The re-imagining of the Emerson Power Transmission site on South Hill has been in full swing for more than two years. Unchained Properties, LLC (UP), and its owner David Lubin, has meticulously assembled a team of local engineers, architects and attorneys for a project that proposes to transform the 95-acre industrial site and its 800,000 square feet of existing structures into a mixed-use development that would include residential, commercial and industrial components.
However, before the project, dubbed the “Chain Works District,” can move forward, the site’s history casts a shadow that includes significant environmental contamination (decades of industrial use will tend to do that). Testing at the site has documented contamination on the site since the 1970s, and the Chain Works team is in the midst of doing an up-to-date study. So far, more contamination than previously documented has been found, but nothing discovered to this point has halted the project’s progress. Several members of the Chain Works team began to restart the Emerson site contamination conversation with the Ithaca community earlier this month at Cinemapolis.
Nine hundred thirty-four locations have been tested for contamination throughout the site’s entire history. The most recent locations selected for environmental assessment have revealed the presence of the following contaminants: barium, cyanide, free-petroleum products, metals in soil, and chlorinated volatile organic compounds. The latter includes trichloroethylene, or TCE, which has a notorious reputation in Ithaca already, as it’s been the culprit in instances of downhill contamination for some of the site’s South Hill neighbors, Labella Associates Environmental Engineer Daniel Noll explained.
[Editor's Note: The web version of this article has been corrected to say that there are 934 sites that have been tested for contamination, not 934 contaminated sites.]
“After 1996,” Noll said, “there was a bit of a lull on the site. There wasn’t a whole lot of investigation work being done on the site, but contaminant still made it down the hillside, to the homes [and caused problems].”
As intimidating as some of those words look and sound, Noll said the news wasn’t all bad news.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said. “It’s possible to remediate sites like this. We’ve done it before. It’s complicated, but doable.”
Noll said Chain Works’ additional tests are needed to turn the Emerson site from an industrial landscape into a place that residents can call home. Locations in need of remediation need to be pinpointed, he said.
“In 2013,” he said, “we started our in-the-ground work. As part of our work, we reviewed all of that historical information and did [an environmental site assessment]. That identified 18 environmental conditions—and that’s just a term of the trade, that doesn’t mean there is an environmental condition—but we thought the area warranted additional investigation to turn this site from industrial to residential. We actually installed 549 testing locations to evaluate that.”
Noll said it’s “still difficult to know at this point in time” what remediation methods may be used at the site. It could be anything from capping or closing off an area to significant excavation to excavation—or, as he put it, a “little bit of digging.” The latter is the typical action taken at sites polluted by highly concentrated solvents. At this point, he said, high levels of contaminants have not been found. If that remains the case, then the most likely remediation would be awareness and long-term monitoring.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s just a matter of knowing what’s there, and where it is. That in itself is a form of remediation.”
The engineer said that other forms of remediation could include groundwater treatment, with anything from long-term monitoring to extracting and discharging water from the site being possible. Another option to monitoring and/or excavation is “in situ,” which treats contaminants with injections of chemicals to change or combat existing conditions, Noll said.
Whitham, the project manager, said the team is in wait-and-see mode when it comes to pending remediation.
“At this stage of the process,” he said, “any discussion of remediation techniques is premature. Further delineation and determination of the extent of impacts already identified at the site is needed. Ultimately, the required remediation techniques employed will be dictated in large part by the State Department of Environmental Conservation and the State Department of Health.”
Design firm D.I.R.T. Studio principal Julie Bargman said the initial environmental-findings presentation to the public was important, as the team wants to make the site’s environmental findings available to the entire community. She added by that if people understand the levels of impacts the site’s history has on its present state, the process of turning the property from industrial to mixed-use residential and commercial would be that much easier to handle, and ultimately help “accelerate the process of unsticking a stuck [site].”
“These tests and findings [on the Emerson site] date back to [the 1970s],” she said. “Since then, additional tests have been done and our goal is to transfer very difficult data into a legible form so that [residents] can understand it.”
‘Two Parallel Paths’
The hot spots, so to speak, of contamination on the Emerson site include its heat-treatment sector, its oil-quenching baths, “general waste” on site, or “significant fill,” and its fire-water reservoir, which contains contaminants from “working mill water,” Noll noted. This information is hardly new, he said, but the Chain Works team is giving the site a closer inspection than did its predecessors, as its ambitions for turning the site into a place where people may live is unprecedented.
Noll explained that they are using a “top-down approach.” Areas are being evaluated starting from a concrete surface all the way down to the soil and soil gases. This method has validated previous testing as well.
“We really focused on the inside,” Noll said, “where [the work was taking place]. We wanted to see if there was something there that was already known about. But what we found confirmed a lot of the previous testing.”
Following the presentation of the initial environmental findings, Scott Whitham of Whitham Planning and Design, LLC said, at this time he and the Chain Works District team are moving forward full steam ahead.
