You are here

South Hill's Uphill Cleanup - What it will take to get Chainworks tenant-ready


The former Morse Chain site is primed to host one of the biggest development projects in the history of Ithaca, achieving goals for housing and industrial development the city has chased for years while picking up the endorsements of Ithaca and Tompkins County officials alike in the process.

But the “Sleeping Giant” on South Hill is in dire need of a clean up before all that to correct the sins of its manufacturing history.

Emerson Power and Transmission stopped Morse Chain’s South Aurora Street operations back in 2011, and the massive site has lain dormant since then, its pale tan buildings sprawling nearly a hundred acres across the face of South Hill. The interior of the site’s long, connected buildings resemble a carnival’s nightmarish funhouse: some rooms seem happy, well-lit and supported by thick pillars covered in brightly-colored paint peeling down the sides. Others are dank and dreary, illuminated only by a flourescent bulb in the room’s center, highlighting the grimy abandon of the long-vacant property in a garish light. The contamination that rests throughout the site isn’t immediately evident on first inspection; there’s no cartoonish green goo seeping from the walls or bubbling geysers of oil.

But what it lacks in naked-eye appearance, the pollution makes up for in volume, advancing several feet underground at tens and hundreds of times the legal limits in certain spots, infiltrating soil, groundwater and portions of its immediate off-site surroundings. Even when it was in operation, the last several decades have seen headline after headline decrying the site’s harmful effects on the environment and potentially the public’s health as well, even as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation worked to investigate and remediate the site as early as the mid-1980s and into the following decades, when the contamination found its way into the basements of homes at the base of South Hill.

Soon after Morse was shut down, the Chain Works District project idea appeared. The ambitious proposal is one of the city’s oldest prospective projects, having been presented by L Enterprises, led by David Lubin, and conceptually approved by the Planning Board in 2011. Lubin, who’s already made his mark in Ithaca with the downtown Harold’s Square mixed-use housing building on the Commons, is an Elmira-based developer who has primarily built his business through hotel and retail development throughout central New York.

Even for Ithaca’s development boom, the size of the proposal is fairly jaw-dropping. Final numbers are not yet solidified, but it should include something around 915 apartment units, with redevelopment of the 800,000 square feet and 60 some acres of former warehouse and manufacturing space to take the form of residential, commercial and renewed industrial facilities. Early projections show the project costing between $150 and $200 million, and project consultant Vicki Brous said the development team would be asking for a tax abatement, although the size and length of said abatement request have not yet been determined.

As if it wasn’t indicated by its size, Lubin’s vision is something far, far more than a garden variety housing project. He wants to bring the site past its former identity as an industrial center, creating an entire community in the process that can both sustain itself with amenities while fueling downtown density and commerce. He said the goal is to incorporate other South Hill entities, with the obvious being Ithaca College and tenants at the South Hill Business Park, to make it a more “fruitful development.”

“The idea is not just to build an apartment complex, but to have a place you can work and live and play with benefits for the people who live there and work there, and it’s only four blocks from downtown,” Lubin said. “So it’s bringing a whole section of property that’s been isolated from downtown and reestablishing it not only as an apartment complex, which is the easy thing, but as a neighborhood.”

Though not yet statistically significant, there are inklings that the Ithaca housing market may be softening a tad, which could be an intimidating thought for a development team whose 900 or so units won’t be inhabitable for seven to ten years optimistically. But even a bit of market regression would only make the housing that does exist in Ithaca more accessible to people of all income levels, including those who commute in to work in the city but are forced to live further out in Tompkins County to afford a roof and four walls.

“We’re going to see some softening, so we become a normal place where supply and demand make for good quality housing and availability of housing,” Brous said. “We’re one of the few cities in upstate that’s really seeing growth, and I think we want to become a more desirable place for people to live and building places out like this that are urban and interesting will help us to retain people who are leaving the area to go to more urban centers and attract more talent to the area.”

The aspirations for the project are undeniably grand: Lubin and the rest of the development team talk about the project as if its a panacea for many of the pitfalls Ithaca’s faced in the last several years. It will attract young professionals as a business incubator location, and its on-site manufacturing components could entice them to stay here past a first round of start-up funding before fleeing to a larger city. Its impact on the city’s housing stock will be one of the most profound in recent memory and would help stave off the creeping price push that has nudged residents outwards. Why wouldn’t the city and the citizens want to reinvent a site from basically standing rubble to a valuable asset that could raise nearby property values, add to the tax roll and bring in jobs and business?

