ITHACA, N.Y. — Some months go quicker than others, not necessarily because of controversy, but because of the sheer amount of work to do. Such was the case with last night’s Planning and Development Board meeting. The board gave final approval to one project, preliminary approval to two others, and took a crack at a number of other proposals in and around the City of Ithaca at last night’s four-hour session.

For those who like to read along to these summaries, you detail-oriented folks find yourselves a copy of the agenda here.

Subdivision Review

First up were lot subdivision reviews — these are when property lots in the city, technically known as parcels, seek legal reconfiguration, which could be anything from being split up into two or more plots, reshaped or consolidated from multiple lots back into one parcel. This month, something extremely unusual for the city of Ithaca – the subdivision of a 5.45-acre parcel on the dead-end 400 Block of West Hill’s Campbell Street into eight for-sale home lots.

In a city that typically only sees 2 to 4 new detached single-family homes per year, this would be the city’s largest subdivision for single-family homes in at least 15 years. Ithaca’s high land values, development costs and lack of large undeveloped non-park space generally mean that the couple hundred new housing units the city does see each year usually come in the form of multi-family units, from townhouses to apartment towers.

Previously, the land was proposed for a 20-unit Tiny Timbers home project, but that plan ceased when Tiny Timbers went out of business. Here, the proposed lots and yard setbacks meet zoning regulation for the largely single-family West Hill neighborhood, and include a conservation easement to prevent further development. A new private access road with sidewalks would be built to serve the homes, and a private Homeowner’s Association would pay for their upkeep, while a stone dust walking trail to Hector Street would be built for the neighborhood’s benefit. STREAM Collaborative’s Craig Modisher is handling the lot layouts and application on behalf of the local couple pursuing the subdivision, Sharon Center and Kirk Sapa.

The project was already targeted by First Ward Common Councilor Cynthia Brock, who asked the plan be halted for insufficient notice to neighbors. But because the Planning Board had yet to Declare Lead Agency for review (this month was a presentation with the potential to Declare Lead Agency to begin review next month), it wasn’t required to send out notice yet, since there was no public agency in charge yet.

Modisher and civil engineer Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering spoke to the board about the proposal. According to Modisher, the hammerhead shape of the road is based on fire department input. The stone dust trail is still being debated because one of the adjacent homeowners doesn’t like the plan and they may not go forward with it as a result. The sites aren’t planned for build-out yet, and the houses are purely placeholders, and the homes would probably be in the $400k range but it really depended on who bought lots and what kind and size of the house they built.

The board did have concerns from a letter from a neighbor that said the land had been cleared except for mature trees, though they made clear they aren’t there to litigate if one man’s brush hog is another’s bulldozer (Modisher argued that they brush hogged bushes and no trees were touched). Planning Board chair Robert Lewis found the project inoffensive, but member Mitch Glass was disappointed by the design, which they felt contributed to suburban sprawl.

“I agree that this feels more suburban and sprawl-like than we saw before. We may not be getting into the weeds, so to speak, on the design, but I’d like to hear the rationale around it and make recommendations with how this might fit in characteristically to West Hill and Downtown without feeling like its own separate affluent neighborhood,” added McKenzie Jones. She also hoped for variety between bigger and smaller homes on the lots. Generally, the board was disappointed the more urban Tiny Timber plan was off the table.

“It does look like a typical subdivision, but on the other hand if we don’t build here they build further out. This is an appropriate place to build houses…It’s unfortunate to see a wooded area disappear, but I’m broadly in support of housing going here,” said board member and West Hill resident Garrick Blalock. Glass pushed back, saying the design wasn’t walkable and would just create more car traffic.

Board member Emily Petrina liked the idea of the conservation easement, and her colleague Elisabete Goddard said it seemed like an appropriate use of the parcel. Senior planner Lisa Nicholas made clear the board approval includes lots, road shape, easements – basically, everything but the houses themselves. Nicholas said she doubted the city would take over the road if built and offered (the city doesn’t want the maintenance cost).

The board declared itself lead agency unanimously, so Brock and neighbors can officially begin to chime in  onthe proposal. The West Hill Master Plan won’t be of much help here, since it dates from 1992 and promotes suburban layouts that city planning has moved away from.

Site Plan Review

For the uninitiated, Site Plan Review (SPR) is where the review of new building proposals happens. In the interest of brevity, if you want a description of the steps in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” is here.

A quick refresher, 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.

