ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca’s waterfront development plan has received much attention as of late. One of the things missing from that interest, however, are affordable apartments. Local businessman G. Lincoln “Linc” Morse hopes to change that.

Morse, the owner of the Morse Project Management construction firm, shared plans with the Ithaca Planning Board last week for a two-building infill project at 313-317 and 321 Taughannock Boulevard. The mixed-use commercial and residential development is the product of a development team that includes Morse, businesswomen Jodi Denman and Sue Manning, along with architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative.

Currently, 313 Taughannock is a single family home, 317 is a print shop-turned variety store, and 321 is the rather curious-looking wood-sided building used for boat launching. Morse’s investor group acquired 313 and 317 earlier this year for $450,000, and 321 was purchased for $425,000 at the end of September. (For those who like Kelly’s Dockside, the project is on either side of Kelly’s but does not include Kelly’s.)

Morse stated the the WaterWorks project seeks to achieve two goals. “The first is to create a project that can deliver workforce housing on the water. Taughannock Boulevard is about to transform into a vibrant waterfront community. We already have developments producing market rate housing. We want to support the backbone of Ithaca’s economic engine with an affordable option. Water Works will fulfill that niche”.

“The second goal of WaterWorks is to help support active/healthy water access businesses. Ithaca has an amazing opportunity to enhance tourism in our region. Water Works has a catchline that reads “Explore – Experience – Excite”. This mission will be supported by Puddledockers, Ithaca Water Taxi and I-Boat dinner cruises,” said Morse.

Design-wise, the buildings, penned by Noah Demarest, are intended to blend with their surroundings.

“I guess one might call it ‘transitional shingle style’ or something like that. We intend to blend simple traditional forms with some contemporary detailing. We will look for opportunities to incorporate historical references to the past industrial buildings that lined the inlet and try to be as respectful of the remaining historic buildings on Inlet Island like the Lehigh Valley House, the Lehigh Valley train station, and the Sign Works building,” said Demarest.

The two structures are fraternal twins; while similar in style, 313 Taughannock is a little bigger than 321 Taughannock. As a result, 313 hosts all two-bedroom units, and 321 a mix of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units.

As planned, the project would together host 18 apartments above ground-level retail spaces. 30-50% of those (in effect, 6-9) would be earmarked as affordable housing, which is generally regarded as 60-120% of area median income (AMI), but focused around 80% AMI. It’s a step above the typical affordable housing unit, but below market rate. To help cover the costs of building below-market-rate units, the project team plans to seek grant dollars from the joint city-county-Cornell Community Housing Development Fund (CHDF) for affordable housing.

The other major component of the project is the “platform to support recreational boating”. The buildings will host facilities for a water taxi service and dinner cruises out on Cayuga Lake in the warmer months. Morse foresees partnerships with other local businesses and with City Harbor, a project in development further down the inlet in which he serves as a co-developer.

“The WaterWorks development team believes that City Harbor and other waterfront projects will enhance the success of WaterWorks businesses. We can see our small dinner boats picking up guests at the City Harbor dock and having its restaurant cater the cruise. We want all our dinner boats to use all the local restaurants for catering. We will support the restaurants and anticipate they will want to support I-Boat Dinner Cruises. We are also excited to point out that many of the WaterWorks vessels are electric!” Morse added that tentative agreements are already in place to fully occupy the commercial space on the ground level of both buildings.

Now, you might be wondering why these are only three floors; after all, the zoning along the waterfront was recently upzoned to allow up to five floors. The answer comes down to the soil, which is waterlogged, easily compressed, and has bedeviled a number of waterfront projects in recent years. A taller building is a heavier building, and needs a stronger foundation. With the poor soils of Inlet Island, that would mean a deep foundation, which is expensive and often cost-prohibitive for anyone except bigger, more deeply-pocketed developers.

That’s something project architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative is all-too-familiar with; it held up the apartments he designed at neighboring 323 Taughannock for years, and the developer had to pursue a complete redesign for that site. These three-story structures are light enough to use the same treated timber pile foundation that 323 uses; when left unexposed to air, the timber piles can last well over a hundred years. Three floors also means the project doesn’t need an expensive elevator as state building code would require for any new structure with four or more floors.

“The building designs are based on a common prototype for single-exit three-story walkup apartments that work really well for workforce housing. There is a ground floor accessible unit and then a maximum of four units each on the second and third floors…We tested different layouts for the buildings on the properties and it is nice that we were able to maximize the waterfront views, but not put all of the parking on the street side, because we rotated 313 to be perpendicular to the street. This creates some variety to help define the street wall, and we will further reinforce the street wall with screening and plantings to soften the parking areas,” said Demarest.

“WaterWorks is being designed to deliver workforce housing on the waterfront. STREAM Collaborative has been working on a “buildable prototype” that capitalizes on construction efficiencies. Morse Project Management will use its construction experience to implement these efficiencies. Workforce housing is a difficult market to deliver, but the development team is committed to the task,” said Morse.

The plan would be to build both buildings at the same time, ideally for an opening in late spring 2021. As Morse quipped, “[t]he water waits for no one!”

However, it will need to wait for the city planning board to continue its review of the project. Demarest said they are meeting with the planning department to review the project, and presuming that goes well, formal Site Plan Review would follow over the next few months.

Brian Crandall

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