But for all the starry-eyed optimism, the project still has a few major hurdles to conquer, starting with its ugly environmental background. While the Chain Works development would represent easily the largest single-project influx of housing in Ithaca’s history, and would provide a jolt to the city’s still-ailing housing market, the project is not devoid of skepticism. Ithaca is a community that prides itself on environmental awareness, or at least aspires to, particularly surrounding the robust development push the city’s seen over the last several years; this was highlighted most recently by the advancing Green Building Policy, which will be up for final approval later this year and will look to enforce strict but achievable energy usage requirements on all new construction.

The proposal is now moving concurrently through a few different city planning approval process: the Planning Board is studying its environmental impacts, while discussions still need to be had about what sort of zoning should be implemented under a Planned Unit Development zone customized for the site, along with a similar zoning process taking place in the Town of Ithaca, where part of the site also lies.

Pollution On The Site

There are six “contaminants of concern” that have been identified by the DEC on the site, most notably cyanides, barium, oil residue and trichloroethene (TCE). Throughout the site, levels of contamination range from slightly to significantly above industrial and commercial-use limitations, to say nothing of the levels needed for approvable restricted residential use.

DEC investigations into the site over the last several years have detected a litany of troublesome chemicals. Unchained Properties administered their own investigation as well, enlisting a third-party environmental firm to conduct further testing to protect their investment.

In total, 16 Areas of Concern (AOC) were identified, showing figures of widespread contamination that required action to return them to Soil Contamination Objectives. Certain instances of contamination leakage off the site had been detected during the testing process, mostly through soil vapor intrusion, though the DEC believes these concerns have been addressed through Emerson’s voluntary installation of 59 vapor mitigation systems in nearby homes.

None of the involved parties are denying the obvious: the site merits significant clean-up. It’s classified as a Class “2” New York State Superfund site, which represents a “significant threat to public health or the environment.” The question that faces Emerson and Unchained Properties is how much remediation can be done to satisfy two competing goals: ensuring the long-term health of the site, its residents and the surrounding neighbors, while maintaining economic feasibility for Emerson and making sure the goals are actually technically feasible. Emerson is financially responsible for the clean-up burden until the site meets DEC standards for residential, commercial and industrial use, after which Unchained Properties will assume ownership. In turn, Unchained does have an incentive to make sure the clean-up is as rigorous as possible in hopes of avoiding having to conduct their own remediation in the future if more contamination is found.

Remediation Plan

The level of pollution on the site is generally accepted. What needs to be done to address it, though, is the main source of tension now and the answer depends on who you ask. There is a draft remediation proposal for the site on the table, for which the DEC holds the final call and is currently soliciting public comment on the topic. The agency is also holding an informal Availability Session on the Draft Interim Remedial Measures Work Plan Thursday, June 7 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at South Hill Elementary School to answer questions about the site’s future. Public comments are being accepted until June 18.

The Draft IRM Work Plan consists primarily of excavation, which will be used to remove and dispose of approximately 3,600 cubic yards of contaminated soils as well as to collect samples to see if further remediation is necessary. In terms of individual areas, that equals out to about 3 feet of soil excavation in most Areas of Concern, though that fluctuate between one and 10 feet in certain places depending on groundwater protection concerns. The excavated dirt would then be replaced with clean, uncontaminated soil, and there would be capping with asphalt or synthetic clay to mitigate migration and ongoing testing to monitor effectiveness.

Opponents of Chain Works, if they can be called that, aren’t actually opposed to the development in earnest; it’s probably too early to state positions while the proposal is still at this stage. The main point of contention, though, is the extent that the site will be cleaned up before Chain Works construction takes place. The undeniable history of decades of contamination on the site will always accompany discussion of development on the site, and the two primary voices that have emerged so far calling for a more intensive clean-up process have been Common Council representative Cynthia Brock and local environmental activist Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting.

