Chain Works is, without a doubt, the single largest project currently being considered in the Ithaca area. It’s a very large project in terms of square footage, in terms of cost, in terms of length of build-out. Being such a large and important, it needs to be examined carefully – it could help propel Ithaca’s economy and ambitions to a higher quality of life, or it could serve as 95 acres of dead weight.
Between March 29th and May 10th, the city is receiving public comments on the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement, the DGEIS. The city’s website appears to be outdated, but the Chain Works District website is up to date – any comments readers might have, any questions or concerns, are submitted to the City of Ithaca Planning Board as lead agency for environmental review. UnChained Properties LLC, the developer, offers a blank form here, or if one prefers, comments can be sent directly to Ithaca senior planner Lisa Nicholas at email@example.com.
What a DGEIS does is evaluate the potential impacts of growth on local resources and facilities, such as traffic, water supply systems, utilities infrastructure, social and aesthetic impacts. The DGEIS, which will need to be finalized, is part of New York State’s Enviromental Quality Review (SEQR, pronounced “seeker”) and a necessary precursor to any planned/contemplated construction and development of the site.
So, the DGEIS main body is 422 pages, with about 3 GB’s worth of appendices. Although 45 days is allotted for public comment, not a whole lot of people want to read through 422 pages, but the table of contents allows people to jump around if there’s one or two thing they’re more keen to read about. A link to the DGEIS is offered by project partner Fagan Engineers here, but you might need to submit an email and name before being able to see it.
So, basic details, per the “Description of Action”:
Chain Works District Project is a proposed mixed-use development consisting of residential, office, commercial, retail, restaurant/café, warehousing/distribution, manufacturing, and open space within the existing 95-acre Site which traverses the City and Town of Ithaca’s municipal boundary . Completion of the Project is estimated to be over a seven-to-ten year period. The first phase, referred to henceforth as Phase I, will consist of redeveloping four buildings generally located at the northernmost and southernmost ends of the complex of existing buildings. These first four buildings are approximately 331,450 square-feet (SF), and will house office, a mix of office and residential, and industrial uses. Subsequent phases of development will be determined as the Project proceeds and will include new structures to complete a full build-out of 1,706,150 SF.
So, just based off that, anything that gets developed, is as the market and NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allows. If the market isn’t amenable or the cleanup plan isn’t approved, don’t expect the plans to move forward all that fast, if at all. If the market is good and the DEC signs off on plans, expect the build-out to be on the shorter end of the 7-to-10 year time-scale.
Related infrastructure work for the Project will include: (1) removing select buildings to create courtyards and a network of open spaces and roads; (2) creating pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular connections through the Site from South Hill to Downtown Ithaca; (3) improving the existing roads within the Site while creating new access points into the Site; (4) mitigating existing environmental impacts from historic uses; (5) fostering the development of a link, the Gateway Trail, to the Black Diamond Trail network; and (6) installing stormwater management facilities, lighting, utilities, and plantings.
No big surprises – some buildings in the interconnected complex will come down, shared road concepts will dominate the internal transportation system of the neighborhood, the site will be more fully integrated into South Hill and trails, and usual site details like stormwater plans and landscaping are going to be incorporated into the project.
Given its complexity, the project team is pretty broad – eleven organizations, from the Ithaca, Elmira, Corning and Rochester areas. Local firms include STREAM Collaborative, which helped draw up the design standards and rezoning, Randall + West for more rezoning work, and Brous Consulting, which is handling public outreach. UnChained Properties is headed by David Lubin of Horseheads (suburban Elmira). From what I’ve been told, project development to-date has cost somewhere around $2 million dollars.
Likewise on the approvals – the project will need something like fifteen approvals from a dozen different government groups and agencies.
Let me share an introduction and summary comparable but maybe more approachable than theirs – a background primer on why this is happening can be found on the Voice in my introduction article here, and Mike Smith’s summary article here.
Much of Chain Works reuses what was once the Morse Chain / Emerson Power Transmission (EPT) factory, which employed thousands from the 1900s, up until the last workers were let go and the facility shut its doors in 2011. During the mid 20th century, industrial processes used chemicals and compounds that are known to be toxic – Trichloroethylene (TCE) being the best known, but also heavy metals and oils. These not only affect the site and its building, they’re also in the soil and groundwater of South Hill.
The site is classified as Class 2 Superfund site, which the DEC describes as “a significant threat to public health and/or the environment and requiring action”. While EPT is responsible for clean-up, they’re only responsible for the bare minimum (the industrial standard, what can be safely exposed to for 8 hours) unless otherwise specified by a proposed reuse, in which case they have to clean to a higher standard like residential use.
So that leaves us at present – a vacant 95.93 acre, 800,000 SF industrial site split between municipalities and with varied terrain and conditions. One of the most basic goals of CWD is to get the city and town to rezone the land to allow a mix of uses – PUD/PDZ, which give flexibility in site development based off of standards the developer, the city/town, and in this case NYSDEC mutually agree to.
So, in the PUD/PDZ, one of the broad takeaways is that each of the four form code has its own design standards – height, width, window-spacing, setbacks and most physical details, even signage. Unlike typical zoning, it’s the appearance that is more thoroughly managed, not the use. Those can be found in detail here. The design standards utilize what’s called LEED ND (Neighborhood Development), design standards created for large-scale green, well-integrated and sustainable development. A gated community it ain’t.
The goal of these design standards is to mitigate some of the adverse impact the new and renovated buildings will have on the community – promoting alternate transit reduces traffic, limiting floors and floor heights reduces visual impacts, and so on.
Build-out falls under four general form zones: (1) CW1- Natural Sub-Area, 23.9 acres of old woodland to be limited to passive recreation. (2) CW2- Neighborhood General Sub-Area, 21.2 acres of townhouses, stacked flats and similar moderately-dense development, mostly in Ithaca town; (3) CW3- Neighborhood Center Sub-Area, 39.7 acres of mixed-use, in a combination of renovated and new buildings towards the northern end of the property in the city, and (4) CW4, Industrial Sub-Area, a 10.3 acre zone for industrial uses in existing buildings at the Emerson site. The site borders Route 96B, single-family and multi-family homes, natural areas and steep terrain.
About 0.91 acres will be subdivided off and maintained by Emerson for active groundwater treatment. The other 95.02 acres would be sold to UnChained Properties.
The re-development is fairly multifaceted. Some buildings will be renovated, a few will come down, a couple will receive additions, an quite a few others, like those in the all-residential CW2 zone, will be brand-new. Specifically in Phase One, four buildings – 21, 24, 33 and 34, will be renovated.
In Part Two, we’ll take a closer look at the neighborhood design standards and detailed plans for Phase One.