ITHACA, NY – Ithaca has seen it’s share of “big” development/redevelopment projects in recent years, but none of them come close to the scale of the Chain Works District project.

[do_widget id= text-55 ]

Much more than a new hotel or apartment complex, the Chain Works project aims to essentially create an entire neighborhood. The overall scope, the sheer size, the timeframe and the potential impacts are bigger than anything Ithaca has seen in a long time. Here’s what you need to know about this important project. Much of the specific information is pulled from the Chain Works District Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS).

1 – The basics

The Chain Works District is billed as a mixed-use “live, work, play” space. As such, it’s slated to have a little bit of everything: residential living space, office space and a business incubator, some industrial areas for manufacturing, and green spaces like parks and gardens for enjoying the outdoors.

According to a document from the city planning department, the entire neighborhood could create up to 915 condos and apartments over a period of 10 to 15 years. The entire project is slated to cost over $100 million.

To put that in perspective, let’s compare it to some of Ithaca’s other recent major developments. The affordable housing development at 210 Hancock is slated to bring 59 housing units. The senior housing to be built on the Old Library site is slated to bring 51. The much-debated 9-floor version of the State Street Triangle development would have brought 180 housing units.

As previously reported by Brian Crandall, the last 10 years have seen 749 new homes and apartments built. This project could do more than that by itself.

This idea of turning old industrial buildings into this sort of mixed-use space isn’t new. The Chain Works District website cites a number of precedents, perhaps most notably New York City’s Meat-packing District.

The Chain Works District project is being developed by Unchained Properties, LLC, a single-purpose limited liability corporation. The Chain Works team consists of mostly of upstate professionals and organizations mostly based in Ithaca, Elmira and Rochester.

2 – So where are they going to fit all of this?

Hence the name, the Chain Works District will be built partially from the skeleton of the old Morse Chain Company factory, which later became the Emerson Power Transmission Plant.

The Site is located along the NYS Route 96B corridor, South Aurora Street / Danby Road, and where Turner Street and South Cayuga Street meet the northern edge of South Hill. The area is nestled between Ithaca College to the south, downtown Ithaca to the north, and Route 13 / Elmira Road corridor to the west.

Here’s a map:

chain works map

The site, which ceased operation in 2011, is home to roughly 800,000 square feet worth of decommissioned industrial buildings that will be redeveloped to fit the proposed mixed uses. Approximately 90,000 square feet of existing structures will be torn down to create a more open environment, according to the DGEIS. Here’s a map of the structures as they exist today:

chainworks before

Rehabilitating the former factory buildings is just the first phase of the project. However, project plans to develop more of the 95-acre parcel of land that the buildings are part of. See below:

chainworks after

3 – What are the potential impacts of the project?

As you might expect, the potential impacts of such a large project are substantial. One in particular stands out, however.

Contamination – First is the issue of contamination. During it’s industrial years, the factory made use of trichloroehyline (TCE), a chemical solvent, to remove “cutting oils” from metalwork.  The carcinogenic chemical not only contaminates the site, it also leached into the soil and was carried down South Hill. Other contaminants have been identified at the site, including petroleum products, barium and cyanide.

Aside from groundwater contamination, there is also the risk of “soil vapor intrustion” or SVI, a process by which chemical vapors trapped in the soil can be released into the air.

The site is classified as Class 2 Superfund site, which the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) describes as “a significant threat to public health and/or the environment and requiring action”.

Emerson Power Transmission is responsible for cleaning up the site. According to the Chain Works team, “Emerson has made clear its intention to continue their cooperation with the developer and the DEC.”

Since much of the property in the Chain Works Projected are expected to be residential, the cleanup standards will be especially stringent. The DEC, the Department of Health and other regulatory bodies must sign off on the project before it can move forward.

The Chain Works Team has proposed a number of possible solutions to deal with potential contamination, though it’s still too early to nail down any specifics. Some possible remediation methods include:

  • excavation and off-site disposal of contaminated soils
  • placing a barrier between soil/fill materials that are not contaminant sources, with a soil or a cap made of asphalt or concrete
  • solidification or stabilization of contaminated soils that are too deep or impractical to remove
  • in-situ (that is, “in its original place”) chemical treatments of soil or groundwater, which is reportedly unlikely given the fractured bedrock at the site
  • thermal tratement of soil or groundwater
  • extraction and treatment of groundwater or soil vapor
  • sub-slab depressurization, which is a sort of venting system used to vacuum up any harmful vapor beneath a building slab and vent it where it won’t impact humans

Since the contamination has been known and the cleanup on the docket for years, some local officials and environmentalists have expressed concern over how these remediation plans will be handled.

