ULYSSES, N.Y.—The Inn at Taughannock has experienced a steady flow of business since receiving new ownership and branding in 2015, and the inn’s owners now have their eyes on the addition of a new on-site lodge with spa and event space.
A concept schematic for the expansion project was presented to the town of Ulysses Planning Board Tuesday night, following a year of initial discussions about the regulatory feasibility and the town’s initial comfort with the idea, according to a memo sent by Ulysses Planner Niels Tygesen. Last November, the Ulysses Town Board gave its blessing to explore the plan, with the stipulation that a formal review would require an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The project would substantially increase the Inn at Taughannock‘s physical footprint. Currently, the 12-acre campus has five structures with 24 guest rooms, four of which were originally single-family homes, including the famed Victorian mansion built in 1873 by Philadelphia aristocrats John and Charlotte Jones for their summer home.
The newly proposed work includes the replacement of an existing house, located south of Gorge Road and dating back to the 1950s, which is owned by the inn. It would be replaced with a new multi-purpose hotel with approximately 75 guest rooms, a spa, a fitness center, and an event space with a commercial kitchen.
Initial cost estimates for the project give a price tag of $20-$30 million, according to the proposal. The site plan concept submitted only shows one building being removed, as well as a hypothetical future building site.
It would mark another new chapter for the longtime business. The original Jones estate was 800 acres and included Taughannock Falls, which the family sold to New York State in 1925 to make into a state park.
The inn business evolved over the decades, changing hands and adding a restaurant and lodging, until it was bought by its current ownership group, led by Hollywood movie producer and Ithaca College alumnus Carl Mazzocone, in 2016. Mazzocone and his team have previously sought to renovate the property into a premium boutique events center for weddings and special occasions. In 2021, a dedicated wedding garden, called “Enchantment,” was opened to accommodate summer events for up to 300 people in a “Gatsby-like setting,” according to the owners at the time.
Local architect Jason Demarest, who has experience in designing historically-sympathetic buildings locally, has been tasked with designing the new hotel. Detailed drawings are not yet available, though a letter from Mazzocone to the Planning Board says they are looking for a “lodge” aesthetic, with reference imagery citing Adirondack stone-and-timber lodges and boutique lakeshore hotels with traditional designs.
Mazzocone did not respond to a request for comment on the project, but ownership’s motivation to pursue the expansion was clearly stated in the letter to the Town Board last year.
“In 2015, the previous owners engaged 28 employees at the annual cost of $300K in labor, today the Inn at Taughannock Falls employs 125 full and part-time employees, spending $1.75 million in labor,” wrote Mazzocone, noting the infrastructure improvements made at the inn as well. In the Planning Board meeting Tuesday, Mazzocone said the company is spending $2.1 million in labor—it’s unclear which figure is accurate.
Mazzocone added that the Inn’s sales team had been “forced to secure 3,978 hotel room nights at our downtown competition, such as the Marriott, Hilton, Canopy and Hotel Ithaca” in 2022 because of a lack of rooms at the inn. Mazzocone also said that number could climb once again in 2023.
“This is a significant amount of lost revenue due to our [inability] to provide additional rooms to our clients,” Mazzocone said.
As planned, the new hotel would not just be a hotel, but would function as a multi-purpose space, adding luxury amenities such as a spa and fitness center, and high-end interior spaces intended to provide a comfortable look for guests all year round.
Programmatically, a subterranean garage would host parking for 75 vehicles and laundry facilities. The ground level would feature the lobby, spa, fitness center, hotel shop, commercial prep kitchen, and a “Great Room” with a cathedral ceiling and stone fireplaces. The upper floors would feature hotel rooms, with bridal suites under large gables on the top floor. Along with the underground parking would be a surface lot with ten spaces, and a circular service driveway to complete the design package.
The project that eventually became “Enchantment” generated considerable controversy, as mentioned by Mazzocone in his letter and at Tuesday’s meeting. That 2017 plan was originally much grander, including a castle-like lodging and service structure called “The Stables,” as well as numerous outdoor gathering spaces, which would have been landscaped and paved.
The project sought a number of zoning variances for height, signage and other impacts, 13 in total. However, facing intense public opposition to the project due to its size and concerns regarding more noise and traffic in and around Gorge Road, the town Board of Zoning Appeals rebuffed the request. The project was shelved and eventually winnowed down to the “Enchantment” venue.
“When I first started the process to renovate this tired property, we invested considerable funds in designing two different architectural plans that each required some small zoning changes to accomplish,” Mazzocone wrote in his Planning Board letter. “We failed to convince the BZA to support our vision and subsequently we lost years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process to expand the property with this failed pursuit. No one on our team wants to go down that path again.”
