Tompkins County and the city of Ithaca are reinitiating talks with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) about moving its operations off the inlet waterfront to make way for new development.
Last month county leaders accepted a $56,000 state grant to fund a study examining the feasibility of moving the state’s DOT facility off prime waterfront property in the city of Ithaca. The grant requires a local match, and both the county and city plan to each pitch in $22,000 and in-kind staff time. The Ithaca Common Council will address their end of the grant at their meeting Wednesday, June 4.
Such waterfront property is a hot commodity almost anywhere, especially in the city of Ithaca, where around 70 percent of inlet waterfront is protected as parkland or natural areas. Located just south of the Ithaca Farmers’ Market and resting alongside an east shore slice of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, the state DOT’s Tompkins County facility—with its rock piles, salt dome, and barbed-wire fencing—strikes an odd juxtaposition alongside a weekly venue for one of Ithaca’s most vibrant, community-centered events.
Both county and city leaders say the 7.6-acre property would be better suited for housing, business or, as City Director of Planning and Economic Development JoAnn Cornish favors, mixed-used development.
“If you asked me five or 10 years ago,” she said, “I would have said a waterfront hotel would be amazing … but now, we have a new surge of new hotels in the city—though not on the waterfront. Now, I’d say mixed-use would be best.”
Mixed-use, Cornish explained, could include commercial spaces, like small retail, offices and housing. The waterfront area, including the DOT site, was rezoned at the end of 2012 to facilitate new development.
“It’s right next to the farmers’ market. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to give it a look and include the market in new development?” she said. “If we can add that all in, it could be spectacular project.”
Moving the facility was first proposed nearly 20 years ago, and, in 2005, the state DOT appeared ready to relocate when it purchased 10 acres of land in the village of Dryden, off Enterprise Drive. The state DOT planned on consolidating its Ithaca and Cortland facilities at the new Dryden site and disposing of the surplus land (SUNY Cortland had expressed interest at the Cortland site). The DOT went so far as to issue a press release in early 2006 announcing its planned move within the next five to seven years. Those plans have since stalled, largely due to lack of funding, according to Gene Cilento, public information officer for the DOT’s Syracuse Region, which oversees Tompkins County.
He said the costs and logistics of relocating to the Dryden property are huge. A salt dome, garage, office space and filling station must be built.
“It’s a matter of getting utilities out to the parcel, and then building everything,” he said. “It’s a decent-sized undertaking.”
Though he didn’t disclose the estimated cost of a completed Dryden facility, Cilento said the price tag surprised him when it was discussed internally three or four years ago.
“I thought, ‘Really?’” he recalled. “It was that high.”
Estimated cost for DOT relocation is likely one factor that will be outlined in the feasibility study, which Tompkins County Legislative Chair Mike Lane recognized as the county’s way of again re-starting relocation talks with the DOT. The study, Lane said, will show why the waterfront property is a more valuable parcel for economic development than it is in its present use as a DOT facility. Through the study, consultants will also issue a recommendation on how best to use the property, if relocation is feasible.
“The work, storage and other things done by the state could be done at many other places and not at prime waterfront property,” Lane said.
The former Dryden village mayor and lifelong village resident said economic development is at the heart of Tompkins County’s interest in the city’s next possible waterfront project. After initial relocation talks were discontinued in wake of the 2008 economic downturn, both Tompkins County and the city of Ithaca were spooked when, in 2010, the city received word of a proposal by Verizon Wireless to build a cell tower at the DOT site. Cities do not have regulatory authority on cell towers built on state-owned land, lawyers from the city and Verizon told the Ithaca Times in December 2010.
“That kind of panicked the county and city because we didn’t want to see that purposed for that,” he said. “It would be more of an impediment to eventually using that land.”
Cornish, the city Director of Planning, said the city is still in talks with Verizon about a cell tower, but not at the DOT site. An alternative proposal involves building a tower on the city’s wastewater treatment plant property.
‘Tompkins County hopes to line up a consultant to carry out the study by early fall, she said. In the event the DOT does move its Ithaca operations, the state could then declare the land surplus and sell it to local government for fair-market value or as little as $1, she said. •