ITHACA, NY – In a meeting on Tuesday, several members of the public said that Tompkins County had created an impossible situation at the Old Library site. Some went so far as to call the situation a “trainwreck.”
A conclusion expressed both by members of the public and public officials was that the developers of the project, Travis-Hyde Properties and HOLT Architects, had been put in a difficult-to-impossible situation due to a clash between what the county decided on for the Old Library site, and what the city and the public wanted for the site.
Dewitt House, the project proposed for the site, is a four-story 57-unit housing complex aimed at older adults. It would be located at 312 North Cayuga Street, the site of the old Tompkins Library. The county, which owns the property, ruffled feathers when they decided on the Dewitt House over a different proposal that had much broader support among city politicians and residents.
For a longer refresher on the Old Library controversy that led up to this situation, follow the link below.
Tuesday’s meeting was a joint meeting between the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Committee (ILPC), whose job is to ensure that historic properties and neighborhoods retain their character, and the Ithaca Planning and Development Board.
Since the Old Library site is in the Dewitt Historical District, the developers must obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from the ILPC. This would allow them to move on to the next step, which would be a site plan review by the planning board. However, after almost three hours of debate, the decision was tabled and the developers were essentially sent back to the drawing board.
Dancing around the issue
The first portion of the meeting proceeded as many ILPC meetings do — with discussions of whether or not the building in question fits in with the character of the historic district. There was much conversation about setbacks, street view and so on.
Early in the project’s life cycle, the ILPC had requested the developer’s avoid making a building that was too monolithic and dull. After presenting their revisions at a June ILPC meeting, however, the developers had been told “quiet” their design. It featured some bold colors and articulation of the walls and roofs that some ILPC members felt was too busy.
On Tuesday, the pendulum seemed to have swung back in the other direction, with several members of the ILPC and Planning Board describing the building as “dull” and “dormitory-like.” Planning board member Robert Aaron Lewis said that the building “looked like a Hampton Inn” and didn’t fit with the neighborhood.
Others officials were more comfortable with the new design. Others still, such as Planning Board member John Schroeder called for finding a happy medium between the two.
Shifting the conversation
Eventually, however, ILPC member Katelin Olson shifted the conversation.
“We don’t know big it is in comparison to other properties. Square footage is great, but it’s hard to imagine in some cases… We’ve talked about setbacks and we’ve talked about square feet. What we haven’t talked about is cubic feet of developable space,” Olson said.
Olson went on to provide a comparison between the Dewitt House’s proposed use of its parcel of land versus that of several other large buildings in the area. She concluded that Dewitt House used 54 percent of available developed space on its parcel of land.
Olson provided rough estimates of how much space was used by other large buildings by comparison. This is what she came up with:
- Dewitt Mall uses 38 percent of its developable space
- Dewitt Park Inn, next door to the Old Library site, uses approximately 10.4 percent of its developable space
- 114 West Court street uses 16 percent
- 118 West Court street uses 19 percent
- While she didn’t have time to calculate the percantage for the County Courthouse, Olson said it sits on acre of land and looking at the tax maps, one can see all the unused land
- Olson said that while the Presbyterian Church took up more of its parcel, Dewitt Park could be considered its “side yard” and thus it preserves a great deal of open space
This opened the way toward what many agreed was the real crux of the issue: the project, as proposed, was simply too big for the site.
“The criteria for this project is a 4-story building with this many units, if that is untenable then we need to have that conversation,” said landscape architect Kim Michaels, a member of the project team. “What we’ve been trying to do is make a building that is the size that is necessary for this site for other criteria and still mitigate that mass and find a compromise, if that’s not going to happen then we’re wasting a lot of people’s time.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, about ten people spoke. All but one of them were against the project. Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken noted that the ILPC had also received several written comments, with 12 opposing the project and one in support.
Several members of the public all echoed similar sentiments: that this issue was predictable and possibly could have been avoided, and that the developer got a raw deal in the process. First to speak was David Kramer who lives on North Cayuga Street.
