ITHACA, N.Y.—It sounds like something out of a 1960s urban renewal program: the teardown of a 150 year-old building in the heart of Ithaca for surface parking. Yet, it’s 2023 and Tompkins County is leaning toward making that decision for a historic property in Ithaca’s DeWitt Park neighborhood.
The building in question is 408 North Tioga Street, colloquially referred to as the “Red House.” The house was built around 1870 for Henry L. Wilgus, a prominent Ithaca businessman in the late 19th century. Built in the “Italianate” style that was fashionable at its time of construction 150 years ago, Wilgus and his family lived in the house for several decades, and in later decades the building served as professional office space.
Tompkins County picked up the property alongside the neighboring 412–414 North Tioga and a pair of vacant parcels for $1.8 million back in April 2019. The initial intent was to incorporate the building into a larger county “Center of Government” building that was to be built on the properties.
However, in 2021, a pair of properties that the county deemed more desirable for the new building became available one block to the south, and the county purchased those for $2.8 million. That left questions as to what exactly they should do with their previous acquisitions on the 400 block of North Tioga Street.
Given initial City of Ithaca concerns about a large office building or a sea of parking facing residential Sears Street, a strip of land fronting Sears Street was sold to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS), to be developed into four lower-income for-sale homes. As for the rest of the property, a plan quickly developed to utilize the existing parking lot as county parking. This past year, after studies suggested the 1950s Baker Dental office building at 412–414 North Tioga was rapidly deteriorating and would be expensive to renovate, the decision was made to tear it down and turn it into additional surface parking. After some delays, the demolition of 412–414 is just getting underway now.
Now the discussion turns to the fate of the “Red House” at 408 North Tioga Street. From the beginning, the county has been aware that the property has significant historic value. The property is a contributing member of the DeWitt Park Historic District, locally designated in the 1970s. Were any private entity to seek substantial alterations, let alone its destruction, it would need to be approved by the city. In similar circumstances, the city would likely only grant demolition if it posed an imminent threat to the health and safety of the general public — basically, if it were about to collapse onto the street or a neighboring property.
However, Tompkins County is granted a special set of exemptions — the work is being done by a public entity to serve public uses, in this case the county clearing a property of existing buildings to make a parking lot for county employees that serve the public. That action is exempt from any City of Ithaca board’s review under Public Resource Law.
According to the county’s assessment, the structural situation of the “Red House” is dire. In an engineering analysis of the building by the county, it was found that if immediate action isn’t taken to reinforce the building, it will be at risk of collapsing in on itself. The cost to renovate the building just to the basic level of building code, without all the bells and whistles of modern office space that the county seeks, is $1.17 million.
With that high renovation cost noted, and the desire of county legislators to keep the property in county possession, revised environmental review paperwork is being prepared to tear down the historic building to create 10 surface parking spaces. As one might imagine, tearing down a locally historically designated property in the heart of Ithaca for more parking is something that’s not going over well with nearby residents, city officials and local advocacy groups.
“Tompkins County has a real and persistent housing shortage and an excellent building in a local historic district that was once a residence but was later converted to offices that should become housing again,” said Susan Holland, Executive Director of Historic Ithaca. “For 408 North Tioga Street, the possibilities are endless. A landlord could develop market-rate or affordable rental units, or a homeowner who would like to own a decent historic home downtown could return this to a single-family residence. A commercial property owner could also create office space in this building. This would be a win-win for the county on every level: putting a building back on the tax rolls, retaining all the great attributes of a historic district, ensuring a sustainable city and building financial wealth for that property owner. Tearing this building down and trucking its materials off to a landfill is an unacceptable waste during an age when we are all trying to look for sustainable solutions.”
“Historic Ithaca is committed to doing the ‘back of the envelope’ calculations that are needed, i.e. calculating the building and restoration costs for a private owner, the tax benefits and helping to find a new owner,” Holland said. “Without any of this data, it would seem impossible for the Legislature to make a decision for financial reasons.”
Tompkins County Legislator Randy Brown (R-Newfield), vice chair of the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee tasked with deciding the Red House’s fate, said he was sympathetic to the concerns raised. But he also made it clear that the legislature wants that land for parking.
“Regarding the ‘Red House,’ I wish it could be saved, but it would be a bad idea for the county to invest more money in it. I would be in favor of donating the building, but it would need to be moved. Perhaps INHS could take this on and move it to the lots on Sears Street the county sold to them. Moving the building could remove its historic designation though. The county will have to expend funds to deconstruct the house and those funds could be provided for the entity that is moving the house and saving it,” Brown stated. “Personally, I would like to see the ‘Red House’ saved, as I have restored a few houses recently. The land value, in my opinion, is more important to the county.”
