ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s been a while since the Voice last reported on the Chain Works District. Almost two years, in fact. But, if slow and steady wins the race, then the massive redevelopment plan for the vacant Emerson Power Transmission plant might be nearing the finish line.

The redevelopment, which calls for selective demolitions, renovations and new structures, would be Ithaca’s largest by far – potentially 915 condominiums and apartments, commercial and industrial space, event space, recreational areas and preserved natural woodland. The plan would be built out over 15 years and carry a price tag well north of $100 million. Its developer, Unchained Properties LLC, is led by Dave Lubin, the businessman who is also in charge of the Harold’s Square project underway on the Commons.

So let’s rewind the clock to April 2016. At that time, public hearings had been held for the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS), and the applicant is obligated by state law to review and respond to all public comments. The feedback is incorporated into the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS), which is the formal submission that the city will use to determine if all adverse impacts have been addressed and adequately mitigated.

Some projects will move quicker than others in the DGEIS revision into FGEIS. For instance, Maplewood’s FGEIS was submitted about five months after the DGEIS was accepted for review, with a public hearing in-between. But, Chain Works is a larger and much more complicated project.

Over the past twenty months, Chain Works has not only been working with the city planning department to effectively address all public comments received, they’ve also been putting together the Planned Unit Development (PUD) for their site-specific zoning. What PUD basically does is allow the developer of a large property to propose its zoning guidelines, which the city can choose to reject, or accept with proposed amendments.

The reason for this is that Chain Works will have all sorts of uses (housing, offices, shops) in new and old buildings; the city’s zoning, some of which is so old it refers to telegraph stations, is focused on use (single-use zoning) rather than appearance (form-based zoning). With a large mixed-use project, it’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. In this case, with the Common Council’s blessing, it’s easier to propose a PUD for the city to review. The Council gave the developers the go-ahead to give it a try three years ago.

The Chain Works property does extend into the town of Ithaca, which on a related note is in the middle of a zoning overhaul from use-based to form-based guidelines. But since the majority of Chain Works will be within city lines, the town voted to defer to the city as lead agency in charge of the project review process. The town and the city will both have a chance to vote on final approval.

Basically, for the past year and a half, city planners and the developers have been working on the details of Chain Works proposed form-based code for their PUD. Apart from the occasional brief update to the Common Council’s Planning Committee and the appointed Planning Board, it’s all been behind the scenes. Now they have a zoning product that they’re willing to submit to go along with the last stages of EIS review.

For those looking for something exciting, this won’t be your fix. The PUD zoning covers height, width, window spacing, setbacks from the street, parking requirements – all the important if boring stuff. The submission has example images of qualities they’d like to see in new buildings, but there are no concrete designs yet; the image above is a concept that fits the zoning guidelines, not a final product. The re-use of existing buildings is a little more fleshed out. The Planning Board would still have to review and critique every new building that comes down the pipeline.

According to Ithaca city planner Lisa Nicholas, the timeline from here on involves two separate if parallel actions – one to prepare the Chain Works PUD zoning, the other for the FGEIS.

“The proposed PUD zoning will be circulated for comments after the December 13th Planning Committee meeting and a Public Hearing will be held on January 10th at City Hall.  The PUD zoning may be revised in response to public comments and Planning Committee concerns before adoption – anticipated for spring of 2018. On a parallel tract, the Planning Board is completing a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for the project,” said Nicholas.

“The Final GEIS must consider the proposed PUD and will therefore be completed once the PUD has been revised but shortly before it is officially adopted.  Although the City Planning Board is in charge of the GEIS process, Common Council, as well as the Town Planning Board and Planning Committee have been also involved.  Each body will produce their own Findings [Statement] which determines if the mitigations are appropriate.”

If all goes as planned, the Chain Works District may be approved and permitted to start construction work in May 2018.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at