ITHACA, NY – “It’s not our intent to create controversy,” said Phil Maguire, President of the Maguire Family of Dealerships. “We have a need for expansion and upgraded facilities. We have a lot of customers and employees who we care a lot about.”

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The controversy is over Maguire’s proposal for a car dealership on Carpenter Circle, just north of Route 13 near the Farmer’s Market. The long-rumored project was formally announced in a press release earlier this month.

Since officially opening in 1991, the business park has yet to bring in a true tenant, a testament to the difficulties the site poses for potential businesses and developers. The railroad passes nearby, there’s only one access road, the soils are tough to build on, and the power lines’ right-of-way prevent permanent structures from occupying their space. But Maguire insists that he’s very interested in the site, even with all of its obstacles.

“Carpenter Business Park has been on our radar for years,” said Maguire. “It is a nice retail location but has never been developed due to all of its idiosyncrasies. Our proposed usage works well with those.”

On that much, city of Ithaca Planning Director JoAnn Cornish agrees. “He is absolutely right. The site has a lot of issues. The only thing you can do under those lines is parking. It is hemmed in by the railroad. The city put in the road, sidewalks, curbing anticipating development, but it’s been 25 years and we haven’t had any development there. Housing construction there is difficult, certainly. The previous owner had always envisioned an industrial park focused on the trades, plumbers and electricians and the like.”

Both Maguire and Cornish concur that the site as-is is a challenge. The difference comes in how each sees a car dealership with fitting in with the evolving vision the city has for a waterfront.

Maguire says his “Ithaca-inspired” dealership is not only a tax generator and a job producer, but that it also aligns with the city’s goals of increased density, and development of underutilized space. “Yes, I think we fit. Our proposed design embraces the vision, especially in the Enterprise zone where Carpenter Business Park is. We would add density as the property is currently undeveloped. The term ‘mixed use’ used for the entire district calls for a blend of different development projects from commercial retail sites to housing.”

Cornish, however, while appreciative of the jobs Maguire would create, isn’t so sure that the project qualifies as mixed-use. “You know, they presented a very balanced argument for why this is a good location. Some of those things are important – the tax revenue, and the jobs, they’re high-paying. All of those things are very interesting, and we’ve wanted [the business park] developed for many years. We did not anticipate a car dealership, we had always hoped for mixed-use. Some housing, some commercial, even an industrial proposal, which would have been great for creating jobs. A car dealership is not what we thought what would happen there.”

So that’s where the meat of the debate lies – not with the project itself, which by both perspectives offers many benefits for the community. The question boils down to whether it’s the best way to invigorate Ithaca’s vacant and underdeveloped properties on and near its waterfront.

The city’s 2015 Comprehensive Plan calls for a major redevelopment of the Waterfront and the West End, with a more walkable environment of apartments and condos mixed in among shops, offices, and restaurants. It’s a major departure from the current states of those neighborhoods, which are mostly low-density businesses and warehouses divided by multiple lanes of traffic.

“We’re doing a waterfront master plan right now from Fulton Street and Meadow up to Johnson’s boatyard, we really haven’t taken advantage of the waterfront as a city and we’re trying to come up with a plan we’d like to move forward with,” said Cornish.  “We’re hoping to have a revitalization of the waterfront. The Maguires [happen to] fall in this period of study.”

For the Maguires, it seems to be unfortunate timing, a problem they’re all too familiar with from their now-cancelled proposal to build a headquarters and new dealerships in the town of Ithaca off of Route 13 and Seven Mile Drive.  “The town seemed very interested in our project, and at the time the Ithaca town board offered to accommodate us through their PDZ process. Unfortunately that wouldn’t work due to timing constraints and potential limitations. We were under contract on multiple pieces of property from multiple owners. The contingencies and timelines in those contracts were problematic. So in a nut shell, when they were not willing to entertain a zoning change, we got cold feet and backed out,” explained Maguire.

Coming back to the present, the big debate appears to be the likely prospect of the city passing the Temporary Mandatory Planned Unit Development (TM-PUD) ordinance that would force the project to be approved or denied not only by the Planning Board, but the Common Council. The law is expected to go up for Common Council vote at their March meeting.

According to Cornish, “[The Maguires] would have to abide by the TM-PUD, and the proposal will go to Common Council. The Council will have to decide whether they agree with it or don’t agree with it. We’ll have to work it out with the Maguires to make the project conform to what the council and city wants.”

Maguire is cautious, if optimistic. “It is a powerful piece of legislation that I remain hopeful and encouraged about, under the assumption it goes as publicly described. If they use the PUD process to provide more flexibility and oversight under the posted definitions and original intentions, great. If it is used to hinder or block projects that comply under existing zoning, then it would be arbitrary and capricious in nature. I am sure it wasn’t intended to strip every property owner close to the inlet from Cherry Street to Johnson’s boatyard of their existing zoning rights.”

For all the debate over whether or not Carpenter Circle is a good fit, both Maguire and Cornish are adamant that car dealerships have a place in the community just like other businesses.

“We should have the opportunity to invest in the community we love, on property we own,” stressed Maguire. “We still have a need for our business, we still have to go somewhere. We’re deeply invested in Ithaca and we want to do what’s best for the community.”

Cornish expressed similar sentiment. “It’s really all a balance. I’ve worked with the Maguires for a long time, they’re good people. It has to go somewhere. If it’s here, let’s make it the best it can be. If it’s not here, let’s help them find a location that works. We’d like to see their expansion needs met.”

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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.