ITHACA, N.Y. — It was one of the quieter months for the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee. On the agenda was review of Collegetown and Downtown Design Guidelines, a glimpse at the planned zoning for the Chain Works District, and early plans for a more widespread Planned Urban Development (PUD) zone in the city.

About the only real point of substantial debate came during the review of the Collegetown Design Guidelines. The guidelines are designed to complement zoning but without the legal ramifications. They’re recommendations for good building design so that a developer and their design team knows what the city is looking for before submitting something for review. On the city’s end, receiving a good design from the start makes it somewhat less likely that projects will garner widespread opposition, which has been a problem before (see: State Street Triangle). Look at it like a kid’s Christmas list – if Johnny and Susie let you know what they want, it makes your shopping easier and they’re less likely to be disappointed on Christmas morning.

At this point, the guidelines are nearly complete. The committee was reviewing the Planning Board’s recommendations and deciding whether or not to incorporate them. Most were minor, often grammar-related, and accepted with comment. One recommendation, however, did stir debate. The Planning Board recommendation a 12-foot wide setback starting at 65 feet (maximum height in Collegetown is 80 feet, and only on a few MU-2 sites at its core), while the planning department’s trained and paid staff was okay with a range, 8-12 feet.

“The guidelines call for 8 {feet}, and the planning board asks for 12 feet. What’s the rationale for that? Visual consistency? I don’t understand the significance,” stated councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward).

“It’s an attempt to open up the skyline, make it not so canyon-like. But 12 feet is quite a bit of leaseable area. Our recommendation was 8-12 feet,” replied city Planning director JoAnn Cornish.

“Thinking of the smaller parcels, and the narrow streets, if your streets are 35, 40 feet across, you won’t see much of a difference between 8 and 12 feet. I don’t look that high unless I’m intentionally looking that high,” replied Brock.

Planning Board member John Schroeder, speaking as a member of the public, was adamant about the need for 12 feet, saying it is “so important to maintaining an attractive College Ave due to the sheer impact of height going up 80 feet”. He cited winter winds, sunlight access, and said the lost square footage could be rented as patio space.

Collegetown councilor Steve Smith (D-4th Ward) said he was sympathetic to Schroeder’s argument, but that affordability, availability and quality are his concerns, and that as staff had noted, a larger setback can make a project more expensive.

Brock was also unconvinced. “I’m eyeballing these {council chamber} tables, they’re six feet long…two of these tables seems like a significant volume to me. Your argument makes a lot of sense on Dryden since it’s east-west.  But no so much on every other street. I agree with Steve and staff with the 8-foot recommendation. The biggest impact would be on Dryden and sunlight access. I’m not sure 4 feet will restore that much more light access.”

“It’s one-third. 33%,” stressed Schroeder.

“I don’t think it works that way,” replied Brock. Given the rest of the building’s volume, that’s a fair statement. If you have a 50-foot deep building, the visual impact of a four-foot setback is 42 feet vs 38 feet. Which isn’t a 33% difference.

Another point of discussion was to make sure that interior buildings (multiple primary structures) with quasi-public walkways were held to design standards. Brock felt the document was silent about those, and wanted some additional emphasis on interior facades, and wanted consistency in design for street faces and interior uses accessed by the public. Smith agreed, noting he didn’t want ‘Soviet-looking’ mega-blocks. Staff acknowledged and while noting that many interior walkways are tenant-only, for those with public use like Collegetown Crossing, they would add that emphasis to the guidelines.

Apart from those tweaks and decisions, all other board suggestions were carried unanimously. The discussion for the Downtown Design Guidelines was much shorter, five minutes at most, and just a couple questions for clarity’s sake. The Downtown Guidelines were also carried unanimously.

The Chain Works District

The project team paid the committee a visit to give a brief presentation about the proposed zoning, which the Voice previously reported on here. The big change since early 2016 was to break the CW3 zoning into two subsets, “A” and “B”, where “A” is closer to Danby Road and a little more restrictive out of respect for neighbors – it allows only four floors, while “B” allows six.

There was some discussion at this initial zoning review. Brock asked if there were parking requirements, and project lead Jamie Gensel replied “{w}e haven’t set a requirement, but we have a number.” He said that they’re trying to utilize surface parking and some buildings will have ground-floor indoor parking.

“Conceptually, this looks good. Devil’s in the details,” noted committee chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd).

Councilor Michael Decatur (D-5th) asked about transit. Gensel explained that they plan to have two TCAT bus stops within the project, perhaps even a park and ride, with connections to South Hill Business Campus, and walkway and trail connections to Downtown and Ithaca College (while stressing this is not student housing).

“I am very specifically concerned with uses associated with particular areas,” said Brock. “I’m not seeing that. Is this map included as part of this, or is there a separate document that will say what areas of business only, industrial only?…I would be opposed to residential use in certain buildings”.

“If there’s an area the DEC {NYS Department of Environmental Conservation} won’t allow residential, we won’t allow it. That will be a part of the EIS. It will be based on the DEC’s decisions on whether they restrict an area to industrial or allow residential,” replied Gensel.

Developer David Lubin added that most of the site to be cleaned to residential standards, and the plans are in place with the GEIS. “The GEIS has been held up simply because this is the last piece. Pretty much everything else is completed.”

The committee unanimously voted to circulate the zoning for review and comment.

PUD Overlay District – “PUDOD”

So this is an interesting possibility. A PUD is a sort of “DIY Zoning”, with the concession that the Common Council gets to vote on a project, as well as host additional public hearings. A developer gets more flexibility to do mixed-use plans and allows for some creativity in design, but it also gives the city more avenues to stop the plan if they think it’s a bad one.

Currently, PUDs are only allows in areas zoned industrial, like the Chain Works site. There isn’t much industrial land in the city. To try and push developed away from established neighborhoods and areas with single-family homes, the city is looking to allow PUDs along the State Street Corridor, West End, Waterfront and Southwest Ithaca, as well as portions of lower West Hill and Collegetown. The logic here is that if the city encourages development in the West End or the heart of Collegetown, they can relieve some of the pressure and rising housing costs in neighborhoods like Belle Sherman, West Hill and Southside.

There was not much comment at this stage. Murtagh called it “A really useful tool”, while Brock was amenable to the idea, so long as it establishes transition areas. Planner Jennifer Kusznir replied that would be a focus during site plan review. The committee voted unanimously to circulate the plan for review and comment.

All this PUD discussion may impact a project coming up – a vaguely-described “Waterfront Project” is expected to undergo sketch plan review with the city planning board on the 19th. It would be the first since the new mixed-use waterfront zoning came into effect.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.