ITHACA, N.Y. — A plan for a mixed-use project with affordable housing is pushing forward despite the potential for derailment by zoning changes under consideration by the city.

The proposal is for 510 W. State St., between Downtown and the West End along what the city has dubbed the “State Street Corridor”. The initial sketch plans debuted in the Ithaca Voice back in January.

According to the Site Plan Review (SPR) document filed with the city by architect Noah Demarest on behalf of Ithaca’s Visum Development Group, the plan calls for a 74,700 square-foot building with 76 units of low to moderate income housing in the 50-80% area median income range. Of those 76 units, 33 would be two-bedroom units, 21 would be one-bedroom units, and 22 would be efficiency/studio units. Included in the plans are a package room, community room, storage room, indoor bike storage, laundry room and outdoor terrace space. A 2,100 square-foot commercial retail space would be built facing West State Street.

Since the sketch plan was shown to the Planning Board last winter, the project has undergone a number of design changes. Small setbacks were added to the street-facing wings, balconies were added to the four-story wing facing West Seneca Street, and the location of many of the windows was changed. In general, however, it’s largely the same massing as before – two six-story wings facing West State and North Corn Streets, and the four-story West Seneca wing. (Want to see more images of the project? Click here.)

A one-story retail building and two-story apartment house would come down to make way for the project. Heating and cooling systems have yet to be designed, but Demarest and his firm (STREAM Collaborative) are looking at ways to make the project net-zero capable; basically, make everything electric like the appliances and the heat pumps, and then the developer builds or buys all the energy needed for the project from a solar installation out in the towns where there’s more space for panels.

As designed, the plan does not include parking. The argument is that the corridor is well-served by buses and walkable to much of the city. The block is split between CBD-60 (Central Business District, 60 feet maximum height) on the south half, which has no parking requirement, and B-2d (Business District) on the north half, which doesn’t require parking if a proposed project is greater than 60% residential space.

It’s the zoning where the potential issue for this project lies. City planners and common councilors were fully expecting less parking and mixed-use plans back when the zoning along West State Street was revised in 2013. What was more jarring was the design of this project.

The outdated sketch plan drawing for the project.

510 West State is the first proposal since the zoning was revised six years ago that builds to the potential height maximum. The sketch plans, which had windowless walls readily visible from State Street, did not elicit a positive reaction from city planners, and that led to a proposal from the planning department to restrict the zoning. The plan floated last month called for a mandatory setback that would allow only four floors on street-facing sides, and five floors interior to the site. The current zoning is six floors with no required setback, so this more restrictive law would be a “downzoning” of the properties.

The revised design. The top image is looking from North Corn Street westward. The bottom image is looking from West State Street northward.

The latest design iteration moved some of the windows from one side of the wing to the other, so that there aren’t as many blank walls as seen from West State Street. However, some remain. In the SPR, the project team says they will hire local artists to paint murals, and are considering “living walls” (vertical gardens) to minimize the negative visual impact.

However, at this point the proverbial ball may be in the city’s court. The zoning proposal was not voted for circulation and comment (the first step in becoming law) last month because it was a late addition to the Planning and Economic Development Committee agenda and councilors wanted to give time for further review. Some of the heights and setback requirements are still being tweaked, and some city councilors wanted consideration of expanding the downzoning amendment from beyond this block and across a larger portion of the city. The argument is that more medium-sized and large projects would then have to go through the Planned Unit Development Overlay and therefore give Common Council a vote on those development projects, potentially teasing out greater community benefits.

The west and north elevations of the proposed building. Foreground buildings are not shown.

The downzoning proposal is expected to come up at this month’s meeting, and could potentially become law as soon as the July Common Council meeting. That’s faster than this project can make it through the city planning board, which typically takes a minimum of four months for a project of this size (a month to declare the board lead agency for environmental review, at least a month or two to conduct the environmental review, and another month for consideration of preliminary site plan approval). Aware of a potential conflict, the planning board may choose to defer conducting its review until the zoning is sorted out.

If the new zoning is in place, Common Council could potentially extract greater benefits during the PUD review process, or even stop the project completely if they reject a PUD proposal and it is financially infeasible for the developer to make the project work within the downzoning. Alternatively, Council could decide that the 76 units of low-moderate income housing justify the project design. There’s a lot of uncertainty that goes with a PUD, especially since the city has yet to approve one for a sizable project. So far Common Council has only fully reviewed two: the Maguire dealership that was rejected at Carpenter Park on a 2-8 vote, and the 1,900 square-foot Cherry Artspace, which was approved 8-2.

With the potential for the zoning to change, the plans may be moving forward at the moment, but it’s too early to say what’s going to happen with this site. If the project does get approved, Visum and its partners plan to start construction late this year, for occupancy in January 2021.

Brian Crandall

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