ITHACA, N.Y. — Sometimes, given the dire economic and public health concerns facing Ithaca in the COVID era, it feels a little strange to keep calm and carry on. Yet, the developers keep presenting their plans to the city, and the meetings must go on. This month, the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board certainly had their work cut out for them, with four hours and seven different projects on last night’s agenda, granting final approvals to two of them. For those who like to read along to the rundown, here’s your agenda link.

Site Plan Review

With no Special Permits or Subdivision Reviews to conduct this month, the Planning Board jumped straight into Site Plan Review, which is where the review of new building proposals happens. In the interest of not pushing ten pages of material, if you want a description of the steps in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” is here.

For a quick refresher, the Planning Board looks at sketch plans, declares itself lead agency for state environmental quality review (SEQR), conducts a review and declares negative (adverse effects mitigated) or positive (potential harmful impacts, needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while concurrently performing design review for projects in certain neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all good and done, they vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval.

209 Hudson St. in Ithaca. Rendering from proposal provided to the Planning and Development Board.

209 Hudson Street

Starting off the site plan reviews this month was a small project with a rather unpleasant history, 209 Hudson Street on South Hill. Back in 2018, the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) denied a side yard variance for a subdivision and new duplex at 209 Hudson Street, which is currently a double-lot with an existing home on the southern half of the property. The Planning Board was non-committal in its recommendation because the underlying premise was legally questionable. You see, the side yard deficiency already existed. The existing century-old home on the double-lot created it. The subdivision was on its other side and legally conforming. The variance wouldn’t be caused by the proposed new build, but was used against it because South Hill homeowners opposed the new rental duplex for being a rental. In other words, using non-zoning discussion (who would live there) in a discussion of a zoning variance.

That was a problem because legally it can be seen as “arbitrary and capricious.” The developer of the duplex, the Stavropoulos family on West Hill, sued under NYS law code Article 78. Article 78 means a local government acted unfairly and improperly in its deliberation, and its primary use is to prevent discrimination. The NYS Supreme Court decided in March 2019 that the City of Ithaca and the BZA had misused zoning law and discriminated against the Stavropoulos family. The city appealed the decision to the NYS Court of Appeals and lost that appeal last month. Two years and tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs later, the state says the city and its BZA must grant the variance to allow the new lot and duplex.

To be clear, the state says the city must issue the variance, but the site plan review itself is separate. The plans haven’t changed significantly since 2018, and the review is more or less just the board going through its proper procedures before signing off on approval for the new duplex. The project includes four parking spaces, stone retaining walls, new paving, sidewalks, and landscaping. An existing in-ground pool, shed, and three mature trees would be removed. Since the sites will share a driveway, easements for the property are needed to ensure both lots retain legal driveway access.

Project architect Jagat Sharma walked the board through a review presentation of the project. The duplex itself is modular, but uses decorative timbers, brackets and Hardie board to complement the century-old home next door. The board’s commentary was brief – they wanted to make sure the retaining walls were stone and not cement, and that there was a landscaping plan that replaced mature trees affected by the construction.

“We’ve looked at this many times and I think this is a really great project, it’s contextually appropriate…I’m ready to move forward with approving it,” said board member McKenzie Jones. Preliminary and final approval was granted unanimously, 2.5 years after the plans first came forth.

Asteri Ithaca (120 East Green Street)

Next up on the list for this month’s site plan reviews was the 12-story Asteri Ithaca Green Street Garage redevelopment at 120 East Green Street. The Asteri proposal by The Vecino Group includes a 217-unit low-moderate income apartment building with commercial space on the lower levels, and an expanded publicly-accessible garage next door, which will grow to seven floors with an additional 241 parking spaces (350 total).

As noted by city planners, the lower three floors of the U-shaped building will house amenities, a 49,000 square-foot conference center and a small amount of retail space. The Cinemapolis Plaza will keep its current public pedestrian passage between the Commons and Green Street, with lighting, signage, art, and landscaping improvements. Initial plans called for Cinemapolis to relocate for part of the construction period, but the latest construction plan lets them stay in their theater with only a few short offline periods. The Vecino Group and their partners are also requesting consideration of a City Hall Plaza next door on the small parking lot between the project site and City Hall. That plaza would feature a large outdoor gathering spot with paving, lighting, landscaping, and furnishings while retaining a few off-street parking spaces.

