February 13, 2004

Developing Inlet Island

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As many development projects in Ithaca progress, the City Common Council will vote next month on a zoning proposal to allow development on the Cayuga Lake waterfront to continue. Specifically, one of the areas where development is concentrated is Inlet Island.

The Inlet Island currently is set to contain multi-story mixed-use buildings that will have street level retail and commercial areas with housing and offices above ground level. The area is approximately 25 acres at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. The Cayuga Lake inlet surrounds the area. Around the waterfront will be a walkway that will connect to major trails in several area state parks, in order to allow residents more access to the waterfront.

The development on Inlet Island is taking shape, as guidelines and zoning rules are set. According to the Planning and Development Board’s website, “the goal of the guidelines is to develop Inlet Island in a way that maximizes private development opportunities while providing increased waterfront access for the public. Guidelines include recommendations for land use, public improvements, private development, and implementation.”

According to H. Matthys Van Cort, city planning and development director, “I think the most important addition we will make is to the recreation system.”

On Feb. 6, the Common Council began to review the zoning proposal, which sets out building heights and other regulations for the development. Due to a minor software glitch that affected the text they were presented with, Common Council members decided to table their vote until they were able to view a complete copy of the proposal.

The proposal will be reviewed and voted on in March. According to Van Cort, there was support among Common Council members for the proposal. Van Cort expressed his excitement about the project. “We are on the threshold of that island being totally transformed,” he said.

According to Mayor Carolyn Peterson, the plans for multiuse buildings and a waterfront that will allow people to enjoy the lake are two of the benefits that development will bring. “One of the next steps will be to have a request for proposals from developers,” Peterson said.

The Ithaca waterfront area has a long history of development, according to Van Cort. “That area had been used for transportation and industry for the 18th and half of the 19th centuries,” Van Cort said.

The waterfront and surrounding area was home to barge and train transport areas. The train tracks cut through the valley of Ithaca, and the passenger station was what is now The Station restaurant. However, according to Van Cort, “all of that came to a halt in the ’60s.”

In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a flood control project “to relieve creek level flooding coming in from the south,” Van Cort said. In doing so, the artificial inlet island was created. The island contained land with what Van Cort called “jumbled” ownership, with some land owned by private parties and some land designated for park space.

In order to develop the area into space that the community could use effectively, city officials first had to work on making the designated park land available for other use. “For thirty years we worked on alienating the park land on inlet island,” Van Cort said.

Two other roadblocks stood in the way of developing the waterfront. The first of these was what was referred to as “the octopus,” or an area where eight major roads converged near the waterfront, causing many traffic problems.

According to Van Cort, “the uncertainty about how to untangle this made it impossible to develop.” In a 1996-97 New York State Department of Transportation project, “the octopus” was untangled. “The first thing that was solved was that the road decisions were made,” Van Cort said. Once this project was finished, “the final thing we had to do was to consolidate ownership on Inlet Island,” he said.

Some members of the community who use the inlet for water sports expressed concern at the announcement of the waterfront development. Last year, representatives from the Cornell rowing program went to the Common Council to express their concerns.

Dan Roock, Cornell director of rowing said that rowers from Cornell, Ithaca College and the community objected to the effect that the land development would have on the shoreline and water use. “The stuff that goes on land really has no effect on us,” Roock said.

One of the problems for rowers is a concrete wall that has been constructed as part of the walkway around the water. The redesign of the shoreline due to the wall affects the waves in the inlet. “The quality of the water we row on took a dive,” Roock said.

Van Cort said that when the wall was built, “we made some compromises. We moved the wall back a couple of feet so you could put wave dissipaters on it.” He added that the wall does not directly interfere with the lanes rowers use, and thus is not a hindrance to rowers in the inlet.

The decrease in water quality has not been debilitating for rowers. “The section of wall that was built. It didn’t shut us down,” Roock said. The other concern rowers brought up was the increase in traffic on the inlet brought about by the development. “As that area becomes more attractive, it draws in more motorboat traffic,” Roock said. “[The Inlet] gets a little more dangerous.”

In order to solve the problem of unsafe water conditions, he hopes that guidelines for boaters are established and clearly posted around the inlet. Roock wishes that city officials had focused on “including people who use the waterway in the planning process.”

However, he does believe the waterfront development has had many positive effects. Roock and other community members who use the inlet are eager to see more people enjoy the waterfront. “We think it would be great to have this access to the water,” he said.

Archived article by Kate Cooper