East Hill Notes: The Collegetown story, past and present

In 1981, four years after this photo was taken, Collegetown started yet another big transition to build new commercial, housing, and parking facilities.
In 1981, four years after this photo was taken, Collegetown started yet another big transition to build new commercial, housing, and parking facilities.
Photo provided

In late September, former City of Ithaca mayor and Collegetown businessman John Gutenberger presented at a forum on “visioning and community development” at the Tompkins County Public Library. Gutenberger was asked to talk about Collegetown, and his remarks follow:

Back in the 1860s, he had a vision, Ezra Cornell did, “to found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Also embedded in his vision was that its students - to gain as much as possible from a college education - should live among the community.
Thus, the off-campus student-housing boom was born.
By the 1890s, almost all of the mostly-male Cornell students lived downtown and on East Hill in rooming houses, and in Cornell’s Cascadilla Hall on the edge of what would become known as Collegetown. The enrolled women students were housed on campus in Sage Hall.
A wooden bridge traversed the steep gorge to connect the campus to Collegetown to the south. In 1893, trolley service began between downtown and East Hill, opening the way for greater development of the community at this southern edge of the campus.
By the turn of the century, Collegetown had developed into a bustling community. Small businesses sprang up to serve the student and resident population, homeowners in the area were providing housing for many Cornell students, and large boarding houses were constructed to accommodate students.
Besides the boarders, these houses also housed the owners and their families, janitors, cooks, and servants. Working-class families lived in Collegetown as well. Children grew up in Collegetown, and the Belle Sherman and East Hill schools educated them.
As a result of Ezra’s vision, Collegetown grew over the decades.
By the 1950s, in addition to private residences and apartment buildings, Collegetown was home to a school, candy store, flower shops, multiple barbers and hairdressers, two shoe repair shops, many restaurants, delis, bars and taverns, two drug stores, five grocery stores, a general store, a furniture store, an insurance office, travel agency, two liquor stores, two clothing stores, three gas stations, a bookstore, a church, a printing company, the Honey Butter manufacturing facility, a bike shop, two sporting goods stores, a full service bank, a post office, laundries, dry cleaners and tailors, a record shop, bowling alley, a motel, a small ground-level city parking lot and the several businaesses of the student-run Student Agencies.
By the middle 1960s and into the 70s, however, things, they were-a-changing.
Lack of adequate parking was long a concern of merchants and residents alike.
Drunken misbehavior, drug use and recklessness on the part of boisterous young people frequently angered East Hill residents.
Drug use and sales and large gatherings on the wall by the bank on the corner of Dryden Road and College Avenue caused townspeople to stay away from Collegetown, hurting the retail activity and quality of life in the area.
In May of 1972, an antiwar demonstration and a massive illegal block party in Collegetown resulted in much property damage, injuries, arrests and the use of tear gas.
In the eyes of many, Collegetown had become a ghetto.
Collegetown merchants and residents went to City Hall and demanded that the City do something to help this important retail and residential sector of the community.
City leadership understood but answered they had their hands full with efforts directed towards downtown redevelopment and construction of the Ithaca Commons. These efforts were intended to halt downtown retail and housing deterioration and to combat the new competition coming in the form of malls at the southern edge of the city and in Lansing.
Collegetown merchants and residents said they would support the City’s vision for downtown redevelopment, but, when the Commons was completed, they expected the City to turn its attention to Collegetown revitalization.
The City did.
In 1981, a major initiative for a new Collegetown vision was initiated. The consulting firm that was hired to assist the City described Collegetown as a “rundown hodgepodge of stores, housing, and other student-related uses, lacking focus and direction.”
It recommended construction of new commercial, housing, and parking facilities and street improvements, and it predicted that the cost to taxpayers would be offset by increased sales and property taxes, parking fees, and special benefit assessments. (More about that shortly).
After some false starts, a Collegetown Improvement Plan was implemented in cooperation with the City, the University and the private sector that enabled the construction of new private-sector multi-story housing with ground floor retail, Cornell’s Performing Arts Center and a 350-car municipal parking garage.
Renovations to Sheldon Court and Cascadilla Hall and water, sewer, street, and landscaping improvements were included. And Cornell invested over $1 million in the rehabilitation of its historic stone-arch bridge that connected the campus to Collegetown.
The face of Collegetown was changed as new buildings were constructed and others were renovated. Property taxes generated in Collegetown increased dramatically because of the increased property values resulting from these investments.
But, by the 2000s, things were a-changing ---again.
Gone was the full-service bank, all the grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations, record stores, the motel, the bowling alley, print shop, sporting goods stores, the bookstore and the East Hill elementary school. Sidewalks were congested in what had now become the most densely-populated neighborhood in the city.
So it was back to the vision thing again, and the City created the Collegetown Vision Task Force focusing on five categories: Business, Housing and Residential Neighborhoods, Circulation and Parking, Cultural Experience and Urban Design.
Out of this came many recommendations and new policies and regulations including an increase in allowable building heights in some areas, and exterior building-design guidelines, among others. This has led to the building boom we see today in Collegetown.
While some people welcome the changes and the more modern and safer buildings, others worry about the canyon effect these taller buildings create.
In closing, there are many measures of the success (or not) of Ezra’s vision and the visions of the 1980s and 2000s, but let’s look at just one measure: City, county and school property taxes generated in Collegetown.
For this analysis, in looking at similar-size areas, the roughly 43-acre Collegetown area is compared to the 43.6 acres of downtown central business area and the 43.2 acres in the Walmart/Lowes mall area on Elmira Road.
City, county and school taxes generated last year were about $900,000 for the Walmart/Lowes mall area; about $6.4 million for the downtown business area; and about $9.8 million for the similar-sized Collegetown area.
In fact, one building in Collegetown, sitting on just three-quarters of an acre, generates almost as much property taxes as the 43-acre Walmart/Lowes area.
So, by at least this measure - the tax base - the investments made as a result of individual and group visions has achieved one of the goals and has reaped dividends that accrue to residents countywide.

East Hill Notes are published the second and fourth Monday of each month in Tompkins Weekly. In addition to his three terms as mayor in the 1980s, Gutenberger managed a Collegetown grocery story – Egan’s IGA – and led Cornell’s Office of Community Relations for more than 25 years.


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