The Asteri project seems to be back on track after a special meeting earlier this month where the developers offered to remove ten feet from the building’s rear (north) side from the fifth floor up, mitigating some of the light and viewshed issues raised by the development team of its neighbor Harold’s Square. The compromise proposal also has slight pullbacks on the lower floors (less than a foot pulled back from floors 1-4) and works to create niche spaces between the structural trusses, helping to open up the alley between the two buildings. The downside to this plan is that the apartment units have been shrunk down – some one-bedrooms became studio apartments, and some two-bedroom units became one-bedrooms. At this meeting, the board planned to continue with Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Forms (FEAF), which is one of the later components of the environmental review/SEQR process.

During the public comment, Harold’s Holding made it clear they were still opposed to the Asteri proposal, as a letter from co-developer Maguire Group’s Erik Ekman cited light, aesthetic and parking concerns. Harold’s Square has also filed an Article 78 lawsuit against Vecino and the City of Ithaca Common Council in an effort to stop the project (Voice staff are working on getting a full copy of the lawsuit filing).

The board’s discussions jumped around a number of topics in the FEAF, such as foundation work and the limiting of synthetic stucco as a facade material on the upper floors (the dark grey and blue-violet panels on the upper levels are synthetic stucco, which is less expensive and comes in plenty of colors, but just like the fake beige stucco they slap up on strip malls, it tends to age poorly). Vecino architect Bruce Adib-Yazdi noted that in an effort to balance sustainability and costs, the conference center portion of the project would likely pursue Tier II NYSERDA standards (15% better than code) vs. Tier III (25% better than code). The board also discussed if the ground-level conference center spaces qualified as active-use, which because it’s not explicitly stated in code, it becomes a case of “how active is active.” Generally, the board was comfortable so long as the ground level was transparent glass, had interesting landscape and ground treatments (planters, benches) and that the ground level was well-lit at night.

The board was still a bit uncomfortable with the closeness of Harold’s Square and Asteri, but viewed the reductions from Asteri as a fair deal. “I think it’s not perfect, to be honest with you. I think that it’s a compromise. But given the need for affordable housing in Downtown Ithaca, I think it’s okay,” said board member Mitch Glass. “The outdoor terrace has to be very well done….is there some way to treat the windows so that they’re not looking directly at each other over the setback?”

“We tried to pull back the upper floors so that they wouldn’t require a zoning variance, we removed the ten feet by reducing the unit sizes…pulling back another five feet would remove stacks of units,” replied Adib-Yazdi.

“I’m very troubled by the idea that the first builder can do whatever they want, and then the second person comes along and has to respond to that. If Harold’s Square didn’t exist, I would have no problem with the massing with (Asteri). More setback would be aesthetically ideal, but until Common Council gives us some legislation on that, this complies with zoning and it’s a very handsome building…I think this is a good compromise we can all live with,” said board member Garrick Blalock.

“This is the dense urban core of our city, where else are we going to put big buildings? We don’t want to lose more of these valuable affordable units Downtown,” added Jones. “The project team has been really responsive to our needs…I generally trust that this will be more positive for the community than not, maybe even for the neighboring buildings.”

“I think the consensus is fairly widespread. You’ve heard a level of comfort with the massing, and a level of discomfort with the north facade, materiality, and active uses. But there’s a positive consensus with this project as it moves forward,” summarized Planning Board chair Robert Lewis to the development team. Vecino will have a “pre-meeting” with the Board of Zoning Appeals next week, and be back before the Planning Board next month.

Rimland Building, Green Street Garage (215 East Green Street)

Developer Jeff Rimland’s 13-story proposal on the eastern end of the garage came back to the board to continue its public hearing and go through Design Review on the architecture and aesthetics. Unlike earlier incarnations, the latest design for the mixed-use building proposed for 215 East State Street no longer builds into the Rothschild Building and displaces the shops and shop-owners along the Commons, but went back to the initial proposal which builds atop a rebuilt eastern third of the garage.

