The city of Ithaca, New York has spent the better part of the past decade fighting off big box developers — and all on the same parcel of scenic floodplain. First it was Wal-Mart, which tried to locate across from the Buttermilk Falls State Park. That proposal was defeated by the citizens group, Stop Wal-Mart, which prevailed against the company even when Wal-Mart sued through the courts. Buttermilk Park draws an estimated 200,000 visitors each year to watch its cascading waters. A Wal-Mart superstore in this viewshed was like a pimple on the Mona Lisa. After Wal-Mart’s well-publicized defeat, the battle over Buttermilk was not over. According to journalist John Milich, the Widewaters development company of DeWitt, New York has been incrementally pushing a 200,000 s.f. shopping center anchored by a Target store every bit as nasty as the Wal-Mart that went over the falls. Widewaters plans for Buttermilk date back to 1999, when they sought a fill permit to dump 80,000 cubic yards of dirt to prepare the floodplain for something big — but a Target was not specified. With the help of Ithaca’s Mayor, Alan Cohen, city officials bent over backwards to facilitate Widewaters’ application for an even larger project than the Wal-Mart the city rejected in the not so distant past. According to an article Milich wrote in Ground Score, an environmental newspaper, the Cohen Administration did what it could to avoid the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act, and paved the way for Widewaters to become a Buttermilk neighbor. The article notes that Widewaters contributed money to powerful state lawmakers, and that Hizzoner got rid of city officials who did not agree with this reversal of position on development in the viewshed. The battle, however, is far from over, as a citizens group called Protect Our Parks and Neighborhoods (POPAN) has raised money and filed 2 lawsuits against the city. Mayor Cohen, opponents argue, is certainly not about to cry over spilled Buttermilk.
There is no difference between the impact of a Wal-Mart, and the impact of a Target. What has changed is the political administration in Ithaca. Mayor Cohen defeated a “green” candidate for Mayor, and has been the key factor behind the strange about-face for Ithaca on big box development. To help POPAN fight Widewaters and the Mayor, contributions can be sent to: POPAN, 101 E. State St, #134,Ithaca, NY, 14850,.or email [email protected] To reach John Milich, contact [email protected] The Wal-Mart project was promoted by a developer called East Coast Development. It’s plans for a 130,000 .s.f Wal-Mart were dashed in March of 1996 when a state Supreme Court Judge upheld the City Planning Board’s decision against the project. The Judge’s ruling was based on “aesthetic and other environmental evidence”. Former Ithaca Mayor Ben Nichols had urged the Planning Board to reject the store. At the time, Nichols was quoted as saying: “We don’t want a store in that location of that size. The harm done would be greater than the benefits.”