ITHACA, N.Y. — With the pandemic still raging and economic uncertainty abound, it would seem an unusual time to pursue a large housing development. At least one developer disagrees, and is putting forth one of the largest non-institutional residential developments in the city of Ithaca’s history.

A Site Plan Review (SPR) application submitted by Atlanta-based McKinley Development calls for a six-story, 347-unit apartment building on what is currently a two-story building and surface parking lot downslope of the 400 Block of East State Street. The site is owned by Travis Hyde Properties, and developer Frost Travis had previously shared conceptual plans for a 120-unit senior apartment building with a 400-space publicly-accessible parking garage on the property. However, no concrete plans for that mixed-use project were submitted for review. Documentation provided with the submission to the city indicates that Travis has granted his permission for McKinley to pursue their proposal on the site. The Gateway Center and Gateway Commons buildings on the western third of the site are not included in the proposal, and neither is the “Jewels Plaza” Alpha Phi Alpha monument park.

The McKinley project, simply dubbed the “State Street Apartments” for the time being, would consist of three levels of garage parking with 318 parking spaces, some of which would be available to the public. Three floors of apartments would be built over the garage. Given that the site is below State Street, an elevated connection (pedestrian bridge) will be provided from the upper-level “amenity courtyards” to street level. The 347 residential units would be comprised of a range of unit sizes, including studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom, and three-bedroom units. On the outside, rebuilt retaining walls would support State Street and East Hill, while the Six Mile Creek walkway would be extended along the length of the project site. The project cost is estimated to be $52.6 million, with an August 2021 to August 2023 construction period.

According to a cover letter provided by project consultant James Trasher of engineering firm CHA Inc., “(t)he exterior of the building will be designed to blend into the context with materials and detailing relating to its neighbors. The façade will take cues from its brick masonry, cement board panels and fenestration (window arrangement) from adjacent buildings.” Cooper Carry, the Atlanta firm that designed the Downtown Ithaca Marriott, is the architect in charge of the design for the McKinley proposal.

The project complies with city zoning code in setbacks and lot coverage, but will need a variance for height, which is often the trickiest variance to obtain from the Board of Zoning Appeals. The application states that the developer hopes that by setting aside a portion of the garage for public parking, it can build up to the desired height of 69 feet, 4 inches. Zoning on the site allows for 60 feet.

This would be McKinley’s second attempted foray into the Ithaca market. Through their Peak Campus subsidiary, the firm had originally partnered with developer Jeff Rimland in 2017 for his proposal for two apartment towers over the Green Street Garage, but after the city decided to open the site up to a competitive Request for Proposals, the eastern and central portions were awarded to the Vecino Group for their Asteri project. Rimland is now pursuing his own plan, the Ithacan apartment tower, on the eastern third of the garage.

McKinley’s primary business is the development of student housing through its Peak Campus unit, with about 30 properties and 15,000 beds across the country. While the application makes no mention of an explicit effort to cater to the Cornell University and Ithaca College markets, the contact person on the Site Plan Review application is Jeff W. Githens, the President of Development for Peak Campus. Studies have shown that 40% of the renters in Downtown Ithaca are students at one of the two schools, either Ithaca College undergrads or Cornell graduate and professional students (the undergrads cluster in Collegetown).

The project has many meetings ahead of it. Along with the zoning variance, expect discussions on a affordable housing component, environmental concerns (the site has previously been remediated, but special care has to be taken just in case), and whether the development meets the goals espoused by the Downtown parking study that is currently finishing up. At a minimum, expect the process to take several months.

Brian Crandall

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