ITHACA, N.Y.—When the Collegetown Innovation District was first proposed after years of anticipation and incubation, it promised many benefits to the city. It was also, in terms of those community benefits, distinctly underwhelming to the eyes of Common Council.

There was a laundry list of objections. The number of buildings that blew well past the Collegetown zoning, which had been fought over for years during the early 2010s. The promised job benefits were too vague and uncertain to generate an enthusiastic response from the business community and local electeds. The benefits—the million dollars toward affordable housing, the million dollars towards fire station No. 9 removal and renovation, and another million towards the city’s general revenues—did not appear valuable enough to justify the encroachments into air space that zoning didn’t allow.

No one was questioning the commitment of developers John Novarr and Phil Proujansky. The duo have had a large hand in Ithaca’s development scene over the past decade, especially with Collegetown projects like Collegetown Terrace and the Breazzano Center on Dryden Road. It was just a case where the benefits didn’t seem like they justified the large changes to existing zoning sought as part of the Planned Unit Development, the do-it-yourself zoning that they hoped to utilize for regulatory approvals.

With that lukewarm response noted, the developers have taken a step back from their grand plans. In their re-calibration, they came to the conclusion that a lot of what they wanted to do might be able to be done within or close enough to existing zoning that they might get a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals, with the Planning Board’s recommendation. This route would avoid much of the regulatory quagmire of the PUD and the subjective diplomacy of addressing the Common Council’s whims and wishes.

Another factor was that of the five sites they were looking to include in the Collegetown Innovation District, they were really only ready to go with two of them—sites to be used primarily for housing on either side of the intersection of College Avenue and Catherine Street. The other sites were, and perhaps still are over the next few years, intended for more mixed-use space programs like business incubator space, office and research space for technology firms, and a potential hospitality/hotel component. These are much harder spaces to fill in Ithaca and Tompkins County, such that you generally don’t build them unless you have tenants already lined up.

In contrast, the two Catherine Street sites, collectively called “Catherine Commons” in the latest plan, tap into a much safer market that most folks in Ithaca are well aware of. Student housing in inner Collegetown is always in high demand, and the students are often deep-pocketed. Thatt’s why it’s historically had some of the highest land prices per square foot in the Northeastern United States. These lofty land prices become a double-edged sword, however, when there’s nothing rentable sitting on top of them, and the developers have already cleared the properties. According to previous comments from Tompkins County tax assessor Jay Franklin, that may have resulted in an even higher cost burden, as the land beneath many of those old apartment houses is worth more than the house, and removing that house changes the “use value” to the higher amount that is the land value. In most cases, a building is worth more than the land it sits on, but in highly lucrative but comparatively underbuilt Collegetown, it’s the opposite.

Comparison renders of “Catherine North”. Old plans at top, new plans at bottom.

With that cost burden in mind, it’s no shock Novarr and Proujansky would continue with their residential plans, targeting the lucrative student housing market (officially, the units will be geared towards graduate and professional program students, but there’s no regulation that forces that distinction). However, when compared to the Collegetown Innovative District proposals, Catherine Commons is a reduced-scale version of those plans. The initial proposal called for 440 apartments with ground-level retail, and buildings as tall as 10 floors, well above the six floors allowed. This revised plan for the Catherine Street sites calls for approximately 340 apartments with commercial space along College Avenue and resident amenity spaces, including a large fitness center fronting the corner of College Avenue and Cook Street. Three buildings would be on the Catherine North site and two buildings would be on the Catherine South site. (For the record, floor count and height variances are both grouped together as part of the height variance application.)

While the latest designs for the project are much closer to existing zoning regulations than their earlier iterations, they would still need a number of variances. Arguably the toughest one for the project to obtain will be the variances on building height that the development team is seeking for the three structures fronting College Avenue. The zoning for the tallest building, on Catherine North, is MU-2, which allows for a 6-story, 80-foot tall building. The proposed structure is for 8 floors and 90 feet in height.

As for Catherine South, the two taller buildings would both be 7 floors and 78 feet tall. MU-1 zoning at that site allows for 5 floors and 70 feet of height. Quick note for clarity’s sake, the building at the corner of College Avenue and Cook Street is on a sloped lot, so while it is shorter from College Avenue, the mean elevation for measuring height is lower because it has to use the median elevation of that sloped lot. Zoning variances will also be requested for a setback at the ground floor, further back from the street than what is allowed along College Avenue, to permit expanded sidewalks and pedestrian plazas. A reduction in required parking spaces is also sought for the smallest building in the quintet, planned for Cook Street.

Comparison renders of “Catherine South”. Old plans at top, new plans at bottom.

To its credit, the initial concept plan presentation at the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meeting earlier this week gave the project team a dose of cautious optimism. Trowbridge Wolf Michaels’ Kathryn Wolf led the board through the first portion of the presentation and noted that while only a handful of on-site parking spaces will be offered for building management and maintenance staff, the developers’ Collegetown Terrace Apartments a few blocks away still has excess parking spaces, and those would be made available for lease to residents of the Catherine Commons complex. With College Avenue under reconstruction, the project team is coordinating bus shelters, pedestrian plazas, artwork and amenities to improve the street-level experience, designing the buildings such that they pull back from the sidewalk to allow for more pedestrian space.

Meanwhile, ikon.5 architect Arvind Tikku focused the second half of the discussion the architectural designs of the buildings. He highlighted the glassy storefronts for a more active street-level, and materials designed to blend in and complement adjacent buildings while creating a modern look with the new buildings. The structures are spaced out to prevent a canyon effect, and step down with the decrease in elevation along College Avenue. The Catherine and Cook Street buildings have more secluded side entrances for resident privacy and to make the side streets feel quieter.

The Planning Board was receptive to the project and the proposed variances. Members appreciated the spacing and setbacks from the street and welcomed the plazas, seating and expanded sidewalks, as one of the board’s regular concerns with Collegetown is the poor streetside experience. Some concerns were raised about the kind of retail tenants they might attract to College Avenue, as well as creating more visual interest in the building designs. But conceptually, the buildings seemed to be acceptable to the board members.

According to Wolf, the plan is to begin pre-application review in June, and Site Plan Review submissions would be in the August-September time frame. With a project of this size and given the time needed for site plan review, mid-2022 – August 2024 is a plausible buildout period if approved. So while the Collegetown Innovation District may not build out as initially planned, the interest in Collegetown remains strong and if allowed by city boards and staff, construction activity in the neighborhood is likely to continue for at least the next couple of years.

Brian Crandall

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