This proposal attempts to avoid the BZA issue by asking for a “Development District,” a form of “do-it-yourself” municipally-approved flex zoning not unlike the Planned Unit Development in the City of Ithaca or the Planned Development Zone in the Town of Ithaca.
Unlike most similar requests, which are driven by a desire for mixed uses in communities defined by Euclidean single-use zoning, in this case the Inn at Taughannock is seeking the Development District to work beyond the area and bulk requirements of the existing Business District zoning, so long as the town signs off.
Current site zoning allows 32 feet in height, which would be two floors with a low-slope roof, or three floors with a flat roof. According to Demarest, that limits the ability to pull off the classical lodge look they’re going for, which traditionally employs steep roof pitches.
The trade-off is that the maximum lot coverage would be reduced, more green space in trade for another floor with a more aesthetic steep roof and “architectural drama.” Some of the additional height is obscured by building the hotel lodge into the hillside and hiding the parking level.
“The goal is to create a landmark building with rich details and character that the town can take pride in,” said Demarest at the meeting. “With added height allowances, the project can be designed vertically rather than horizontally across the site. This provides more green space and less impact on the land.”
Relatedly, the maximum building size in Ulysses is 20,000 square feet. A Development District would allow a 20,000-square-foot footprint, meaning each floor is capped at 20,000 square feet.
In exchange, Mazzocone is offering 50 new jobs with the expansion, as well as providing more of a guest customer base for Trumansburg businesses, and tax revenue for the town.
Denying the Development District approval doesn’t necessarily stop a project from happening. Mazzocone and Demarest argued that by forcing multiple shorter buildings, as allowed by zoning, rather than one structure that consolidates the expansion plans, the existing zoning produces a less visually appealing plan by limiting open space and architectural design.
In the context of development pressure, Ulysses has two markedly different paths being presented in recent months, including other projects at Tuesday’s meeting. One path leads towards strip retail, dollar stores, gas stations and the like. The other tends more towards services catering to outdoorsy types, with improvements to park amenities, lakefront homes with trams, and lodging options. Either way, external commercial pressures due to the town’s location on an attractive lake and the exurban fringe of a 50,000-person urban core aren’t going away.
At the Planning Board meeting, the board had a look at the concept and the Development District request to provide comments and direction, and had a chance to ask for any additional information they wanted to see at this early stage. A Public Hearing would come at a later date, as would any items that need to be voted on.
“This is a pretty unusual request, it’s not something we see very often,” noted Town of Ulysses Planning Board Chair Pete Angie.
Mazzocone said at the meeting that the inn’s ownership hopes to garner board support for the new hotel. He stated that they also saw the new hotel as an opportunity to reduce wear and tear on the existing Victorian-era mansion on the grounds.
“Carl wants to build beautiful things,” said Demarest of Mazzocone. “The success of the wedding garden and special events is what’s really driving the need for this project.”
One of the more unusual aspects of this proposal was that normally, when business owners and developers do not get what they want, they threaten to walk away from a proposal. Here, Mazzocone made clear that a project was happening one way or another, whether zoning-compliant or in a Development District.
“Eight years ago when I stood here for the very first time, I was naive,” Mazzocone said. “I was so excited to be the owner of this hotel, and I spent a lot of time and money with Jason designing different plans, to build on that parcel where the wedding venue and tent are. We tried diligently to convince the BZA to let us build it, and they said no. So basically we built a landscape job, and it’s a beautiful one, and it’s been successful.”
Mazzocone pressed the board for answers, insisting that his preferred path of one large structure instead of several small ones is in the best interest of the Town of Ulysses overall.
“Because I’m going come back to you one way or another, with either a lot of little places, and I’ll do my best to make them great Or, take a flyer with us, and say, ‘we support this plan of development, let’s see what this guy comes up with and see if he can build something special,'” Mazzocone said Tuesday. “It’s going to be so much more amazing if I can have just one nice building, it does much more to maintain the integrity of the existing property.”
Planning Board members were cautious with their support. One member made clear she was unlikely to be swayed by any proposal. The others were more open to discussing the option of a large single building, provided additional information was provided.
In that regard, there was some confusion in what materials would be requested for submission, regardless of whether it’s one 75-room building, or five 15-room buildings. Traffic studies were suggested, but traffic is unlikely to change much between the two proposals, for example, because the physical guest capacity is the same.
After about an hour of discussion, ideas that seemed to be mutually agreed upon included 3-D perspective renders, including from the waters of the lake and sensitive natural corridors, stormwater plans, and typical event schedules and attendance, to help put impacts into the context of already-existing conditions.
Mazzocone and Demarest received a cautious direction to submit additional materials for consideration from the board Tuesday.