Ithaca’s waterfront: We’ve come a long way

A look at waterfront history to better understand its future

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With city officials reviewing the final draft of the Planning and Economic Development Department’s Phase II Comprehensive Plan for the waterfront, it is a great opportunity to analyze the waterfront development on a wider scale, from past to present. In the first part of this two-part dive, let’s look back at how we got here.

It may surprise some readers that much of what is currently on Ithaca’s waterfront are rather recent arrivals from only the past couple decades.

Understanding what was there before lends better insight to why the waterfront is in its current state and where the current trend toward more development is going.

To touch briefly on the very beginning, in the late 18th century, the area surrounding Cayuga Lake and the inlet was very marshy, creating many difficulties that prevented any building along the waterfront.

“The development of the Erie Canal system and the railroads that followed soon made the water resources of the lake and inlet extremely valuable,” according to the Comprehensive Plan draft released in September 2019.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 ignited new development on the water, making the lake a commercial waterway. Not long after, railroads arrived, bringing in even more industry.

“When communities first developed, it was part of the barge system, part of the canal system,” Tompkins County Area Development President Heather McDaniel said. “So, there was industry down there, but the waterfront wasn’t an attractive place to want to live or recreate.”

This all began to change in the early 20th century, when many coal yards, steam ships and barges disappeared from the lake and inlet and the railroads declined. By the 1920s, commercial use of Cayuga Lake and the inlet diminished significantly, and the waterfront was no longer a focus of activity.

In 1935, a major flood would change the history of the waterfront forever.

“This catastrophe led the city to petition the federal government for decades until and inlet flood protection project was finally placed in the Federal Flood Control Act of 1960,” according to the city.

This three-phase plan led to the creation of Inlet Island, which is still there today, home to places like the Boatyard Grill.

By 1970, the Flood Control Channel was complete, benefiting the city by “providing flood protection and a beautiful new waterway,” per the city. There were some casualties, though, like the destruction of an entire neighborhood known as the Rhine. This area included over 50 homes, a playground and other various structures, all lost to create the channel.

In the ’80s and ’90s, as those that were there can attest, the waterfront was a rather poor neighborhood, with less-than-favorable conditions for any purpose.

“That whole area was sort of the back end of Ithaca,” said JoAnn Cornish, director of planning at the City of Ithaca. “I would say that most of the local population didn’t pay any attention to it, didn’t even realize it was there.”

As former Ithaca mayor John Gutenberger described, the waterfront remained largely undeveloped because of the complicated traffic system created by the flood control channel.

“Some of the major barriers to development of the waterfront/West End have been traffic congestion in the area, existence of the railroad tracks/train traffic and the poor soil conditions,” he said. “As this area of the southern end of Cayuga Lake was once a swamp, construction is more difficult and expensive.”

What’s more, these traffic patterns haven’t improved much since.

“Because several bridges were removed as part of the flood control channel project, traffic patterns were altered resulting in what was known for years as ‘The Octopus,’” Gutenberger said. “Many local residents and developers avoided The Octopus area as much as possible because of the difficulty getting through the area. The state spent over $30 million to ‘untangle’ The Octopus, which resulted in the traffic patterns that exist today.”

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that development started to change for the better on the waterfront. The Boatyard Grill, currently located on Old Taughannock Boulevard, may seem like a mainstay now, but it’s actually less than two decades old. As owner Mark Campagnolo described, the site that would become the Boatyard Grill wasn’t always a desired business location.

“On that site, specifically, was basically a contaminated, nautical boating junkyard,” Campagnolo said. “It was littered with barrels of oil and parts and pieces, boats, and underneath all that was a fuel storage tank that fed the railroad.”

This condition meant that building the Boatyard Grill in 2001 was quite the operation, requiring major cleanup and development just to put in the building. The soil remained soft, just like in the 18th century, so foundation had to be laid down much deeper than is typical.

“People told us we were absolutely crazy because there was no way you could do a real estate development down here,” said Steve Flash, an investor in the Boatyard Grill.

It might seem like all this made the Boatyard Grill not worth the work, but Campagnolo saw it differently.

“We had 90 miles of waterfront and no real waterfront restaurants or activity that took real advantage of the view where people could sit outside, bring their boats, have live entertainment, things of this nature, along the water with a view like that,” he said. “We thought there was a need.”

The Boatyard Grill immediately became the catalyst the city needed to finally see the potential of the waterfront, Campagnolo said.

“People began to realize that people enjoy water, and it’s an item that we have a lot of around here and not a lot of people had taken advantage of at that particular time,” he said. “What has happened is [the Boatyard Grill] has brought a diverse group of people down to the waterfront that would not have normally gone there otherwise because they had no reason to.”

That new interest in the waterfront led to other businesses joining the restaurant’s position on the water, like Cayuga Medical Center’s Island Health and Fitness and Chemung Canal Trust Company.

If the Boatyard Grill was the catalyst for business development, then the Waterfront Trail was the catalyst for recreational development.

The Cayuga Waterfront Trail as it stands today was built in several phases, with the first phase in 2002 constructed around Cass Park, according to Rick Manning, program coordinator for the Cayuga Waterfront Trail Initiative.

Phase two was connecting the Farmers Market to Cass Park. Phase three was a rather recent addition connecting the trail to Allan H. Treman State Marine Park, completed just this year.

As Manning tells it, the trail was a long time coming.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, trails were being done throughout New York state,” Manning said. “There was a lot of federal funding for it starting in the early ’90s, and it just seemed like Ithaca wasn’t getting it.”

Change is always hard, so building the trail in the first place had some of its own challenges, Manning said. But it was more than worth it, he argues.

“It has enabled all of the waterfront development that they’re now pursuing,” Manning said. “It has changed the perception of the waterfront as being sort of the city’s back yard to the city’s front yard.”

Cornish shared a similar sentiment and is grateful for the change the Waterfront Trail ushered in for recreational development.

“People started using that waterfront trail, and they were introduced to this incredible area,” Cornish said. “If you’re going to build housing on the waterfront, that is a real amenity.”

For a long time, Manning has had an appreciation for the waterfront that he said is rather unique.

“We have this incredible waterfront park system in the city that is just unparalleled,” he said.

Ultimately, whether it was for business or pleasure, the waterfront has changed considerably, turning it into the valuable resource that it is today.

“This is our public place, and to be able to provide access to it and along it so that you can enjoy it is really key to city quality of life,” Manning said. “We’re really incredibly fortunate to have so much of it here.”

Now more than ever, the waterfront is seen as a valuable resource for all kinds of development, reflected in the city of Ithaca Comprehensive Plan.

Plan Ithaca may be the latest plan to develop the waterfront, but, unsurprisingly, there have been many attempts in the past. The Inlet Island Land Use Plan was released in 1991, the Tompkins County Waterfront Plan was released in 1997, and the Cayuga Lake Waterfront Plan was released in 2004.

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