Rimland’s proposal rebuilds the eastern third of the garage with two levels of public parking (about 130 spaces), one ground-level private parking area for the building’s occupants (34 spaces) and 10 floors of residential with approximately 200 apartments. A residential lobby would front Green Street, as well as an access hallway between the shops lining the Commons. As with Asteri, the board was going into this meeting with a continuation of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Forms (FEAF) on the agenda. For this, Chair Lewis excused himself due to potential conflicts of interest, letting Jones take the reins as Planning Board Vice-Chair.

Project engineer James Trasher of CHA Inc. walked the board through the changes. After expressed concerns the sidewalk was too curvy for handicap accessibility, the development team extended the paving through most of the front entry area, with different colors to create the impression of a curvy sidewalk within the larger paved space.  More numerous and larger street trees have also been deployed in an effort to increase the amount of greenery.

Planning board member Emily Petrina expressed concern that the ground-level glass was translucent but not transparent, to which architect John Abisch replied that it was all transparent. The lobby facing Green Street would host a cafe, according to program space drawings. Glass lauded the proposed changes to the Rothschild Building to incorporate an entrance to the apartment building and create a sense of connection between the building and the Commons. Planning Director JoAnn Cornish noted that the site plans had yet to be updated with the trees seen in the renders, and asked them to submit a revised landscaping plan so that everything was on the same page.

“Green screening doesn’t do well around transformers, is there any kind of aesthetics that would work well with the building materials?” Asked board member Elisabete Godden.

“I think we can bring down the mesh from the parking levels, and tie in the bushes around it,” replied Abisch.

“That would be a good idea. What often happens is that people plant arborvitae around (transformers), and three years later they just brown-out,” said Cornish.

Generally speaking, there were no curveballs thrown by either the board or the developers during the FEAF review. Board members encouraged additional signage for the garage itself, more information on loading and delivery spaces, and whether or not there would be street lamps (not planned, but Blalock says there may be opportunities since the city will be buying NYSEG’s streetlights from them in September). Site Plan Review will continue next month. Planner Lisa Nicholas suggested that a September project approval could be possible.

The Aeroplane Factory (120-140 Brindley Street)

Next on the list was the mixed-use additions for the Aeroplane Factory business complex on Taber and Brindley Streets, previously covered here. The project consists of a pair of relatively small-scale additions: a 14,328 square-foot four-story building with ground-level retail, office space and five apartments, and a 2,000 square-foot addition to an existing office building fronting Taber Street. Planned site improvements also include two new curb cuts, an outdoor patio, landscaping, a sidewalk and a tree lawn along Taber Street.

These smaller-projects tend to go through the Planning Board quickly – which makes sense, given that there generally isn’t as much information to sift through, and the potential neighborhood impacts are typically much less than those from a downtown tower or sprawling apartment complex. The board came into this meeting looking at the possibility of preliminary and potentially final site plan approval, which would allow the developers to obtain building permits.

Project architect Jason Demarest led the board through a presentation of project updates, starting by saying that COVID-19 had changed the finances and that the one-story building would be built first, while the four-story building would be delayed, starting no earlier than spring 2021. The exterior colors have been updated and more windows have been added to “Taber Tower”, with the brick look substituted with more of a “limestone” look. No structural changes have been made to the one-story addition to 140 Brindley Street.

“I think we have a pretty beautiful building. Sorry to hear about the delays. This will be a really beautiful and contextual building, this will be an easy one for me, and I’m happy to be at this point tonight,” said Jones. City planners noted the need for documentation for the two-phased construction plan.

The board granted approvals unanimously. “I just want to thank all of you for the thoughtfulness and your input on this project. I don’t go through many of these, but the thought and preparation and the time is really, really impressive, and I know that while this may have been an easy project, you guys have to make some really tough calls sometimes, and that can be pretty thankless. So I just wanted to say thank you for your service to the city, it doesn’t get noticed enough,” said developer Jerry Dietz.

Balch Hall Renovations (Cornell University)

Trying to stick to its tight timeline for approvals, Cornell University’s Balch Hall renovation plan was back before the Planning Board this month. Balch Hall is a nearly century-old, 167,000 square-foot building that serves as the all-women freshman dormitory; if you want to read more about the proposed gut renovation in greater detail, the Voice has you covered here. To summarize, renovations that affect the exterior of the building include replacing the windows, rebuilding and/or replacing gutters, downspouts, and minor exterior walls to allow for new waterproofing and facade work, and installing four roof bulkheads and dormers to accommodate new elevators. On the outside will be numerous landscaping and accessibility improvements, including new stairs, ramps and lighting.

