Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photo Editor

Ithaca's Collegetown may be seeing big changes in renovations, now being labelled the "Innovation District."

November 17, 2020

Massive Proposed Development Plan Aims to Transform Collegetown

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By winter of 2025, Collegetown may look a whole lot different. 

According to recent filings submitted to the City of Ithaca, Coll-Cath Associates — an LLC associated with longtime, Ithaca-based developer John Novarr — plans to undertake what may be the largest development project in Collegetown’s history. 

Dubbed the Collegetown “Innovation District” by developers, the massive, $145 million proposal calls for the construction of five office and apartment buildings spread across what are currently 17 separate parcels of land. If approved, construction is slated to begin in fall 2021 and continue for about four years. 

The unveiling comes after years of planning and seemingly sporadic purchases. 

According to the Ithaca Voice, Novarr and business partner Philip Proujansky bought a string of seven buildings located along College Avenue in 2018 for nearly $16 million. For over a year, the properties have been left vacant and boarded up with plywood, leaving many to wonder what would become of them. Similarly, an LLC linked to the pair bought the historic, former Nines building in April 2019 for over $3 million. 

Now, all are slated to potentially become the site of various new, glitzy apartments.  

Novarr has long been a major investor in Ithaca. In 2013, The Sun reported that Novarr owned more than $38 million in Collegetown real estate, a number that has almost certainly grown since then. Novarr and just seven other landlords then accounted for ownership of two-thirds of Collegetown housing. The redevelopment could further concentrate ownership of the neighborhood’s rental market into just a handful of prominent individuals and investment groups. 

Collegetown — traditionally a quaint hub of mid-rise storefronts and single-family homes — has seen a deluge of significant redevelopment in recent years. Given its immediate proximity to Cornell, and a captive market of thousands of students, real estate players have repeatedly bet that the historic neighborhood still has plenty of room to grow. 

Novarr and Proujansky previously led the development of Collegetown Terrace, a sprawling 1,200 unit complex located in south Collegetown, the Breazzano Center for Executive Education and several other, smaller projects in recent years. Last year, Cornell’s Student Agencies decided to demolish the beloved, former home of Collegetown Bagels and Rulloff’s to build a sleek six-story building. 

But both in size and cost, the latest proposal far dwarfs the previous projects, promising to significantly transform the urban fabric of Collegetown.  

If all stages are fully completed as described, it would add roughly 720,000 new square footage of rental area to the market, including over 30,000 square feet of retail and 70,000 of office space. By comparison, Shops at Ithaca, the region’s largest mall, contains just over 600,000 square feet of space. 

On the corner of Dryden Avenue and College Avenue — where Cornell’s Collegetown surveillance testing site currently sits — the developer plans to build a 12-story office building, which would become the area’s tallest.    

The former Nines building will be demolished and replaced with a 10-story, mixed-use retail and residential building. The structure will be set back by 20 feet and include a new plaza. 

“Catherine North,” a three-building apartment complex to be located on the corner of Catherine Street and College Avenue, will include 222 residential units and over 3,000 square feet of retail space. “Catherine South,” which will be on the other side of Catherine Street, is planned to include two buildings, one 10-stories and the other five-stories, totaling 218 units. 

The final proposed complex, called “Catherine Summit” in the filings, is set to replace 301 College Ave., a four-floor apartment complex built in the 1980s, with three mixed-use and residential buildings that combine to over 300,000 square feet of new space. 

Ground-breaking, however, is still likely a long way off: The unprecedented size and height of the project’s various buildings means it will need to seek many exemptions from Collegetown’s current zoning codes. As with previous large-scale Ithaca projects, such a process will almost certainly require at least months of back-and-forth negotiation.  

According to the group’s Planned Unit Development application — a document that must be reviewed and approved by Ithaca’s Common Council before construction can begin — the developer plans to offer a number of incentives in hopes of winning the City of Ithaca over. These include $1 million to help shore up the city’s budget and another $1 million donation to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services to build affordable housing. 

In a gesture to preservationists, the developer also promised to spend $1 million to relocate the Nines building, the home of a historic, former fire station. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, the building narrowly missed being declared a protected landmark after Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 cast a tie-breaking vote against the designation. 

Offering cash incentives and promised investments is a common strategy developers use to convince otherwise wavering municipalities to agree to at least parts of their plans.    

Although the project’s scope is likely to be controversial, it comes at a time when Ithaca, like governments nationwide, is reeling from job losses and financial shortfalls. 

In its filings, the developer argued its project would “create a substantial number of high paying, union and non-union construction jobs over an extended period of time,” as well as provide a “significant, immediate increase in the City’s property tax base.”