ITHACA, N.Y.— Where some small, unoccupied brick office buildings once stood on the corner of South Titus Avenue and South Meadow Street is now a gated construction site. The groan of heavy machinery and labor of construction workers will one day turn the spot into the newest Squeaky Clean Car Wash, a local family-owned chain with three other locations in the region.
But many nearby residents in the Southside neighborhood desperately wish that the car wash was being built somewhere else.
“Anybody who needs to use the carwash can drive to it. Why does it need to be near the center of town?” said Felix Teitelbaum, who lives just down the road from the forthcoming car wash on South Titus Avenue.
The consternation Teitelbaum and some of his neighbors feel doesn’t just stem from the usual types of complaints associated with noise or the light pollution they anticipate the car wash making. What’s at the root of their frustration is that the Southside neighborhood formally articulated to the City of Ithaca a desire to see that lot zoned for different uses than a car wash, yet there is one being built.
In Dec. 2018, members of the Southside community, the city’s planning staff, and the Planning and Development Board along with the city’s Common Council produced a final draft of the Greater Southside Neighborhood Plan, which includes a vision and recommendations for improving the neighborhood’s livability, investing in its green spaces and, among other points, updating it’s zoning.
Under the Southside plan, “urban mixed” is the future land use that’s recommended for the lot where the carwash is being built. That zoning would have potentially allowed for a multi-story development to be built on the lot with retail space, a restaurant, apartments, or offices — the kind of development many neighborhood residents expressed to The Ithaca Voice they were hoping for.
“When the community gets together and makes a Southside plan, and then the planning board goes, what appears to be, directly against that plan — it’s extremely frustrating,” said Teitelbaum.
The Southside plan has remained on the shelf, and the city’s planning department hasn’t updated Ithaca’s zoning. Under the city’s current zoning, a carwash is an allowable use for the lot in question, and the city’s Planning and Development Board gave a final approval to Squeaky Clean’s plans in December.
John Guttridge, owner of the local development company Urban Core, LLC and a Southside neighborhood resident said that he feels “profoundly disappointed” with the car wash coming into the neighborhood. Although he does not blame the developer, Gary Sloan, owner of Squeaky Clean. Guttridge said he knows Sloan and thinks he is a “good guy,” that Squeaky Clean is a great car wash company, but that “this is absolutely not the right site for the project. I’m kind of perplexed as to why anyone thinks we need a carwash here when we already have a Squeaky Clean location less than a mile away.”
“We’re not here with our pitchforks,” said Guttridge. “I think we’re here with a sense of profound disappointment that somewhere way earlier in the process somebody didn’t say, ‘Hey, this is the wrong project for that site’ before seven figures got spent on moving it forward.”
Once the car wash is built, it’s not going anywhere. For Guttridge and other neighborhood residents familiar with the Southside plan, it seems like there was an oversight. Adrianna Hirtler, a Center Street resident, said “It’s private property and people want to develop their private property as they want to, but it goes through this planning process, and it does seem that something failed there in terms of trying to adhere to the wishes that were expressed in those plans.”
The Southside plan, though, did come into play during the Planning Board’s decision making process. After months of back and forth with the city’s Planning Department and Planning Board, Squeaky Clean adjusted their plans and agreed to the potential of Titus Avenue being closed off from State Route 13. The road closure was one of the recommendations in the Southside plan.
Sloan, owner of Squeaky Clean, told The Voice that he viewed this compromise as an effort to honor the intentions of the Southside plan.
“We thought we were presenting a win-win situation, and the planning board felt the same way,” he said. “So that’s what led to our approvals.”
Earlier involvement from neighborhood residents may have made a difference in the Planning Board process. Planning for the car wash was reported in August 2022 by The Ithaca Voice, and Sloan filed the first document with the Planning Board as early as May 2022.
Sloan expressed that he’s willing to listen to neighborhood residents that have an issue with the carwash when it begins to operate.
“If we have a neighbor, especially if they’re close to our property and they have a concern, we usually find a solution and a way to address those concerns,” he said.
Lisa Nicholas, the City of Ithaca’s planning director, said that “for the planning board, they never got to a point where they were like, ‘This is so out of compliance with the Southside plan that we’re not going to do it.’ They never got to that point.”
The lot where the car wash is being built has been vacant for years. Nicholas said that became the main motivation for approving Squeaky Clean’s plans.
“They looked at this Southside plan, we talked about this Southside plan but, ultimately, the Planning Board decided that this was a vacant piece of property that had been vacant and underused — the carwash would fix that,” Nicholas said.
Asked about the delay in updating the city’s zoning in accordance with the Southside plan, Nicholas said that the staffing furloughs and retirements that the COVID-19 pandemic caused in the planning department shifted the timelines on many projects.
“We didn’t have enough staff to do the zoning and we had other priorities,” said Nicholas. She said that she’s hoping to tackle the project in the next 18 months. “We’re still down a couple people,” Nicholas added.
Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, who currently represents the city’s Second Ward where the car wash is set to be built, said it was incumbent on the city to update the zoning, though he did not want to cast blame on the planning department.
“It’s hard to hire,” he said. “And even if we did have a full complement, we are lucky in a sense that Ithaca is a vibrant and in-demand town so they have a ton of work to do.”
Nguyen continued, “So is it catastrophic? No. But it’s not great land use. It’s a wasted opportunity.”
Disclosure: Felix Teitelbaum is the General Manager at WRFI, where the reporter that covered this story once worked under his supervision.