ITHACA, N.Y. — In what shaped up to be a very eventful Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting for the city of Ithaca’s Common Council, even the more mundane agenda items ended up becoming hotly-debated conversations.

Between the debates over the best way to protect South Hill, and eyeballs poring over plans for new downtown housing, the PEDC was set to review and pass a resolution to affirm whether the Larkin Building, a 5-story building at 403 College Avenue in the Collegetown neighborhood, merited historic preservation landmarking. It ended up being far more controversial than most expected.

Present to speak against the building’s preservation was the building’s owner, who noted that as a 100 year-old wood-frame structure, the risk of a fire was substantial. Much of the block has experienced fires over the decades – the Larkin Building’s next-door neighbor, 407 College Avenue, was destroyed in a massive inferno in 1998. It was noted that there were long-term plans to replace the building with a new structure. Speaking in favor of the landmarking was Bryan McCracken, the city’s Historic Preservation Planner, as did Planning Board member and former councilman John Schroeder during the public hearing at the start of the meeting.

Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) did not feel the building was especially attractive or historically important, and was “less compelled to designate it as historic”. With similar sentiments was Councilor and Collegetown representative Steve Smith (D-4th), who stated that he supported designation at first, but was becoming less inclined as time went on. Smith asked if the building merited landmarking for its actual history, or if it was for some other historic significance.

McCracken responded with a history of the building, being an early pioneer of Collegetown’s dense core, its long life as a grocery and book store, and while not an example of high design, it was a good example of the style of its time. Councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) was supportive, but not a fan of the logic used to justify landmarking, asking what the balance should be for Collegetown preservation.

Other council members, present at the meeting but not on the committee, chimed in with their opinions. Smith’s ward cohort, Councilor Graham Kerslick (D-4th), advocated for “a good mix” of old and new, and remarked in favor of landmarking. George McGonigal (D-1st) was also in favor, saying “{i}n a town that brags about sustainability…we talk about knocking down structures way more than we should.”

Things started to get a little complicated from here. With the recent departure of councilor Josephine Martell, There are only four members of the committee – two, Gearhart and committee chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) were in favor, while Smith and Brock were against the resolution in favor of historic landmarking of the Larkin Building. For practical purposes, both the resolution, and a resolution to deny designation, failed. However, the committee had the option to vote to send the landmarking proposal to the full council without support or denial of the resolution. For this, Councilor Smith voted in favor, allowing the measure to move forward. As noted by the Mayor, this was the first time this odd procedural quirk had been used in several years.

The final status is that, without support, without denial, the designation of the Larkin Building will be discussed at the Common Council meeting early next month. The Chacona Block (Student Agencies Building, 411-415 College) will go through the PEDC next month, and if that makes it to Council, the vote would be November at the earliest.

Brian Crandall

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