ITHACA, N.Y. — Usually, developers seek out a property to develop. For Pat Kraft and his Dryden South project, it was the other way around.
“The textbook business was showing signs that it was not going to be a forever thing,” says Kraft, owner of the former Kraftee’s book store in Collegetown. “We were paying attention to the Goody Clancy Plan, following it through, we had a general idea and it was then a waiting game until the code passed. I wanted to do the building and my time in the textbook industry was ending. I like being here.”
Much of Collegetown, and especially Inner Collegetown, falls into a couple different forms of ownership, not mutually exclusive – the old, mostly Greek families like the Lambrous and the Avramises, who have owned properties in Collegetown for generations, and larger rental companies like Ithaca Renting (Jason Fane), Novarr-Mackesey and Travis Hyde Properties. Kraft falls into a third, much smaller group – shop owners who also owned their properties, and watched as the neighborhood changed around them.
Being so close to Cornell campus, the stores and restaurants of Collegetown can be seen as a mirror of student life. Gone are many of the bars, as students’ drinking habits changed. So are the neighborhood bookstores that used to offer deals on textbooks, victims of an Amazon-centric world (although, Fontana’s Shoes is still holding their own after 100 years). The restaurants are still there, but their flavors change with the taste buds of students – out with the delicatessens, in with the frozen yogurt shops.
Some, like the Leonardos who once owned the Royal Palm Tavern, chose to sell off their properties as they retired. Others, like Kraft, saw their front doors closing, but other opportunities were knocking.
Kraft got his start in Oswego in 1989, where he still has a shop. “Originally, in the early ’90s, we were a t-shirt shop, and we did a lot of business with fraternities and sororities. Greek life was big in Oswego at the time, and it was big in Ithaca, so we had business down here. Then in 1998, Triangle Books closed. We had started selling textbooks in 1994, and there was no off-campus bookstore in Ithaca [at that time], so I started to look into it and opened a store in 2002. I bought the building in 2004 not for development, but for my business.”
As work on revisions to the Collegetown zoning code got underway, Kraft started looking at potential options for his storefront. “I wanted to do a project, I had a good bank behind me (Pathfinder Bank in Oswego). I try to pay attention to the environment; the river flows at a certain pace,” said Kraft.
When the zoning code was approved in 2014 after several years of debate and review, Kraft was one of the first out of the gate with a proposal – a six-story mixed-use building called Dryden South. Being half a block from the intersection of College Avenue and Dryden Road meant he was near the doorstep of Cornell, in an already somewhat built-up location with few permanent residents.
Rents in the 10-unit, 40-bedroom apartment are not cheap; although the units comes furnished (Kraft’s eyes lit up as he spoke of how architect Jagat Sharma and Sam Peter Furniture coordinated their finishes and color schemes), a bedroom goes for about $1300/month. But, according to Kraft, the rental business has been quite good. “I only have a couple of beds left. If I wanted to do fall sublets, fall only, I’d be fully occupied. College students tend to email at like 9 PM, and they want instantaneous responses. I handle all the email inquiries by myself at home, and I’ll be here to hand them their keys when they move in. This is my only building, I want to bring it in for a landing. ”
And so the core of Collegetown continues to evolve; just as the boarding houses and former fraternity lodges gave way to bank branches, a motel and a Hardee’s 50 years ago, today they give way to mid-rise apartment buildings with start-up business spaces, a grocery store and an emphasis on walkability. Some folks fold their proverbial hand of cards, others play what they have and see what they can pull from the deck before their next turn.
Kraft laughed when asked about plans for the future. “Take a day off, maybe two. I like Ithaca, maybe another project someday, after the dust settles. Here, the Commons, who knows? I bought this property for the business in ’04, before the rezoning initiative started, things were less expensive then. I got lucky, I dunno if that’ll happen again.”