ITHACA, N.Y. — The back of The Nines building in Collegetown is falling apart. It was never meant to be pretty. During public comments, one person called it an “uninspired utilitarian garage for fire equipment.” The owners don’t have the means to make major updates to the building and simply want to sell it. But if it receives a historic designation, their retirement plans could be dashed and The Nines could end up just another empty store front in Collegetown. For now, the building’s future remains in limbo.
Owner Mark Kielmann said about The Nines, “I love this town. I don’t feel I’m being treated very fairly at this stage of the game.”
He and his wife Shirley Kielmann have invested in The Nines as their primary retirement plan and have run the popular pizza and live-music spot for about 38 years.
He said, “It’s pretty much our 401K, I guess I would say.”
After having the building up for sale for around 10 years, the owners finally have a local developer interested in building a new mixed-use facility on the site. But when the building’s possible sale became public last fall and the Visum Development Group temporarily called off plans to buy it, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission began to take note of the site and are currently recommending that the building get a historic designation.
Now, the owners say the designation, with all the additional building requirements that go along with it, could hamper the sale.
At the Planning and Economic Development Committee Wednesday, four options for the building were on the table:
- The committee could vote to send a recommendation for historic designation to Common Council.
- The suggestion for the designation could be rejected and essentially “die in committee.”
- The committee could send the recommendation to Commons Council and ask them to deny it. (Like they did for the Chacona Block.)
- The recommendation could get sent back to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission for modifications.
It was clear from the get-go that the committee was interested in considering the latter.
Committee Chair Seph Murtagh said that aside from the back of the building, which is crumbling, the “iconic building” is worth saving. But he suggested that there might be a way to find a middle ground on the issue by preserving the front of the building, which is still standing, and giving the owners a chance to develop the back part of the building through a process called segmenting.
Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken said segmenting could be approved if the back side of the building is deemed “non-contributing” to the historic value of the site. That basically means that the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission could decide that the back of the building has already lost its “historic fabric.”
There’s no guarantee that would happen, though. McCraken said the building’s history as a fire house and the now-crumbling addition to the back of the building can all be considered historic.
“The whole site now is eligible for designation,” he said.
Segmenting got push-back from others on the committee.
First Ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock pointed out that the entire back area of The Nines is enclosed on all four sides, which would make building in the area difficult and expensive.
The Carey Building is an example of how difficult adding onto a large building can be expensive and time consuming. Four stories were added to the top of the building and it required almost three years and $4 million to make it happen.
Frost Travis, president of Travis Hyde Properties, who did the work, called their commitment to the project a “horrible mistake from an economic standpoint” in terms of the return on investment, Brock said.
McCraken said he could not speak to the feasibility of building onto the back of The Nines or if it would be financially worthwhile for a developer to do so.
“Again, I’m not an engineer. I’m not a contractor. I can’t speak to that,” he said.
Donna Flemming said suggesting segmenting without giving the committee enough information about what segmenting means economically and aesthetically isn’t enough for her to make a decision on. She encouraged the ILPC to come up with examples or ideas of what a segmented building could look like.
“Because right now, a lot of us are scratching out heads and thinking, ‘Hm. We really can’t see how this is going to work,’” she said.
Otherwise, Flemming said it feels like the ILPC is saying, “‘…You designate it and you deal with it.’ Well that’s not very helpful.”
The committee eventually voted to send the historic designation request back to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission for further review and requested that if the commission brings it back to the committee, that is provide a way to “stimulate imaginations” for development.