ITHACA, N.Y. –– It was a jam-packed meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board last night, but contrary to the long agenda and stacks of documents, it went surprisingly quickly and smoothly, with eleven different submissions and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of development reviewed in just about 3.5 hours. Two of the boards seven site plan reviews received final approval, and two more appear likely to receive final approval next month. This all makes for a long but thorough read, so quick word of advice, grab a hot drink and a snack before diving into this month’s rundown.
For those who’d like a copy of the meeting agenda to go along with the play-by-play, that 190-page PDF can be found here.
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, there were two –– the subdivision of the Carpenter Park property into three distinct parcels, and a subdivision sought by the Vecino Group to subdivide the Asteri project site at the Green Street Garage into three distinct parcels.
Carpenter Park, as one might recall, is Cayuga Medical Center and Park Grove Realty’s $90 million mixed-use project on Carpenter Circle. Parcel A would house the 40-42 units of affordable housing, Parcel B the 166 market-rate apartments with ground-floor retail, and Parcel C would be the roadway and the 5-story medical office building and clinic. The Community Gardens will be its own “second-phase” subdivision, but the developer needs to buy the land from the city first before they can pursue that next subdivision. The Carpenter Park project’s subdivision is to meet the stipulations of the Planned Unit Development specialty zoning for the site. The community gardens will own their property, the medical building is expected to start first in phase one and the affordable housing has to be its own parcel for state grant funding purposes.
There were no questions. “We’ve looked at this project for a long time, so there might not be no questions….and there are no questions,” Board Chair Robert Lewis observed. The only fly in the ointment was that the applicant’s last minute subdivision tweaks meant that new paperwork needs to be filed stating the new bounds, so no final approval for the subdivision could be granted. However, preliminary approval was granted unanimously.
Meanwhile, over in downtown Ithaca, the Asteri project is seeking a tripartite split of its own. One parcel will host the renovated and expanded central segment of the Green Street Garage with Home Dairy Alley, the second to its west will contain the conference center and apartment building and the third will host City Hall’s parking lot and the alley north of it. Engineer Andy Sciarabba briefly walked the board through the proposal. Public Hearing opened and closed in about twenty seconds as subdivisions generally don’t stir conversation.
City of Ithaca Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas had questions about the easements and the right-of-way between Home Dairy Alley and Green Street. It will have a “Public Access Easement” so that the public can walk freely through the privately-owned ten foot corridor, which also functions as a fire safety feature for Asteri and the garage. Additional Public Access Easements may be needed as the project heads to its final approval. In the meanwhile at least, the development team received a unanimous vote for preliminary subdivision approval, which keeps the proverbial ball rolling.
Rather unusually, the agenda for this month also had a Special Permit request –– to be triggered for uncommon use considerations in certain property zones. In this case, Deborah Justice, a homeowner on Northside’s Second Street, wants to take an existing dilapidated barn next to her house and replace it with an accessory dwelling with storage space on the ground floor and a one-bedroom apartment above. Since the property is zoned for one-family and two-family homes, that requires a Special Permit.
Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative spoke as the designer. They originally hoped to renovate the barn, but that wasn’t feasible. The accessory apartment would initially be for Ms. Justice’s parents, as well as a nice small-scale infill housing opportunity. A zoning variance is needed because the lot coverage allowed is 35%, and Justice is seeking a zoning variance to allow just over 38% lot coverage. While the drawing is in black and white, slate blue and a light cream color are imagined for the exterior colors. A neighbor speaking in support was the only speaker at the public hearing.
The board was generally pleased with the submission. “This is a great addition to an existing property,” said Planning Board Vice Chair Mckenzie Jones. Special Permit approval was granted unanimously, and the board crafted a favorable recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals, lauding the infill as appropriate, keeping with the city’s long-range planning goals, and that the board encourages investments by owner-occupied households.
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 the plan either 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.
Asteri Ithaca (120 East Green Street)
First up to bat for this month’s site plan reviews was the 12-story Asteri Ithaca Green Street Garage redevelopment at 120 E. Green St. The Asteri proposal by the Vecino Group includes a 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 big news on this project was a deal made with their litigious neighbors next door to shrink the prongs of the “U” to give more space between the buildings in exchange for a building site on South Hill. The current proposal measures 43.5 feet between the buildings, where the most recent previous proposal measured only 24 feet. According to Vecino Group architect Bruce Adib-Yazdi, the trimming also reduced the number of apartments in Asteri by 36, from 217 to 181 (the proportion of one-bedroom to two-bedroom and three-bedroom units remained largely the same). There are no changes to the layout of the lower three floors, but the metal panels were changed to a lighter color and reworked for more visual interest. Aesthetically, the design remains similar, though one can readily see in renderings that the building isn’t as deep as it once was. The project was under consideration of preliminary and potential final approval last night, which would allow the developers to seek building permits (the plan is set to start construction early next year.)
