September 19, 2003

City Reviews Housing Plans For Gun Site

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The historic Ithaca Gun Factory, located on Lake Street, may soon become more of a memory than an eyesore.

Ongoing plans for a new residential development and public access to a natural area were being discussed over the summer. At Wednesday’s meeting of the Planning and Economic Development Committee, its members decided not to immediately allow a new residential area to be built at the gun factory site. The plans will be heard again at the next monthly meeting of the committee.

The members did not vote to pass a recommendation to the Common Council that an amendment be made in the Comprehensive Plan to allow for a new residential development consisting of approximately 68 units. The Comprehensive Plan outlines the development of land within city limits.

Ithaca Gun

The Ithaca Gun Company occupied the land at 121-125 Lake St. from 1880 to 1986 and manufactured guns and munitions at the site. The company reorganized in bankruptcy; the current-day Ithaca Gun Company has its offices and manufacturing facility in Kings Ferry, N.Y.

During its occupation of the site, the Ithaca Gun Company discharged approximately 10 tons of lead shot from manufacturing and testing. After a long period of deliberation, it was determined that neither Ithaca Gun nor Cornell, which purchased the site from a third party after Ithaca Gun left the area, would be responsible for any of the cost of the approximately $4 million cleanup. Instead, the costs will be shared by the City of Ithaca, the Environmental Protection Agency, State Street Associates and Falls Creek Redevelopment [sic].

The EPA began cleanup of the site last April. According to its website, EPA’s assessment calls for the removal of 2,370 tons of contaminated soil. The project is especially difficult due to the steep slopes of the area surrounding the gorge.

The Developer

North Carolina veterinarian and developer Wally Diehl came across the site in 2000 while visiting in Ithaca to recruit from the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“I was here one evening,” Diehl said, “and I found out what it was. My father had given me an Ithaca Gun .22 as a child.”

Diehl added, “I no longer hunt nor am I a gun collector, but I recognized the name and decided to stay in town for another day.”

Diehl took an interest in construction in the early 1980s while building a home for himself. He continues to split his time between working with animals and overseeing construction projects and developments.

Discovering that Ithaca Falls was directly adjacent to the site of the factory, which closed in 1986, Diehl found and met with the owners of the site and began discussions on future uses of the location.

Referring to the estimated $4 million federal cleanup that is currently underway, Diehl commented, “It is a very risky project which required a leap of faith.”

Initially interested in restoring and renovating the existing buildings on the site for office and restaurant use, Diehl changed his plans to a new residential building in response to the concerns and desires of the community.

“What I came to understand was that the residents were concerned with the natural and historical value of the site and not of the buildings on the site,” he said.

Plans evolved to the current concept of a 70-foot building containing 2.5 stories of a parking garage and five levels of condominium residences on top. The building would be situated on the site so that it could not be seen from any point inside of the gorge.

Current plans include maintaining the existing boiler building and smokestack for their historical significance.

Preservation

The land inside of the gorge alongside Ithaca Falls is managed as a substitute parkland, according to Sarah Steuteville, a Fall Creek resident and member of the Ithaca Falls Subcommittee of the City of Ithaca Natural Areas Commission.

“We have been working with the EPA and Cornell Plantations specialists to revegetate the area with plants that are natural to it,” she added.

Steuteville commented, “We have been working with Diehl on multiple prongs. Because he is so willing to help in the cleanup, we are considering things that we otherwise would not have considered.”

Neighborhood Response

Many at Wednesday’s meeting expressed concerns with the specifics of Diehl’s Falls Condominiums plan.

Several Ithaca residents were concerned about the proposed zoning change. The site is currently zoned as industrial, and in order to develop a residential building, a zoning change or a variance would be required. Some supported a change in order to prevent possible industrial developments that might be less amenable.

The planned 70-foot rise of the building also drew some concerns.

“It would be nicer from the street if the building were only four or five stories and closer in height to the [Gun Hill Apartments] buildings across the street,” Steuteville said.

Bill Ericson, who identified himself as living in the house closest to the factory site, raised concerns over the new building’s generating of additional traffic during peak hours.

Andrew Dickson, a former resident of the neighborhood, praised Diehl’s proposal and commented, “It’s a brownfield. I’m surprised that anyone wants to touch it.”

Archived article by Chris Mitchell

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