ITHACA, N.Y. — As time goes by, places change. Fall Creek, once a solidly working-class neighborhood, is increasingly trendy and well-to-do. The Commons, once plagued with high vacancies and the butt of jokes, is now the humming center of a busy, growing downtown. The same could be said for Cherry Street, along Ithaca’s southern waterfront. Not long ago, it was strictly business, a mix of light and heavy industry.

As the Cherry Street area continues to make its own transition from factories and construction yards to offices, shops and apartments, a longtime fixture is making a transition of its own. The Ben Weitsman steel service center, which operates the scrap metal yard at 105 Cherry Street and the New Steel Service Center across the street at 132 Cherry, will be packing up and moving to a new location outside city lines.

Weitsman, which operates fifteen steel processing and recycling facilities across New York and Pennsylvania, has owned the service center property since 1994 and has leased the scrap yard space for years. Multiple steel recycling and processing companies have called the property home over the past several decades. According to Weitsman Family of Companies CEO Adam Weitsman (Ben Weitsman’s grandson), the strong interest in its waterfront location was a major factor in its decision to relocate.

“The feeling was, because it was on the water, it was a lot better use than a steel facility. The one that we lease is a very antiquated facility, and it is in really rough shape. And if you’re going to be building high-end condos…no one wants to live next to that. It’s outgrown the industrial use of the old days. It’s better to move than having people tell you move,” said Weitsman.

The interest in the Weitsman sites has been clear for a couple of years now. The scrapyard and a storage yard at 110 Cherry Street, which Weitsman has leased for years. The scrapyard was purchased by an LLC associated with Visum Development Group for $455,000 back in a May 2018 auction, and Visum continued to lease the property out to Weitsman. As for the retail and service center that Weitsman owns at 132 Cherry, the property hasn’t officially changed hands, but Visum’s dual-building mixed-use project is planned for the 110 Cherry and 132 Cherry sites.

“I want to be away from the water. Having a business like this next to the water, where there could be an industrial accident…it’s better for us to be not by the water. It’s safer and more environmentally safe to be away from water, and away from people who will be living there,” said Weitsman. He also added that another growing issue over the years has been traffic, both local and commuters.

“The traffic has tripled, maybe quadrupled, since we were originally there. That’s before people were moving there. With the redevelopment of the waterfront, the traffic will only be getting worse, and that’s not a good place to be for our trucks and customers. We still want to be in the region, but that’s not the place for us to be anymore.”

At the very least, Weitsman has received an undisclosed payment in the form of a purchase option, meaning that for a negotiated fee, Weitsman won’t sell to anyone else for a set period, giving time for Visum to bring their project through the planning board. Should Visum be successful, they’d buy the property for whatever price the two firms negotiated when the option was made.

Having the time to plan it and the money to pay for it, Weitsman is currently in the next step of planning its move – the “beautiful” new facility his company plans to build. He did not give an explicit location, and the official press release only said it was in Tompkins County outside the city, but Weitsman gave a few more details during the interview.

“I’m looking in the Lansing area. It would be the same size (as both of the Ithaca facilities) combined, but with a lot more functionality. The scrap is going to be under a roof, and aesthetically it will be beautiful, it won’t look like the scrapyard of the old days. The facility outside the city will be beautiful and fit with our brand.”

The press release was more descriptive in regards to the site plan, though the check-list of features is fairly standard for an industrial facility. “(It will) be brand new construction complete with new buildings, pavement, fencing, landscaping and state-of-the-art equipment.  It will be fully environmentally friendly including stormwater runoff systems, retention pond and other safeguards to ensure that the quality of the air, soil and water are preserved at all times,” said the release.

“Environmental monitoring has also changed in the past 30, 40 years, it’s much more important,” Weitsman added. “When (Cherry Street) was Wallace Steel, then Riemer, it was huge mountains of scrap just sitting there. Now, we don’t keep scrap on-site for more than one day, we ship it out. In the old days, it was a processing facility, now it’s a transfer facility. We do very, very little processing there and the new facility will be the same.”

According to Weitsman, the Lansing property he’s looking at is already zoned to allows for his industrial operation. He hopes to have site plans submitted within the next 90 days, with construction to start before the end of the year. Although the combined facility will be similar in size to the total square footage of the current pair, Weitsman predicted that the easier access would lead to more regional business and additional hiring, noting that COVID has not significantly impacted the steel recycling and processing business beyond new health and safety protocols.

While moving can be a hassle, Weitsman sought to make clear that he wasn’t begrudging the mayor or the city for the new interest in the waterfront. It was a matter of what worked best for his business and how it best fit in the local community.

“I just love the area. My hometown is Owego, I spent a lot of time in Ithaca, I’m there all the time. I just always wanted to have a presence in that area. But the environment is very important to me, and this move will help spur on that redevelopment the city wants. It allows me to be a good neighbor, it’s good for Ithaca and it’s good for the company.”

Brian Crandall

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