Carpenter Park (Carpenter Circle)

First on the list was the Carpenter Circle project as proposed by Cayuga Medical Center and Park Grove Realty. CMC would occupy a new 64,000 square-foot medical office building with walk-in clinic and a low-moderate income apartment building with 42 units would be built in the first phase. Two buildings with ground-floor retail and 166 market-rate apartments would follow in phase two. Site amenities will include public spaces for residents and visitors, bike parking, transit access for TCAT, open green space, a playground, and access to the Ithaca Community Gardens. The project includes 187 internal parking spaces within the market-rate apartment buildings, 349 surface parking spaces, and an internal road network with sidewalks and street trees. You can read more about the plan here.

The project’s been going through review for over a year, in part because it sought and received approval for a Planned Unit Development, specialized zoning regulations from the city. With preliminary approval granted, the project is back before the board this month for proof that it satisfied those preliminary stipulations to allow for final approval of phase one.

Something that makes that final approval extra-important is that the project team is applying to the state for affordable housing tax credits that would be used to fund that portion of the development. The state tends to look more favorably on funding projects that have all their necessary approvals (once awarded, the state wants to see its grants and tax credits used for their intended purpose as soon as possible).

During public comment, Ithaca Community Gardens (ICG) President Marty Hiller wrote in that the binding agreement between the developers and the gardens was still being hammered out, and that they wanted additional protective measures built into the Planning Board approval stipulations, and would send a representative into the Zoom meeting, but the person never showed.

Project coordinator Yamila Fournier of Whitham Planning and Design gave the board the project update. As requested, final landscaping and mechanical screen/rooftop plans had been submitted to the city’s Planning Department. Parking deck screening renders and site details (paving, signage, lighting, and so on) were also submitted, along with a planting schedule. Break-in access to Route 13 would not happen until Phase II (and Phase II legally can’t be built until that is approved), which gives time for the developers and the city of Ithaca to negotiate with the NYS DOT. Her project team colleague Jess Sudol of Passero Associates added that the gardens would not be disturbed until Phase II, and that Cayuga Medical Center was anxious to move forward with their new medical building. Agreements with the ICG and the break-in access to Route 13 would be finalized in the “short-term”.

The primary issue to be worked out with the board involved “terms of assurity”, which comes from the DOT issue. Rather than waiting on Council approval of the DOT couplet plan, accepting this would allow the project to move forward by basically stating a commitment to improvements. Or, they could depend on Common Council voting on the DOT proposal.

“I think at this point, leaving the language as it is makes sense to us,” replied landscape architect Scott Whitham.

A second short debate involved lease negotiation with the ICG. The approval conditions state that it says the developer and the ICG negotiate the lease. But the garden space is under the jurisdiction of the city, and so the city would have to have the lease discussion with ICG, not the developer. Planner Nicholas said it hadn’t been 100% determined who is in charge, but that the developer had to engage with ICG. “It will be somebody’s condition before a building permit gets issued (for phase two).”

“The agreement has to be made between the developer and community gardens, and then the city needs to negotiate a period, for 20 years or 30 years, separate from that discussion,” added Planning Director JoAnn Cornish. Fournier and Whitham said that they definitely plan for the land transfer happening and were fine with a “whereas” statement instead of a “resolved” stipulation, with the statement pushing an agreement in discussions between the developers and the ICG, along with the land transfer discussion itself between the city and ICG. In this case, were that discussion to fall through, the project would have to come back before the board. The board was generally comfortable with this change.

Before granting final approval, Jones expressed concern about what the risk of Phase II not happening, given the DOT dependence. The developer said they need Phase II for financial viability, and city staff added that the project would be coming back before the board if there were any issues. Seeing no further concerns, the board made its vote on final approval, and it passed unanimously.

“It’s a great project, I’m thrilled we’re starting off with the phase that we are, actually. I hope the impediments of phase two are worked out smoothly, and things get into the ground as soon as possible,” said Chair Lewis.

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.

After months of environmental review, the Planning Board was heading into the meeting with plans on whether to vote for the determination of environmental significance, and a recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals on rear yard setback and potentially for height.

Per Landscape Architect and project coordinator Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning, the project team applied feedback from the board received in Design Review, and a full design update would be submitted for the building and garage before the October Project Review meeting, and that the goal was preliminary and final approval in October, pending this meeting and the BZA review next month. Adam Walters of law firm Philips Lytle spoke on behalf of the development team to field environmental review (FEAF Part 3) updates, speaking on expanded documentation on the conference center and additional parking and traffic analyses.

Discussion, if rather dry, focused on construction staging and making sure some amount of parking was available at various stages, and that traffic impacts would be as limited as reasonably possible. But the effort was to the board’s satisfaction. The negative declaration, meaning impacts are effectively mitigated, passed the Planning Board unanimously. As for the BZA, the request for filed for a rear yard setback (because the existing garage encroaches and the conference center will as well, though an effort was made to indent the facade for ground space), and a height variance for the top couple feet of the sky terrace on the southwest corner facing Green Street. The board was comfortable with the idea, given the focus on the ground floor multi-use space, and conference center space on lower levels. The conference center is also a tall space (18 feet), which impinges on the residential floor-to-ceiling heights above. With those recommendations, the board gave positive recommendations and with any luck they’ll see the project again with BZA approvals in hand next month.