A 2014 Ithaca Times piece on the site notes that other heavy industrial sites with similar profiles had been successfully remediated for commercial or residential use, including the Penn Yan Marine brownfield in Penn Yan; the Village Gate on Goodman Street in Rochester; Remington Lofts in North Tonawanda; Holy Cross Community Housing in New Orleans; and the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

A more recent Times article clarifies that, for now, the cleanup is being done to industrial standards by Emerson. As noted, the residential standards are more stringent, and further cleanup will fall to Unchained Properties once they officially own the property.

Traffic – The second big impact will be the traffic. The short version is that according to the Chain Works District FAQ, the traffic impact will be less than what existed during the height of the facility’s use.

The actual traffic impact synopsis in the DGEIS is a hefty 50 pages, so its difficult to sum up. It can be said that the project’s planners have included a number of elements in the design that should help limit traffic.

For example, the the district is being designed with people walking and biking in mind, including the possible addition of a localized bike share service. Since it is a mixed use area intended for people to “live, work, play” all in the same area, many people may be able to navigate through their days without needing a vehicle.

The project team also plans to work with TCAT to potentially establish new bus routes as well as working with Ithaca CarShare to lower traffic through that service.

Similarly, the project aims to limit surface parking and will utilize on-street parking and parking spaces underneath buildings to that end. Additionally, mixed-use areas tend to require overall less parking than single-use zones due to lower peak parking time overlaps.

Aesthetics – There’s also the visual impact to consider. Here’s a few “before and (proposed) after” sets to illustrate. The first two are looking from the Wegmans parking lot, while the second set is looking from Route 13 southbound.

CW wegmans2

cw 13-1

CW 13-2

4 – What are the main challenges for this project?

Beyond the contaminant cleanup issue noted above (and to be explored in-depth in a future article), the biggest challenge is the various regulatory hurdles that the project will need to jump.

Given the size and scope of the project — and the fact that it is located partially on City of Ithaca land and partially on Town of Ithaca land — the process may be a bit more arduous than most.

The DGEIS includes a list of at least 12 different approvals necessary for the project, including several that require similar approval from both city and town governments. Other approvals must come from the Department of Transportation, the DEC, the state and county Departments of Health, the Tompkins County Planning Department, and others still.

Beyond that, officials from both the town and the city have expressed concerns about the open-endedness seen in the early planning documents. For example, some officials see the zoning suggested by the project as too open to a huge variety of uses, and guidelines for things from lights to signs to parking areas are not restrictive enough.

The proposed zoning outlined in project documents is form-based, rather than the use-based zoning that communities typically use. In other words, the proposed code manages how it looks in terms of size and appearance, but not necessarily what happens inside.

These are issues that will likely need to be resolved before either municipality signs off on the project.

Although it’s been in the works for two years, the project still has a long path ahead of it, including opportunities for public comment. The current public comment period, which is taking comments on the DGEIS document, is ongoing through May 10, 2016. You can make comments online at the Chain Works District GEIS page.

5 – What’s exciting about the project?

What seems to be most exciting to city and town officials is the idea that this project would turn a huge piece of abandoned and contaminated property into not just something useful, but something relatively unique.

It would essentially be an entire neighborhood, one with its own identity and character. The fact that private development money is driving the project is also welcome.

The site is being developed using LEED ND (Leaders in Energy and Environmental Designs for Neighborhood Development) standards. This means it is designed using principles of green building and infrastructure and creating an area that encourage walkability to reduce overall vehicle miles. Supporters refer to LEED ND as the “antidote to sprawl.”

Of course, any project of this size is going to require a lot of people to build it, which will hopefully mean a boost to the local economy during the construction, not to mention the potential for new businesses to make a home in the district. Unchained Properties says they will solicit bids to get the most competitive prices, but they believe local labor will have an advantage due to proximity to the site.

Lastly, the project fits in well with the comprehensive plans of the city and town of Ithaca. Here’s a few points highlighted in the DGEIS:

• Allowing a mix of uses close to the core populated areas of the City thus helping to preserve other undeveloped areas of the Town;
• Re-establishing a new place within an underutilized site, using existing infrastructure for mixed-use development to occur;
• Establishing well defined buffers to adjacent land uses with enhanced multimodal street connections;
• Using LEED ND and Smart Code standards with compact, connected, and complete streets as the basis of the Conceptual Site Layout Plan;
• Developing a large parcel within walking distance to Ithaca College;
• Focusing density in a smaller geographic area with existing infrastructure;
• Focusing density in a smaller geographic area in close proximity to existing fire, public safety, and police services;
• Adding population within walking distance to existing public school facilities;
• Allowing a diverse number of residential and commercial uses to co-exist within both existing industrial buildings and new buildings;
• Creating a balanced and walkable neighborhood;
• Reviving the manufacturing identity of the site

(Photos courtesy of the Unchained Properties’ Chain Works District DGEIS)

[do_widget id= text-61 ]

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.