ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a short meeting for the City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee this month — “a remarkably light agenda,” to quote Councilwoman Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward). As always, The Ithaca Voice is happy to provide you with a summary.
Ithaca Falls Overlook and Smokestack
For those of you who follow the Planning Board writeups, you know that local firm Visum Development Group has proposed to redevelop the vacant and contaminated Ithaca Gun factory site at 121-125 Lake Street into “The Breeze,” a 77-unit apartment building. Along with the environmental remediation comes a proposed public benefit in the form of a public parklet to “the Island,” a city-owned promontory that juts out from the Ithaca Gun site.
Visum would provide a prefabricated bridge from the parking area to a new Ithaca Falls Overlook with seating, historic signage, viewing pad and protective railings and fencing. Plans to preserve the Ithaca Gun factory smokestack, the last remaining structure from the old facility, are still being fleshed out. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) provided a memo to the PEDC asking for a joint commission by the city and Visum to find a qualified professional who can perform a “conditions assessment” of the smokestack and determine if preservation is viable. The long-term structural integrity of the smokestack has been a longstanding question mark.
The reason why all this discussion is happening now is because “The Breeze” is in the home stretch for project review. The Board of Zoning Appeals granted the requested variances for the four-story building, and after many months of review, the project is eligible for preliminary Site Plan Approval at the next Planning Board meeting, which would allow them to pursue site prep and foundation work permits (Final Site Plan Approval would be required to erect anything above ground level).
Last month, Common Council approved a revised and amended Development
Agreement (DA) between the City of Ithaca and Visum pertaining to the Breeze and the Island. Under the terms of the DA, Visum must build and maintain access to, plus amenities on the Island, and last night was just a discussion topic without any votes scheduled. As for the viability of maintaining the smokestack, once a qualified professional has been determined, the PEDC and Common Council will need to sign off on the hire and the city’s portion of the contractor’s bill.
“Because it’s going to be on city property… we are just open to comments as they make their final submission,” City Planning Director Lisa Nicholas said.
“This is a treacherous area,” Brock said. “There are steep slopes on the sides, there’s a 25-foot drop down the raceway[…]Once you have a platform there unless you plan on the visitors being entirely encased in chain-link, I’m going to anticipate that people are going to go over the side of the wall, go to the edge, go along the area, down into the raceway, up the island, toward areas which frankly we’ve had several fatalities of individuals falling off those cliffsides as they make their way to that area.”
“I understand the attraction, the view and the vista, the opportunity for tourism. However, it also is an attractive nuisance that is going to require some level of education and review. Otherwise, I’m fearful we’ll continue to see the fatalities that we’ve already seen sixty feet from this location,” Brock added. Long story short, she thought the overlook could be a legal “can of worms”, in her words, and wasn’t in love with the idea.
PEDC Chair Rob Gearhart (D-3rd), noting Brock’s concerns, stated that the provided renderings didn’t do a good job illustrating safety features, and further images would be needed to show how they would be implemented.
“You can’t see the lake and you can’t see the falls, am I correct?” Brock asked. “You can see the inlet,” replied Nicholas, noting that the falls would not be visible without vegetative management, which the city doesn’t plan on doing. “Maybe you could see the lake during the winter,” Brock surmised. “You can design something very expensive that will satisfy all of these concerns to provide these views, but I can’t imagine it would be feasible for the developer.”
Visum Senior Vice President Laura Mattos was able to Zoom call into the meeting and provide updated close-up renders of the planned overlook site. “We are installing a new fence, not as high as Cynthia was suggesting, around the actual overlook, and we are connecting that one to the existing chain-link fence” (top left in the picture). Mattos estimated the current overlook project cost at about $300,000 plus maintenance costs.
At its core, the question becomes a debate of personal responsibility vs. protections from liability – Johnny Q. Cornellian’s parents suing when he drunkenly crawls over the fence and falls into the gorge. Brock wanted the northern flank more tightly fenced in, to make it less alluring for troublemakers.
Other councilors questioned the public overlook altogether. “Even chain-link doesn’t feel entirely safe to me,” noted councilor Tiffany Kumar (D-4th). “I’m not an architect, but it would be hard for me to imagine that’s it’s all feasible given the geographic nature of this area.”
“A part of me is glad that people are talking about redeveloping that area,” added councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd), “[B]ut a part of me is also thinking about the access and safety because it draws a lot of people over there.”
Frankly, it’s no skin off Visum’s back if the city decides they want nothing on their land – they offered, they have their variances, so if the city decides to do nothing with their “island”, that’s $300,000 they don’t have to spend. Nicholas noted they talked about putting the money toward restoration of the Willard Way overlook, but city Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne was opposed due to the geology of that site (the cliff is being undermined by the falls and creek).
