September 21, 2000

New Plan Caps Growing Relationship Between Ithaca and the University

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“The City of Ithaca is at an important crossroads,” Mayor Alan J. Cohen ’81 said to the University Board of Trustees, noting the intertwined ambitions of both the city government and the University.

The sentiments expressed by the Mayor come not from his recent appeals for greater interaction with Cornell and the community though; they are part of a speech he presented on March 29, 1996.

Frequently throughout past city administrations — and during the current Cohen administration — significant focus has revolved around town-gown relations.

Yesterday that relationship between City Hall and Day Hall took a leap forward with a wedding of interests, as Cornell committed to bringing a state-of-the-art office building to the Ithaca Commons, making the city’s downtown business district a joint concern.

Symbolically the partners have been building up a relationship based on trust and cooperation for years. But the edifice of such a relationship, if in doubt because of past incidences, will be unmistakable once Cornell’s presence appears on the Commons in 2002.

“This will be one of the largest undertakings of the city, and the magnitude of this project will challenge us all,” said Susan Blumenthal, chair of the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, at the news conference announcing the University’s project plans.

Members of both city and University offices — some who have worked in both — recall a colorful history of relations between the administrators up on East Hill and downtown.

Former Mayor John C. Gutenberger, assistant University director of community relations, noted one particular period of cooperation during the 1960s between the University and the city. Cornell, in fact, offered to support the city by luring two hotels to the downtown area. Unlike the recent plan to open a new Hilton hotel in Ithaca, however, the plans for those hotels fell through.

Then, “Cornell got deeply involved in the whole Collegetown development effort when I was in office,” Gutenberger said, noting that while downtown was seeing improvements, conditions closer to the University were stagnant.

Cornell and the City of Ithaca were working toward acquiring federal funds to enhance the areas surrounding student housing, but they “just couldn’t generate enough private sector funds to make it happen,” he said.

Then came the breakthrough that Gutenberger was looking for as mayor in the mid-1980s. The University established the Center for Theatre Arts , thus concluding what Gutenberger characterized as 25 years of failed attempts to revitalize the Collegetown area.

Also during that time in the city’s developmental history, Cornell aided in developing the Eddygate apartments and actually donated land to the city for construction of the parking garage now located behind Eddygate.

“It was somewhat symbolic; it was saying, ‘Yes, Cornell has faith in Collegetown,'” Gutenberger recalled.

The University and the city made progress simply by sitting down and talking together, Gutenberger said.

“If you have a close working relationship, which has happened, then you can discuss these things,” Gutenberger said, referring to the progress in Collegetown in the ’80s and the recent evidence of a resurgence in the partnership.

But after helping cultivate this relationship, he watched it deteriorate during the administration of his successor, Benjamin Nichols ’46.

One major issue that arose during Nichols’ tenure in City Hall dealt with the negotiation of Cornell’s annual financial contribution to the City of Ithaca. The contributions dated back to the 1960s and compensate Ithaca for its expenses on campus such as fire department activity.

Although they are entirely voluntary on the part of the University and unprecedented among New York universities, they nevertheless came under dispute with Nichols in office.

Ultimately, Nichols tried to force Cornell to make a larger contribution by withholding building permits from the University. At the time, the withholding of building permits prevented Cornell from undertaking a $12 million rehabilitation project for Baker Laboratory, along with various other construction projects — and local building tradesmen suffered during the standoff as well.

“Past mayors have thought that the only way to get something out of the University was to strong-arm them,” Cohen said, adding that “the University has [also] been more parochial in the past than it is now.”

Even Cohen’s own administration, which began in 1995, has witnessed its ups and downs in dealing with the University.

In October, 1996 Cohen sent an open letter to President Hunter R. Rawlings III to address Cornell’s expansion of its small-market ventures. University book sales, Cohen said, were too aggressive and were encroaching on local business while the University was also proposing a downtown health club that would draw residents away from the local industry.

“The University’s stated intent to provide better service and more amenities to students, faculty and staff is producing negative effects on the local market,” Cohen said in the letter.

Soon thereafter, though, Cohen noted that the University’s health club plan fell through and Cornell helped resolve the book sales issue as well.

Just because the University and the city have developed a relationship of mutual trust and respect doesn’t mean that the two always get along perfectly, Cohen added.

Cohen said, “You have to give President Rawlings credit, because [President Emeritus] Frank [H.T. Rhodes’] focus was on building up the University from within. Hunter is now looking beyond the campus, and he recognizes the importance of a strong community for a strong University.”

The Cornell building project comes on the heels of many other initiatives taking place downtown.

“We have seen the State Street Theatre re-emerging, and the [Tompkins County public library on Green Street] is going to be opening in a matter of months now. It all creates a synergy,” Cohen said.

Other developments include the renovation of the old post office into a new Ithaca Town Hall complex, the expansion of the Community School of Music and Arts, the Hilton hotel proposal for the intersection of Tioga and Seneca Streets (across the street from the proposed Cornell building) and the improvements to the Ithaca Commons and existing parking garages.

Now the Cornell facility in the Commons suggests a transgression beyond the turbulence that has characterized town-gown relations of the past. Soon the statements of good faith and partnership that have appeared in numerous speeches and memoranda addressing the relationship will be set in stone with the foundation of Cornell’s proposed office building.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch