ITHACA, N.Y. –– On the one hand, industrialist Sean Whittaker should be happy. Incodema, the company he founded two decades ago, is spreading its wings. It’s grown slowly but steadily enough that the time has come for new digs with more space to handle the custom sheet metal projects they’ve excelled at for years.

On the other hand, it also creates a problem. The move to 1920 Slaterville Road in Dryden is all well and good, it makes reuse of a large facility that’s been vacant for years and will allow them to grow further and add more jobs. But that doesn’t do a thing for 407 Cliff Street, which Whittaker owns. The 20,000 square-foot industrial office and metalworking facility Incodema’s vacating doesn’t exactly have a waiting list of tenants; for reasons covered before, larger industrial facilities aren’t in high demand in the city of Ithaca.

So what’s one to do? Well, when you’re working with developer Lincoln Morse and architect Noah Demarest, there are options. Quirky options, to put it politely.

Linc Morse, the owner of Strategic Elements Real Estate Development, retells the story with great enthusiasm. “Sean Whittaker says ‘Alright Linc, you’re moving Incodema to Slaterville Road, and I’ll let them out of their lease, but what are you going to do with my building on Cliff Street that makes me smile?’ He said he’ll stay in as a (business) partner, but he wants to see something creative, something that inspires the neighborhood. Noah and I really wrestled this for a while.”

“But then we looked at the attributes. Go up to the site. It overlooks all the water of the Inlet, it overlooks Inlet Island. It has an iconic view of Cornell, sits on top of the Black Diamond Trail, the Waterfront Trail, and really is a residential neighborhood. That unleashed all these ideas for us.”

The result of that brainstorming is a renovation project called the “Cliff Street Retreat”. It really is an unusual combination of uses beyond the traditional retreat center. There are about ten or so hotel rooms, most with terraces overlooking the lake, with a conference room and support space. There are four studio loft apartments, also with terraces. There’s space for a food-and-beverage space, which Morse pitched as a neighborhood cafe or bar. There’s an office suite and about 3,900 square feet of retail, divided up into roughly 650 square-foot boutique storefronts facing Cliff Street. Truly, it’s a hodgepodge of uses, a project doesn’t get more “mixed-use” than this.

“I believe a small retreat center where team-building and things that Cornell and local community groups could use has a real value to it,” said Morse. “This idea of a retreat center along with stays that could be from a week to a month, like a visiting nurse at Cayuga Medical Center, the whole idea of the retreat center really gained some traction with Noah and I. Something very unique, something Ithaca quirky.”

“I learned from the kayak shop on Buffalo Street – Route 96, you could sell ice cubes to the Inuits in these high-density traffic areas. That’s why we’ve borne retail and the showroom windows there, so it just…we want to do everything there. It has an office, it has retail, it has a maker space, loft apartments, and all of these items will be better than the use that it is now. Not that Incodema’s a bad entity, it’s really not. But this is right in the middle of a neighborhood. So what could we do to promote the neighborhood? This is what we came up with. It’s everything,” Morse added, beaming.

There’s also a legal reason to try and pursue this strange melange of uses. The site only allows two uses by zoning code, industrial (grandfathered in) and residential. Unlike much of the urban corridor, this part of the city has not been rezoned to allow for mixed-uses. It is also extremely difficult to get a use variance from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to deploy other activities like on-site retail space. As a result, the project has to make its own site zoning, the Planned Unit Development (PUD).

Noah Demarest is the principal of the STREAM Collaborative architecture firm downtown and a partner in the Cliff Street project. Compared to Morse’s effusive and broad descriptions, Demarest is like the comedian’s straight man, with a more subdued demeanor than his business partner as he filled in the blanks and provided the technical details.

“Part of what’s driving that is the necessity for a PUD. It has no choice, we have to. Use variances (from the BZA) are nearly impossible. In terms of having to go for a PUD for literally anything we want to put in there, it makes sense to make it as diverse as possible when going for that ask, because we don’t know who all the tenants might be, so let’s ask for all the flexibility possible. The building will take a different shape in the interior as tenants are figured out – there might be more maker space, or a couple more loft apartments because they may end up being more stable than the short-term rental situation. We’re just asking for as much flexibility as possible, to make it into a community asset and something the entire community and visitors can access,” said Demarest.

