ITHACA, N.Y. — Most of the time, the Planning Board reviews are fairly standard and can fit in the normal monthly time frame. A midrise apartment building on one of the tiny parcels of inner Collegetown. A new retail building down on the Route 13 retail strip. Go through the forms, make sure the impacts are mitigated, and when satisfactory, grant that coveted vote of approval. Wash, rinse, repeat.

However, every so often, you get a project, or in this case a pair of projects, where the review is a lot more complicated due to size, impact and timing, so the board has to set aside extra meeting times with special meeting just to discuss those projects. That was the case last night for the Asteri Ithaca project at 120 East Green Street, and its potential new neighbor on the other end of the Green Street Garage, the Rimland mixed-use development. For those that like to read along to the usual play-by-play, a copy of the agenda can be found here.

Asteri revisions win over Planning Board

Before we jump into this, here’s a quick refresher. The Asteri proposal by The Vecino Group includes a 12-story building with 218-unit low-moderate income apartments and commercial space on the lower levels. An expanded publicly-accessible garage would be built up next door, bringing the Green Street Garage to seven floors with an additional 241 parking spaces (350 total).

As currently planned, 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.

However, things hit turbulence last month when the developers of the Harold’s Square project just to the north of the Asteri site complained about the proximity of the buildings to each other, the lack of parking, and logistical concerns during construction. Now, most of the time the planning board will take those arguments with a grain of salt, so long as the project conforms to zoning. Here though, since there are a couple of variances sought where the Harold’s Square people’s concerns were exacerbated, the board did express some degree of nervousness in giving their blessing to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Making the judgment call tougher was another project slated for the same block, the Rimland tower at 215 East Green Street.

Rimland’s proposal is similarly large, if a little less complicated. The 13-story plan 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. The 1970s-era Rothschild Building facing the Commons would be renovated to accommodate the addition.

The general consensus with this project is still favorable – the Marriott (30% owned by Rimland) and Rimland have negotiated away any proximity concerns, and no further major hangups have been since Rimland dropped plans to build a wing of the building towards the Commons.

Another factor complicating all of this – the plans for a conference center in the lower levels of Asteri, which was heavily pushed by the city and county during the request for proposals, and afterward when a revised feasibility study pushed the conference center larger at the city’s prodding. This was all before the “black swan downside risk” of a global pandemic torpedoing the local hospitality market, including a room tax meant to fund the conference center’s safety net and ensure financial security. There is a plan B proposal that calls for a slightly smaller building with ground-floor retail and 273 apartments, though the idea has not been strongly entertained yet. Local officials and business leaders really want that conference center downtown, but like a Florida vacation this year, the problem is that the timing couldn’t possibly be worse.

Going into the meeting, the board was armed with a revised analysis for the conference center from March, and found themselves on the receiving end of several letters from the general public, all of which expressed displeasure that the market-rate Harold’s Square development could result in the loss of affordable housing from Asteri. There is a fear, not without merit, that the state-level affordable housing construction funds needed to build projects like Asteri will be on the cutting block as the pandemic-induced economic downtown lengthens and statewide tax revenue remains anemic. As for the study, it basically said that the need for the conference has grown since the original study was conducted, but there’s not a single mention of COVID impacts.

The meeting was led by Planning Board Vice-Chair McKenzie Jones in place of chair Robert Lewis, who was unable to attend the special meeting. Asteri went first, with an introductory presentation courtesy of The Vecino Group’s in-house architect, Bruce Adib-Yazdi, and an update on the conference center from city Deputy Planning Director Tom Knipe.

Knipe walked the board through the updated feasibility study from Hunden Strategic Partners, which emphasized the need for the ballroom space to be of a certain size to attract larger attendees (10,000 square feet for 250-1,000 attendees) as well as complement existing spaces and hotels without cannibalizing from nearby businesses. “You need to have sizable pre-function space, sizable overall leasable space, (that being) the meeting rooms on the first floor, you need it to function well with good back-of-the-house facilities…It’s pretty important that it not be squeezed further and decrease in size. It also needs to be Downtown to be close to a cluster of major hotels and have those 600 rooms nearby, and proximity to parking spaces is important. We have three years between now and when we will have a conference, and the market is certainly in flux, but three years gives us time to react to whatever the business is.”

Jones thanked Knipe for the explanation because they needed to understand why the conference center has to be as big and where it is, to provide context for their review of the Asteri project. The board was naturally curious if in-person gatherings and conferences even had a future in the COVID era. “We’ve only had two meetings canceled because of COVID, and all of our scheduled conferences wanted to reschedule. It’s not possible for all business to be conducted electronically. We know there is still demand. In the past six months, we had over $3 million in demand we had to say no to because we didn’t have facilities,” said County Visitor’s Bureau Vice President Peggy Coleman, who was in on the Zoom call.

Adib-Yazdi explained that to remove the 10-foot rear variance entirely would pull the building back from Harold’s Square, but would either reduce the back office planned for the city Department of Public Works and 20% of the ballroom space, or 25% of the ballroom space. Meanwhile, only one apartment would be lost from the upper levels, but a number of two-bedroom units would become one-bedrooms, and one-bedroom units would become studios.

With those issues and results in mind, the compromise proposal has only slight pullbacks on the lower floors (less than a foot pulled back from floors 1-4) and works to maintain structural trusses with niche spaces to open up the alley between the two buildings. However, the full ten feet would be pulled back on the apartments on the upper levels. The setback variance would be needed for the lower four floors instead of the full height of the 12-story building.

