December 4, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Coming Soon to Collegetown, Unfortunately

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Editor’s Note: This column was written prior to the Thanksgiving Holiday. Language may reflect this temporal gap.

A bit over a year ago, I wrote a column titled The Destruction of Collegetown. I had been disappointed primarily by the closures of bars and restaurants that brought life and character to Collegetown. I had also grumbled, to a lesser extent, about the changing “face” of Collegetown; old storied buildings gradually being swapped out for cold, glass edifices.

Though I hold a fondness for the old structures, I understand the necessity of rebuilding and renovating. So, I had directed much of my frustrations at the closing of various bars and restaurants (I wrote the piece at a time when the future of Collegetown Bagels was uncertain). However, the newly unveiled plans to rebuild a large section of Collegetown have forced me to reconsider the purpose of Collegetown and what its structures do to facilitate the community’s needs.

The new plan for the Collegetown “Innovation District” shows a large-scale construction project that would dramatically reshape the blocks surrounding the intersection of College Avenue and Catherine Street. I noticed, while staying in Collegetown over the summer, that many of the houses on those blocks were boarded up. It seems as though the quaint homes are going to be replaced by looming glass structures.

A quick look at the architectural renderings will suffice to show that new renovations will make it almost impossible to recognize the Collegetown that fills the memories of generations of Cornellians. With multiple buildings at 10+ stories, the renderings show streets shadowed by modern brick-and-glass structures that block the beloved views of the valley below.

I could go on and on complaining about the aesthetics of these new buildings and how they feel far-removed from the ideal atmosphere of Collegetown, but I think the more important thing to ponder is this: What is the purpose of Collegetown?

Collegetown is a place for students to live and socialize beyond the confines of the University. The key here is students ­— a place for students to live. New apartment buildings have been going up in Collegetown, and they all have one thing in common: They are much more expensive to rent than the houses they replace. At a time with increased discussion around the rising costs of attending university, it seems wrong to be decreasing the number of affordable places to live.

It really seems as though the planned changes to Collegetown do not consider the plight of students. The ominous 12-story building that is planned for the corner of College Avenue and Dryden Road is apparently going to be all office space. Office space? One of the busiest intersections at the heart of Collegetown is going to have a massive office building? Is this really in the interest of the student community?

I’m not going to act like Collegetown’s old houses are all perfect, but I think they are a key aspect of Ithaca’s charm. The old houses give its residents a sense of freedom. Plus, if this strange semester has taught us anything, it’s the benefit of Collegetown porches. Nowhere is better suited for socially-distanced, outdoor hangouts than a nice, big porch.

It may seem silly for me to go on about this qualitative and immeasurable “charm” factor, but I really do think it is an important reason that Ithaca is remembered so fondly by generations of Cornellians. Ithaca has, historically, been ranked amongst the top college towns in the United States, and one of the main reasons for this is (aside from the area’s natural beauty) Ithaca’s small-town charm. Our town is packed with vibrant nightlife and varied restaurants. While some may argue that it is wrong to get caught up in what some list says about Ithaca, the setting of Cornell is a huge draw for many high schoolers considering attending the University.

At some point, we need to address the fact that moving forward with this large-city construction mentality will drastically alter the town’s character. Perhaps not everyone cares as much as I do about preserving the “feel” of Collegetown. But, as students want more local restaurants, charactered bars and charming stores, it will become increasingly difficult to boast about having a great college town when the blocks are being turned into generic strips of faceless buildings.

It seems like even the City of Ithaca understands the importance of Collegetown’s character. In the zoning rules for Collegetown, it is specifically mentioned that the “requirements of these districts are intended to protect the character of the established residential neighborhoods” and that “mandatory architectural elements, such as front porches and pitched roofs, ensure that new construction is in keeping with the existing built environment.” While that language specifically applies only to the residential sections of Collegetown (which excludes much of College Avenue), the new buildings would still be doubling the current maximum-building height for downtown Collegetown, and they would drastically change the character of the neighborhood.

Obviously, these plans are the culmination of years of hard work, and I’m writing these criticisms after looking at them for less than 24 hours. Perhaps they did take into account the character of Collegetown, but after looking at the renderings, I find it hard to believe that the designers thought about students. I hope that some reconsideration is taken before the city approves the permits that allow zoning ordinances to be bypassed, and I hope that the upcoming discussions surrounding such approvals strongly consider the importance of Collegetown’s charm.

Matthew Frucht is a Senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.