Ithaca’s waterfront along the Cayuga Lake inlet has been a place of transition for centuries — once Cayuga Nation land, a trade hub in the days of the Erie Canal, and an industrial hub.
Now, City Harbor, a 158,000 square foot waterfront housing complex with public recreation amenities, is sending the area along the Cayuga inlet into yet another era.
According to Costa Lambrou, of Ithaca-based Lambrou Real Estate, work on the site will begin in two to three months, after the project acquires final municipal approval.
“Literally the day after they’re approved, we’ll begin construction,” Lambrou said.
The project is capitalizing on the City of Ithaca’s Waterfront Plan, passed in November 2019, which rezoned the area to allow for mixed-use real estate, larger developments and increasing lot coverage. The plan seeks to strengthen Ithaca’s role as a social and economic force in the broader Tompkins County area, provide more housing opportunities and reduce vehicle traffic within the city.
After the waterfront became an industrial hub and then a recreational area, “the one thing we were missing was housing and mixed use areas,” said Lisa Nicholas, Ithaca’s deputy director of planning.
The majority of the waterfront area targeted for development is located within Ithaca’s second ward, extending a few blocks east toward downtown, according to the area maps used in the Waterfront Plan. This housing will be a part of the West End neighborhood, which is filled with restaurants, music venues and scenic views.
According to Lambrou, City Harbor will include 156 one and two bedroom residential units, boating and golfing amenities, a promenade, additional parking for the Ithaca Farmers Market, parks and a medical center. The project is expected to create 75-100 full time jobs, Lambrou said.
But some, like Alderperson George McGonigal (D-2nd Ward), are apprehensive about the scale of the changes planned for the waterfront area.
“The West End historically is where you go for live music and cheaper entertainment than downtown,” McGonigal told The Sun. “It’s kind of a townie area, that whole vibe is becoming — for a lack of a better word — gentrified.”
The developers of City Harbor purchased The Haunt, a live music venue which they intend to knock down, according to McGonigal.
“People aren’t too happy about that one,” he said.
McGonigal said that the waterfront area used to be a section of Ithaca where people often started small businesses. Now, he said, the drastically increasing rents have put an end to that reputation.
“I think a lot of the development that’s being proposed and planned is supersized,” McGonigal said. “I think development on a smaller scale gives the opportunity for more local businesses to get involved, and will be on a more human scale that fits the West End and the waterfront much better.”
The City Harbor project will be the first major residential waterfront development in Ithaca, according to Heather McDaniel, president of Tompkins County Area Development. TCAD, a not-for-profit economic development organization, works to increase Ithaca’s tax base by incentiving development.
The developers of City Harbor — Morse Project Management, Bridges Cornell Heights, Lambrou Real Estate and Edger Enterprises — reached out to TCAD to help ease the financial transition.
For two decades, TCAD has helped several developments in Ithaca phase into their property taxes, including The Hilton Garden Inn and Center Ithaca. According to McDaniel, the recent developments in downtown Ithaca have boosted the city’s tax base by around $90 million in the past seven years.
When City Harbor begins paying property taxes, it will be at the tax rate of that land before development. Over the next seven years, City Harbor will pay $2.3 million, saving $4.7 million of what they would have paid in property taxes without the tax abatement, according to McDaniel.
McDaniel said that these abatements are more conservative than those given in other parts of New York state, where some industrial development agencies will abate all taxes for as much as a development’s first 15 years.
“We consider ourselves pretty good stewards of the public’s tax dollars,” McDaniel told The Sun.
According to McDaniel, part of the necessity of tax abatements is that many of the amenities that City Harbor offers the public — such as the promenade, public parking and parks — will cost money to build, but will not generate revenue.
Lambrou said that City Harbor is largely motivated by the prospect of attracting new Ithacans.
“This project will be aimed at this baby boomer generation and returning alum[ni],” Lambrou said, adding that an increasing number of alumni are renting apartments in Ithaca years after attending Cornell.
“They kind of fall back in love with Ithaca — especially in the summer,” Lambrou said.