“I think this is a substantial and significant improvement and that you’ve addressed our concerns in a meaningful way,” said board member Garrick Blalock. “I feel a lot better about it now, it makes it a lot easier for me to strongly endorse a project I had some hesitation on, and I think you removed that hesitation.”

“I am glad to see some additional public spaces and areas for art and cultural improvements. You’re going in the right direction, but I’d like to see more development of materiality (i.e. design character) and the perspective sketches,” said board member Elisabete Godden. Her colleague Mitch Glass largely agreed, and also encouraged alleyway lighting.

Generally, the board liked the compromise. The pulling back of the residential portion of the tower pleased their sense of aesthetics, and the explanation for not pulling back the conference space on the lower levels appeared sound. Would this please the Harold’s Square people? Probably not, but it does work out better for them because their apartments start on the fifth floor, where the new, larger setback begins on Asteri, so there’s more space between each building’s residents.

With the board seemingly in agreement that the project was in better shape, the board estimated that September seemed logical for preliminary approval, to which Adib-Yazdi explained would be a “really tight” timeline, giving them two months to get a building permit and still be eligible for the next affordable housing grant cycle in November. Blalock asked if there was any way the BZA could give some guidance now, to which city senior planner Lisa Nicholas said it could be possible to at least discuss it earlier and vote later. This would give the project team some clarity and guidance in this final sprint for review.

An elevated perspective render of the Rimland tower from North Aurora Street looking south.

Rimland Tower gets favorable reception

The Rimland portion began with an explanation from Lisa Nicholas that a parking inventory from Stantec was included in the agenda packet at the last minute just so board members could have it, and that it could help inform later discussion on how much parking the city has nearby, what the utilization rates are, and how future development will impact those spaces. One of the topics for both projects tonight was how they’d handle their parking situations, both during and after construction.

“We’re going to have this whole plan for parking demand management in downtown. These two projects will increase demand on all methods of transportation, and will also have construction impacts, which will focus around the fact that this whole block of Green Street will be a construction zone and that the parking garage won’t be available to people who normally park there. It (also) looks at how pedestrians will be rerouted and deliveries will happen during construction. In some ways, the parking impacts will be the biggest impacts. There will be a unified construction zone for 24 months on Green Street. The garage will not be closed for the whole time, and different levels will be open at different times. The city is working to increase density downtown, so the ability to access other types of transportation other than a single-occupant vehicle is important,” said Nicholas.

In response to a question about the bus station from Jones, Nicholas explained that the TCAT buses would have enough room, but they were looking at the possibility that intercity buses may be moved to another part of downtown during construction. The conference center will have staff managing remote parking and parking shuttles if needed for attendees of the larger events.

“There’s no parking at full capacity it seems,” noted Jones, as they scrolled through the study. Glass noted that parking analysis map goes up as far as Cascadilla Street, though for such a lengthy walk it’s also free. The sample day was a mid-day in November, so the colleges were in session and this was conducted pre-pandemic, so the numbers aren’t unnaturally suppressed. The results seemed to suggest that, contrary to the conventional wisdom and the Voice’s comments section, there is ample parking available for the next few years, so long as transportation demand and other modes of transportation (bike, bus) remain an active part of the overall picture.

The plan seemed to be that, for at least during the construction period, there was enough room to transfer parkers from the Green Street Garage to other garages. An unintended silver lining of COVID is that the sudden spike in telecommuting really lessened demand on the garages, and that is expected to continue at least early into the construction period for the two mixed-use towers. Construction workers would park remotely, some on-street parking would be changed over to long-term parking, and new accessible (handicap) parking would be created in the Cayuga Street Garage. The board would be taking a closer look at transportation impacts and the study before the regular Planning Board meeting at the end of the month.

As for the Rimland tower itself, architect John Abisch of BSB Design walked the board through the latest changes, which were generally minor. On the landscaping side, they plan to install curvy sidewalks to break up the blockiness of the building and streetscape, and use some rather trendy “twig” benches for public seating along Green Street. Architecturally some adjustments to lower the parking garage openings, mock-ups were made of the signage and tweaks were carried out to the canopy over the Green Street entrance. Abisch said they’d place plants around the transformer between the new tower and the hotel, to which Nicholas recommended a synthetic green screen because plants are hard to maintain.

Generally, the board remained favorable and approved of the proposed changes and tweaks. Board member Emily Petrina recommended more streetside plantings, and asked if there was anything the development team could do to spruce up the top of the Rothschild Building, since the growing number of taller residential buildings were looking down on its less-than-attractive roof. Abisch said he’d talk with management (developer Jeff Rimland was not in attendance).

Godden asked if there will be a percentage of affordable units, to which development team engineer James Trasher of CHA Inc. said there would be 10% (20 units) would be considered affordable in accordance with the IURA, and that they would be interspersed throughout the building. “The reason we were able to require that was because this project had to purchase air rights from the city,” said city planner Nicholas. Godden also expressed worry that the curvy sidewalk out in front was pretty, but it may be unnecessarily challenging for those with impairments and handicap accessibility. Planning Director Cornish agreed, suggesting a softening of the curves to make it easier for people to navigate.

Other than those critiques, the project was in good shape as far as the board was concerned. “I think we’re doing great work with these project teams and creating a dense, livable Downtown area. We look forward to meeting with you again in a couple of weeks,” said Jones.

Brian Crandall

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