News Tidbits 8/11/13: Emerson’s Powerful Possibilities

12 08 2013

Image property of Welch Construction Inc.

Following up on Ithaca Times and Ithaca Builds, the big development news of the week is that a potential buyer is about to close on the Emerson Power Transmission property on South Hill. The discussions have been going on for quite a while; the last Emerson entry I wrote six months ago notes that a member of the Chamber of Commerce was dropping hints that negotiations for the sale of the property were ongoing.

The “sleeping giant” term the Times uses is certainly fitting. At nearly 94 acres and 800,000 square feet of space, the property is one of the most massive in the Ithaca metro. For the sake of comparison, the Collegetown Terrace project is redeveloping 12.4 acres (with another 4 acres of apartments being left as-is), has 610 units and about 629,000 square feet. Certainly, zoning would allow for demolition and reconstruction to suit the developer’s plan, and for this market, the possibilities are comparably limitless.

The article notes that the buyer has 12 to 18 months to choose to execute the purchase option, but they’ve committed for the time being by paying out for a multi-million dollar master plan and feasibility study. Given the span of the site, it’s no big surprise that the developer is looking into mixed use, with some residential components, and some industrial/manufacturing components. With 94 acres, there’s definitely a wide range of possibilities, and buildout will take years. But a redevelopment of Emerson could effectively mark an expansion of downtown Ithaca southward.

It appears Ithaca’s development boom has some big projects still coming down the pipeline. Or more links in the chain, if you will.

Can a Polluted Past Have A Future?

21 02 2013
Image Property of Welch Construction Inc.

Image Property of Welch Construction Inc.

Real estate in Ithaca is a fairly warm as markets go (I refuse to call it hot). But there are still some gaping issues in the metro market.  One of the biggest examples is one that can be seen from just about any southward vantage point above the lake lowlands – Emerson Power Transmission.

The property started as Morse Chain, which dates back to 1880 and began the manufacture of automobile chains in 1906.  Morse Chain was acquired by locally prominent BorgWarner in 1929, and the facility continued industrial production until BorgWarner built a new facility near the airport in 1983, selling the factory to Emerson Power Transmission. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, several chemicals were used for “cutting oils”, removing oils from the manufactured automotive gears, shafts and chains at the tail end of the process. One of those was trichloroethylene, or TCE. TCE is a known carcinogen, and I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Unfortunately, the era of traditional manufacturing was fading in the Ithaca area. Emerson Power Transmission moved about 40 of its corporate senior staff to a suburban Cincinnati facility in 2007 (and I remember reading about it while a student at Cornell). The death knell came in August 2009, when Emerson announced it was closing up shop in Ithaca, putting 228 people out of work (the factory had over 500 people on site as recently as the mid-2000s, and had received tax incentives not long before closure). The closure was recent enough that this blog was already going, and the original entry is here.

At first glance, the property would appear to be potentially salable. It’s a large property in a well-populated and growing area with a substantial uptick in the real estate market. However, there’s one very, very big issue – the TCE contamination.

Although TCE use stopped by the late 1970s, the damage was done, and unknown quanities of it leaked into the groundwater and sewers. The site was declared contaminated by the state in 1988.

Since then, it’s been a series of long and contentious debates about who to hold responsible for what degree of clean-up. The city, the state DEC, and BorgWarner and Emerson had volleyed back and forth on who pays for what. 35 years after the chemical usage is stopped, yet nearby sewers have had to be replaced, soil tested constantly and excavated if contaminated, and groundwater / vapor testing in nearby properties. Essentially, a major environmental headache.

Although the brunt of the burden has fallen on government and Emerson to clean up (BorgWarner gets blame but seems to carry little if any of the cleanup cost), the site has been marketed for sale – $3.9 million for 94 acres plus structures (note that just the groundwater is contaminated, not the structures themselves – this isn’t Ithaca Gun). It was no surprise that with the remediation and continual testing, the site has been a tough sell.

All the more interesting, then, that the local chamber of commerce announced at a recent luncheon that someone is agreeing to purchase the property. Emerson’s in the final steps of reviewing the offer.  The property could be host to a variety of activities – the IJ article mentions a possible small business incubator like the one at the South Hill Business Campus (itself a former factory). Given the location, any number of industrial or commercial applications are possible, maybe even partial/total tear-down and redevelopment. The biggest obstacle apart from the lingering environmental concerns might be the fact that the property is split along the city and town of Ithaca, so both would have to accept any proposed redevelopment.  But still, any progress on the looming, decaying facility would be one of the surest signs of a “reinvention” of the area.


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