July 30, 2008

City of Ithaca Pledges to Overhaul Contaminated Gun Factory Site

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On May 30, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced a final resolution for the Ithaca Gun Factory Site, closing a long and precarious chapter in the City of Ithaca’s history. However, many Ithacans feel the future of the site may still be up in the air.
The DEC — in cooperation with Mayor Carolyn Peterson, the City of Ithaca, developers Frost Travis, owner Wally Diehl and a previous pledge by the state — has authored a plan to dissolve the old Ithaca Gun Factory, which has been left stagnating above the rushing waters of Ithaca Falls for the past 125 years.
The $3.02 million public-private partnership — which includes the state’s Restore N.Y. grant contribution — aims to not only fully remediate the site, but to also return it to the public eye by putting in a new public park. A pledge of over $11 million from a voluntary cleanup program and private donations will fund 33 luxury condominiums to be built over this hazardous history with the hope of giving the site a healthier future.
The DEC intends to cover 90 percent of the investigation and remediation of Ithaca Falls Overlook Park with its pledged $700,200 from the 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act, which is part of the Environmental Restoration Program. Dianne Carleton of the DEC described the program as a “funding mechanism to protect or improve water issues.” These funds join the $2.3 million Restore N.Y. Grant presented to the City in January by former governor Eliot Spitzer for demolition of the factory buildings.
According to a project file of the Ithaca Gun site provided by the New York State Department of Health, demolition is slated to begin in early August.
Optimistically, the new condos could be available for purchase sometime in late 2009 or mid-2010, according to Travis, but he added, “I can tell you the start and complete dates are somewhat of a moving target with respect to development and construction. We won’t know until we’re in the process.”
A Dark History
Evidence gathered during the past decade has indicated the continued presence of a full range of hazardous substances from asbestos, lead and arsenic to mercury, trichloroethylene (TCE) and even uranium, all in “unknown quantities” according to the DEC’s Environmental Site Remediation website in 2007. The levels of contamination have been largely attributed to almost 100 years of manufacturing and testing conducted by the Ithaca Gun Company, which constructed guns and munitions at the site from 1880 until declaring bankruptcy in 1986.
All attempts made in the past 10 years or so by the Environmental Protection Agency, the DEC, the City of Ithaca, representatives of Cornell University and property owners to find a solution for the site have been unsuccessful.
Initially, concern arose that Spitzer’s resignation would once again derail plans for the site, as Spitzer was a major proponent of the Restore N.Y. grant program.
“Certainly that was a concern that went through my head at first,” said City of Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson. “But I quickly realized it was not affecting the day to day work in Albany.”
These prior attempts include the EPA’s $4.8 million “removal action” between 2000 and 2004, which left some areas heavily contaminated and others — including the Fall Creek area below — critically susceptible to re-contamination due to erosion.
According to Beth Totman, Superfund spokesperson for the EPA, a “response team” went in at the behest of the state to deal with contamination that had been deemed an “imminent risk,” not with long-term remediation.
“We were called in to do a removal about four years ago and we finished a removal,” she said.
As late as 2006, research by Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting; The Ithaca Journal; and Myles Gray ’06 revealed that arsenic and lead, the primary contaminants, were present at levels hundreds of times higher than those established by the EPA.
[img_assist|nid=30923|title=Falling into place|desc=The Ithaca Gun factory sits perched above Ithaca Falls, pictured here, and has long been a source of contamination in the area. Now, the site will be cleaned up and turned into condominiums and a park.Courtesy Cornell University|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Totman says the EPA’s involvement with the current project will be minimal.
“[The state] is overseeing all of the work that’s done … but we’re in open communication,” she said. “Such as when they asked for our help in 2000, we try and answer those calls for help. But as for the long term remediation, it’s up to the state and the developers.”
Carleton, who is the regional director for public affairs and education for the DEC, described the Gun Factory site as a “legacy site” – a property cleaned up to state standards in the ’70s and ’80s based on the scientific data available at the time that has since needed to be revisited.
“A number of factors are coming together to clean up the site, knowing what we know now, not 20 or 25 years ago,” she said.
A New Plan
The proposal that aims to be a final resolution for the site is a unique collaboration between the public and private sectors, with help coming from New York State, the City of Ithaca and the development team of Diehl and Travis.
Peterson described the project as, “a two-fold plan.” The Restore N.Y. project involves the building site; its grant will be applied to demolition of the current building, the site’s remediation and the construction of the new development. The DEC’s Environmental Restoration Program, whose funding is intended for public entities such as the City of Ithaca, involves the portions of the site that will make up the Ithaca Falls Overlook Park and its public walkway.
Frost Travis and Diehl plan to transform the building with its crumbling walls, colorful graffiti and iconic smokestack into 33 “high-end condominiums.” This development will be funded by $11 million dollars of the developers’ own contribution as well as from a voluntary clean up program, called the Brownfield Cleanup Program. According to Carleton, this means that once the site is cleaned, the city will no longer be liable and the project will be eligible for certain tax abatements and additional funding.
“The benefits are that you would be taking what’s currently a blighted site and you would be turning it into a productive asset that would generate on the order of $360,000 a year in local tax dollars,” Developer Frost Travis said in response to financial concerns.
The project will also be unique in its attempt to minimize its “carbon footprint,” according to Travis. They aim for an LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold certification by recycling material from the site that is clean enough for reuse.