On the agenda for this meeting were the public hearing for the proposal, and a potential vote for determination of environmental significance. This is a fast-moving review, and there are more substantial reasons for that than just “Cornell gets what they want.” One, Cornell’s campus zoning is extremely flexible and allows just about anything the university could reasonably want so long as it directly supports the school’s operations. Two, this is just a renovation with few exterior changes, so it doesn’t usually receive the same level of scrutiny as a new build.

Cornell project manager Ram Venkat and landscape architect David Cutter walked the board through the latest changes. Perhaps most notable was the increase in the number of trees coming down – a couple of dozen trees would be lost during the renovation due to new pipes and utilities and construction staging, and a few dozen new trees, seemingly more than will be lost, are planned all around the dormitory. Out of cost concerns, the existing windows would be replaced with steel replica aluminum windows, which has been a source of contention with preservation group Historic Ithaca (who also submitted a letter reiterating their concerns about the windows, the only comment in the public hearing). Venkat emphasized that the windows were chosen to blend in as seamlessly as possible while fitting budget constraints and allowing the LEED Gold energy efficiency Cornell is seeking. His colleague Margaret Carney said they were very concerned about using aluminum windows, but were surprised by the quality of windows architect Goody Clancy was able to provide, and that assuaged many of their concerns.

Board member Petrina asked if they could see a window mock-up, to which Venkat said the mock-ups are underway but won’t be ready until the end of August, meaning no mock-ups until early September. That would hypothetically fit the review timeline, according to planner Nicholas. Some on the board wanted to see the arborist report given the large changes in landscaping, but the board was comfortable continuing with review in the meanwhile. The board voted unanimously to give a negative declaration, meaning all issues effectively mitigated, thus clearing the path for project approval at a future meeting.

Byrne Dairy (323-25 Elmira Road)

Next up on the agenda, Byrne Dairy’s proposed renovation of the former Denny’s restaurant at 323-25 Elmira Road into their new large-format convenience store and gas station. Byrne Dairy would replace the existing flat roof with a peaked roof, and install new exterior finishes on all sides of the building. The new fuel canopy would be built on part of the existing parking lot, and fitted out with six gas pumps. Byrne Dairy would reuse the existing curb cuts, but because of the new gas station, the parking area would be reduced from about 60 spaces to 30, Along with the structural improvements are the usual complement of landscaping, lighting, signage, bike racks and a new sidewalk connecting the front of the building to the existing sidewalk along Elmira Road. You can read more about the plans for the article earlier this month here.

The project is still in its early stages – tonight was just a presentation and a vote for the Planning Board to declare itself lead agency to conduct the environmental review. The vote to Declare Lead Agency came right off the bat, and passed unanimously (except for Blalock, who had stepped away from the Zoom meeting for a minute). Byrne Dairy Vice-President of Store Development Christian Brunelle said this had been in the works since before Denny’s closed, and that Byrne Dairy had been looking out for a new, bigger location in Ithaca for ten years. The entrance facing Elmira Road was a priority for the city, as were the fully connected sidewalk. Brunelle noted the store is not franchised, but owned and operated by Byrne Dairy out of its Weedsport office.

“I think it looks good, I’m glad that the site is being reused,” said board member Godden. The rest of the board agreed, and as a rule of thumb, the board tends to be a little more forgiving with renovations because it’s reusing an existing structure, ideal or not. Jones suggested a little more articulation on the south wall, which Brunelle said was the impassive south wall result of having refrigerated and frozen dairy products occupying on that side of the building. Blalock encouraged them to give the project a “main street feel”, and Brunelle responded they would place tables under their front overhang and on the concrete pad in front of the store. Generally, it was an uneventful discussion, and it looks like the project will have few issues moving forward. Board Chair Lewis summarized it as a “positive and excited consensus,” and approval could be granted in September.

A view of the rear of the building, from West Seneca Street.

