On Wednesday, Sept. 14 all five members of the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, a subset of Common Council, expressed reservations with the Maguire Family of Dealerships’ proposal to convert six parcels of land near the Cayuga Inlet into a new car dealership.
The committee’s only power is to send a recommendation to Common Council, but because the committee is composed of five of ten of the voting Common Council members (not including the mayor, who votes only in the case of a tie), it is unlikely that the Maguire proposal will advance in its current state.
After hearing from more than 30 members of the public, including several Maguire employees and multiple Northside residents, the latter of whom were especially opposed to the dealership because of traffic concerns and a lack of communication with the neighborhood, committee members said that the proposed dealership did not mesh with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Maguire purchased a little over 8 acres of land on Carpenter Park Road and Cascadilla Road, near the Inlet, in October for about $2.7 million, deeds show. The plots were zoned as “industrial” when Maguire purchased the land, but the area has since been converted to a temporary mandatory planned unit development zone (TMPUD), requiring developers to get approval from Common Council.
“There’s certainly a level of uncertainty that we did not anticipate when we initially purchased the land,” Phil Maguire said in an interview on Friday. “The level of uncertainty that comes with the investment, having things change after the fact, and then not knowing what the future holds, that’s all part of reality at this point.”
“I think that the committee is trying to find a balance on what’s the best thing to do for the site of Carpenter Business Park,” he said.
But while committee members did not rule out the idea of a car dealership in that location, all five made it clear that they were not in favor of the current proposal.
“I have to come back to the question, is a car dealership the appropriate use for the waterfront?” said Seph Murtagh, chair of the planning committee and a Second Ward alderperson. “And when I look at a car dealership, I see a very low-density use. It definitely does produce jobs, but in terms of jobs that are produced per acre, it’s going to be producing fewer jobs than you would be getting with high-density mixed-use development.”
“My concern is that this project goes against the vision we have for that waterfront,” Murtagh concluded, noting the “huge amount of parking” that the project would include.
Graham Kerslick, Fourth Ward alderperson and a member of the planning committee, emphasized that the committee’s role is to review the proposal and determine whether it is consistent with the comprehensive plan, not to decide whether the dealership is a good or bad one.
“It’s not sufficiently in line with the goals of the comprehensive plan to really allow me to say this is consistent, which I think is our role,” Kerslick said. “I would hope that this is an opportunity to at least better refine what we’re looking for. I’m sure this community is willing to try and look at other options.”
Several Northside residents lamented that no one from Maguire had communicated plans of the dealership to the neighborhood.
“I find it really telling that I haven’t heard one single member of the Northside community speak in favor of this plan,” said resident Armin Heurich, who added that he chose the Northside neighborhood community because of its walkability. “No one came to my house and knocked on my door to speak about this proposal.”
The loudest applause of the night came when local activist Phoebe Brown said Maguire had failed to reach out to residents who would be impacted by the dealership.
“You went to the farmers market, you went to the garden, but you never crossed that bridge or that highway to come see us in Northside, to come ask us what we think we could do together,” she said, referring to Maguire.
Maguire acknowledged that his company should have communicated more directly with Northside residents, saying that he failed to meet with that neighborhood “because it was one of the 500 juggling components ... of the situation that we’re in.”
Another controversial aspect of the proposed dealership is the relocation of Ithaca Community Gardens. When news of the land purchase first broke in December 2015, Mayor Svante Myrick told the Ithaca Voice that the city did not want to displace the gardens “without an alternate location that works as well, or better, for the gardens.”
But Dan Hoffman, who said he is a longtime supporter of Community Gardens and had provided pro bono legal consulting for the organization in the past, said the Maguire proposal could give the gardens a level of land security that they do not currently have.
“Community Gardens could lose its lease with the city for any reason—or no reason—with approximately one year’s notice,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting.
The offer from Maguire to relocate portions of the gardens, but not reduce their total acreage, and also give the organization the opportunity to purchase all of the land, “is the only pathway to ownership that the Community Gardens has at this point,” Hoffman said.
Ducson Nguyen, a Second Ward alderperson who sits on the planning committee, said he would not rule out a car dealership in that area, but that the “extreme housing need” and the desire for “urban, mixed use of our land, especially near waterfronts,” led him to believe that the current proposal was not satisfactory. Nguyen added that the increase in parking is “not in line with our goals.”
First Ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock was blunt in saying that “the proposal that is put forward here today is one that is not likely to win support in council.”
“I’m willing and interested to continue to work with [Maguire] and the community to come up with something that meets all of our needs,” she said. Brock added that Maguire had put much thought into their proposal and was sensitive to the farmers market and the community gardens, but noted, “it’s also clear that the Northside neighborhood would like to be involved” in future discussions.
Brock said the issues that she saw as inconsistent with the comprehensive plan were the volume of the parking and the lack of any other possible use for the area. She noted that, in contrast with other council members, she does not believe the area is suitable for housing because of petroleum storage tanks near the area.
If the proposal is amended to encourage more mixed use and address the high volume of parking, Brock said, “I could see this as being consistent” with the comprehensive plan.
Mayor Svante Myrick attended the meeting, although he is not a member of the committee, and extended an olive branch to Maguire, which he called “one of the top 10 most important businesses” in Ithaca.
Myrick said he hoped Maguire and the city could work together to find a more suitable location for a new dealership, but that “on this spot, the community’s got a different vision.”
Committee members plan to make their official recommendation at next month’s planning committee meeting on Oct. 12. They hope to include a rationale that explains to Maguire which parts of their proposal the committee believes fit within the comprehensive plan and which do not.
Maguire said Friday that a rationale would aid him in determining whether to continue to try and build a dealership at Carpenter Business Park or begin to look elsewhere.
“It would be helpful to have more specifics on what would be approvable and what would not,” Phil Maguire said.
He said Maguire Dealerships is anxious to move forward, whether that means amending their proposal, using only part of the Carpenter Business Park site, or liquidating all of the land and working with the city on alternative sites. •