ITHACA, N.Y. –– For the city of Ithaca, it’s a fortunate problem to have, if a tough one. Two local developers are vying for a city-owned parcel of land on Inlet Island, each seeking to build out the undeveloped property and complement the growing interest in Ithaca’s waterfront.

The land in question is along the 400 and 500 blocks of Taughannock Boulevard, which currently consists of five land parcels hosting a large surface parking lot, boat storage, and the U.S. Coast Guard station in the New York State-owned former DEC building. Much of what used to be there was destroyed in the era of 1960s urban renewal, and the city has harbored aspirations of a developer buying the land and developing a waterfront-friendly mixed-use project on the site since the 1990s.

The first proposal, shared with the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s Economic Development Committee last Tuesday, comes from developers Steve Flash and Jeff Rimland, collectively operating as “Finger Lakes Development LLC”. Flash, a partner in the nearby Boathouse Landing project with Arnot Realty, originally proposed a five-story hotel for the Taughannock properties back in 2007. However, that project was shot down late in the review process by the Common Council, citing zoning incompatibilities and concerns over size and impact.

Since that time, a waterfront-specific development plan has been completed by the city, and the zoning has been updated such that it would allow developments similar to Flash’s original hotel plan. Rimland is new to the waterfront, but holds a stake in the downtown Ithaca Marriott, as well as the $64 million Ithacan mixed-use tower approved by the Planning Board last month.

The Flash/Rimland proposal calls for four apartment buildings (B-E), a fifth building with apartments over ground-floor retail (F), a marina storage and boat repair building (A), and the regular complement of non-structural parking/landscaping/site plan improvements (Building G is not described in the filing, but may be a continuation of the existing Finger Lakes Boating Center). The waterfront trail would receive upgrades in lighting and seating, and new boat slips would be installed along the shoreline. The Boatyard Grill restaurant would not be altered.

The largely-residential proposal would host about 90 apartments in total, 20% of which would be set aside as workforce housing priced to be affordable to those making 80% of area median income. The apartment buildings would have covered ground-level parking, and the site would host surface parking for the restaurant and neighboring businesses – deed restrictions on the property maintain that at least 80 parking spaces must be aside for use by customers of other businesses on Inlet Island.

The second proposal, as offered up during the public comment of the IURA EDC meeting, comes courtesy of local developer Lincoln Morse. Morse was one of the co-developers of the new GreenStar and is behind the WaterWorks project planned on the 300 Block of Taughannock Boulevard.

According to Morse, this started when his business partner Jody Denman saw an explosion of business this year at Puddledockers, a kayak, canoe and paddle board boat rental service, thanks to people escaping the cities during the spring wave of the pandemic and seeking refuge in the more remote Finger Lakes. Puddledockers doubled in size to 110 boats, and increased staff to accommodate the sudden growth.

To Morse, that demonstrated the potential of waterfront-focused tourism in Ithaca, serving as an attraction from major cities within a five-hour drive. “Cayuga Lake is a real, driving mecca. People were asking why Ithaca didn’t have a waterfront hotel. Ithaca’s the only major community on the Finger Lakes without one. We have beautiful hotels. But people from Manhattan don’t want to look out and see asphalt. They want to see Cayuga Lake.”

Morse’s plan, being designed by Noah Demarest of local architecture firm STREAM Collaborative, calls for a $33 million, five-story 110-room hotel. In fact, Morse stated that he already has a deal with Choice Hotels International for that hotel to be branded under their upscale Cambria Hotel division, should it be approved and start construction on the waterfront within the next two years. Choice Hotels has been scouting around Ithaca for a Cambria site for at least a year, and found the waterfront idea quite appealing – “literally before we could finish the presentation, they said we want in,” said Morse. “The waterfront’s alive now and the private equity is out there. People are calling and asking what’s being built, people want to invest here.”

Along with the hotel would be boat storage and repair facilities, just as the new Flash/Rimland proposal has. The Morse plan also has housing, but instead of 72 market-rate and 18 workforce units at 80% AMI, Morse is proposing 42 workforce units at 80% AMI, housed in two buildings. The project also maintains the necessary parking needed for the hotel, housing, and the 80 spaces for neighboring businesses. On the waterfront, the project enhances the waterfront trail, and adds facilities for water taxis, dinner boats, and slips and docks for recreational boaters.

