ITHACA, N.Y. — Going into these meetings, one can often tell which site plan reviews will be thornier than others – usually the bigger and higher-profile, the more debate they generate. However, that’s not always true. Sometimes, a poorly-sited restaurant generates more debate than a multi-story building downtown. It depends on how controversial it is, or what kind of curveballs they and the other stakeholders are throwing.

Thanks to the DOT, the seemingly routine procedure of a final site plan approval turned into one of those quagmires this month, though eventually, the project in question did get the permissions needed to move forward. Several other projects were also discussed, including one other final site plan approval, for the new Byrne Dairy on the South Meadow Street Corridor. Grab your coffee or tea, because this month is one of those lengthy write-ups.

As is customary for these recaps, for those who like to read along, the 254-page Planning Board agenda is here.

Subdivision Review

First up were the lot subdivision reviews – these are when property lots in the city, technically known as parcels, seek legal reconfiguration, either to be split up, reshaped or consolidated. This month, there was only one on the agenda, which is a subdivision of the Chain Works District property (formerly Morse Chain/Emerson Power Transmission) at 620 South Aurora Street.

About 0.9 acres of the 96-acre parcel will be subdivided and held by Emerson Power, in an area off of South Cayuga Street with underground storage tanks and for which there are no redevelopment plans. Emerson is legally required to remediate all the land to pre-established standards, which in this case, is the more stringent 24-hour exposure standard since the Chain Works District will have residential uses. The remaining 95 or so acres would then be sold to the development group led by Dave Lubin, so that they could begin work on the Chain Works District itself – the first phase involves remedial work and conversion of four uncontaminated buildings into a mix of industrial uses, commercial uses, and 60 apartments.

Board member C.J. Randall excused herself from the review due to her company having previously done work for the project. Sarah Snyder of law firm Harris Beach PLLC walked the board through review. There was one comment from a South Hill resident in opposition to work on the site citing topography, which the board flatly disagreed with because the remediation needs to be done, and the steeper portions of the site aren’t being developed. Apart from a brief legal tweak to add clarity for the trail easements, the board had no further comment and voted unanimously in favor.

Site Plan Review

For the uninitiated, Site Plan Review (SPR) 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.

During SPR, 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 finished, they vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval.

City Harbor (101 Pier Road)

At the top of the SPR agenda this month was the City Harbor project, proposed by Lambrou Real Estate, Edger Enterprises and businesswoman Elizabeth Classen on the site of the former Johnson’s Boatyard at 101 Pier Road.

As previously detailed, the two-phase project consists of a restaurant, waterfront promenade and marina, and 156 market-rate apartments. A 60,000 square-foot medical office building for Guthrie Clinic is part of the project. Phase one would also rebuild Pier Road to include sidewalks, street trees, a fire engine turnaround, and new and improving parking areas. While the project team plans to partner with the city to rebuild the golf course clubhouse in phase two, almost all improvements in phase one are on private property, with the exception of some of the greenspace and reconfigured parking areas.

This was to be City Harbor’s final meeting. Preliminary approval was granted in May, but final approval, on the agenda for this month, is contingent on relatively minor things like proof of legal easements, material samples, and the submission of additional drawings for the sake of complete documentation.

Given the talk about the DOT’s recent proposal to ease traffic congestion on the West End as a stipulation before signing off on City Harbor and Carpenter Park, the project does come back with a contingency that says they have to prove they have financing available to take other means to ease congestion if the DOT plan doesn’t happen, and that this “Plan B” option is doable and will be before the board for discussion. This isn’t as big of a concern for City Harbor because it’s not as impacted as it’s neighbors on Carpenter Park, whose plan actually puts a new access break into Route 13 from the northwest side. But the bigger issue is that parts of the plan, namely $500,000 in pedestrian travel and sidewalk improvements on Route 13, would not happen if DOT doesn’t sign off because they don’t get their couplet.

That proved to be a major concern during the hour-long discussion. According to David Herrick of the engineering firm T.G. Miller, while the DOT is asking to do the couplet further down 13, they’re out of the developer’s control, and the project team is concerned about what happens if the DOT’s couplet is rejected, putting their plans into jeopardy, and holding up their project and other nearby proposals for what could be years. The DOT couplet was proposed at the figurative “eleventh hour”, and while City Harbor is happy to fund the approved work at Willow and Dey Streets, they were clearly anxious about being subject to the whims of the state. Board Chair Robert Lewis was sympathetic, calling the whole DOT regulatory and review process “byzantine”.