Despite the site’s proximity to Cornell, the University has not been contacted. The condominiums are not likely to be inhabited by students, as student housing is not allowed by the deed on the property.
Growing Concerns
Support for the multi-faceted project has been positive in comparison to past resolutions, several of which were stalled after meeting opposition from concerned members of the community.
According to Carleton, a possible reason for this opposition is that the complex, technical nature of the project makes it difficult to communicate to the public.
“It can’t be explained at a third grade level,” she said.
Yet residents continue to express concerns over the possible financial burden the resolution might place on the residents of Ithaca, the uncertainty of the site’s full remediation in light of the relatively unknown health hazards that have been and continue to be posed and the possibility for the exacerbation of these hazards during the process, and lastly, the overall representation of community interests in such an intensive project.
Though many have expressed relief at positive solutions for the site, others fear eagerness to speed the project might result in continued negligence during the cleanup phase.
“Air quality monitoring during the demolition, containment of asbestos, which route are the trucks taking, where is the debris going — these are all of course of great concern if you’re a neighbor,” said Travis. “We completely respect the process here and we just have to be patient.”
Jeffrey Hammond of the NYSDH assured that they will be actively involved in all parts of process, working closely with the DEC, the developers, and the community on health precautions and supervision.
“There’s always new information coming up,” Carleton said. “The public needs to understand that as things evolve.”
Finding the Funds
Finances have been a leading factor in the delay for a resolution for the site.
By the current resolution, the DEC’s $700,200 grant only covers 90 percent of the remediation for the areas proposed for the public park and adjacent walkway. The other 10 percent will be provided by Frost Travis and Diehl. In addition to their contributions towards funding for the full remediation of the site and $11, 212,800 towards development cost (of the projected $14,213,000 for the total project funding), Diehl has donated a portion of land for the Ithaca Falls Overlook Park.
If renewed investigation proves — as has been proven before — that contamination has spread off the site to places like Fall Creek, NYS will pay the total cost of remediation — a cost in itself likely to exceed the DEC’s original pledge. Any cleanup costs necessitated by contamination on the private property both directly surrounding and including the gun factory that exceed the $2.3 million pledged by the Restore N.Y. grant will be managed by Diehl’s Fall Creek Redevelopment LLP. Due to the previous $4.8 million efforts of the EPA from 2000 to 2004, concerns remain that the total costs will significantly exceed the pledged $3.02 million of public funding.
Peterson acknowledged that the financial burden of the project “is certainly the concern that has been raised publicly at the meetings: will there be enough money, and that one specific area … was not cleaned up adequately.”
She referenced the recent economic downturn as such a factor that makes the total cost, to some degree, indeterminable before the project’s inception.
“With projections of costs, we certainly know our world has changed, especially in the last 6 months. Cost of gasoline and oil-based products … that alone is something that we’re very aware of,” she said.
According to Peterson, by approving the city’s application, the state accepts responsibility for future allegations regarding remediation of the land. She added that DEC’s restructuring of funds allocation could secure additional money through a different program than the ERP.
“There will be sufficient funds to do the job and more available from DEC to get this clean and clean enough to live on,” said Travis.
“Though no one can guarantee [enough funding], I feel confident that that the state of N.Y. has no intention to leave it hanging like that,” Peterson added.
“As [Site Director] Mr. Lynch said, we can’t promise 100 percent that we’re going to pay,” Carleton said. “We’re committed to cleaning up the site, to the degree that it should be.”
Though Carleton warned “costs always rise,” Peterson also assured the project will not be abandoned due to a shortage of funding.
“I think this is the best opportunity to make this an example of the type of cleanup we would like to see across the U.S.,” she said. “If it’s not enough money, I won’t stop lobbying the state of N.Y. to complete what it started and get funding secured.”
A Community Seeking Involvement
In order to deal appropriately with community concerns, the DEC has organized a Community Advisory Group. According to the NYSDH file, “The purpose of the CAG is to enable citizens affected by the Former Ithaca Gun Factory site to participate more fully in decisions that affect their health and environment.” Many environmental projects are subjected to periods of public input by state law, but it is almost unprecedented for the state to sponsor such a group.
“In terms of our region, this is probably the first one that we’ve done,” Carleton said.
The group represents a diversity of interests and currently consists of a variety of members such as Walter Hang, who is largely responsible for the discovery of the site’s contamination and the subsequent remediation attempts, and Sarah Steuteville, head of the group and a former member of the Natural Areas Commission involved in the vegetating the EPA’s cleanup project in 2000. She is also a resident of Fall Creek. Mark Finkelstein, former owner of the Ithaca Gun property and current owner of the Gun Hill apartments across Lake St., is also a member of the CAG.
“As far as I can tell as a member of the committee, the remediation is going to be done by professionals and with a lot of oversight from the health department and DEC,” said Finkelstein. “So, I’m optimistic it will be done properly.”
Finkelstein explained that the group is in the process of submitting comments to the DEC. It began to meet several months ago and meets several times a week, on average.
“I really do see this as a window of opportunity and I am hoping as a community that we can come together on this and make it happen now,” he said. “If it weren’t to happen now, who knows how long it would take again.”
On the whole, though, the community and local politicians have expressed enthusiasm about the current plans.
“If everything goes well and [the site is] cleaned up properly,” said Peterson, “It will be on the list of things under my administration that I’ve been particularly pleased with.”