The Ithacan, 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 for signage.  The new building would be built atop the rebuilt eastern third of the garage, but portions of the existing two-story Rothschild Building next door will be renovated to house amenity spaces for tenants.

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 ten 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.

We also now have a name for the building — “The Ithacan” — which the journalism students over at Ithaca College have been having a field day with ever since it was shared on Twitter (“The Ithacan” is also the name of the school newspaper). For continued review of the project, Chair Lewis excused himself due to potential conflicts of interest, letting Jones take the reins as Planning Board Vice-Chair.

As it turned out, “The Ithacan” was intentional – Ithaca College will be occupying a large chunk of the first and second floor office space in the Rothschild Building for their Physician Assistant school, which will move from their South Hill Campus to Downtown Ithaca. The name is subject to tweaking, and the Bold Arial font – similar to the infamous “gentrification font” – will be changed. Miller Mayer and first-floor retail will remain in their spaces, per architect John Abisch. Signage is well under the maximum allowed square footage and will be dark sky compliant.

The board was amenable to the signage, discourage cool-temperature lights in favor of more white/warmer tones, and lauded the recruitment of Ithaca College to the Ithaca Commons. Board member Glass did express some dislike for the Entry/Exit signs, saying “they seem way out of scale to me.” Abisch suggested they could avoid lighting them up or do a ground-level design, which Glass was more favorable towards. The board found the package tasteful overall, and was comfortable with the proposed scale and lighting of signage with a few modest tweaks.

Some of the discussion related to a BZA height variance was initially curtailed after city staff were cut off the Zoom meeting due to an internet issue at City Hall — the development team has said an initial meeting was tabled as BZA is a bit wary of the height variance, so Planning Board and staff commentary and support would help. After reconnecting, planner Nicholas says that BZA found the Planning Board’s recommendation confusing. The project roof is about two and a half feet taller than the 140 feet allowed, and the elevator box is 14 feet above zoning even though it’s a small portion of the roof. Abisch and his project colleague James Trasher of CHA Inc. argued it makes no impact on pedestrian level or on the Commons, and the parking levels complicate the height issue and rebuilding that public garage comes with a cost that financially necessitates one more story – in short, public parking is the trade-off for that one additional floor.

The board seemed to agree with the logic and said they’d circulate a proposed draft recommendation among themselves, noting that it won’t cast shadow on the Commons and that the public benefit justified the floors, with a design that was responsible to its surroundings. Director Cornish also said they would work on a memo to the BZA explaining the projects’ evolution to tell them how the Planning Board and staff ended up at this point, noting that they should have looped them in on what was happening earlier. Like Asteri, with any luck they’ll be back before the board with BZA approval next month.

Balch Hall Renovations (Cornell University)

Cornell University’s Balch Hall renovation plan was back before the Planning Board this month, potentially for the last time. 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 was a discussion of the window design intent, which has been the only substantial source of debate during review, and potential Preliminary and Final Approvals. This has been 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 walked the board through the latest plans. The board requested a mock-up window for proof of quality, and Cornell and its crew said they could deliver that by early September, so here we are. Previously, it was stated that due to 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. Good Clancy reviewed four different window manufacturers to come up with an agreeable solution – and let me tell you, this is one of the most in-the-weeds discussions I’ve ever sat through in a Planning Board meeting. Manufacturers are still being evaluated, and contractors will have to include one of the approved manufacturers in their bid submissions to do the job.

In considerations of other parts of the renovation plan, the elevator dormers will use slate shingles that match with the existing slate. Apart from some slight tweaks in stormwater facilities and submission of an arborist report, no substantial changes were noted from the project’s last trip before the board back in July.

“I feel comfortable with what the applicant says they are doing. As Bryan (McCracken, City Historic Preservation Planner) said, as long as they are working together I’m comfortable with it,” said board member Emily Petrina. McKensize Jones said she was a little uncomfortable giving final approval, but was comfortable that the city’s historic planner would keep them steered in the right direction. Generally, the board was comfortable with the proposed work, if a bit overwhelmed by the nitty-gritty window presentation. The board added language saying they the Cornell team had to continue working with McCracken as bids were put out, and with the project team’s consent, the board voted and granted unanimous preliminary and final approval. You can the Balch renovation project to get underway next summer.

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

Back before the Planning Board last night was 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.

