A battle over preserving the historic nature of the past versus paving the way for the future in Collegetown has led to the creation of two opposing petitions.
The central question motivating these petitions is whether or not the Chacona Block — which consists of 411-415 College Avenue and includes prominent local businesses such as Collegetown Bagels and Student Agencies — should be officially designated as a historic landmark.
Such a distinction would have far-reaching implications for the type and extent of renovations that could be made in the future for these businesses. These petitions will be presented at the Ithaca Common Council meeting on Wednesday.
According to Historic Ithaca’s Facebook page, the Chacona Block was completed in 1912 and commissioned by John M. Chacona, an immigrant from Greece who moved to Ithaca in the 1800s, to house his new confectionary in addition to other businesses and apartments.
A petition created by Prof. Katelin Olson, architecture, art and planning, who serves on Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission, seeks to designate the Chacona Block as a local landmark and has received around 2,000 signatures as of Monday evening.
The Chacona Block is eligible for the designation because it meets five criteria established in Ithaca’s Municipal Code.
The website for Historic Ithaca states the building meets these criteria because the site has special historical and aesthetic interest for the City of Ithaca and Cornell and embodies distinguishing architectural characteristics. The building’s association with John N. Chacona and architect John M. Wilgus meet additional criteria.
Bryan McCracken M.A. ’10, the Historic Preservation Planner for the City of Ithaca, said only one criterion needs to be met in order for a building to be landmarked. In fact, it is rare for a building to meet all five criteria, as the Chacona Block does, McCracken said.
Olson said the commission has been judicious about the buildings they recommend for landmark designation. Accordingly, the Chacona Block is only the second one — the other being The Larkin Building — the commission has selected in the four years that she has been involved.
In Olson’s opinion, the nature of Collegetown is changing in the direction of national chains and urban density. However, she said there needs to be more of a push to balance the need to build with recognition that there are existing historic spaces that mean a lot to people in the community.
“Preserving buildings is not only about preserving architectural features: it is also substantively about providing spaces for unique interactions, experiences, and communities,” the petition states. “These are the things that have largely been lost in the sanitizing of the Collegetown Neighborhood.”
Christine O’Malley, preservation services coordinator at Historic Ithaca, said that is important to preserve historical buildings in general because they document information about Ithaca’s history and are also a part of its physical fabric.
“It’s not just about buildings being good-looking, it’s about the history of that building and events they are associated with,” she said.
Olson said that she started the petition because she felt that not many people had heard of the Chacona Block, but many were passionate about the “quintessential” nature of CTB.
She said CTB is “a very much Ithaca-institution” and hoped the iconic nature of the business would help the petition garner momentum and get people to care about the issue.
Ira Brous, whose family has long owned CTB, said he supported the historic designation of the Chacona Block at a Planning and Development Board meeting in August. Brous also encouraged Student Agencies to support such a designation as well.
If the Chacona Block fails to receive landmark recognition, the petition says that Collegetown would loose a “much needed oasis in the midst of urban density” and CTB could be forced to move to another location.
“The City of Ithaca would be wise to recognize and approve the ILPC’s [Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission’s] designation of the last remaining vestiges of a rich built heritage on a block that happily mixes the new with the old,” Sara A. Johnson, interim executive director of Historic Ithaca, said in a September 2017 letter to Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 and Common Council.
On the other hand, if Chacona Block were to be designated as a local landmark, then development could come to a grinding stop, according to Student Agencies.
That would pose a problem for the group, an educational not-for-profit organization that was planning to redevelop its properties there.
The other petition, titled Save Student Agencies, Save the Corner, Not the Building!, was created to oppose the landmark designation and had around 300 signatures as of Monday afternoon.
Student Agencies, which dates back 123 years — making it older than the Chacona Block — was planning a new building because it is completely dependent on the rental income generated by its properties. Student Agencies does not receive any money from Cornell or from grants, the petition states. In fact, over 70 percent of Student Agencies’ rental income is generated by 411-415 College Ave.
If the Chacona Block were to receive landmark status, the petition says Student Agencies would be forced to pay around $700,000 to $800,000 to repair the “failing facade.”
This would limit the organization’s ability to fund its other activities, which include employing 300 students, paying out approximately $500,000 in student wages and compensation and supporting student entrepreneurial efforts through the eLab student startup accelerator program and eHub.
In response, Olson said that the City of Ithaca acknowledges that there are economic challenges with preserving historic buildings and there are processes in place by which building owners can claim economic hardship in order to find a solution that benefits everybody.
“Nobody in the preservation community wants business and building owners [to] go belly-up because of financial hardships,” she said. “Landmark designation doesn’t prevent the building from continuing to be a useful building.”
However, the landmark designation would be a permanent decision that would impose restrictions on potential future renovations.
“Historical designation will lock in the visual appearance of this building while doing little to protect the functions and features we love,” said Steve Smith, 4th Ward Alderperson representing the Collegetown area.
Smith also said that he does not feel the building meets the standards of architectural significance, and that landmark designation would deprive the city of the opportunity to see more housing on the most coveted block in Collegetown.
“I mean, I have a lot of great memories on that patio, and probably eat at that CTB more than anyone in City Hall,” he said. “I love that space, but in isolation, that building does not add to Collegetown’s beauty.”
In a “Memorandum of Commitment” document obtained by The Sun, Student Agencies has committed in writing that they will maintain a comparable outdoor space and will incorporate a series of design elements that would allow them to preserve the significance of the location while also giving them leeway to make necessary upgrades in any renovations they make.
“We can have better, safer housing on this site if they’re allowed to re-develop, while still holding onto these features,” Smith said.
In a Facebook post published Monday night, Student Agencies hoped to “dispel misinformation out there, and set the record straight on the process, our involvement and our intentions.”
For example, the statement denied claims that Student Agencies has the intention of closing the patio space in their future plans. Even though they have not proceeded with designs for the space, Student Agencies reaffirmed their commitment to incorporate important architectural elements and outdoor space.
Furthermore, the landmark designation will only preserve the building and not the actual businesses associated with it, such as CTB.
“To clarify, the structure of the building is the only thing the landmark status will preserve, it will not preserve the ongoing operations of CTB, as that is determined by the usual landlord-tenant lease,” the post said.
Student Agencies also claimed in the statement that the ILPC nomination form incorrectly states that the building is steel framed while a structural engineering firm has verified that the building is actually wood framed.
The significance of this is that it would make the building a less feasible candidate for landmark designation, Student Agencies said.
“The wood-framed nature of these buildings means they are significantly less fire-proof and less durable than new construction, making them a non-ideal candidate for designation and an ideal candidate for redevelopment in alignment with the Comprehensive Plan and new Collegetown zoning,” the post said.
“As a virtually permanent fixture in Ithaca, as a group of individuals with deep ties to the area, and as an organization doing our best to be a good community member, we look forward to the discussions with Common Council this week, and we hope to have a productive conversation about the future of these buildings,” the statement concluded.
The Ithaca Common Council will make its final decision about Chacona Block at its meeting this Wednesday at 6 p.m. at 108 East Green Street, Ithaca.