430-444 W State/MLK Street

Last but not least for site plan reviews, Arnot Realty’s grand mixed-use plan for the 400 Block of West State Street. Plans submitted by Arnot call for a mixed-use five-story building. The new 114,000 square-foot structure would house 129 apartments and 5,500 square feet of ground-level retail, to be split for up to three tenants. The ground level would host about 50 covered parking spaces to be accessed from Seneca Street, as well as a landscaped plaza, bike parking, new and wider sidewalks, and other site improvements. Existing shade trees along Corn Street would remain, and a pedestrian sidewalk bump-out is being considered for the corner of North Corn and West State, to slow traffic and improve pedestrian visibility. The corner building that houses Mama Goose would have its facade saved and incorporated into the new building, but otherwise, all existing structures would be replaced by the new development. You can read more about the project here, or visit the developer’s brand new project website here.

The track for this project will be a little lengthier, as it has to take a trip to the Board of Zoning Appeals before final site plan approval can be granted. The project site is in both the CBD-52 and the B-2d Zoning Districts and will require a 2-foot variance for height in the B-2d zone. The variance will allow for the floor heights to align across the two zones given the 12-foot ground floor height requirement in the CBD-52 district – otherwise, the floor plate would have a two-foot jump in the middle of the building. One of the things you learn quickly on this beat is that zoning in Ithaca is well-intentioned but often convoluted.

Tonight was just a presentation and a declaration of lead agency. Architect Eric Colbert started by saying that, although he and his firm are in Washington D.C., he was an Ithaca native and a Cornell grad before starting work in the D.C. area 45 years ago. “It was fun for me that we were contracted by Arnot. I was really excited about the idea of working in my hometown.” All the other engineering and design firms involved are local to the area. Colbert walked the board through a presentation, noting that Arnot is seeking NYSERDA Tier III energy standards.

Petrina stated she was very skeptical at first, but the three-dimensional renders really helped to change her mind, and loved the publicly-accessible space on the southwest corner. Jones phrased her comments as “mostly positive,” citing the housing in Ithaca’s core and the building as a form of infill activation. More neutrally, she noted it was a change in character for better or worse, and feared it would help drive gentrification. Jones wanted to see some effort to include affordable units as the discussion progresses. Her colleague Glass agreed, expressing disappointment that one could tell quickly when compared to Asteri which was affordable and which was market-rate, through the choice of materials and window sizes. Godden wanted to see some sort of canopy or outdoor element like the existing teal canopies Mama Goose has.

“People are generally pretty positive about this project, they like the design. There are some concerns about affordability, and those concerns are valid….I think that the Seneca Street facade is tricky, but that’s worth getting right. If that’s where your variance is it’s important to get it right,” said Chair Lewis. The board unanimously declared itself Lead Agency and the project will begin environmental review at the next meeting.

Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations

On the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) side, where the board makes recommendations to the BZA on projects seeking zoning variances from city code, the board reviewed three submissions. The couple who owner-occupies an East Hill home wanted to rebuild a porch and put in a bike shed that would violate some of the required front and side yard setbacks (the house is an older nonconforming property). Collegetown Bagels sought a variance for signage at their new Collegetown location at 420 College Avenue, and a West Hill couple wanted to build a carport add-on to their old Victorian home, which also would violate yard setbacks because the house dates from the old house is much closer to the street than modern zoning permits.

Lewis started off by saying they all looked “easy”, which gives one an idea that this was not going to take long (which was welcome, seeing as the meeting had been going for about four hours). Generally, the board is happy to grant recommendations of approval to the BZA if it encourages owner-occupied housing and respects the neighbors, though they did make clear they were not aesthetically fans of the West Hill carport. The board tends to be less friendly to signage, but supported the third wall sign for CTB given the length of the building. Glass called it “a home run for both sides of the street”.

With a barely-concealed yawn, Lewis checked for staff and committee reports, to which Blalock reiterated that the city will take over the street lights from NYSEG, which will be upgraded to energy-saving LEDs and save the city two-thirds of their operational cost. Planner Nicholas said that after a lot of work, the state Dept. of Transportation is leaning towards allowing City Harbor and Carpenter Park to continue, with additional mitigations – namely, changes in traffic flow on the West End, possibly making the blocks of Court and Buffalo between Fulton and Meadow Streets one-way roads, which will be put towards Common Council for discussion in the next couple months (does it tie into the projects? Not particularly, but the state has free reign to demand anything it wants as part of signing off to the projects). Until then, the waterfront mixed-used developments are unable to get final project approval.

Brian Crandall

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