Landscape architect Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning and Design walked the board through the refresher and exterior features, while Adib-Yazdi walked the board through the revised building massing. Accent lighting, wood planters and strung steel cables and planters for vine growth on the outside of the garage are intended to make the garage more visually interesting and less sterile. It will take some time for them to grow out, though Chesebrough noted the hot orange planters and the contrasting panel colors made a pleasant architectural statement.
“I’m very sorry to lose the units, but it might be a better building,” said Lewis. “We were pushing for more light between the buildings, and this is a positive surprise,” said his colleague Emily Petrina. Board member Mitch Glass lauded it as a case study of going to the table and working things out with another developer, but suggested they find some way to add color, shadow or more window space to the south façade. He acknowledged that window size is often reduced as a cost-saving measure in affordable housing. Adib-Yazdi asked if final approval could be possible, but the county has yet to submit comments for their 30-day review period, and so they were hesitant to go that far. But preliminary approval was granted unanimously, and as long as the county planning department has no issues, final approval is likely to be granted next month.
The Ithacan, Green Street Garage (215 E. Green St.)
Developer Jeff Rimland’s 13-story proposal on the eastern end of the garage, called “The Ithacan,” came back to the board for consideration of preliminary and final approval. 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, as well as Ithaca College’s Physician’s Assistant program in the former Finger Lakes School of Massage space. The college will host a ground-level “Program Activity Room” on the Commons to showcase and market the program, with retail to remain on the ends of the building.
As planned, 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.
The board generally had no further comment and was satisfied with the plans. Somewhat surprising given the size of the building, since developer Jeff Rimland dialed back from his development plans on the Commons itself, The Ithacan has engendered little controversy and concern. Jones wanted to make sure the stairways would always be lit and not shaded from the Commons, to which project architect John Abisch agreed. With some slight tweaks in the stipulations, the board unanimously granted preliminary and final approval.
“It turned out to be a really great project, we’re really excited about it,” said Planning Director JoAnn Cornish. “And a shame Jeffrey couldn’t make it.”
“I’m going to tell him (you all) approved it because he didn’t show up tonight,” laughed project representative James Trasher.
430-444 W. State/Martin Luther King Jr. St.
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 façade 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 website here.
The plan this month was to perform Design Review of the project, which focuses on aesthetic aspects of the building and the site’s development, and to continue review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form, which is typically the last major documentation reviewed during the SEQR process. Arnot project manager Ian Hunter walked the board through their soil analysis findings. The soil has some low-grade contamination from the neighboring dry cleaner and from underground storage tanks removed in 1990, so per NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC’s) recommended mitigations and monitoring, a vapor barrier will be installed in the slab foundation and soil will be tested and carefully disposed of as needed during foundation excavation, pile driving and pouring. The building will not use natural gas in the apartments.
City staff stressed the need to be careful with the saving of the corner building’s century-old façade, and to be transparent and timely with construction staging, as that will spill over into public space at times. The board also asked for a copy of the mitigation plans that DEC approves for the site contamination mitigations and soil monitoring, monitoring plans for the pile driving given the proximity to neighbors, and that the fire department signs off on emergency exit plans (they have to in order to get a building permit anyway.) With those comments and stipulations, a negative SEQR declaration was approved by the Planning Board unanimously.
As for the Board of Zoning Approvals variance, the request stems from the fact that 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, which poses a problem for handicap accessibility and impinges on the first-floor garage space. The roof deck on the West Seneca Street-facing B-2d is intended as a “serene” natural space and not for partying. Board Chair Lewis noted “this seems cut and dry,” and was comfortable making a recommendation for a variance. The project will, with any luck, be back before the board next month with BZA variance approvals and seeking preliminary project approval.
Dwyer Dam Replacement and Associated Site Improvements (Hoy Road)
Next up on the SPR agenda was 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 Final Approval – the only reason they held off last month was because they were waiting for the county planning department’s comment period to end, which it did and the county only chimed in to say that they should use cooler/redder 2700 K lighting instead of 4000 K lighting, out of concern for the wildlife and plantings.
Things were running well ahead of schedule, but given the minor amount of work left to do, the board was comfortable starting on its own. Board member Blalock was interesting in seeing pedestrian and vehicular signage plans as part of approval, and after consultation with Cornish and his colleagues on the Planning Board, they agreed to add that to the conditions of approval. With that, the board unanimously voted to grant the rehabilitation project final approval.
South Meadow Square Addition (736-744 S. Meadow St.)
Getting into projects new to the board this month, the first up was the plan for a new 7,000 SF free-standing building (pad parcel) at the South Meadow Square shopping center on Ithaca’s Southwest side, on what is currently surface parking at the far end of the parking lot in front of Spectrum and PetSmart. The project also includes lighting, landscaping, walkways and other amenities.
