While visiting a friend three years ago, Dr. Wally Diehl’s curiosity was piqued by an abandoned building at 121-125 Lake St. The building was what remained of the Ithaca Gun Company, and his curiosity would lead to a redevelopment that is still in its infancy.
The property has had a troubled past and has changed hands several times in the past few years. By 1986, when the company went bankrupt, approximately 10 tons of lead had been fired into the nearby area, according to Jack Harmon, the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-site coordinator for the ongoing multimillion-dollar cleanup.
After the bankruptcy, the property fell into the hands of local developers, according to Walter Snyder’s book, The Ithaca Gun Company. Eventually the property was divided up, with Cornell purchasing the so-called “island” which overlooks Cayuga Lake and Ithaca Falls.
According to Ithaca’s City Council records, the University had briefly considered buying the other part of the property last year to alleviate parking problems but discarded the idea for financial reasons and “the distance from West Campus and the substantial grade along there.” A temporary parking lot was instead built on Libe Slope for construction contractors.
The bulk of the actual factory was purchased by State Street Associates. However, according to Harmon, in 1995 soil samples performed by Cornell revealed a high lead concentration in the area surrounding the former factory.
According to Harmon, after a brief inquiry by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation cleared the University from any fiscal responsibility for cleaning up the site, Cornell sold its share of the property to Ithaca for one dollar.
At this point, the property was going to be restored with aid from New York’s Brownfields Program, which focuses on reclaiming “abandoned, idled or underused industrial and commercial sites,” especially contaminated sites, according to the program’s website.
However, the program ran into fiscal problems and again the cleanup of the site was delayed. In late 1999, the site was referred to the EPA, which began a more in-depth soil analysis, Harmon said. When the analysis was completed, lead concentrations as high as 21.5 percent were discovered, along with traces of arsenic in some areas. In late 2001, cleanup began under Harmon’s guidance.
The cleanup itself has been a slow, painstaking process.
“Due to the shape of terrain, it prevents us from using conventional equipment,” Harmon said.
Instead, giant vacuums have been brought onto the site to remove the approximately 500 tons of material that need to be removed to ensure a clean site. Although the vacuuming process takes four to five times longer than conventional methods, the process eases public safety concerns since fewer dust particles are released during the removal process.
“One thing that we’re really proud of is that the cleanup standard was 400 parts per million [of lead], and our average is 100 parts per million,” Harmon said.
Working in conjunction with the EPA is Ithaca’s Natural Areas Commission, which has carefully trailed the cleanup’s progress and replanted native vegetation.
However, even with the long and careful cleanup, which is not expected to finish until next year, the site has a long way to go.
Diehl has big plans for the factory which now stands covered in graffiti and rust.
“I decided to see how the property might be rehabilitated,” Diehl said.
Although his plans are still going through the approval process, most of the more tenuous details have been handled. Of prime importance to both Diehl and the community is the site’s historical value.
Besides the rich legacy of the Ithaca Gun Company — lead and arsenic aside — the site also has historical value to Ithaca and especially Cornell. Ezra Cornell — mechanic, miller, philanthropist and founder of the University — blasted a waterway at the site, known as “Ezra’s Tunnel,” which would power much of Ithaca’s early industry, according to Snyder’s book.
Diehl says his planned seven-story, 86-unit apartment would again allow public access to Ezra’s Tunnel and the beautiful view offered by the site of Cayuga Lake.
“We want people to understand what an important role Ezra Cornell had in … founding this community,” Diehl explained. “And it will be an amazing place to live, right next to the falls.”
That vision, however, must still wait for some time. Work on the factory site isn’t expected to begin until at least April 2005, after the EPA cleanup is finished and the apartment receives final approval. State Street Associates still hasn’t even sold the property to Diehl, although he said “an agreement has been reached.”
Archived article by Michael Morisy