Emerson plant

An aerial view of the former Emerson plant on South Hill in Ithaca.

There are plans in the works for the vacant building that stretches across South Hill, straddling the municipal boundary between the Town of Ithaca and City of Ithaca.

The property, which is currently owned by Emerson Power Transmission, includes three buildings totaling approximately 800,000 square feet of rentable space and about 93.89 acres of land. But it has been vacant since Emerson ceased operation of the facility in 2009. With a nameless, potential buyer negotiating with Emerson, there is hope from both city and town officials that the property will soon change hands and be developed for housing, commercial and some manufacturing on the site.

But even with all the potential of the site, there are considerable obstacles attached to the property other than the question of ownership. With Emerson’s classification as a Superfund Class 2 Site, the site’s contamination will have to be dealt with before the grand hopes and dreams for the site can be realized. 

A Bit of History

Active since the early 1900s, the site has a special place in history for some Ithacans. The manufacturer Morse Chain drew laborers from across the Atlantic to settle in Ithaca. The grandparents of JoAnn Cornish, the city’s director of planning and economic development, emigrated from Italy to work at Morse Chain, which manufactured steel roller chain for the automobile industry.

“There were so many people that came here that were sponsored in Ithaca because of Morse Chain,” said Cornish. “So they had jobs. When they got to Ellis Island they knew they were going to come to Ithaca and they were going to work in this factory. That’s how both my grandparents ended up here. My grandmother worked there for 45 years in the factory and my grandfather repaired the railway.”

From about 1928 to 1982, the property was owned by the Borg-Warner Corporation, which manufactured automotive components and power transmission equipment. The corporation used trichloroethene (TCE), commonly used as a solvent at the time, for cleaning and degreasing the metal parts it produced until the late 1970s. In 1983, Emerson purchased the site.

Cornish said when Emerson Power Transmission moved in to operate the facility, due to technological advances, operations could be consolidated and much of the large facility was not used.

In the 1980s, an environmental investigation in and around the facility began and the groundwater was found to contain several organic compounds including tetrachloroethene and trichloroethene.  In the 1990s, Emerson began extracting the groundwater to treat it before discharging it into the city’s storm sewers. In 2007, 25 areas of concern were investigated as a result of a site-wide supplemental remedial investigation.

“TCE was detected up to 6,680 ppb (parts per billion) in groundwater in the most recent site-wide groundwater monitoring event,” explained Linda Vera, a spokesperson for the DEC.

The groundwater standard for TCE is 5ppb.  

According to Vera, the estimated cost to construct and implement remedial actions is $3.5 million for contamination onsite and $1.1 million for cleanup offsite.

 “The actual  costs can vary significantly from the original estimates  upon completion of the cleanup,” she said. “Emerson is under agreement with DEC  to implement and complete the cleanup.”

City Goals

Cornish described the loss of jobs and manufacturing when Emerson closed the plant in 2009 as a “big blow” to the city.

“Because of the contamination we really were not optimistic that anything would happen,” Cornish said of the empty site. “And one of the things we always thought would happen is perhaps it would be demolished like Ithaca Gun was. But it’s a huge building. Demolition costs would be astronomical and the complicated piece is the contamination.”

The contaminant TCE is harder to deal with than lead, Cornish said, and it is suspected to be in the site’s fractured rock as well as the sewer system.

Cornish said she and other public officials have been on many tours of the building.

“The views are unbelievable,” said Cornish. “I don’t know that there’s a better view anywhere in Ithaca. But there is also a portion of the building that until very recently has been used for manufacturing. It has all of the mechanics in place. It’s really in great condition. It’s got all these pulleys and conveyor belts. It’s all set up, so what we’d like to see, and what I think what the potential buyer would like to see, is to be able to use the manufacturing piece that’s all set up for manufacturing. We’d love to see that too because we don’t have that much manufacturing space in the city.”

Mayor Svante Myrick said the first priority of the city is to make sure the site is cleaned up.

