November 30, 2007

Clean-up, Construction to Rejuvenate Ithaca Gun Site

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This article is the third in a series examining the history of the Ithaca Gun Factory.
Carefully climbing a rusty ladder, missing rungs, gives access to the upper roof of the Ithaca Gun Factory. The panoramic view of Cayuga Lake, extending to the horizon, is partially blocked by a smoke stack reading “Ithaca Guns” in white brick. The stack rises above the remains of this Gun Hill area which has been a community landmark since 1880. It may not stand for much longer.
The Ithaca Gun Factory site has had half a dozen owners in its over 125 years of existence. Despite evidence of hazardous contaminants and demands from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the City of Ithaca for its remediation and demolition, the site, though fallen into dangerous disrepair, still stands at at 121-125 Lake Street. Allowing the site to exist has been determined hazardous, but saving the site thus far has been determined financially unfeasible.
The building was condemned and ordered to be demolished by City Building Commissioner Phyllis Radke in March of 2006.
A fire in August of 2006 and recent testing revealing still-present and significant lead levels conducted through the collaboration of Cornell student Myles Gray ’06 and Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, have renewed efforts at finding a solution for the site. Hang expressed his support for projects proposed for remediation and redevelopment for the site.
“The project was sitting there going nowhere; it was only a matter of time before a fire,” he said. “But it didn’t change the Common Council’s mind, and that’s why nothing happened.”
Since the bankruptcy of the Ithaca Gun Company, the property has been handed down through several owners. Following the failure of multiple plans for its remediation and redevelopment due to financial infeasibility, the City of Ithaca is now working with the private owner Wally Diehl, practice owner and manager of Fall Creek Redevelopment, LLC. Diehl is collaborating with the local development firm Travis and Travis Development, LLC and O’Brien and Gere Engineers, Inc. to come to a cooperative solution using both private and public funds for the site.
Frost Travis gave a brief chronology of ownership for the site. According to Travis, after the Ithaca Gun Company went bankrupt, the factory served as storage for a construction company until the whole parcel was bought by State Street Associates L.P. II. The company also does business as Gun Hill Residences, a property they own across Lake Street from the gun factory site.
“In 2001 Wally Diehl was interested in developing the site,” said Travis. “But he didn’t take title of the property until 2006.”
Diehl’s original proposal for redevelopment of the site consisted of 160 residential units in a seven story structure with a two-level parking garage. According to Travis, it needed a height and zoning variance and was zoned as industrial, despite widely expressed sentiments that it be used as residential space.
Travis said opposition from members of the community to the original proposal concerned the height of the building, blocked views, increased traffic flow, and the project being out of context with the neighborhood, in addition to the need for the proper remediation of contaminants.
Radke expressed support in 2003, around the time of Diehl’s first proposal.
“The significance of removing hazards that exist here extends beyond the current or future property owners and what they might do to improve the site,” she wrote. “The neighborhood and entire community stand to benefit as well.”
Neighborhood petitions with almost 400 signatures protesting the site proposal, also contained within the building department’s property file for the site, give evidence of community criticism.
Hang said, “These people didn’t want to deal with the challenge of cleaning up the site. It was about [the City’s] little local interests … they didn’t care about the health threat. They killed the proposal that would have cleaned this up because of 7 cars per hour.”
According to Travis, in order to move the project forward Diehl agreed to cut the proposal in half to 80 units and put a height restriction on the project so that it would stand no higher than the existing factory. Due to these limitations and the resulting restrictions on parking, the project became financially unfeasible without outside help.
The eventual resolution, and the current redevelopment proposal for the site, is “a public- private partnership” said Travis. The proposal was made with feedback from neighbors of the site.
The proposal would donate a parcel of the land to the City to be used as a park, with a public walkway along the western edge of the property to the area known as the “island” — an outcropping that overlooks Ithaca Falls and Cayuga Lake.
“It is a promenade, so that you can enjoy the valley view as you approach. It is also handicapped accessible,” added Travis.
In addition, the lessened number of 33 units will garner property taxes for the city.
“Of the $3.2 million taxable portion according to the grant application, it’s about $360,000 in taxes per year for the City,” said Travis. “It is a little better than a 10 year pay back, a 11-12 percent return on the state’s money.”
The proposal qualifies for funding as part of the ERP by the DEC which covers remediation on public lands, as part of the Voluntary Clean Up program for sub-surface contamination, and also as part of the state’s “Restore N.Y.” program.
Last November, the application for funding for the site was rejected by the Restore N.Y. program.
“They lit on this idea of the gun factory for the Restore N.Y. program late in the game,” said Travis. “The application wasn’t as strong as it could have been.”
According to Travis, the project is estimated at $13 million, with $3 million coming from these public sources, and $10 million coming from private sources.
Travis commented on why the developing team has been allowed to continue searching for funding sources and solutions despite demands from the DEC, the EPA and the City of Ithaca that the building be demolished more than a year ago.
“There has been a demolition order for quite some time,” said Travis.
Because Diehl was searching for a development partner, an extension was granted.
“We were approached only in the middle of May of this year. Since then we have been working diligently to move the project forward, whether it be with aligning support with the city and the grant applications. The money has to come from somewhere,” Travis said.
“The gun factory site is a posterchild for the grant program,” said Travis. “Those are the contaminants on the site: lead from the lead shot, and asbestos in the pipes and the window caulk. Those have to be removed; the building has to be removed — Restore N.Y. does just that.”
The verdict on this funding will be announced by the end of this year or the beginning of the next, according to Travis.
Just this past Tuesday, the development team for the site went before the Ithaca Planning and Development Board.
Chair of the Planning and Development Board and Sun Production Manager John Schroeder ’74 said, “A developer has the option at an early point, anticipating coming before the board, to come for sketch plan review.”
He added, “Sketch plan review allows the developer to present conceptually what he or she wants to do with the site. The clock isn’t ticking yet on the formal approval process — if there are concerns it allows them to be heard early in the process. The earlier in the process, the cheaper it is to address any issues.”
Schroeder expressed optimism about the newest redevelopment plan.
“Neighborhood people who were emotionally opposed to the first project say they are in support of this project,” he said. “That building is an ugly eyesore and it’s to the benefit of the community to get rid of it.”
Travis added a final detail to the proposed project that aims to preserve a part of the Ithaca Gun Factory’s history.
“We haven’t yet done a structural analysis,” Travis said. “But we intend to save the smokestack. It is an important part of the identity of the project.”

This article is the third in a series examining the history of the Ithaca Gun Factory.
Click here for part one.
Click here for part two.