“From the very inception, I have predicted this moment,” Kramer said. “I think we’re in a trainwreck. That the county has authorized a building which cannot be built.”
“I feel really bad for the developer, for the architect, you folks have been told in one session its too spare in the other session its too articulated,” he continued. “The unease, I believe, we are seeing with this project is that it’s too big. It doesn’t go on this corner. And no matter what you do with that much size and that much mass, you can’t make it right in that place.”
Kramer described the situation as an impasse between the city, the county and the developer. He suggested that the design would need to cut back by as much as one third or one half the size. If that could be achieved, he argued, the rest would fall into place easily.
This narrative wasn’t universally agreed upon. Tompkins County Commissioner of Planning Ed Marx said that the county did its due diligence to ensure that the project could succeed. Marx said that the county consulted
“Prior to the beginning of any review process, members of the ILPC will remember that we brought all of the remaining proposals in January 2015 to a special meeting to get some feedback, because we did not want to bring forward a project that had no chance,” Marx said.
He added that, to his memory, the ILPC concluded that only two proposals could be developed on that site: Dewitt House, or the Franklin-STREAM project that had been favored by many. Marx said that the county weighed that feedback heavily.
“There’s been a lot of effort put into this, a lot of time and money by the developer based on a belief that this was a project with modifications and changes that would have to be made going forward, but fundamentally a project that could be approved,” Marx said. “This site has languished, having almost no benefit for the community for about 20 years, and we have a chance to make something there that will provide great benefit to the community. If this goes away, I don’t know will happen.”
John Schroeder of the Ithaca Planning and Development Board had a different view.
Schroeder said that the Planning Board tried to proactive on the issue, and unanimously pushed for the Franklin-STREAM proposal through a resolution.
“We did that for very explicit reasons,” Schroeder said. “The Planning Board absolutely believes in density downtown. I believe in density downtown, passionately. It’s part of the comprehensive plan. But the comprehensive plan has other important components. The comprehensive plan emphasizes compatibility with historic districts, with green buildings techniques and attempts to reuse buildings when possible. The project that best met all those goals, comprehensively, was the Franklin STREAM project.”
Schroeder added that several members of Ithaca’s Common Council also signed a letter in support of the Franklin-STREAM proposal. Schroder made the case that the county had ample feedback from multiple sources in the city to make an informed decision.
After much deliberation, the discussion returned to whether or note the ILPC should vote on a Certificate of Appropriateness. It was clear from the opinions expressed by the individual members of the ILPC that the certificate request would be denied.
This left the developers in another tight spot: if the certificate was denied, the developer would have to start the process over with a “substantially different” project. The alternative was to table the discussion, which would allow for smaller modifications that might pass muster.
The project team was fairly adamant that they could not reduce the number of units in the proposal, leaving them with very little wiggle room to reduce the overall size and massing of the building.
This led to a bit of a standoff. ILPC member Michael McGandy noted that developers frequently came before the ILPC making the case that things couldn’t be changed, but when push came to shove, they could find a solution.
While the project team maintained their position, developer Frost Travis seemed hesitant to essentially start over from the beginning of the process. He noted that eventually the county would lose its patience, and if they were to put out a new Request for Proposals (RFP), he made it clear he would not participate.
After much waffling and determining exactly what the implications of tabling versus voting would be, the discussion was tabled. Several ILPC members expressed skepticism that the building would ever be able to meet the standard they were looking for, but Travis maintained it was worth exploring.
“I hope there is a solution that would satisfy the ILPC. I think given that it’s been such a long process from the very beginning of the RFP and even further back — I recall a study back in 2008, I think for what to do with the site,” Travis said. “This building has been, in my opinion, a blight for a long time. I know there are those who do like the old library — I don’t care for it.”
“I’d hate to have all this effort be for naught… Maybe we’re not as closed as I hoped, but I think the development team needs to take a look at this and either we can or we can’t. I think we’ll know that soon enough,” he concluded.