Ithaca, N.Y. — A $200,000 plan to improve the public park by the Ithaca Falls was tabled at City Hall Wednesday night after several members of the city’s council raised both environmental and financial concerns about the project.
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The improvements to the Lake Street Bridge Public Park — which include new bike racks, better signage and a new sidewalk — comes as the city also rehabilitates the Lake Street Bridge.
Mayor Svante Myrick said the city should improve the beloved Ithaca Falls, which he called a wonder of the world, in part to make it a more attractive tourist attraction.
“I think it would be a mistake not to invest in the falls,” Myrick said. “If you were visiting Ithaca you would think: ‘How short sighted the folks are here that they did not invest (in the falls).’”
But the plan was scuttled — for now at least — after several members of the Common Council raised objections about environmental hazards and finances.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock expressed strong reservations about possible spillover of environmental contamination from the current remediation of the former Ithaca Gun Factory. That site is directly above the falls, and the city shouldn’t be encouraging people to visit the falls without first knowing that the area is free from contamination and safe for children, Brock said.
“Why aren’t we testing in the public recreational area (to which) we are planning to invite visitors and family and so on?,” Brock said.
“We take people there and we show it off — the least we should do is test to see if it’s re-contaminated. That testing has not been done.”
Brock said the Department of Environmental Conservation has confirmed lead contamination at the Ithaca Gun site. She added there’s no clear safeguards to prevent spillover from the Gun site to the falls below.
“You can visit the site, walk to the base of the waterfall and see the orange ‘fence’ which is pathetically tied to the trees and shrubs to ‘protect’ people from the rock (and tree) fall resulting from the removal of lead contamination above,” Brock said in a follow-up email.
Brock also questioned whether it made sense to encourage people to visit an area where numerous swimming deaths have occurred. “These improvements would formally invite people to the area, and this comes with additional responsibility and oversight to make sure people did not swim … beneath the falls,” Brock said.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, Alderperson JR Clairborne said Brock raised good points that merited closer examination.
“I think we do need to take up our responsibility and make sure that area is safe,” he said. “Cynthia brings up a good point about the whole thing about the contamination above.”
Alderperson George McGonigal raised another question: Should the city be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars so soon after passing a budget that saw most residents’ overall tax burdens increase?
Like Myrick, Alderperson Seph Murtagh said he thought investing in the falls was a worthwhile and valuable initiative. But he said Brock and McGonigal’s questions had to be addressed.
“I think they’re really legitimate concerns,” Murtagh said.
Similarly, at City Hall, after the council members raised their objections, Mayor Myrick agreed that council should be provided with more information.
“.. I think it’s worth getting the answers to some of council’s questions,” he said.