Stand at the intersection of College Avenue and Dryden Road — the crossroads of Collegetown’s major artery and its busiest branch — and, in the four surrounding corners, you will find three vacant lots. All along College Ave., the phosphorescent proclamations of “Open for Business” have dimmed out, replaced by block-lettered “For Rent” signs. With its primary focus on on-campus construction, should the University be doing more to halt the rapid retrogression of the so-called gateway to Cornell?
In the last century, the role of colleges and universities has expanded beyond the mere passing down of an education to include broader goals like enrichment, diversity and tolerance. On North Campus, we find hubs of social interaction, like RPU and Appel, to accomplish many of these ideals. There, students live, eat and sleep together under a shared Big Red banner.
But in Collegetown — where over half of the student body resides — commonality is neither enshrined nor encouraged. The closest we come to congregation is Collegetown Bagels. In our compound-word community — where the “College” should precede the “town” — the emphasis always seems to fall on the latter syllable. South of Oak Avenue, where do we find Cornell? On embroidered sweatshirts, mostly.
In the spirit of integrating Cornell and Collegetown, I have a five-step plan:
1. The University should purchase the vacant lots in Collegetown. As reported in The Sun, “The majority of vacant spaces in Collegetown are owned by the Ithaca Renting Company,” and its owner, Jason Fane. This ruinous monopoly continues because, “Mr. Fane is a very wealthy man who can afford to let his properties stay empty until he can get his asking price,” as one source told The Sun.
As long as Fane is allowed to maintain his astronomical rent prices, new businesses will not be able to survive in Collegetown. In a meeting of the Collegetown Task Force last week, members expressed a desire for “clothing stores and a ‘real’ grocery store,” but cited “current high rent structures,” as the major hurdle for development. Cornell’s acquisition of these properties would loosen the financial shackles imposed on small businesses.
Instead of steering wealthy donors to endow new buildings on campus, Cornell should use contributions to buy up space in Collegetown. Even if the University charged a fraction of what Fane was asking for rent, the properties would probably pay for themselves over time. Perhaps more importantly, these purchases would cement Cornell’s image within its outlying offshoot.
Bearing in mind that tax and rent complications might hinder the University’s acquisition of private property, Cornell could also provide Student Agencies, Inc. with funds to purchase these properties. Student Agencies, which already manages many commercial and residential sites, such as Collegetown Bagels, could take control of these properties with the important proviso that it integrates Cornell’s image into the new locations.
2. Once the University has acquired these properties — as well as others if they are available — it should first consider a number of dining options. What about sponsoring a successful restaurant in Cornell’s name? Citybucks were a great first step in integrating Cornell with local restaurants, but what’s to stop Cornell from opening a Jamba Juice, Chipotle or even a 24-hour diner in the heart of Collegetown? If Cornell opts out of the commercial restaurant business, it could consider opening a branch of Bear Necessities — a late-night luxury that makes older students tingle with nostalgia.
The notion of a major university working with corporate chains is certainly not unprecedented. At Emory University, according to Alison B. Barclay, the District Marketing Manager of Emory Dining, over 15 locations on-campus and two restaurants off-campus are incorporated under student meal plans. Emory collaborates with Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Burger King among many others.
Cornell has an entire school of hospitality hopefuls, an office dedicated to dining services and a student-run corporation with the ability to manage real estate. Between these groups, there is certainly the will and the talent to operate competitive restaurants. What’s lacking is the funding — and on a few of the most valuable streets in upstate New York, that kind of money can only come from the University.
3. Along with eating, the second major pillar of student life (at least at Cornell) is studying. In seeking alternatives to Olin and Uris Libraries, upperclassmen congregate at Stella’s or at quiet café’s in the Downtown Commons. Though space is scarce and rent is high, Cornell would do its students a great service by opening an off-campus library.
The University should also look into opening a small adjunct to The Cornell Store right in Collegetown. The Collegetown Cornell Store could offer Cornell apparel and provide a small library for students to congregate. There are spaces all along the west side of College Ave. that could house such a facility.
4. The administration should encourage students to live in dormitories after their first year. The West Campus dorms lack little in quality or style, yet, for the most part, older students opt to live off-campus. Why? One complaint I’ve heard is a significant lack of autonomy. Like freshman year, students in these residential halls are scrutinized for poor behavior and reported to the Judicial Administrator. Without ignoring bad behavior, residential advisors in upper-classmen housing could be instructed to show some discretion and allow residents a bit more freedom.
Additionally, the housing office should renovate the two Collegetown dormitories — Sheldon Court and Cascadilla Hall — to create attractive alternatives to apartment living. When faced with a choice between the amenities of most Collegetown apartments and the faded interiors of dorm rooms, most students would — and do — opt for the former. If these dorms were fashioned in a more appealing style, students would likely be more inclined to give Cornell housing a second or third chance.
5. The University should partner with existing local businesses and restaurants more often. Earlier this month at the Inauguration, local cuisine was available on the Arts Quad after President Skorton’s address. This collaboration should be a first step toward a lasting partnership. Cornell could sponsor a sushi-making class at Plum Tree; a karaoke competition at Rulloff’s; an end-of-the-year yard sale outside Fontana’s; or even a relay race through Collegetown to benefit a charity.
On Cornell’s campus, the last few years have seen impressive renovations and groundbreaking construction projects. Yet, because of sky-high rents, this progress has not seeped out of the campus gates. In the next few years, it will be up to Cornell to pump life into the decaying heart of off-campus living.
Rob Fishman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at email@example.com Agree to Disagree appears Wednesdays.