Unlike most proposals, the South Meadow Square site is governed by a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) from 2000. As long as the site is below the allowed square footage and a project meets the design guidelines set with that GEIS and traffic analyses demonstrate there will not be significant deterioration in traffic flow or parking (neither of which will be for a fairly small addition like this), the project can actually scoot right through the SEQR process. In fact, other than the Public Hearing, the project is already up for Preliminary and Final Approval, assuming the traffic analyses are deemed satisfactory. Similar procedures will be used at the Emerson site (Chain Works) which will also have this quick review process, because all the in-depth work was done earlier with the multi-year work on the GEIS.
On the bright side, things were moving along quick enough that James Boglioli of Buffalo’s Benderson Development was able to present his Zoom presentation two hours early (it pays to be flexible). There will be sidewalks along the corner and generous landscaping (privets, rose bushes) on the ends of the building and the corner itself. At the board’s Project Review Committee, additional awnings and windows were encouraged to break up the massing, which Benderson kindly complied with.
Vice Chair Jones complimented the design, but had questions about enhanced crosswalks (which are included) and where the bike racks were (Boglioli noted they weren’t on the imagery, but said they’d be on the northwest corner and comply with the city’s requirements.) Board member Elisabete Godden asked if Benderson would consider a crosswalk across Fairgrounds Memorial Parkway to the north, to which Boglioli was heistant due to the width of the four-lane road and the lack of stop controls on traffic there, and Godden seemed to drop her suggestion. Board member C.J. Randall thought more on-site infill development, especially housing near Trader Joe’s, would be a great idea for Benderson to explore.
“The objection I often have to these kind of projects is the orientation towards the parking lot…with the patio, these are better than what we typically see and I appreciate that,” said board member Garrick Blalock. “I like the patio here. For example, the one at Chipotle is frequently used, and it gives it a more, walkable, approachable, usable feeling.” The board had temporarily forgotten about the Public Hearing and caught it at the last second, but seeing as no one cared to speak or write in about the project, it was quickly closed. With an added stipulation from Planner Nicholas to have lighting plans reviewed and approved with staff prior to the issuance of a building permit, the board granted unanimous final approval.
Northside Apartments (Demolition and Reconstruction)
The Voice broke news of this back in March in the before-times of the pandemic, that the Ithaca Housing Authority is planning a complete tear-down and replacement of its 70-unit low-to-moderate income housing complex in Ithaca’s Northside neighborhood. The new project will include an additional 12 units (for a total of 82) with an anticipated townhouse-style unit mix of 20 one-bedroom units, 20 two-bedroom units, 20 three-bedroom units and 22 four-bedroom units. A community building, as well as two playgrounds, will be provided for all residents to utilize. Other site improvements include landscaping, lighting, walkways, 82 parking spaces and other site amenities.
The project is expected to require a few years to build out in phases, and to rely on a public-private partnership to help pay for the reconstruction costs. The partnership, called Cayuga Housing Corporation, Zoom-called into Tuesday night’s meeting to give a presentation about the plans, and seek the board’s Declaration of Lead Agency to begin the SEQR process. A team of four Zoom-called in to the meeting, with a presentation by landscape architect Ed Keppy. While the team worked to get the presentation working, the board used the time to declare itself Lead Agency for environmental review.
According to Keppy, each unit will have a patio in the back and variances will be needed for porch extensions into the front yard. Rear yard variances will also be required, and a modest parking variance will be sought as well. Most of the building will front city street, though three interior townhouse strings away from the street will front parking areas. Exterior siding will be vinyl with cast stone accents. Under federal HUD regulations, here will be an extensive tenant relocation plan where tenants will be given relocation vouchers while construction ensues, and tenants will be given priority preference as the new apartments are completed.
The board was receptive to the proposal in their initial commentary. They stressed differentiation in colors and materials in the facade. Godden asked about outdoor community spaces, to which Keppy said that along with playgrounds, they would have an outdoor patio space and look into a BBQ grilling area. Petrina lauded the use of individualized porches and apartment facades, and inquired if more parking could be taken out for more units to be built. Lewis was not a fan of vinyl, and stressed that it should be as high-quality as the budget can support. Generally, the board looked forward to hearing more about the plans as they moved forward with the environmental review in the coming months.
State Street Apartments (401 E. State/Martin Luther King Jr. St.)
Last but certainly not least for Site Plan Reviews was McKinley Development Company’s plan for a six-story, 340,000 square-foot apartment building with a 318‐space internal parking garage and 346 apartments mixed between studio, 1, 2 and 3‐bedroom units, to be built on what is mostly surface parking on the eastern end of downtown Ithaca. Non‐vehicular building access will be provided off State/MLK Jr Street, as well as internal to the site. The project includes other site improvements including the extension of the Gateway Trail to the end of the site, landscaping, lighting and other site amenities. Project development will require the demolition of the existing one‐story building at the eastern end of the property.
