Ithaca's waterfront: Looking to the future

Waterfront culture to shift dramatically in coming decade

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To say changes are coming to Ithaca’s waterfront is an understatement. Within the next decade, what was an industrial neighborhood just half a century ago will complete its transformation into a developed area full of restaurants, housing, parks, shopping and more.

For the second part of our waterfront dive, let’s take a look at the future of the waterfront and what those changes can mean for all those who enjoy it.

The Comprehensive Plan

All coming projects have been designed to work within the goals and guidelines set in place by Ithaca’s Comprehensive Plan, divided into two phases. Phase I, Plan Ithaca, was adopted in 2015, and Phase II “includes specific neighborhood or thematic plans that build upon the topics addressed in Plan Ithaca,” according to the Phase II draft released in September 2019.

These “themes” paint a picture of what the city wants the waterfront to look like, and it outlines several priorities to consider – mixed-use, vibrant spaces, public access, green spaces, less traffic, environmental sustainability and more. Much of the developments discussed in this article fall into at least one of these set goals.

Boathouse Landing

The first recent project on the waterfront is not a far-off vision; it’s set to be complete within a week. Boathouse Landing on Cayuga Inlet, located at 323 Taughannock Blvd., is a project that’s been in the works since 2014, going through a few design changes within those five years.

“We tried to build a five-story building, but it doesn’t work in that space because of the soils, and it was about to be limited space, so, because of parking and the cost … we had to change plans,” said Steve Flash, minority partner in the project.

Now, the project is a three-story, 16-unit building, with prices ranging from $1,500/month for the smallest studio and $3,700/month for the largest 2 1/2-bedroom rooms.

“We are within days of getting our certificate of occupancy, so it’s almost complete,” Flash said on Oct. 19. “It’s 99% done.”

Flash said that, compared to other upcoming projects, Boathouse Landing is relatively small, but he hopes its construction will help lay the groundwork for what is to come.

“What we’re trying to do is create a thriving area that allows the marina [and] boatyard to continue to operate and to flourish as well as the place where people can come and live and work and play, which is what a waterfront should be,” he said. “I hope that it will set the tone for tasteful development going forward.”

Department of Transportation

Indeed, there are more projects on the way, but it’s important to take a detour into one large move that will allow those projects to happen – the Department of Transportation’s relocation to an area near the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport (ITH).

Martha Robertson, Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, said the DOT facility, currently located on the West End on Cayuga Lake, is over 50 years old. The new facility is set to be completed by the end of 2020 once things start breaking ground, according to Mike Hall, director of the Ithaca airport.

This move is better for everyone involved, Robertson said.

“It’s just going to be a really special place,” she said. “The DOT site is right in the middle of all of it, and it’s really what we’ve needed to do for 25 years.”

Once the DOT is moved, that will make way for other developments in the works, Robertson said.

“You look across the Inlet from Cass Park, and you just see this big piece of land, right in the middle of the waterfront, and it’ll be able to be redeveloped, and it’ll be a lively, functional place for the community … to help with our housing crisis but also to create a new neighborhood to fit in with City Harbor, to fit in with Carpenter Park,” she said.

City Harbor

That’s as good a transition as any to shift to City Harbor and Carpenter Park – two larger developments coming to the waterfront within the next decade.

The City Harbor project consists of a full-service restaurant, a pedestrian promenade, improved boating and golfing amenities and a Guthrie Medical Center office building. The project is led by Costa Lambrou, of Lambrou Real Estate, Lincoln Morse, managing partner at Organic Elements, LLC, and others.

The Lambrou development consists of three main projects – City Harbor, a new GreenStar store and a mixed-use area called Agora. As Costa Lambrou tells it, these projects have been a long time coming.

“I started to realize how much potential there was down here,” he said. “It didn’t seem like an opportunity downtown.”

City Harbor is the most expansive of these projects, divided into two phases, with Phase I, the main apartment and restaurant building, along with the Guthrie medical office building, set to be complete by 2021. Phase II includes a condo and a combined marina store and golf clubhouse.

The project includes the construction of public parks and a trail connected to the Cayuga Waterfront Trail – none of which Lambrou will reap profits from – to increase public access and recreation.

“We’re building communities, not just buildings,” Morse said. “We’re not privatizing any of our developments. We want the public to be invited to them. ... the waterfront shouldn’t be [excluded].”

Morse and Lambrou are also considering the city’s goal of environmental sustainability, so City Harbor will be heated by the affluent water leaving that sewage treatment plant, in contrast to the typical geothermal energy from the ground.

Construction of the GreenStar facility is set to be complete by the end of the year, though it will take longer for it to officially open for business.

The Agora project, like City Harbor, will include restaurant, hospitality, residential, artisan, entertainment and commercial areas. The Agora project is set to be complete on a swath of land along West Buffalo Street, purchased in September by “Agora of Ithaca LLC,” registered to Lambrou Real Estate’s business office.

Carpenter Park

Carpenter Park is a similar project to City Harbor, as it includes housing, a medical building and mixed-use areas. The development along Route 13 will involve a five-story Cayuga Medical Center office building, retail, market-rate housing and an affordable housing building, keeping intact the already-existing Community Gardens, said CMC Vice President Public Relations John Turner.

“The idea with the Carpenter Park project is taking that piece of undeveloped land, one of the few of any significance left in Ithaca … and really turning it into a neighborhood,” said CMC Vice President Tony Votaw.

Over 100 market-rate apartments will sit above a retail space adjacent to the medical office building, and over 40 affordable housing units will help meet another goal established by the Comprehensive Plan to address the high housing costs of the city, said Andy Bodewes of Park Grove Realty, which is developing the site.

Bodewes described Carpenter Park as a “gateway into the city,” helping to connect the rest of Ithaca to the waterfront in a way that hasn’t been done before.

“We’re really excited to be able to do this in the city and we think it’s going to make such a difference having this vibrant neighborhood and all services that are going to be offered there, and we’re really pleased with Cayuga Medical Center being able to provide necessary medical services in a more city-centric location than we are able to do,” Bodewes said.

Like other projects, Carpenter Park is designed to be sustainable, using “state-of-the-art construction materials,” to create energy-efficient buildings, Bodewes said.

The medical building should be underway by 2020 and completed by the end of 2021. Other Carpenter Park projects will come after.

Putting it all together

All these projects may be from different developers and involve different goals and plans, but, as Lambrou describes, the overarching goal is cohesion, to create a space that Ithacans and visitors can enjoy in a variety of ways.

“We all work together,” he said. “It’s the easier way, it’s the cheaper way, it’s the smarter way, and it makes all of our developments better. So, how do they all mold together? I don’t know yet, but it seems to me that we’re on the right track.”

When asked what their perfect vision of the waterfront looked like, those interviewed all gave similar responses, perhaps best summed up by Scott Whitham, principal of Scott Whitham Planning and Design, PLLC, landscape architect and urban design firm for City Harbor and Carpenter Park.

“The vision of the waterfront can’t be and in fact shouldn’t be a single person’s vision,” Whitham said. “It’s the community’s waterfront, and it should reflect the breadth and complexity and desires of the community.”

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