ITHACA, NY – Last year, after much debate and contention, Tompkins County settled on the Dewitt House senior apartments proposal for the old library site on North Cayuga Street.

The project has undergone a number of changes as it moves through a variety of committees and councils, both on the city and county level.

The first goal that the project has to achieve is receiving a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Committee (ILPC). This committee’s job is ensure that historic buildings and districts maintain their traditional character in the face of new developments.

At a meeting of the ILPC in June, the latest revision for the project received some feedback from members of the public and the ILPC.

Toning it down

Kimberly Michaels, of Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects, explained that the ILPC had requested that the building not have a rectangular, monolithic look and to use different materials that referenced the smaller houses.

Michaels said they presented a building that that they felt accomplished that. It seemed they have gone a little too far in the opposite direction.

The general reaction they received from the ILPC, Michaels said, was “Thanks, but just quiet it a little bit.”

“I think the commission wanted to see a simpler material palette,” said Historic Preservation Planner, Bryan McCracken. “One thing that that really made the building look visually busy and kind of overwhelming is the use of six or seven different building materials with different colors and textures, all of them very rich colors. It created almost a patchwork of differing colors.”

McCracken also mentioned that the mix of masonry with wood-emulating materials that isn’t seen elsewhere in the district, which made the proposed structure stand out. The general sentiment was that the many projections and recesses on the building needed to be toned down as well.

“Rather than trying to be a focal point, really complementing what’s there, drawing inspiration from the larger buildings in the district while maintaining elements on the new building that reflect the components and size and rhythm of the smaller residential structures in the neighborhood too,” McCracken said.

The design submitted during the June meeting. (Source: City planning documents.)

Finding a balance

Michaels said she also felt there was some pushback against the size of the building altogether.

“I believe there is genuine frustration with the fact that the area is zoned for a larger building and there’s real concern about a larger building because there is a lot of single-family architecture across the street,” she said.

“We’ve been working with them to try to really examine the existing Dewitt Historical District and look at the fact that the district is partially residential and partially really large buildings,” she added. “Looking at the edge where the Old Jail is and the church and the library site and where that transition is from residential architecture to larger more dense more civic architecture.”

McCracken said that while at least one member of the ILPC was against a larger structure, most felt that a large building could work on the site.

“It’s just finding the right balance of setbacks and the placement will have a lot to do with how the building feels in that location and how people experience it,” McCracken said. “That’s really the key issue the ILPC is looking at: How can you get a large building like that to fit in contextually with everything else that’s happening in the district?”

Next steps

A revised proposal was submitted by the development team to the ILPC last week and the project will again be on the agenda at the joint ILPC and Planning Board meeting on July 12. Michaels says that the team plans to ask them to vote on a Certificate of Appropriateness at that time.

If it succeeds there, it will have to go to the city’s planning board for site plan approval, which will deal with the more practical matters like site accessibility and parking.

After planning, the project will have to go back to the county, which still technically owns the property — to finalize a sale.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.