This month, the project was set to undergo Design Review for architectural and aesthetic impacts. Plans to start review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form, which is one of the later stages in the SEQR process, were dropped due to time constraints. Prolific local developer Todd Fox, who owns property nearby, spoke at the public comment to say he likes the project’s overall design, but stressed that the corner brick building should be protected, and hoped the city and Arnot could come to some sort of mutually favorable agreement to save the facade. “You can’t really rebuild and replace that old brick. I definitely want to be sympathetic to the developers, I’ve been in their shoes…but if there’s a compromise where they can save that and maybe get additional square footage in their building, I’d be super-supportive of that.”

As architect Eric Colbert walked the board through the updates, he explained they opted to paint the brick on the old corner building a lighter color. The dark metal panels and industrial windows are meant as a nod to the site’s industrial past – a century ago, the block housed a foundry. The brick forms break up the scale and are intended to complement nearby buildings. Per Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission recommendations, a hoist beam in the alley will be preserved, as well as windows in the corner building at the lowest levels. The project would include 40 two-bedroom units, 23 one-bedroom units, and 66 “junior one-bedroom” units, which are basically studios but where the bed space is somewhat separated out with a side wall instead of being fully enclosed like a typical bedroom. The apartment heating and hot water will use heat pumps, and be designed to meet Green Building Code with the help of local firm Taitem Engineering.

Petrina complimented the materials and colors, though she wanted to see a north facade render, and had concerns with the Corn Street and Seneca Street alleys and lighting. “It could be scary, I want it to be a safe space and inviting.” Jones stressed affordable options, and Godden asked about the dimensions of the brick facade and the finish on the corrugate steel (painted, not Cor-Ten). Randall had worries about the balconies facing dry cleaners for the eventual day that site gets developed (even though that’s been halted at least twice this past decade, maybe one day someone can make something happen there).

The board was split on the setbacks. Most wanted something more flush, to give the junior units more space and create a more continuous face, but Godden liked the setbacks as proposed. Apart from that and more minor details, the board was generally satisfied with the direction of the project’s design. The Design Review concluded and the project will be back before the board next month.

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 a 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, not only was the project up for its Determination of Environmental Significance, it was also under consideration for Preliminary Approval.

Being a project manager for Cornell and stating that her co-workers presenting the project, board member Goddard recused herself from the review. Project Manager Tammi Aiken presented the latest updates. The mean restriction will hang pretty close to the bridge, and some rather sleek LED lighting fixtures will be mounted on the end of the bridge, as well as security cameras. The stairs up to Schoellkopf Field’s parking lot would have their own lighting rigs, and are an optional item on the larger bidding process. Aiken said the project may now be accelerated due to DOT “yellow flagging” the bridge again a couple of weeks ago for increasing amounts of corrosion, so the university is hoping to find the money to replace the bridge structure in the summer of 2021.

The environmental review looked “pretty baked” as Lewis described it, and after a discussion on impacts on the academic year and its increased traffic, the board passed the SEQR negative declaration unanimously, and granted preliminary approval for the project a minute later.

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 this month. The first was the Asteri project, which is discussed in the project-specific section above.

Second on the list is from the Barken family, a group of small-scale landlord-developers who recently renovated a long-vacant home at 419 North Cayuga Street in Fall Creek into a 4-unit apartment house. However, upon final inspection, it was discovered that the road frontage was 49 feet instead of the legally required 50 feet for a home lot in Fall Creek, so they can’t use two of the first-floor apartment bedrooms and have to call them “studies”. Insert joke about starting off on the wrong foot here. This change would convert the 2 one-bedroom units with studies to 2 two-bedroom units, and would increase the overall building occupancy (to 3 two-bedroom units, and 1 one-bedroom unit). The board supported the variance, and were glad that “the former blight of a building is now an asset”.

Meanwhile, over in Bryant Park, the board reviewed plans for renovations to 230 Bryant Avenue to add a dormer as part of renovations. The plans create a bit of character and makes the third floor living space tall enough to be legally habitable, but applicant Charlie O’Connor, who recently purchased the house from the Rudan landlord family, also needs an area variance because it’s enlarging the living space of an apartment home with non-compliant parking (it does not increase the number of bedrooms). Former councilwoman Ellen McCollister wrote a letter in support, saying the proposed renovations look better than the 1950s “Soviet bunker”, which is a bit harsh in this writer’s opinion. The board had a field day with the letter, before summarizing the renovation as having no long-term issues and that they were fine with the BZA giving it approval.

Correction: The original article stated 230 Bryant Avenue was being renovated by the Rudan family. The Rudan family sold the property to Charlie O’Connor earlier this year, and O’Connor was identified as the owner of the LLC in an email from a neighbor. The Voice regrets the error.

Brian Crandall

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