“That’s our first priority, to work with Emerson, the potential developer, the state and federal government to make sure that it’s clean,” he said. “Then I think we could quickly expect to see the building adapted for housing and for office and for manufacturing.”

The priority of the cleanup is shared by South Hill Civic Association President John Graves.

“There’s nobody in Ithaca that wants to see that place redeveloped and cleaned up more than the people who live on South Hill,” he said.

Graves said he would love to see the site made “the greenest it could possibly be,” suggesting that any industrial use of the site should be geared toward environmental cleanup.

Graves also suggested the building could first be leased to companies that already have polluted with TCE.

“It’s all over the United States,” he said of the pollutant. “So have those people contribute to a group of remediation experts that could really solve this problem all over the United States. The first thing they could tackle is how to actually clean it up in Ithaca at the Emerson site. And then as they figure out new processes and new remediation techniques as the building’s cleaned up, lease it to tenants that move forward the idea of a clean economy that doesn’t use a lot of fossil fuels that uses manufacturing techniques that eliminate pollution.”

With all the square footage and acreage, redevelopment of the site could have a huge positive impact on the city.

“It could be a game-changer, particularly for the housing market,” said Myrick. “It could provide office space for start-ups and manufacturing space which is at a premium in the city. All within just a couple blocks of downtown, which is huge. I think once the clean-up is done we can reasonably expect to see that sort of immediate adaptation.”

“The other interesting part about this whole site is that along Aurora Street in front of the site are huge parking lots,” said Cornish. “A wish of mine, and I’m really going to push for it, is that perhaps that frontage along Aurora Street could revert back to single, two family or multi-family housing. Because there’s a lot of residential on Aurora and then you have that big gap. It would be so nice if we could fill it in with residences again.  We really need the housing.”

In addition to the potential tax revenue for the city as a result of redevelopment, Myrick pointed to the quality of life improvements for the residents who could live on the site. 

“We’ve got a lot of people who work here in town that come from an hour away,” he said. “They drive from Syracuse or Watkins Glen not to mention the outlying municipalities within the county. Not because they want to, but because they can’t afford to live here. And creating that much housing, again, a million square feet, right on a site that’s also going to share office and manufacturing space, you could have people who live a two minute walk away from work. Which is just so much better for their health, it’s so much better for their wellbeing, their productivity and their quality of life.”

The location of the site in 20 or 30 years is also likely to be a natural extension of the downtown area as it moves up South Hill, he pointed out.

“By the end of my term I would love to have the framework set,” said Myrick. “The thing’s not going to be fully occupied by the end of my term and the site’s not going to be fully developed for ten, 15 years or more. But having the regulatory framework set, having the cleanup done and having it well on its way to development is still one of my very top goals.”

In addition to pushing for housing on the site, Cornish said she and the Town of Ithaca have been working for almost 20 years to gain access to a portion of the Emerson property in order to provide a critical link for the connection of the South Hill Recreation Way to the future extension of the Black Diamond Trail. 

Cornish said part of the problem is the place the trail would go across Emerson, through a reservoir area, is one of the most polluted areas of the property.

“We’ve met with Emerson many times over the years and they’re very reluctant because of liability and because of going through that contaminated area,” said Cornish.

Town Goals

The Town of Ithaca is currently working with consultants on a design for the trail.

“Because we do not have the right of way at the Emerson site, they are only focusing attention on the portion from Stone Quarry Road back adjacent to buttermilk and over the bridge behind home depot to the city’s natural area,” said Sue Ritter, the town’s director of planning. “At that point that’s where it would stop but that’s where it would connect with the Black Diamond Trail.”

The town is moving forward on the portions of the trail that they can for now, Ritter said.

“If we get a new owner and they are agreeable to having the trail go through their property,” she said. “We’ll work with them. As a last resort it could also go on a sidewalk area near Emerson.”

But going around the site would not be ideal.

