ITHACA, N.Y. –– There are small projects, and there are big projects. Once in a great while, there are transformational projects, developments that intended to take a neighborhood in a new direction. Visum Development Group of Ithaca has decided to pitch such a transformational project, with the primary location being for a large industrial site along Ithaca’s waterfront.

The properties Visum intends to involve in the project encompass 11.3 acres along Cherry Street, Taber Street, and Cecil A. Malone Drive. Two are properties along Cherry Street (110 Cherry and 132 Cherry) for which Visum has already pitched a multi-story apartment building with ground-level commercial space. The centerpiece is the Ben Weitsman scrap yard, which Visum purchased back in May 2018 and which Weitsman announced plans to vacate last June.

The “Neighborhood of the Arts” as Visum is calling their plan, would be a large-scale mixed-use proposal. Five major program components are stated in a press release announcing the development of the project: Food-based retail and service, open spaces and recreational facilities, a professional center and business hub, event center facilities, and a variety of housing across a range of prices from affordable low-moderate incomes to premium properties. Ithaca’s Whitham Planning and Design and Rochester’s CJS Architects are also involved in the project, and Visum would be working with Cleveland-based NRP Group, one of the largest affordable housing developers in the country, to deliver the affordable housing component.

“We’ve owned the Weitsman site for several years now, so it was natural to try to pick up all the remaining parcels,” said Visum CEO Todd Fox. “The goal is to create a neighborhood. This isn’t just building a building, it’s creating a neighborhood from the ground up. We really wanted to create something that was transformational for Ithaca, we view this as almost like a second Downtown, a second Commons if you will. It’s right on the water, with great proximity to jobs. There aren’t many opportunities like this, whether in Ithaca or even across the country. This is a legacy project, an opportunity.”

“It’s four or five city blocks equivalent,” says Visum Vice-President Patrick Braga. “We envision this as a continuation of the fabric of Ithaca, a site that will be permeated with tight, beautifully-landscaped walkways and a place to sit and be. That will require a lot of planning and may change with time as each part builds out.”

Included in the plans is an adaptive reuse of the Paolangeli Contractors warehouse on the northeast corner of Cherry Street and Cecil A Malone Drive, which they plan to rebrand as “The Warehouse”. Plans are still vague at this early stage, but “The Warehouse and its adjacent structures will become home to a dynamic mix of businesses and activities”, according to the announcement. By Visum’s estimate, the reuse of the Paolangeli building and adjacent structures would create 85-100 permanent jobs, not counting hiring by startups, event center staff or construction jobs.

“The Warehouse renovation will make it a really incredible space for Ithaca. It’s just super-unique that could turn into a huge draw for the region if you do it right,” said Fox.

“This is an iconic, monumental pitched roof structure with steel arms that extend forward. It defines space super-beautifully, it’s memorable, it helps to anchor that place as a destination,” added Braga. “We’re excited to fill that with a mix of activities…Ithaca has winter, right? It’s not something that’s necessarily scary, Canadian and Northern European cities have set precedent on how to enliven the outdoors in winter and create this gradation between indoors and outdoors; warmth, semi-warmth and cold. It gives a place to go to and a place to spend time in for all ages.”

Also in the plan is a food and wine hall focusing on locally-produced goods and farm-to-table dining. The food hall is also intended to support light manufacturing by providing facilities for on-site commercial-scale food production and spaces such as shared test kitchens.

Visum further sees the properties being utilized for art festivals with interactive art and outdoor playscapes scattered throughout the site and states the intent to engage with local artists to come up with ideas and art projects that would meet these goals. Recreational facilities pitched as part of the plans include both indoor and outdoor components, such as a rock-climbing wall, bocce ball and shuffleboard courts, a bounce house, and a youth center for children to play in a safe, monitored environment. The property will have a cohesive landscape with public greenways connecting different portions.

The concept plan being pitched envisions co-working offices, live/work residential units, and flexible container park spaces – repurposed steel shipping containers like those seen in cargo boats, placed in a park-like setting and outfitted for dining, entertainment and other social activities. A boutique hotel is also in the works. Housing would take the form of townhomes, loft-style units, and multi-story buildings. Condominiums and supportive housing are being explored, but are not firm commitments at this time. At completion, Visum estimates about 1,500 people would live in the development.

The project proposal has one explicit recommendation for the city; a staircase connecting the large-scale development to West Village, helping to integrate it into the project (and utilizing the planned Black Diamond Trail pedestrian bridge). “We also envision the new neighborhood as an important node along an emerging West Hill – Southside corridor. The City has already expressed interest in building a footbridge from Cecil Malone over the Inlet Canal. As shown in the map above, we propose going a step further: the City should build a staircase on publicly-owned land to connect West Village directly to Floral Ave. This staircase will reduce a twenty-minute walk down to the waterfront into just five minutes, and West Hill will have more direct access to shopping along Route 13,” says the press release.

“Part of how we’re envisioning this emerging node is as a (one-)’third-of-the-way’ point between West Village and Southside, creating this new east-west corridor in Ithaca that’s anchored with all this activity, like the youth center, which is like GIAC but for Southwestern Ithaca. The Neighborhood of the Arts is going to be inclusive for everyone, all backgrounds and all ages,” said Braga.

Reasonably, a project of this scale and magnitude is not going to happen overnight, nor is it going to be approved without a number of meetings, including public hearings. No formal plans have been submitted to the city of Ithaca yet; to be candid, the sending of the press announcement is arguably intended to set the narrative before plans are submitted and begin review. It’s a smart tactic when you’re proposing a large project that’s bound to ruffle a few feathers.

Fox and Braga say that the project will be multi-phased and a likely full build-out would take eight years under good circumstances, meaning that residences fill up at a good pace and commercial space is readily rented out. The first phase will include commercial space in “The Warehouse” renovation, two market-rate apartment buildings (110 Cherry Street and 132 Cherry Street) and a third apartment building for affordable housing. The project as planned largely complies with existing zoning and, in their description, complies with the goals with the city’s Waterfront Plan, and will meet or exceed the outlines of the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement, a.k.a. the “Green Building Policy”.

In the short-term, the plan is to move forward with site plans for phase one, 110 Cherry and 132 Cherry, as well as finalizing the plans for the affordable housing with NRP Group. Environmental remediation will be starting on the Weitsman site and Paolangeli Building, and Visum hopes to get the site enrolled in the EPA’s Brownfield Program. Federal and state grants will be needed to make certain project components economically viable.

Also on the to-do list are community meetings as the plans are further developed. As stated in the press release, “(a)s we move forward with the project, we will be soliciting feedback from area residents to understand how we can improve our designs and make Ithaca’s Neighborhood of the Arts truly welcoming for all. We look forward to sharing more with the community as this project moves forward.”

“Ithaca is a magnificent little city,” said Braga, who is returning to Ithaca after graduate school in Boston and working in Detroit. “The quality of life for a city of its scale is just a tremendous draw. The easy access to nature. The walkable and distinct neighborhoods. The creative culture; people doing interesting things, cooking interesting things, building beautiful things with art, the performing arts in Ithaca…It’s a city where it’s easy to be active and enjoy where you are. We hope a project like this can accentuate those qualities, a place for people to create, to really take in the environment and make that amazing connection.”

Brian Crandall

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