Both strike similar tunes on the remediation question, essentially saying that the redevelopment presents a golden opportunity for a full reset of the site’s environmental impact in the form of removing all the dirt possible to ensure soil and groundwater safety, going far beyond the three or so feet at most outlined in the current work plan (in some parts of the site, the contamination goes to around 19 feet). Brock said she would like to see all AOCs excavated until the bedrock layer beneath the soil.

Some of their arguments can be traced to a general trepidation at trusting the DEC’s ability to effectively assess the full scale of the clean-up needed on the site. Hang often cites examples like Ithaca Falls, where clean-up efforts have stopped and started to the detriment of the site as contamination migrates from the old Ithaca Gun Factory location down into the gorge. The DEC issued a “no further work” on part of the site last year, though the Environmental Protection Agency then seemed to contradict that finding in other parts of the site. Years of the “pump-and-treat” remediation method, they say, have proven unsatisfactory at bringing the site to acceptable levels of contamination.

“If they have an interest in cleaning up the site, then clean up the site,” Hang said. “Meet all the applicable standards, it’s as simple as that.”

The “interim” portion of interim remedial measures seems to be Hang’s primary sticking point. In his mind, the Chain Works project is a great bargaining chip to clean-up the site in its entirety, something he insists is possible. With Emerson already on the hook to foot the bill for the clean-up, Hang wishes Unchained Properties would take advantage of the opportunity he sees.

“At Morse Chain, all they have to do is dig up the sources of pollution,” Hang said. They could do it if they wanted to, but all they’re going to do is remove some of the dirt, and I think that’s unconscionable.”

On the other hand, the Chain Works development team insists that the proposed work plan will sufficiently remediate the Morse Chain site, and that the demands of those objecting to the work plan can’t be realistically accomplished, particularly on a site of this size and topography. Lubin said while they aim to bring the area to safe levels for all the uses they intend for the site, taking out significant amounts of shale hillside – as well as digging out 19-feet of soil cover – isn’t a “practical idea,” and Paul Sylvestri, a Rochester-based lawyer working with Unchained Properties echoed that sentiment.

“There’s folks out there that are talking about ‘You should be removing every molecule of contamination at the site,’ that’s just not technically feasible,” Sylvestri said. “But what is technically feasible here at this site is to remove enough contamination to make it safe for re-use and to be protective of the environment, and that’s certainly doable.”

According to the work plan, the DEC and outside engineering firm WSP USA will monitor the IRMs effectiveness throughout the process, something Unchained Properties is relying on to monitor the measures’ progress. There will also be a final report prepared and submitted after remediation is completed to see if more is required.

Since the property deal between Unchained and Emerson has not yet technically been finalized, pending the remediation, there’s a chance, albeit quite faint, the deal could fall through depending on the DEC’s final decision. But Sylvestri said they have no reason to suspect such a scenario and that Emerson has been cooperative during the lengthy process. For its part, Emerson, who would sink millions into remediation costs but would also stand to benefit financially from a sale of the property, sounds committed to handling whatever the final clean-up directive is, hopefully commencing this summer. Sylvestri declined to expound on what the negotiated sale price of the site is.

“Emerson has been and continues to be fully-committed to a clean-up of the Ithaca site,” Emerson spokesperson David Baldridge wrote in an email. “We will fulfill the obligations the company has to the State of New York [...] The redevelopment of the site is an opportunity to see the stie returned to productive use while Emerson continues remediation of the environmental contamination.”

Baldridge stated that the company has not set a maximum dollar figure for clean-up expenditures. Emerson had been involved with a lawsuit against Borg Warner (the previous owner of Morse Chain and the site) to determine responsibility for the contamination, ending in the two companies agreeing to work together, Baldrige said. Emerson isn’t actually required to bring the site to mixed-use contamination standards, Baldridge noted, though they agreed to do so to move the redevelopment plan along.

Lubin reiterated that he feels Emerson is fulfilling its commitment to the city and its residents with its remediation plans, and that pushing for more would create undue financial burden and force delays in the project’s timeline. There’s no way to remove every molecule of contamination, he said, but even working within their limitations will enable them to create a safe site.

“This is industry paying for mistakes that were made, they thought they were doing best practices, but science has taught us you can’t just dump things on the ground,” Lubin said. “The DEC is going to come back [...] If they find more problems we’re going to take more out. The idea is to bring it down to a safe level and then bury it.”