ITHACA, N.Y. –– The Voice has been following this project’s quiet behind-the-scenes movement for years. Finally, it’s ready to see the public eye. Novarr-Mackesey’s Collegetown “Innovation District” promises to redefine Collegetown and have an immense impact on Ithaca, its economy and its skyline.

The project has been a part of the local rumor mill for at least three years. The concrete indications of its existence have been sparse but substantive.

They include developer John Novarr’s $15.6 million purchase of seven apartment homes in inner Collegetown in December 2018, the April 2019 purchase of the Nines property by Novarr, and a Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency meeting in December 2019 where Novarr’s business partner, Philip Proujansky, spoke in broad terms about the plans to redevelopment a significant portion of inner Collegetown into a massive mixed-use megaproject.

As proposed (and you can view all 152 pages here), the project is comprised of five sites in Collegetown including 17 properties and 2.65 acres in total. The proposed district fronts the 200 and 300 blocks of College Avenue, and the 100 blocks of Catherine Street and Cook Street. The five sites are identified in the filing as “Dryden Center”, “The Nines”, “Catherine Summit”, “Catherine North” and “Catherine South.”

Initial plans for the $145 million project state a minimum buildout of 720,355 square feet, to begin construction in fall 2021 and continue through winter 2025.

Filling out that 720,000 or so square feet are 440 housing units, 73,424 square feet of commercial office space, and 33,212 square feet of retail space. High-tech industrial space and community/non-profit space are also planned, but their square footages have yet to be determined. Novarr favorite ikon.5 is the project architect, TWMLA is the landscape architect and spearheading the project’s review, T.G. Miller P.C. is the civil engineer and John G. Stopen Engineering LLP is the geotechnical engineer.

The project will be the subject of much debate in the coming months, in part because it seeks to build well beyond current zoning in building height, lot coverage and allowed uses, thus requiring the use of a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application that will need to be reviewed by the Common Council.

To make the deal more appealing to the council and city of Ithaca, the developers are offering the city $3 million in direct contributions –– $1 million to replace shortfalls in the city budget caused by decreases in property taxes stemming from the demolition and site prep of existing properties (currently assessed at about $20 million in total), $1 million to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services to be used for the construction of affordable housing within the city, and $1 million to relocate and restore the original Fire Station No. 9 from the Nines property at 311 College Ave. to another site to be determined, where it could serve as a community space or similar public benefit.

Delving into the site specifics, we’ll start with “Dryden Center” on the corner of Dryden Road and College Avenue and the most expensive corner per square foot in Tompkins County. The small site would host a narrow but tall building by local standards, at 12 stories and 144 feet tall –– the PUD states that the small 70′ x 60′ site makes buildings with fewer floors financially unfeasible. This building would be all office space, with a ground-level court and lobby. It would be faced with a combination fritted glass and clear glass facade on the two sides facing the corner, and masonry on the south and east walls. The tenant(s) for this building are not named in the filing.

“The Nines” site notes the community significance of the former No. 9 fire station, but states “(t)he building in its current condition has a host of building code and structural issues that make it financially impractical to keep on this parcel in the center of Collegetown.” The developer is offering $1 million to move and reconstruct the original fire station – the wooden portion in the back, not the masonry section facing College Avenue –– to a city-owned site for use as a community meeting space.

The ultimate use of the funds would be decided in consultation with city staff and officials. In place of the former firehouse-turned-restaurant will be a 10-story building standing 108′ tall. The exact mix of interior space uses is not clearly defined, apart from being mixed-use. Documentation elsewhere in the filing suggests a combination of residential, non-profit office and high-tech workspace.

“Catherine North,” planned for the site of seven older apartment houses on the northwest corner of College Avenue and Catherine Street, would be developed as an interconnected three-building apartment complex, with 222 units and 3,250 of ground-level retail space. Building 1a would be 10 floors and broken up into two portions to provide a visual break, Building 1b would be six floors, and Building 1c would be five floors. The buildings would be finished with brick and glass.

“Catherine South,” located on the southwest corner of College Avenue and Catherine Street and extending down College Avenue to Cook Street, would consist of two buildings. Building 1a would have two wings with a 10-story portion and a 9-story portion, and Building 1b would be five floors with a pitched roof. The PUD describes building 1a as “townhouse-style,” which is likely more a reference to its interior unit layout than anything resembling an actual town house. Building 1b would be a standard apartment format. Altogether, Catherine South would host 218 apartments.

The buildings would be finished in brick, glass, and dark metal panels, and Building 1b will also use a zinc-shingle finish. Residents would not have on-site parking, but would be able to use Collegetown Terrace (the document states that Collegetown Terrace has 300 parking spaces that aren’t being used), as well as a new Collegetown shuttle bus.

The final site, “Catherine Summit”, would replace 301 College Ave., a 4-story mixed-use building from the mid-1980s. and a 19th century apartment house at 215 College Ave. The redevelopment would host three buildings. Building 1, fronting College Avenue, would be ten floors, and Buildings 2 and 3, fronting Linden Avenue, would be four floors. Plans call for 46,176 square-feet of business incubator space (in Building 1) and 262,471 square-feet of residential space, though no explicit unit count is given because some of that may be changed over to high-tech and non-profit workspace.

From a landscaping perspective, the district promises an “enhanced streetscape experience.” Buildings will be set back to increase sidewalk width in often-congested inner Collegetown. Amenities will be expanded to include granite block seating and terraces seat walls, new street trees, accent pavers, new safety and decorative lighting, bike racks, courtyards, and several small plaza spaces, all of which will incorporate universal design and be ADA accessible. Traffic calming and visual buffers are planned to enhance pedestrian safety along College Avenue. The buildings will be finished in glass walls and metal panels.

The PUD states the project will use all-electric HVAC systems and electric heat pumps, LED lighting and low-flow plumbing fixtures. A “Virtual Power Purchase Agreement” is being explored where solar-based electricity would be bought from the solar panel farms being built on/near Ellis Hollow Road in the town of Dryden.

The plan is for “Catherine North” and “Catherine South” –– the mostly residential buildings –– to begin construction first, with the other three sites as the market allows. All will be completed within five years. In fact, the application notes that all five being successful are contingent on the 720,000 square-feet of space being built –– if one site is forced to be reduced, it will need to be made up at another one of the five sites. Each site would need to go through site plan review as any other proposal.

What this application makes clear is the scale and scope of the proposed physical structures. What is not clear is who the occupant(s) of the office and high-tech space will be. While in Collegetown, nowhere in the PUD document does the application make reference to students being the intended market for the rentals. The number of permanent jobs to be created by the development is estimated to be 370, mostly in the office and high-tech spaces, but the application says there are no active discussions with high-tech tenants.

Clearly, the Collegetown “Innovation District” would have a significant impact on Collegetown and Ithaca. It’s a large project that would add a significant amount of business work space and apartments to a part of Ithaca typically dominated by College students. The potential economic benefit is substantial. However, the city needs to carefully weigh the project impacts in the course of considering the PUD –– traffic, parking, stormwater, the presence of taller buildings amongst other things. Many debates remain before any shovels hit the ground. With the winter chill setting in, the coming months may provide for some heated discussions about Ithaca’s future.

Brian Crandall

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