“It’s a pretty big hammer, what DOT issued. They’re not going to permit the improvements to Route 13 proposed by this project, which are mitigations committed in Part 3 (of environmental review). It’s very difficult for the developer because they can’t build those improvements until the DOT is satisfied the city will look at (these couplets),” said city Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas.

Other board members also expressed consternation with the DOT, though they wanted City Harbor’s Route 13 improvements addressed one way or another. It’s just rather unfortunate that, even if approved, those can’t happen until 2023 due to the DOT’s schedule of work. “I think it’s unfortunate they’re holding these projects hostage. I feel uncomfortable removing conditions from Part 3 (of the environmental review), and I want them to start building as soon as possible…can we put the condition in as something needed for a certificate of occupancy?” Asked board member Emily Petrina.

“Tell us what would make you feel comfortable, put our feet to the fire…help us figure out how to move these things along and how to do this. I’m pleading,” said developer Costa Lambrou.

“I don’t think we can put the toothpaste back into the tube, but every development will face this situation and we have to get a handle on it. The Planning Board can be a force in recommendations to the Common Council, whether a waterfront transportation study or the couplet,” said Nicholas.

“Nobody’s saying leave the condition in as written. A few are saying strike it, a few are saying to move to a condition to a certificate of occupancy to move it down the road and give time, I’m hearing one person say to blow it up into a bigger transportation study, and I’m hearing a request for reassurance on the bond. I’m not sure what will work and what won’t,” said Chair Lewis.

Planner Nicholas was convinced a waterfront district transportation study would have to be done, but there’s no formal proposal or money for that at the present time. Plus, since DOT has wanted this for a while and it has these projects before them, they can do what they want and twist some arms (though member Garrick Blalock expressed significant annoyance that a project in Lansing would not be subject to this, but send its commuters down 13). Nicholas recommended that the board state something to Common Council to commit to some kind of transportation study as part of the couplet review.

The consensus with the rather scattershot viewpoints is that the board didn’t want to hold this project up because all this is happening so late in review, but it does want the transportation study to be done. The issues with the conditions agreed to in the preliminary approvals stem from an unpleasant juxtaposition of timing, state meddling, and concerns from the board and developer. The board wants those Route 13 pedestrian improvements, but didn’t want the developer hanging on DOT’s plans, which DOT may not approve even if the city wants it and the developer is willing and financially capable. The city and the Syracuse office of the NYS DOT have different ideas on the traffic situation in the city’s West End neighborhood.

Going around, Blalock voted to strike the Route 13 improvements condition as phrased, citing the willingness of the developer and the plan to back it up with a bond if developer were somehow unable to do it. “I rigorously reject to holding any permit hostage to Common Council or DOT,” he added. Randall voted to strike it, Petrina agreed, Vice-Chair McKenzie Rounds agreed, board member Mitch Glass voted to strike, though with reservation, and board member Elisabete Godden wanted a rewording but liked the $500,000 commitment if they couldn’t build due to DOT (the board acknowledged the developers may have to pay more if costs go up in the future). A majority were for removing the condition, with support for a bond in that amount to finance the work if/when it’s approved by DOT.

“Okay, I feel like we put one condition to bed, but there’s a lot left to this resolution here,” said Lewis. At the suggestion of Herrick and Nicholas, the board also struck a condition about emergency access, because city fire chief Tom Parsons said that if Willow Street were blocked due to a train, in that very rare case they could use the existing waterfront trail for temporary access.

In the end, the board struck the two conditions and granted unanimous final approval, removing some of the tethers that DOT has on the project, but acknowledging that much more would need to be done regarding the traffic in the city’s West End. The board decided after further discussion at the end of the meeting to encourage a “holistic” push for a thorough waterfront traffic study, but decouple it from individual projects, since it was a much broader look at both the waterfront, and to some extent impacts from the rest of the city and surrounding commuter towns.

If this all sounds confusing to you folks, don’t worry – it sounded confusing to the board too. “Sh*t was complicated today,” Lewis quipped at the end of the meeting.

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.

