Talk to property owners on Inlet Island, and they all have an idea of how attractive a waterfront destination the area could be with the right kind of development.
“I could see it as something like Marina del Rey, in L.A.,” said Anne Chernish,, who is partners with Steve Flash on a proposed, 20-unit, mixed-use project at 323 Taughannock Blvd. designed by Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative. “I lived there when I was young. It’s modern, and developed with lots of inlets.”
Tom Newton, who owns a couple properties on Taughannock along the “Old Port Harbor” of the Cayuga Inlet, compares the area’s potential to Manhattan’s South Ferry. Micky Roof, who owns the Jewelbox, at the corner of Taughannock and West Buffalo Street, invokes the San Antonio Riverwalk as an aspirational goal for Ithaca’s waterfront.
In the past year, there have been changes made on the island: both Tim Ciaschi and Mark Zaharis, members of the most venerable property owning families on the Inlet Island, have opened 13 new residential units between them in buildings behind Pete’s Grocery, a store named after Zaharis’ father, and now owned by Ciaschi. In the old Lehigh Valley House restaurant, above which Ciaschi built six new condominiums, there’s now a West End substation for the Ithaca Police Department in operation. The Zaharises have renovated their Unfinished Furniture store into seven apartments.
More residential units in the area are what seem to be called for by the new density-oriented conventional wisdom of city planning, along with public access to the water and a more lively retail and nightlife scene. There’s a proposal before Common Council to make the entire waterfront zone, which includes all of Inlet Island, a “planned unit development,” which gives council the “power and authority to enforce the community vision on that site,” according to Mayor Svante Myrick. Developers there can build up to five stories with parking underneath, a total of 62 feet high.
The most obvious advantage of the area for developers is that “they’re not making any more water,” as Newton puts it. For those who value stepping right out of their homes into a boat or kayak, or simply the view, that’s all-important and has been known to raise property values in other places. What might be less obvious to Ithacans accustomed to thinking of the West End as “seedy and dirty and industrial,” as Roof puts the perception, is how close Inlet Island is to everything on land a person needs to live day to day.
“I think it could be just beautiful and wish Noah [Demarest] and crew could design the whole island to look like any other town that has waterfront development,” Chernish said. “There’s two grocery stores, a bank, Island Health, restaurants. It’s all there.”
Downtown is a 10- to 15-minute walk, and Wegman’s and other stores on the Southwest commercial strip are about the same distance. Roof notes that crossing busy Meadow Street is “pretty intimidating,” but traffic calming measures floated in a variety of recent plans and proposals would make the area more accessible to the more easterly parts of the city.
For seniors, looking for a place to live that’s largely walkable, both Newton and Roof said the joke is that Inlet Island is on the “right side of the tracks” for someone where minutes could mean the difference between life and death. When those long freight trains are traveling through town, there’s no way for ambulances coming from the east to get over or around the Norfolk Southern tracks to Cayuga Medical Center.
The disadvantages of building on Inlet Island are more difficult to see, but familiar to anyone who follows development in Ithaca. Most all of the flatlands in town were once marsh, so the soils aren’t ideal for laying solid foundations.
The 323 Taughannock Blvd. project received approvals in 2014, but it ran into what Flash calls “a conundrum of issues: parking, soft soil, relatively tight space.”
There was an “unexpected issue” that came up, Flash said, with the project, and so they must take “a sharper look at the engineering” to make the costs work.
“In a small area, the cost of going up is in the pilings going down,” Flash said. “But then you still have to have sufficient parking units with greater density.”
Several landowners cited parking on the island as a problem. Roof said the area needs a parking garage. Albert Kelly of Kelly’s Dock-Side Café thinks that putting in Island Fitness about a decade ago “screwed up all the parking.” According to him, besides the parking allotted to fitness center and Chemung Canal Trust in the old railroad depot, the city-owned parking lot is also full up “from 5 a.m. to 9 o’clock at night.”
“I think it hurt development of this side [of the island],” Kelly said. “It’s not fair to the community. Not everyone can [go without] a car.”
Myrick said there has been an agreement in place that some of the businesses on the island pay a lump sun for parking; so far as a garage goes, the mayor sounds pessimistic.
“I think [a garage] is unlikely,” Myrick said, “because of the soils. Parking garages are very weird, unstable buildings. The beams have to be far enough apart to drive cars through, to be at all economical.”
This winter, there are also lots of boats parked on several properties, since Johnson’s Boat Yard (next to the Newman golf course) ostensibly closed last fall, but according to the management there, they will be open again as a marina in 2016. Whether the Finger Lakes Boating Center (next to the Boat Yard restaurant) remains the only point of water access or not, the business is “there to stay, or hopefully grow,” Flash, its owner said. “It’s a matter of making development that is sensitive to the needs of the marina.”
Traffic, especially the timing of traffic lights in the area, was cited as another problem. Roof lamented the rejection of a five-story hotel proposal put forth by Flash for the city-owned parking area, which was denied by Common Council in 2007.
“I absolutely believe there should be a hotel here,” Roof said. “What the hotel did for the waterfront in Watkins Glen … we should have been way ahead of them on that.”
The Jewelbox owner called out the city on its commitment to infrastructure improvements. She said when water gets high, she has had sewer problems at her shop.
“They say the waterfront is a priority. The waterfront is a priority, [but] when it really comes down to supporting us, they disappear,” Roof said. Roof said she was told master planning funds had been made available to the city in recent economic development monies, but the grant for the waterfront area was never written.
Myrick said that was the first he’d heard of infrastructure complaints in the area. The three public projects he cites as waterfront priorities are moving the state Department of Transportation yard, dredging, and moving the Coast Guard auxiliary on the Island that’s owned by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
“In my understanding the struggle has always been about how many individual property owners on Inlet Island and how hard it is to get them all on the same page,” Myrick said.
Property owners interviewed for this story alluded to efforts several years ago to collaborate as one entity to find the right developer, but no one would speak clearly to the effort.
Kelly said he’s been the only property not for sale on the stretch, but wouldn’t sell the Dock-Side Grill, which he’s owned for 44 years, “for less than a million.” Newton, who mostly lives in Key West, said he has developers doing their “due diligence” and couldn’t talk numbers, but he is willing to sell outright.
“It’s the typical situation where everyone thinks their property is worth a bazillion dollars and in reality it’s not,” Roof said. “It’s worth something when you build on it, not before.”
Chernish, for her part, said she was optimistic about Inlet Island becoming something like she dreams.
“We’ll get it done,” Chernish said. “It might take 20 years, like everything else in Ithaca.” •