“The fact,” he said, “that any of the environmental findings or investigations that we’ve seen so far has not caused either the team or developer to move backwards in their ambition, but forward, is the most encouraging aspect of this project going on at this time.”
Other ‘Success Stories’
Any time a project of this magnitude is proposed, it is logical to look elsewhere in the country—and the world—to see if something like this has been done—and whether or not it was a success. Both Bargman and Noll alluded to projects across the nation that their firms had remediated with great success. These projects included the Penn Yan Marine brownfield in Penn Yan; the Village Gate on Goodman Street in Rochester; Remington Lofts in North Tonawanda; Holy Cross Community Housing in New Orleans; and the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Mich. All of those places were heavily industrialized sites that were later remediated for residential and or commercial uses.
Town of Ithaca Planning Committee Chair Rich DePaolo asked the Chain Works team if any of those sites, and the ensuing remediation, included the “kind of topography we have here, such as the fractured bedrock and steep slopes.” Noll said that in those instances, such conditions were not present. He added that Emerson’s unique landscape makes upcoming remediation “without a doubt more complicated, but still possible.”
Whitham said his team is obviously aware of the challenges the Emerson site location presents, but they are excited by its proximity to Ithaca College and downtown. He added that the views from the site are second to none.
“We’ve seen a lot of projects like this in the country,” he said, “and in fact, around the world where old factory sites have been repurposed into living-working spaces that were completely different from the facility’s initial intention—and this is ours [Ithaca’s]. This is our big factory, right near downtown. It’s big, it’s walkable, and it can be just a great location for offices and apartments, among other uses.
“The project is big enough at 95 acres,” he continued, “that it borders Ithaca College and also downtown. We’re in conversations with IC, Cornell, the town, the city, and we hope each of those communities would be part of using what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
‘Waking Up’ the Emerson Site
Because Emerson’s 95 acres spans both the town and city of Ithaca, proposing the idea of a mixed-use development has been rather tricky, and somewhat repetitive. Every presentation, from the introduction to the project to the approval of it in concept and the requests for a floating overlay zone—Planned Unit Development (PUD) in the city and a Planned Development Zone (PDZ) in the town— has been given twice.
However, city planning has recently declared itself lead agency for the project, and the two municipalities’ planning committees have had a meeting to discuss the best ways to streamline this process. Moving forward the hope is that much redundancy will be ironed out.
Noah Demarest of Stream Collaborative Architecture and Landscape Architecture DPC said the balancing act between the town and city has been one of the more challenging aspects from a planning and zoning perspective, as it’s a new experience for all of those involved.
“The goal is we’re going to attempt to create a single zoning boundary,” he said. “The biggest challenge is going to be not writing that zoning, but getting both the city and town to agree to it. Because we have to go back and forth between both municipalities.”
Important next steps for the planning and zoning process include a public scoping meeting (Nov. 18), the complete draft GEIS (Dec. 29), and submission of the draft GEIS (Feb. 2015). The date of the hearing for the project’s State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) is still to be determined. After that lengthy process comes to a conclusion, the design process and unveiling of what exactly Chain Works District will look like will be more fully unveiled to the public.
“A lot of what we’re doing right now is setting the stage for the design,” he said. “The planning, the zoning, the overall questions of how this property is going to function will take a considerable amount of time. The design itself is the thing that comes after that planning. So that is still ahead of us as a team, and ahead of the community for that conversation. We’re all really looking forward to that stage, however, planning itself for a project of this scale will take a long time before we get to that point.”
Aleksandr Mergold of Austin + Mergold Architecture and Landscape Architecture, LLC said that design process will be both exciting and challenging.
“This is probably the densest project that Ithaca has ever had,” he said. “In that sense, it’s an amazing opportunity. It’s unprecedented and we’re approaching it as such. Our intention is to try to leave as much of the original architecture as possible without adding too many new things or removing too many old things. It’s a very delicate balance in that sense.”
Whitham noted that, if things go smoothly, he could see some pieces of the project beginning within the next year, such as office spaces and manufacturing spaces being reopened and used without disturbing the “core of the project.” However, as a whole, his best guess was that the project would evolve over the next seven to 10 years. Mergold noted that timeline was pretty impressive when “you consider this place took 70 years to build.”
“This place,” Mergold said, “to some degree, was at one point the heart of the town and city. It was a really a place where things were happening, and there was a lot of pride associated with that. We’re hoping some of that good energy will resurface. Maybe different things will be happening, but we covet that same type of productivity and good will. That’s a critical thing for us.”
Whitham Planning and Design associate Catherine De Almeida echoed Mergold’s sentiments.
“One of the most exciting parts about it is that this site was highly productive for the city for more than 100 years and then it kind of went to sleep. So we’re trying to wake it up.”