So here’s the one big caveat with PUDs – you get to make your own zoning, yes. However, you have to demonstrate your project has a substantial community benefit. The proof of that is that the project has to be approved by a majority vote of the Ithaca Common Council, as well as the Planning Board. Some credence is given by other members of Council to its ward members for in which that project lies, as they should know their neighborhood the best. Cliff Street is in the first ward, and regular readers of the Voice know First Ward Councilors Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal have never been big proponents of development in Ithaca.

However, Morse describes having nothing short of a positive experience when introducing the project to them. “We did reach out to some local Common Council members that have a local vested interest in that neighborhood. This surprised me a little, but we had a really positive reaction from our ward members there. Cynthia Brock is a real paddle craft expert, she restored her Hawaiian racing kayaks in one of my shops and she has a love of boats and water like I do. She doesn’t share her personal life a lot, but that’s the common ground she and I have. And George is an original rebel Ithacan just like me. I used to make my payroll in Captain Joe’s Reef when I had all my hair and was a young contractor. We promoted the idea of this little café or bar in there, and Noah and I weren’t sure how that would be reacted to, and Cynthia and George loved it. We wanted that forever!”

“Yeah, I was surprised. George did express concern about the loss of industry, and it’s a valid point. But having said that, the only way industry would be viable (at that site) would be if we had a waiting list of people saying ‘hey, I want to take the whole space as an industrial user and move right in’, and it would have to be someone who’s not going to just outgrow it in a few years. Not impossible, but a real gamble. It’s just a different business model,” added Demarest.

Both Morse and Demarest stressed that for neighbors on West Hill, the project would be a net positive over the current uses. There would be no tractor-trailers coming in and out 6-7 times a day. The overall traffic generated would be similar, but instead of spiking with the shift changes of Incodema’s workers, it would be more steady during the day. Also, the building would be getting a major aesthetic overhaul, with storefront canopies, flags, landscaping, and an almost-new building. Perhaps the only thing staying the same is the structure itself, as the entire envelope is rebuilt to Ithaca Energy Code Supplement (Green Building Policy) standards. The project will use insulated glass, metal panels, and real wood trim.

“The embodied energy in adaptive reuse makes it worth it. We could in theory do a lot more, knock it down. But we think it’s a relatively small ask, to be able to convert it for what we want to do,” said Demarest.

As planned, the PUD application will go in this week and will take a couple of months to review and potentially be approved. After the first PUD-related meeting, the project can also begin Site Plan Review with the Planning Board. The goal is to have the approval to begin renovations by late summer.

“We’re working on a project that improves a neighborhood icon. We want to check every box we can to reintroduce the Cliff Street Retreat and every project we do will be an economic engine and actually please the people of Ithaca,” said Morse.

Should the project obtain approval, it means Morse could be a very busy man about town. There would be the Cliff Street Retreat here. His involvement with Puddledockers. Both phases of Water Works. His bid for the IURA property, should it be selected. Other projects are also in the works.

“All these projects are tied together. Inlet Island is going to become the mecca, the magnetic hub of all economic water business in Ithaca. It’s an island, in the middle of Ithaca! It therefore should be about boats. Just my opinion. All boat manufacturers under 30 feet have sold out until late 2022. When the dust settles…there’s a lot of money being spent in recreation, it’s a very viable industry. People are buying a lot of toys.” Morse then held up his cell phone. “People were telling me if we could just get rid of digital world and introduce bikes, kayaks, and things that could make families talk instead of text, we think Ithaca could really promote something.”

Demarest was similarly enthusiastic about the waterfront and Cliff Street Retreat, if more focused on the projects than society-at-large2. “This really hits the sweet spot for me and my company. We want to focus on adaptive reuse, infill, mixed-use, energy efficiency. Anything that hits those key points, that’s exactly where we want to be and that’s what attracts me to this project, maybe more than any other project, it hits all the important boxes.”

“There are a lot of projects that never get built because the ability to convey the concept never happens. Noah helps me do that. He gets inside my head or I present a tapestry, and Noah takes it and makes it happen. I pay him in kayaks when he won’t take money….and you know on Cliff Street, boats will be in one of those storefronts,” said Morse.

“We just need to put boats on the roof. An oversized kayak,” quipped Demarest.

Brian Crandall

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