The development team came before the board last night with a presentation of their own, and sought the board’s Declaration of Lead Agency so that they could begin the SEQR process and take the next step of many towards approval. Among those future considerations are a Board of Zoning Appeals request for a 9-foot height variance, and potentially the project may also require actions by Common Council and/or the Board of Public Works related to relocation of the existing utility easements on site.
Coming back before the board was James Trasher of CHA Inc., who has apparently decided that after months of representing Rimland’s Ithacan proposal, decided he wants to spend another five months chatting with the Planning Board, as well as newcomers architect Tim Fish of Cooper Carry Architecture and McKinley President Jeff Githens. Githens noted that the firm’s initial interest in the Green Street Garage redevelopment led them to look around Ithaca, and eventually led them to local developer Frost Travis’s site here, which they saw as “a prime development in our eyes to develop a first-class apartment community to serve the Ithaca market.”
Over the past few months, they’ve met with fire chief Tom Parsons to make sure that the project would comply with fire access and code. “We’ve done our homework… we’ve addressed all access issues for life safety and fire.” Githens added they would extend the Creekwalk along the site to be used as a public amenity. Gateway Commons residents and office tenants would have private parking access in the new building, alongside the new building’s residents. According to architect Fish, the façade was a “masonry aesthetic” and “a little bit industrial.” The project team acknowledged there was much to review – utilities, traffic analyses, design impacts and much more.
“It’s quite a significant development…I think this building shares some architectural components with the (Arnot) project at 430 West State. At 346 units, it’s extraordinarily big. I don’t feel density is a bad thing, but there will be a lot of comments from the board and the community about all that density in this location. I’d be interesting in learning more about its affordability and its green building elements. The road in the back concerns me, 26 feet is a huge road, and it would be great if some of that space could be given over to the public,” said Glass.
“I appreciate that you’re building on top of parking. Something that came to mind as I look at the renderings, I want it to feel more quaint…I wonder if adding elements or changing the rooflines could contribute to a more residential feeling. I’m also really curious to know about decisions that will be made about the workforce housing policy. I’ve seen people lament that this isn’t for them. I’m supportive of increasing density, but it has to be inclusive and accessible to everybody,” added Rounds.
The board was receptive to the project, if cautious. The size of it definitely made them a little wary, though they also saw the site as a great opportunity to reuse an underutilized site and complement downtown Ithaca’s current offerings if done right. The general sentiment seemed to be for a more residential-feeling architectural design and increase public amenities along the creek and connect to the park/trail space to the east. Generally speaking, the board had a number of aesthetic and programmatic concerns they wanted addressed, but they at least liked the idea of the project.
“I think the biggest challenge of the site is just the scale,” Chair Lewis surmised. “This is just so big, and I really wonder, as this design develops, how we address that. Material variation, articulation variation…the courtyards help. I wonder if there’s not more to do along those lines.”
While the project team has much to think about, they at least made the next step forward –– the Planning Board unanimously approved to declare itself Lead Agency for environmental review.
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. There were three projects to review this month, and to save space, I’ll note that the first is the accessory dwelling on Second Street for an area variance, the second is the area variance sought by Arnot for their 430-444 W. State/MLK Jr. St. project discussed above, and the third and last to be discussed here is exterior signage for the Arthaus project at 130 Cherry St.
Long story short, per Whitham staff Chesebrough and Kayla Mosebrook, the firm wanted to change from on-building signage to projecting “blade” signage, which will be back-lit. The square footage of the sign is about 60 sqaure feet, but the zoning code limits size to 50 square feet. The board felt the scale was appropriate and the design “innocuous,” per Lewis.
“I like it because there’s a theatrical element to it, which fits in with Cherry Street,” said Rounds. They felt the slightly larger signage was appropriate for the five-story apartment building, but there was some struggle to articulate why they couldn’t stick to 50 square feet. Chesebrough offered that it would help as way-finding signage, and the board liked the idea. The board noted that, as a self-imposed problem, it could be tricky to get BZA approval, but that the Planning Board liked the sign and saw no harmful impacts from it.
Wrapping up the meeting with Reports and Old/New Board Business, it seems like the board will stick with its regular schedule through the December holidays. Blalock, as the Board of Public Works liaison, noted that the State Street Apartments proposal will need to negotiate easements with the city for water and sewer lines. Jones will be stepping back from the board until February, and so the city is weighing appointing a board member emeritus who still lives in the city temporarily, possibly John Schroeder or Isabel Fernández. Novarr will be submitting his Collegetown megaproject in November to begin review by January at the latest, which this writer looks forward to so he can finally stop looking like a horse’s back-end after a year of telling people it’s coming.