No votes on Asteri were scheduled for last night’s meeting, just an update on the latest revisions. Landscape architect Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning and Design led the presentation. Among the changes were a change at the board’s suggestion from fiber cement panels to metal on the lower floors, shorter mechanical screenings on the roof to make the building look a little shorter, and new drawings for lighting and proposed areas for art murals. The project is planning a trip to the Board of Zoning Appeals in October.

Several members expressed concern with First Ward councilor Cynthia Brock’s letter, who stressed that the city made its decision in favor of the Conference Center portion just as the COVID situation was getting out of hand in March. Members weren’t sure what could be done with the space if the conference center, intended for a 2023 opening, couldn’t be used as intended for some time. On the aesthetic side, Mitch Glass hoped to make the facades a little less bland, to which Blalock agreed.

“The conference center decision isn’t ours. I’ve never been a conference center booster. But it’s not our decision to make, it’s council’s,” said Lewis. “The thing they passed has a conference center. That’s where we are…I’m excited to get into the design changes and materials, there’s more to dig into.”

The board liked the changes so far and looked forward to further discussion of the project next month. The board may host a special second meeting at the end of September to discuss the project once environmental review is complete.

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.

On the agenda last night was the potential completion of environmental review, with the Planning Board potentially issuing its Declaration of Environmental Significance, and writing up its recommendation to the separate Board of Zoning Appeals to allow for rear yard and floor count variances. This was also the only Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendation scheduled to be discussed this month, so there won’t be a separate section for BZA recs in this month’s roundup.

Project engineer James Trasher of CHA Inc. and architect John Abisch of BSB Design walked the board through the latest updates. Some of the street trees were removed due to underground utilities, and replaced with shallower bushes and flowering plants. The project will also follow the Ithaca Green Building Policy guidelines, including air-source heat pumps, LED lighting, low-water fixtures, and photovoltaic capacity, though it won’t be built with arrays. Board member Randall noted the plants around the transformer would likely get crushed (snow banks), though she appreciated the effort. All in all, the discussion was focused on details, and fairly uneventful.

By unanimous vote, the board closed the environmental review and passed a unanimous negative declaration, meaning all impacts are effectively mitigated. Some minor design changes are still in the works before September, but with SEQR complete, the project appears to be on the easy path to approval, pending BZA.

That could be a bit tricky. The rear yard setback is to maintain the continuous building wall on Green Street and that will be accepted easily enough, but the building is 14 floors and 156 feet, taller than the 12 floors/140 feet allowed on the site, and the BZA is typically averse to height variances. But the Planning Board sought to emphasize in their recommendation in favor the housing in a location the city wants housing, the connectivity to the Commons, and that a lot of the height variance comes from the existing garage and from the “top floor” roof terrace, which isn’t a fully built-out floor. With a hopefully favorable result from the BZA, the project will be back before the Planning Board next month.

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.

As a renovation of an existing structure, the review process has so far been smooth; in fact, after only a couple of months, the project was already up for Preliminary and Final Site Plan Approval, which would be perfect for its fall 2020 construction timeline. Coming into the meeting, Byrne Dairy added a six-foot cedar privacy fence at the rear, and submitted a signage package to meet city regulations. City forester Jeanne Grace asked to remove the plan for pear trees, which will be replaced with hawthorns, and some red maples were moved.

“This is a great reuse of an existing space. I wonder if, given the city’s emphasis on reducing vehicular use, we want to address the use of fuel pumps. I don’t know if we just want to like, say that somewhere,” said board member Rounds. Chair Lewis suggested it be added as a “whereas” in the resolution, acknowledging that the city wasn’t interested in promoting gas pumps but would accept it in a high traffic area by a local business for a structure being reused.

The board agreed to the additional wording with unanimous consent. The negative declaration on the environmental review passed unanimously, and since the project seemed “pretty well baked” per Lewis, the board decided to vote on preliminary and final site plan approval. After planner Nicholas asked to add a condition for a legal easement for city maintenance, the project received its unanimous approval.

430-444 West State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street

Last but not least for site plan reviews, Arnot Realty’s mixed-use plan for the 400 Block of West State/MLK Jr. 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.

Last night was a chance for Arnot’s team to give an update on the project, listen in on the Public Hearing for the proposal, and respond to the board as they continued with Part 2 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form, one of the earlier steps within the SEQR environmental review process.

