Former Morse Chain/Emerson Power Transmission buildings on South Hill is the proposed site for the SouthWorks mixed-use living space.

After more than a decade the gargantuan redevelopment project located at 620 Aurora Street on the slopes of South Hill is set to move forward. The 95-acre site, formerly known to Ithacans as Morse Chain, Emerson Power Transmission Plant, and most recently, the Chain Works District, will now be known as SouthWorks. SouthWorks has been in the making for more than a decade, with the latest real estate closing taking place on December 8, 2022.

The project is expected to cost more than $300 million and will be partially funded through grants from the Restore New York Communities Initiative. The City of Ithaca can apply for up to $2 million through the Restore NY program to address vacant, condemned, and abandoned buildings. If approved, that money would go towards funding the $2.93 million costs related to asbestos remediation of building 24, demolition of a sky bridge, and a number of other renovation projects. According to SHIFT Capital CEO Brian Murray, $10 million of private equity funding and $260,000 of NYSERDA grants have already been secured for additional renovations of the site, such as lead paint removal and more demolitions.

The re-development will be undertaken by a partnership of four developers, including Philadelphia based real estate development firm SHIFT Capital, in addition to the property’s previous developer, David Lubin. Longtime Ithacan and project coordinator for the site, Vicki Taylor-Brous, will also be joining the SHIFT team.

The SouthWorks team plans on creating a mixed-use neighborhood which includes housing, technology, commercial, retail, industrial and manufacturing space to provide a boost to Ithaca’s local economy.  

Phase one of the SouthWorks project calls for renovations to four buildings on the property. Specifically, buildings 21 and 24 would be renovated into 179,000 square feet of mixed commercial and residential space, and Buildings 33 and 34 would be renovated into 171,000 square feet of modern industrial and manufacturing space. The project estimates over 90 housing units in phase one of its plan.

SHIFT Capital Partner and CEO Brian Murray responded to the closing by saying, “SouthWorks is a potential game changer for Ithaca. Its size and scope allow us to intentionally and collectively, with businesses and residents, design a neighborhood that welcomes leading-edge thinking and practices, drives sustainability throughout, and connects living and culture site-, city- and town-wide.”

Murray continued saying, “To do this, we brought together a team who reflects SHIFT’s values and vision and is driven by a shared dedication to Ithaca. David, Melissa, Nnenna, and Vicki each add distinct expertise to the team, and together with the community, we can plan the next steps for the future of the site.”

The site's previous developer and L Enterprises Founder, David Lubin, said “SouthWorks is a landmark project that will help define, bolster and advance the Ithaca region, generating thousands of jobs and economic opportunity for generations to come,”

Lubin continued saying, “I look forward to working with the new team to ensure that this project represents the kind of development I imagined when I began planning it a decade ago: [which includes] commercial space for industrial/manufacturing and small businesses, housing options, parks, and public art. It is rooted in the community and will anchor the continuing revitalization of the region.”

Before the closing took place, Lubin had been the site's developer since he was selected by the property's previous owners, Emerson Power Transmission, to re-develop the site in July of 2013. The Emerson Power Transmission Plant permanently closed in 2011, and after more than a decade of going through the environmental remediation process, the DEC has approved plans for a mixed-use neighborhood on the site in October, 2022.

Project Coordinator Vicki Taylor-Borus said, “David really had a vision to clean the site up, not just to industrial standards, but to residential standards, which required going back to the Record of Decision with the DEC and getting a site management plan approved,”

“I’m excited to implement a whole-neighborhood approach to the redevelopment of the old Morse Chain factory site,” says Taylor-Brous.

She continued saying, “The plant brought prosperity to the area for more than 100 years and holds a lot of historical importance to the Ithaca community.” Taylor-Borus said, “we look forward to revitalizing the site and making it an asset to the community once again.”  

The History and Future of the Site

The site at 620 South Aurora Street is located in both the City and Town of Ithaca and has remained vacant for more than a decade. It had been used for manufacturing a variety of industrial goods such as chains and automotive parts to bomber airplanes used in the First World War.

The Morse Chain Company occupied the factory site from 1906 until 1928 they joined BorgWarner, which owned the property from 1928 to 1982. Emerson Power Transmission continued manufacturing at the site from 1983 until its closure in 2011.

The site provided much-needed jobs for residents and attracted immigration to the area. The economic stimulation was wide ranging with jobs not only being created at the factory, but also for operating the supportive infrastructure which included the rail lines that ran to the site.

In July 2013, Emerson Power Transmission selected David Lubin of L Enterprises to develop the site. Together, with guidance from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), they partnered over the next decade to make the 95-acre property one of New York State’s most thoroughly environmentally investigated and remediated sites.

Although the property was initially slated to be brought up to industrial standards, after thousands of tests, tracing, and planning, the majority of the site has now been remediated to residential standards. A Record of Decision Amendment and a Site Management Plan was approved by the DEC in October of 2022.

When complete, SouthWorks will include the revitalization of 820,000 square feet of existing buildings, and will total more than 1.7 million square feet. The site has gained City of Ithaca Site Plan Approval and EIS approvals.

In addition to the on-site work, the Gateway Trail, which runs at the base of the property, will be developed in partnership with the City of Ithaca and will connect the South Hill Recreation Trail to Buttermilk Falls and the Kirby Edmunds Bridge.

Planning for SouthWorks is underway with anticipated announcements regarding the next phase in the development expected in early 2023. 

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