ITHACA, N.Y. — At Tuesday evening’s city Planning Board meeting, another long-quiet project will be looking to move forward.

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As a “Special Order of Business,” the would-be developers of the former Emerson Power Transmission plant, using the project name of “Chain Works District”, will be presenting a document to the city called a “Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement” (DGEIS) as well as hashing out a schedule to review, revise and approve the statement.

What a DGEIS does is evaluate the potential impacts of growth on local resources and facilities, such as traffic, water supply systems, utilities infrastructure, social and aesthetic impacts. The DGEIS, which will need to be finalized, is part of New York State’s Enviromental Quality Review (SEQR, pronounced “seeker”) and a necessary precursor to any planned/contemplated construction and development of the site.

It will take some time to go through the DGEIS, and there will be an opportunity this spring for public comment. The Emerson parcel, located at 620 South Aurora Street on South Hill, may quite possibly be the single most complicated piece of land in the county. The steeply-sloped 95-acre site is home to a former 800,000 SF factory (that’s about 14 football fields), divided between the city and town of Ithaca, and is in need of extensive environmental remediation as a result of decades of toxic chemical use.

The factory was first built as Morse Chain in 1906, focusing originally on bike chains and horse carriage springs before moving on to drive chains, timing belts and transmission components for cars and trucks. Over the years, the factory expanded; a secondary production line for cash registers eventually evolved into National Cash Register, which built a plant for itself just a little further up the hill. By the early 1980s, Borg Warner decided to move the transmission plant to a new Lansing facility, and sold the plant to Emerson. In 2009, Emerson announced it would close the plant, and the last employees stepped off the property in 2011. The plant, which once employed thousands, now looms silently over the city.

To make matters worse, in the mid 20th century, the factory used trichloroehylene (TCE), a chemical solvent, to remove “cutting oils” from metalwork. The carcinogenic chemical that not only contaminates the site, it leached into the soil and was carried down South Hill. Emerson is classified as Class 2 Superfund site, which the NYS DEC describes as “a significant threat to public health and/or the environment and requiring action”. Remedialwork to fully contain site contamination is expected to cost Emerson millions, especially since residential uses have more stringent clean-up standards. The DEC will be required to sign off on any residential plans in order to move forward.

The current plan, proposed by David Lubin and his company UnChained Properties LLC, calls for cleanup of the site, and the creation of a live/work/play neighborhood on the site – the proposal calls for office space, artists studios, workshops, residential loft-style units, and a generous smattering of open-spaces in the form of courtyards and terraces, created by the removal of some of the newer factory additions. The Gateway Trail will run through the site, and the old factory buildings will host some amenities, like event/concert space and a cafe.

More information about the overall project can be found in a a previous Voice article here, and the developer offers an FAQ on their website here.

The last public meetings were held in late 2014; the final scoping document was produced in January of last year, and so for the last year a cadre of architecture, planning and environmental firms has been designing its plan of action for cleaning and reuse of the site.

Plans call for four phases of work once the cleanup is completed. The first phase calls for renovations of four buildings on site – Buildings 21 and 24 would be renovated into 179,000 SF of mixed commercial and residential space, and Buildings 33 and 34 would be renovated into 171,000 SF of modern industrial/manufacturing space.

Later phases would focus on renovations of the other buildings and possible new buildings on the property. Any new buildings are at least five years out, and the whole process is anticipated to take anywhere from ten to fifteen years.

If the city planning board consents to the schedule provided in the document, then it and the town planning board will spend the next 45 days reviewing the DGEIS and tweaking it so that they think it covers everything adequately.

On March 9th, the revised DGEIS would be presented to the Planning Committee of the city Common Council to start discussion on zoning changes, and the public hearing is scheduled for March 29th, with the comment period left open until May 7th.

UnChained Properties would respond and address those comments through May and June, and once the developer, the city and town believe the public commentary has been answered properly, a final GEIS (GFEIS) would be submitted at a date sometime afterward.

It’s going to be a long and complex process, but the excitement of taking back a polluted and dead part of the city could very well make up for it.

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Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.