“We need to put Ithacans here, the people who work at GreenStar and who will work at the hotel. We have enough market-rate housing units, it’s time to bring people to spend their money here. We can create a mecca for tourism and leisure, and be that destination within five hours of major cities. Something great is going to come out of this, it’s just going to take a little time to get it.”

Ownership statuses on Inlet island. Pink-shaded land is the city of Ithaca and the IURA. Orange is owned by New York State. Blue is land owned by Lincoln Morse. Green is land owned by Steve Flash.

However, there is one major obstacle to the Morse proposal. The hotel doesn’t want to be a part of the deal unless the Finger Lakes Boating Center is reconfigured to store boats on another part of Inlet Island and opens up waterfront access directly to the east. But Flash, the competing developer for the site, owns the boating center, shown in dark green above. In his plan, he already wants to move boat storage and repair to Building “A”, next to Route 89.

Morse and Demarest say they would be happy to work together with him on that. The Boatyard Grill would be unaffected, and Flash’s land not directly abutting the hotel could be developed however he likes. So if he’s willing to work together, they could do a hotel, workforce housing by Morse, market-rate housing by Flash and Rimland, and all the wonderful waterfront and on-the-water features they both want. But that’s for them to figure out, if they want to.

Now, that’s all well and good. But if those development teams are the drivers, then the IURA is the one holding the car keys, and there’s a lot that needs to be figured out first. “When that (hotel) proposal was declined by Common Council in 2007, there was still in place a preferred developer agreement. It’s not exclusive, but it is a preferred developer agreement. It didn’t have an end date,” said Chris Proulx, a former city councilor and the chair of the IURA’s Economic Development Committee.

While Flash presented his plan on Tuesday, Proulx said Morse will likely present his next month. “There’s no waterfront lodging in Ithaca, so when you consider a city of our size, it’s a little unusual. Whether or not that will be an IURA consideration, I’m not sure.”

“We are going to propose to the IURA board at the November 23rd meeting that we the IURA to issue a public Request For Expression of Interest (RFEI) to provide an opportunity to any other developer to present their development concept to the IURA. By requesting concept plans, the IURA can evaluate plans for whether they merit advancement for possible Common Council approval or maintain the status quo use of IURA/City lands on Inlet Island. The RFEI process will allow any other developer to come forward with a competing idea, heading off any future complaints that they were frozen out of the opportunity,” said Proulx.

Another factor in all this debate is that not all the land is government-owned is under the IURA’s control. The state has previous expressed interest in transferring ownership of the former DEC building to the city if the city wants it. But two of the four parcels that comprise the city’s holdings are technically owned by the city directly, rather than the IURA. To transfer them to the IURA would require a vote by Common Council – or in other words, if they don’t like any project, they could effectively stop it with a collective “no” vote, just as they did with Flash’s hotel plan thirteen years ago. Proulx said they intend to talk to Council to see what they are “willing to entertain” before the projects get ahead of themselves.

“The goal is to figure out what’s the better use of inlet island given the constraints. Something can happen there, if not as fast as everybody wants it. The whole waterfront could be transformed within 4-5 years, so that’s why it’s so important to get the public engaged, and that in whatever we do here has the appropriate opportunities for the public to weigh in. Maintaining waterfront access, viewsheds, managing parking without overbuilding parking, and affordable housing are all important. You don’t want to just drop some monolithic project here. It’s all part of the design consideration, and getting more public engagement early is helpful.”

As Proulx alluded to, none of this is happening overnight – even if a plan is selected in the near term, neither project intends to start work until late 2022 at the earliest – the Rimland proposal suggested the summer or fall of 2022, and Morse was thinking the second half of 2022 as well, after his WaterWorks project is completed (WaterWorks would be two phases, with the north building 2020-21, and the south building 2021-22, to keep Puddledockers operating while construction takes place).

Nevertheless, the proposals are a sign that, even in the uncertain times of this pandemic, Ithaca’s long-incubating dreams of making Inlet Island into a mixed-use destination are taking hold. Or perhaps to keep with the nautical theme here, that boat has sailed into port and it’s ready to dock.

Brian Crandall

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