For Cornellians, crossing another item off the 161 Things to do at Cornell list may prove more difficult.
A Collegetown developer has proposed the demolition of the existing building at 311 College Ave. — more fondly known to Ithacans and Cornellians as The Nines.
Collegetown developer Todd Fox presented his proposal for review at the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meeting Tuesday night.
Fox’s proposal includes a total demolition of the building and the construction of a 45-unit, six-story brick commercial rental property in its place, pending a potential sale of the building.
This proposed demolition of the historically significant location does not come without contention from the community, as displayed at Tuesday’s meeting.
Indeed, the debate over the future of the building reveals the difficult balance between the need for economic development in Ithaca and the desire to maintain the historical character of the city.
Against the backdrop of an Ithaca housing shortage and a demonstrated need for affordable and quality student housing, Fox’s Visum Development has received approval for multiple new developments including 118, 126 and 201 College Ave., 210 Linden Avenue and 232 Dryden Ave., The Sun previously reported.
However, 311 College Ave. stands apart from these other Collegetown addresses.
Despite lacking an official designation as a historic landmark, The Nines location includes, at its rear, the original 19th-century Number 9 Ithaca Fire Station, and, at its front, a 1907 addition to that original station.
“[The Number 9 Fire Station] really represents the coming-of-age of the upper East Hill community, now Collegetown, as part of the city,” Mary Tomlan M.A. ’71, Ithaca city historian, said.
Today, The Nines location is one of only four historic buildings that remain in the heart of Collegetown, according to Tomlan. Another is the now-vacant Larkin Building that once housed Ithaca restaurant and Cornellian hub Stella’s, but whose first floor is now vacant.
Board members, including Mackenzie Jones-Rounds, expressed reservations about what she called an “uninspiring” design that many said showed little recognition of the site’s value to Ithaca history or to the community.
“[The proposed building would] replace [The Nines] with something that really has no ties to the long history of that site and to the community,” said Prof. Garrick Blalock, applied economics and management, planning and development board member. “[The proposal] does not really pay homage to the important legacy of the site.”
Graham Kerslick, executive director of Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and Collegetown representative on the Ithaca City Council, echoed Blalock’s concerns.
“The Board’s intent is to encourage exceptional, bold design … that recognizes the importance of this site for the community,” Kerslick said. “The proposal falls well short of those expectations.”
One source of contention reiterated throughout the public hearing was the loss of the exterior courtyard in the Fox’s new building proposal.
This open space — a seating area at The Nines — is “one of the few areas [in which] the entire community can gather and spend time together,” Kerslick said.
Board member John Schroeder ’74, alumni advisor for the Cornell Daily Sun Alumni Association, also took issue with the proposal’s omission of a plan to either move the existing historic structure to another site in Collegetown or to incorporate the existing building into the new development.
He warned that a Collegetown without any reminders of its history would be a “cold, impersonal place.”
“I totally support the transformation of Collegetown,” he said. “But we need to preserve some remnants of historic Collegetown, or we’re losing … its history, we’re making it less attractive to tourists, [and] we’re removing the context that can inform new design.”
According to Tomlan, a move for The Nines building is possible, and with historical precedent. In fact, the wood-frame Number 9 firehouse, originally built on the south side of Dryden Road, was moved to its present Collegetown location in 1905.
However, the developer Fox said that a move or incorporation of the old building was simply “not feasible” due to a “landlocked” site in the dense and urban Collegetown.
Ultimately, the board asked Fox to consider moving the historic fire station to another site, incorporating the existing building into a new structure, or designing his proposed new building to better reflect the site’s legacy.
“I [am not] opposed under any circumstances to the development of this site … [but] I cannot see myself voting to destroy that original 1894 fire station,” Schroeder said.
The current owners of The Nines could not be reached for comment and were not in attendance for this portion of the meeting Thursday.