His legislative colleague, Committee Chair Mike Lane (D-Dryden), appeared to be on the same page. Lane has made clear in several meetings that he considers the county’s sale of the Old County Library site for housing a mistake, and that makes him that much more reluctant to part with the portion of the Tioga Street property on which 408 North Tioga resides.
In a provided statement, Lane wrote that “[T]he Committee discussed various issues and options, including that it would cost well over $1 million for the County to restore the red house. Last meeting, Arel Lemaro (the Tompkins County Director of Facilities) showed us interior photos of the basement where brick columns had collapsed, making it structurally unsound. The property would also require lead and asbestos abatement. It does not have an elevator.”
“Members of the committee seriously discussed the need to preserve the land
on the 400 block of Tioga Street for county needs well into the future — everything from parking and staging for possible construction on the 300 block of Tioga Street, to the possibility of locating a smaller building there for some county offices. In the end, the seven legislators were of the consensus that the land beneath the Red House should be kept by the county,” Lane added.
Although Lane sought to emphasize that a smaller building could be built on the 400 block, the argument is rather hollow. The likely use for at least the initial years following deconstruction would be parking. It would take time and money for the county to assemble a plan for any new construction on the property regardless of whether or not they build a Center of Government a block away. Some county personnel have commented on background that they’d be surprised if either building were completed within the next five to seven years. That pessimism is not unmerited, as they’ve been working on the current plans for over four years already. During the last meeting, legislators floated looking at both sites as a 40- or 50-year plan.
Secondly, if the choice were to come between the two sites, the 300 block is the one that likely gets the first dibs; the county scooped up the KeyBank and Ithaca Professional Building for a reason. The site allows for a larger building more capable of meeting the county’s space needs without upsetting neighbors in the same way a building at the 400 block would. The July 2022 space planning study commissioned from HOLT Architects suggests 43,000–51,000-square-feet of space will be needed at minimum, as New York State is now demanding use of the entire county courthouse for its local operations. The study also suggested 33–61 parking spaces would be required somewhere nearby to facilitate the consolidation, depending on who occupies the building. For comparison, initial studies for the 400 block suggested that at most 32,000 square feet and 25 parking spaces were possible there.
There is also a rather uncomfortable representation issue in these recent discussions as well. The Facilities and Infrastructure Committee has had, at its past couple of meetings, three to four legislators from rural Tompkins County, and two to three representing parts of either the Town of Ithaca or Village of Lansing. None of the legislators speaking at these meetings, as a voting member or spectator, are representatives for the city of Ithaca, which is most impacted by the committee’s decisions about the 300 block and 400 block of North Tioga Street.
Following outreach to the Tompkins County Planning Department for comment on the subject, the county provided an official statement of its own, also posted on its website, that was more non-committal than the personal responses from the committee chairs. The county’s press release states that several potential outcomes from renovation (which it estimates at a slightly higher cost, $1.25 million) to sale to deconstruction are being considered, and that taking down the “Red House” would require a revised environmental review statement, which is being prepared for the Facility and Infrastructure Committee per its last meeting.
“If parking spots are the aim, then careful site planning should also be considered. Statistical information about parking demand for County departments, about the siting and design for the proposed Tompkins County Center of Government building, and similar planning considerations have not been revealed to the public,” Holland said.
“What makes more sense is selling 408 North Tioga and putting a locally landmarked Italianate building assessed at $300,000 back on the Tompkins County Assessment rolls. Historic tax credits can be used as well as the City’s Real Property Law, which would make this a more affordable rehabilitation than most Tompkins County buildings,” she said.
Holland has made a similar argument to the committee, citing Rosetree Properties’ renovation of 310 West State Street into the “Bugbee’s Place” apartment house as an example. The building had been threatened with demolition, but the Halpert family committed to renovating it into rental housing, a task completed with help from a state grant.
“Once the building is gone and the 10 parking spots are there, no tax revenue can be realized,” Holland said. “And once the building is gone, it is an irreversible decision that’s been made. Our community loses out on potential housing or office space and our historic streetscapes are chipped away for a parking lot.”
The crucial difference between that historic home and the “Red House” at 408 North Tioga, however, is that the county wasn’t trying to claim the land Bugbee’s Place site is on for a larger parking lot. “There is consensus from the Facilities and Infrastructure Committee that the entire property should remain under County ownership and the full legislature will discuss in the next two months. Things could change but I doubt it,” Brown said.
Perhaps the county’s sentiment was best captured by Legislator Greg Mezey (D-Dryden) at the meeting: “I don’t love the idea of taking a big city’s plot (of land) and putting parking, but the reality is, we have people that need to get to work and we have services that need to be provided by those people to the greater community.”
The Facilities and Infrastructure Committee will review the revised SEQR with proposed deconstruction of 408 North Tioga Street at its February 16th meeting.