ITHACA, NY – On Tuesday, the design team behind the proposed Dewitt House, the development project that will be built on the Old Library site, presented the next draft of their project proposal to city officials.

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Since the Old Library site is within the Dewitt Historic District, a combined meeting of the Ithaca Planning and Development Board and the Ithaca Landmark Preservation Council was required.

Along with the two committees, about 20 members of the public and other interested city officials also attended the meeting to see how the project was taking shape.

Since it’s still very early in the development process, the purpose of the meeting was to start establishing a baseline that all interested relevant parties could work from. That list of parties included Tompkins County, who also have stake in the project.

There were many design changes to the project, among them reducing the number of housing units was reduced to 51 from 60. Another major change was moving the building from an L-shape to more of a U-shape.

The design team from HOLT architects presented two options for the Dewitt House layout:

1 – The “Streetscape and Garden” layout, which focused on a more open courtyard design and green space

2 – The “Urban Edge” layout, a more closed design which stretched the wall facing Cayuga Street further down, to better reflect the urban transition zone that the building will occupy

Challenges and concerns

With only one dissenter, all the city officials in attendance were in favor of the “Streetscape and Garden” layout. They were not without their criticisms, however. Here are some of the challenges posed by members of the Planning Board and the ILPC:

1 – More green space. Planning Board member John Schroeder expressed that many nearby buildings featured space between the building and the street in which trees or other greenery could be planted. The proposed layout did not leave space for this.

The HOLT design team did not express any serious objections to this idea, and seemed receptive to factoring it into their next draft.

2 – Reduction in parking lots. The project proposal calls for 56 parking spaces – which is more than one parking space per housing unit. Several members of assembled committees echoed this concern, in particular because the city has been seeking to push people toward using mass transit as opposed to their own vehicles.

The representatives from HOLT, as well as a county representative, pointed out that the parking space would also be needed to accommodate traffic from people coming to programs at Lifelong, the non-profit senior center that will be part of the facility.

3 – The Court Street facade. Another criticism is that the wall facing Court St. appeared in design documents as one long, flat wall, which would be four stories high. It was suggested that this would clash with the wood framed houses across the street, and also present an unpleasant view.

The design team noted that the drawings were early and lacking in detail. They suggested that insets and windows could help address this concern.

Some committee members seemed unconvinced, and one suggested that the top two floors of the building might be pushed back along that side, to create a more pleasing aesthetic. It was not immediately clear how that might affect the feasibility of the construction.

4 – Address and clarify sustainability. The initial presentation suggested that the project would try to reduce environmental impact by leaving the library building foundations intact where possible, and possibly reusing some materials.

Two committee members called them out on this claim, noting that the footprints of the two buildings had very little overlap, suggesting that there was very little that could be done in terms of sustainability in terms of that method.

The designers indicated they had taken other steps for sustainability, such as rainwater collection and daylighting (that is, providing ample natural light).

The presentation and discussion included many other details which we may examine in a future article.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.