The summary of the discussion is that the council was generally reluctant to support a new public overlook out of fear it would become a magnet for risk-takers and lawsuits. While some ideas were floated for other ways to use the money Visum intended for the overlook, there were no firm alternatives. Nicholas said that they would confer with city staff and the developer and determine an approach that would best address the concerns.
As for the smokestack, Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken presented the ILPC’s memo and arguments to the board. Fun fact, the Livermore Memorial Building at 313 North Aurora Street was gifted to the United Way by one of Ithaca Gun’s founders. McCracken estimated the conditions assessment would cost between $15,000 and $30,000, of which the city would pay for half.
Councilor Brown was uncomfortable with preservation of the smokestack on account of its association with guns. “You just sat here and made it sound like ‘ooh, it’s a really nice thing that we’re doing’…but that’s not the feeling that I’m getting right now, that that’s something I want to invest in. That’s like me saying for you to preserve those statues that, their meaning today isn’t the same as it was back then.”
“I definitely think that gun violence is going to be part of the conversation, it’s unavoidable,” McCracken said in response. “But the retention of the stack allows us the opportunity to interpret this beyond just the word ‘GUNS’ on the side of the structure. There are ways to come out strongly in opposition to guns and use the stack as a bold statement by the community saying that we are opposed to this. Imagine a big round mark that crosses out GUNS, you immediately know our opposition. It’s a difficult position to deal with, for sure.”
Councilor Kumar agreed with Brown, not only citing the association with guns and gun violence but the association with environmental contamination that Ithaca Gun has. “That’s not history that I feel deserves commemoration. I know this conversation is just to have a study, but… it shows our privilege, and that money could be going toward services.”
“I don’t want to lose sight of the opportunity to show deference to the past of Ithaca that we don’t have much of anymore, the manufacturing economy and what it meant to this community. Clearly, this is one of the historical legacies of the manufacturing economy of Ithaca, and one of the few things that remains,” Gearhart said.
This created a rather awkward predicament where you have an arguably historic structure, but because of its association with guns and environmental contamination, councilors were reluctant to keep it around. Arguably, this isn’t like the cheaply-made cast iron statues in Southern towns in the 1920s by white supremacists looking to emphasize their point. Ithaca Gun is a part of Ithaca’s history. Removing the smokestack isn’t going to change that, but it will erase a physical imprint of that history.
Brock noted that while the gun factory was a part of the military-industrial complex, “It is a beacon. Not just a monument that we would preserve as a representation of who we are, it is a beacon you can see from miles and miles away. If our monuments and how we spend our time and resources are a symbol of what we value, I don’t think that this [is] an appropriate use of our resources, but also our cachet and credentials of what we are trying to say to people coming to visit us. This is not how I would choose to have a monument represent our community. It would not be something that I would support maintaining.”
“I don’t always agree with Cynthia… but at some point, we have to be honest with what is our values,” Brown said. “Continuing to have something representative of, trying to make it about Ithaca’s manufacturing, there are really other things. I vote no.”
The current plan sounds like the city plans to solicit public comment to have a conversation about whether the smokestack is worth preserving, and if so how to best acknowledge the controversial history of the site and the guns that were manufactured there. As of now, if it were up to vote, the council would let it be demolished. But if the community can come up with creative ways to address the history in the context of Ithaca’s current values, they might be willing to support its preservation.
I suppose The Voice can help: feel free to email your thoughts, suggestions and concerns to Bryan McCracken at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In public comment, city resident and frequent PEDC visitor Theresa Alt lamented that the primary component of tonight’s discussion was Ithaca Gun, a project to service well-off individuals and those with the leisure time to visit parks, while the unsanctioned encampments topic was only offered up fifteen minutes. To be fair, there’s nothing to discuss yet for the unsanctioned encampments issue, until a plan of action is put forth for review and debate.
According to Planning Director Nicholas, the working group crafting the policy has now met ten times, as well as homeless services providers, and a draft city policy is being drafted. The current plan is to have the policy put forth for debate and vote in April, a little behind the original March deadline. “We feel like the progress on the policy is good, and we’ll be able to bring this forward. One of the approaches we’ve started to take is that we need something for the very short term, this year, and that might be different from what we put forward for next year.”
“There was a clean up of the peninsula area, the DPW… conducted that clean up appropriately, taking advantage of a break in the weather,” Brock said. “Part of the policy is, once we clean up, how do we put policies in place to keep these areas clean and well-maintained, these are other considerations that we’re trying to develop a policy around.”
With that update, we’ll hopefully see some sort of plan of action regarding unsanctioned encampments two months from now. Keep an eye out.