT plans to accomplish this with solar panels, LED lighting, and making the building’s insulation and “thermal envelope” as efficient as possible.

Thompson’s colleague, Graham Gillespie, further emphasized the firm’s desire to be a part of the West End. “It’s a high visibility, high traffic location. We want people to see a net-zero building and realize it’s achievable. With the Finger Lakes Beverage Center renovations, the Purity work, there’s a lot of energy down there. The State Street corridor is likely to see a lot of interest from businesses in the next several years.”

“We will miss being so close to the Commons though,” added Thompson.

When asked what challenges currently face the neighborhood, both Lane and Gillespie agreed on one issue: parking.

Lane stressed that having nearby parking is crucial to Purity’s success for the time being. “Parking is important. The whole idea of making the West End pedestrian friendly is something the city has to do, individual property owners don’t have the ability to do it by themselves. The traffic goes too fast and heavy, maybe the city can work with the state on that. But until that happens, cars will whizz by and it will only get worse.”

“Parking is a challenge,” said HOLT’s Gillespie, “but one of the goals is to have commuters move into the city where they can walk to meet some of their needs. It’s one of the things the city needs to work out.”

“The city or a private developer could build a parking garage if it really came down to it. The zoning is being changed to accommodate density, so it’s not a zoning issue, it’s a reality issue. People will find a way to make it work – mass transit, commuter lots, living nearby, there are possibilities,” said Gillespie.

While noting the obstacles, Lane, Thompson and Gillespie are all optimistic about the neighborhood’s future. All expect growth to continue, mostly smaller, individual projects by local business owners and developers.

“Developers, I’m not sure a lot of them are down here because the properties are small. This is the land of small projects – new stores, new shops and so on,” said Lane. “This area and the Waterfront can be the jewel of the city, there are a lot of opportunities to do some wonderful things.”

Gillespie agrees. “For now I see more investment and improvement of existing properties. I think it will become a much more desirable place to live.”

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.