Architect Eric Colbert walked the board through the latest designs, and had some bad news. While they hope to save the facade of the existing corner building, the facade is in very poor shape, and may be beyond stabilization in the event of major construction work. In that case, they would build new brick walls matching the original design. Horizontal canopies would also be added to the original building, per the board’s suggestion from the last meeting, added interest to the West Seneca Street facade, and safety bollards were added to the access driveway off North Corn Street. The Public Hearing was opened and closed shortly thereafter, since there were no public comments given for discussion.

Generally, board members were positive about the proposal, though they were not without some reservations. Board member Jones suggested striping or raised sidewalk for pedestrian safety along West Seneca Street, and asked whether there would be affordable units, and her colleague Glass made it clear that some inclusion of affordable units would play into his vote, and he also questioned why the developers would talk about the Mama Goose Building’s facade issues. Glass stated concerns that Arnot’s team was potentially trying to lead the board on since the design in the renders didn’t match the existing historic building on the corner (the facade was much more minimal), and that it seemed like the destruction of the facade was already baked in. Lewis expressed concerns that the project emphasized studios and “junior one-bedrooms” over larger, more family-friendly units.

“It is our 100% goal to reuse the brick facade structure,” said Arnot Realty’s Peter Dugo. “The purpose of showing those photos is to show that, despite our best efforts, it may be unsalvageable. Those renderings don’t show (the facade) off as much as real-life does, but it is planned to maintain the intricate details that currently exist.” The project team also seemed reluctant to commit to firm numbers of affordable units for their project.

As planned, Design Review and SEQR part 3 is planned for next month, and likely more debate about affordability and the historic portions of the structure will be coming.

Dwyer Dam Replacement and Associated Site Improvements (Hoy Road)

Last on the SPR agenda and the new project before the board this month is Cornell’s plan to replace the existing two-lane bridge structure over Hoy Road, reconstruct and repair the bridge abutments, install means restriction and associated surveillance equipment, reconstruct and improve the approach roads, sidewalks and pedestrian crossing, install new lighting, and replace the stairs, railing and retaining walls that ascend from Hoy Road at the bridge to the Crescent Parking Lot. The university is planning for a temporary pedestrian bridge to be installed during construction, and a 1.1-mile vehicular detour will be established. If you want to read more about the proposal itself, the Voice has you covered here.

Given that this is replacement rather than a totally new build, and that it’s an infrastructure project on Cornell’s campus, the review process for the reconstructed bridge and adjacent spaces will likely be smooth and uneventful. At last night’s meeting alone, the board was expecting a project presentation, Declaration of itself as Lead Agency to conduct the SEQR, and host a Public Hearing about the project.

Being a project manager for Cornell and stating that her co-workers presenting the project, board member Goddard recused herself from the review. Cornell’s Tammi Aiken walked the board through the plans. The bridge last had major renovation work in 1977, and DOT has flagged the bridge twice for long-term (non-emergency) structural issues in the past couple of years, necessitating the need for rehabilitation before the situation gets worse. Aiken stated that 2022 remains the target date, though depending on the university’s financial situation in this COVID-era, it may be pushed back to 2023.

The Declaration of Lead Agency was passed unanimously, the public hearing opened and closed with no public comments written or spoken, and the project continuing to cruise forward. Most of the board had little additional comment, except Blalock, who seemed to show a strong familiarity with the bridge and stairway, with recommendations for railings, building materials, and asking if there was something the could do about the traffic confusion at Hoy Road and Route 366. The board finished their discussions for the night and the project will be back before the members next month.

In Other News

As the meeting wrapped up, and as touched on earlier, the board discussed adding a second September meeting for the 29th, after their usual meeting planned for the 22nd. Board members were actually somewhat excited, which would be used for non-Site Plan Review matters, as is the tradition for months where there’s a free Tuesday after the regular meeting on the fourth Tuesday of the month. The board agreed to have the meeting, but wouldn’t focus on project review material, entertaining the idea that Asteri may continue review at that meeting since it’s behind schedule, but otherwise not keen on further SPR additions. Topics may include fleshing out a funding application for a waterfront traffic study, and asking the city’s Economic Development Director, Tom Knipe, to come in and talk more about the conference center situation.

To end things on a positive note, here’s the bright spot to close out this piece. Planner Nicholas noted that all Planning Department staff that had been furloughed due to the COVID crisis have returned to work.

Now that they’re back to work, it seems likely they’ll be kept busy into the fall.

Brian Crandall

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