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Debate over aquarium property continues as purchase progresses

An open, grassy waterfront lot with pick-up truck and mound of dirt in the distance.
Scott Willis
This is roughly the location of the 4.7 lot looking from Solar Street toward the Bear Street bridge over Onondaga Creek. May 16, 2023.

It appears opponents to the aquarium in the Onondaga County Legislature have run out of options to delay the purchase of property on the Inner Harbor, at least for now. Democratic legislator Mary Kuhn had hoped to present a resolution at Wednesday's session to pause the deal with COR development until they can learn more about possible contaminants on the 4.7 acre parcel. But she says county lawyers have blocked it. Lawmakers approved the sale last month by a narrow 9 to 8 vote, but the paperwork has not been finalized. Kuhn feels the county, seller COR development, and others are not being forthcoming to lawmakers and taxpayers.

“How much is the county going to be on the hook for further cleanup," Kuhn asked. "And they're saying, you know, don't worry about it won't be a big deal. Okay. Tell me why. That's all.”

Legislature chair Jim Rowley has dismissed the concerns of any contamination, and so has county executive Ryan McMahon. He calls the recent findings of gas vapors on former oil city property “routine” and expected.

“Anytime you do construction borings, you report out to the DEC certain things, what was reported to the DEC was not even reported to me, because the vapors that were found there," McMahon said. "They knew were going to be there because it was already disclosed and environmental review that the legislature had for weeks.”

McMahon accuses opponents in the legislature of playing politics and not reading the material.

“These individuals had their position, their position was in the minority, the projects moving forward, and I'm sure they will find some other reason not to support the project,” McMahon said.

Legislator Kuhn says the land acquisition is an example of an ongoing pattern with the $85 million aquarium project.

“The aquarium itself, from the beginning, has not been marked by a great deal of transparency," Kuhn said. "I think everybody would agree with that. I had asked for town halls. If you want this aquarium so badly, get the public behind it. And that never happened. So this just feels wrong again.”

Kuhn emphasizes that she’s not looking to obstruct the project, but rather for more information and time.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at