“It would be a tremendous draw, I think, to people who might live there,” said Town Supervisor Herb Engman of the trail. “They could walk out their door and they could go one direction towards the South Hill trail which goes up the six mile creek corridor. Or they could go down to Buttermilk Falls State Park and eventually to the Black Diamond. So I think it would be a very, very attractive site for residences. And then of course on the upper levels of those buildings you’ve got tremendous views.”

In addition to the recreation opportunity, the property presents tremendous potential in line with the town’s goals for the future as well.

“It’s so close to the city, so it’s very walkable,” said Ritter of developing housing on the site.

“I think both the city and the town have the same impression that it’s such a big site and has such potential that it could be used for quite  a mixture of uses including some office, probably, and then of course residential,” said Engman. “And what makes it such a great location is one, its size, and two it’s location. It’s within an easy walk of downtown and theoretically you can get traffic there without going through downtown dependent on where people work and so forth. But it does have some potential to be a little bit of a mini village or what we’re calling a livable neighborhood because it could have very small services closer within the site. And that might benefit not only the folks that would live at Emerson, but the surrounding community.”

Development so close to the city would also take development pressure off of other areas of the town, Engman pointed out. It would also be in line with the town’s goals in its new comprehensive plan.

“One of the things that we hear most often is that people simply don’t want more development in their area, it creates traffic and that sort of thing,” he said. “Well there, I don’t think there would be much of an increase. The folks that live there could probably do pretty well without a vehicle. But what is also really nifty is there doesn’t have to be any additional parking. There is room underneath the building for parking. Literally an indoor parking garage could be built there fairly simply. And that means all the exterior parking lots that they’ve had before could be used for redevelopment.”

The town would also welcome more industrial jobs that could come with reuse and redevelopment of the property.

“I think for that reason Emerson holds some real promise because it’s got the building and infrastructure for it,” he said. “They’ve got the delivery bays — all that kind of stuff is already there. So I am really hopeful that some light industrial, light manufacturing will go in there. And it’s mainly because of the jobs. We simply need more jobs in this area of that nature.” 

Moving Forward: The Potential Buyer

According to Cornish, the potential buyer of the site has been working with Emerson for many years, and while he has not closed on the property yet, he is very close to doing so.

“It is complicated and so that’s why it’s taking longer,” she said. “But it’s pretty close to happening.”

The developer has communicated his plans to the city already and his goals, Cornish said, are in line with those of the city.

“Definitely mixed use, definitely wants to have residential, definitely wants to keep some of the manufacturing,” she said. “It would be great for him if he could get long-term tenants because then — this is going to be an expensive project and he would be assured of continuing income for a number of years. His vision is the same as ours.”

She said a $2.2 million master plan is currently being developed for the site by the potential buyer.

“I think it’s a pretty exciting prospect,” she said. “It’s a big job so it will take a lot of time, but I’m excited to finally maybe see something happen.”

“I have to admit I have great admiration for the person for taking this on,” said Engman. “It’s just a major, major redevelopment.”

Tompkins County Area Development has been working with the developer to make redevelopment and reuse of the site possible.

“We’ve been very involved with the developer,” said Michael Stamm, president of TCAD. “Many, many meetings and we’ve identified a variety of incentive programs that could help the developer both in the planning stages and then if things progress in the redevelopment phase.”

Stamm said TCAD envisions something similar to what happened with the South Hill Business Campus on the Emerson property.

“We’ve worked with the developer there to convert that into a multi-tenant space that’s mixed use and we’re hoping some of the same things can happen to the Emerson complex,” said Stamm. “It’d probably be even more varied as far as the use goes with housing, office space, light manufacturing. And there’s certainly demand for all of those things. That’s why we’re very interested and very supportive of the project.”

“My understanding is that once the developer has negotiated the purchase offer that he will have probably 12 to 18 months to do his due diligence and master plan and feasibility analysis before he determines if he wants to execute the purchase offer,” said Heather Filiberto, director of economic development servicesfor TCAD. “During that 12 to 18 months he’ll be looking at what the costs of clean up are and the costs of doing the types of development that he wants to do.”

Stamm said TCAD has identified funds for the developer that could support the feasibility work — architectural work, engineering, environmental, market research — once a purchase option is acquired.

“It’s a huge facility,” said Stamm. “It’s a very large development project, particularly for a relatively small economy. We’re really excited that a legitimate developer has stepped forward and expressed interest. And it’s a very high priority for TCAD, the city, the town and the county to redevelop that property. It’s certainly in line with smart growth strategies to use existing facilities with existing infrastructure.”

Inter-Municipal Cooperation

But until an agreement between Emerson and the developer is struck, all the two municipalities housing the site and other interested parties can do is wait.

“They’ve been in talks for more than two years now,” said Myrick. “What we hear is they’re in the very, very final stages of discussions. From there  I think we’re looking at probably a five year horizon from the time that everything’s remediated to having it fully occupied. From now to full remediation, mitigation and occupation of both residential housing and the factory. “

With the majority of the undeveloped land situated in the town and the majority of the buildings falling in the city, the two municipalities will have to work closely together should a plan for redevelopment come forward.

“We’re hoping that we’ll be able to work with the town and we have met several times to try and come up with a master plan about how to deal with it on a couple of levels,” said Cornish.

Currently, the town and the city both have the area zoned as industrial, which in both municipalities, excludes residential as an accepted use. The thought on both sides so far is that a planned development zone would be an appropriate avenue for the site because it would allow the municipalities to jointly zone and manage the site.

“We toured the facility,” said Myrick of the joint Emerson Task Force, comprised of town and city representatives, that he formed when he took office. “We met with the management of Emerson and began talking about what needed to be done on both the city and the town side. “And we were leaning towards a planned unit development when we decided to put those talks on hiatus because a year and a half ago we heard there was a potential developer and they may be buying it in the next few months. That was beyond 18 months ago, so it’s taken longer than we thought. But as soon as the sale goes through we’ll get back together and restart our work about what to do with the site. And I think we’ll invite both the neighbors on South Hill and the developer into that conversation.”

In addition to tackling how the site would be zoned and the entity that would take on the site plan approval process, the task force would also have to look at how tax revenue from the development would be divvied up and how code inspections would be done.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have us inspecting half of the property and the town the other half,” said Myrick. “We’re just going to have to come up with an agreement.”

Ritter pointed out it is hard to figure out what conversations need to take place when there is no concrete proposal before the municipalities.

“The biggest obstacle is just getting it into private ownership,” agreed Cornish, summarizing the challenges. “And they’ve been doing this for a couple of years now. So I think that’s the biggest obstacle. And once that’s done I think the next is contamination. How do we deal with the contamination and how do we get it to a point where they could actually look ahead to inhabiting those structures again. That’s the biggest obstacle.

“The third is just the fact that it is a complicated site because part of it is steep slopes,” she added. “Portions in the town, portions in the city. There’s a lot of physical obstacles that we really have to deal with. But I think because we’ve been having these conversations for so long that once it is in private ownership those will become much more real and we’ll be able to deal with those on a case by case basis. We’ll take each issue and we’ll deal with it and then move towards a conclusion that everyone can deal with.”

So far, town and city staff agree cooperation between the two municipalities has gone along smoothly.

“I think this is a good case of inter-municipal cooperation and I and the mayor I think were both very optimistic that things will work out very well,” said Engman. “We’ve already said as soon as they’re ready to go, we’re ready to go to work to make it happen. So I really don’t see any impediments in the way.”

“We want to see the site redeveloped,” said Myrick. “We both want to see it be cleaned up. We both want to see more housing, more manufacturing, more office space. So, so far we haven’t hit any snags. But of course we haven’t gotten into detail.”


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(1) comment

Yeah mon

If the contamination can really be cleaned up, what about transforming it into apartments for low- to mid-income people (NOT including students)? There are not enough decent, affordable apartments in the city, especially for low income people. Maybe add a few shops, a small grocery store, a coffee shop, small bookstore....