ITHACA, N.Y. –– The pre-holiday November City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meeting was short but productive. Two projects with commercial space and over 300 housing units received approvals this month, a third project looked to be sailing along, while the fourth proposal discussed Tuesday might be hitting some turbulence as it makes its journey through the planning board’s review process.

As always, for those who would like a copy of the meeting agenda to go along with the play-by-play, the 138-page PDF can be found here. The board was smaller than usual this month, down to five members; Elisabete Goddard was absent, McKenzie Jones-Rounds is on voluntary leave, and the board alternate did not show.

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, 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. Both received preliminary subdivision approval last month and were up for final subdivision approval this month.

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. The full suite of paperwork for the revised subdivision boundaries was not filed in time for last month’s meeting (the city still had the old, so final subdivision approval could not be granted until this month.

Given that there weren’t changes, the board really didn’t have anything in the way of comment. The board needed more time to let all the project team into the Zoom meeting than to conduct their discussion and vote, which passed unanimously. “Good luck with the rest of your project, looks like a winner,” said Board Chair Robert Lewis.

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; the third will host City Hall’s parking lot and the alley north of it. This subdivision was unable to receive final subdivision approval last month because additional Public Access Easements were required – most subdivisions are simple, but Asteri and the rebuilt Green Street Garage are a public-private partnership, so the legal paperwork is quite extensive.

In this case, the lot lines had to be tweaked to accommodate the easements. The blue lot was changed from a squared corner to curved to allow for vehicle turning radii, and the north-south line between Lots A and B were shifted to allow more room during construction. That, folks, is an illustration of why the city wants all that paperwork on file before granting final subdivision approval.

The project was also on the Site Plan Review, but for ease of discussion the board decided to handle the subdivision separately from the SPR. The board had nothing in the way of comment regarding the minor changes. “This looks clean and tidy to me,” said Lewis. Pending submission of the final documents as conditions of approval, and further discussion on the city staff level on construction easements, the subdivision passed unanimously.

Site Plan Review

For those new to the ways of the Ithaca’s project review procedures, Site Plan Review (SPR) is where the evaluation 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.

Just a routine refresher here, but 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-to-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 upper floors of the building will house 181 apartments. 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.

Along with some design updates to the Conference Center space and south (Green Street) facade of the parking garage, the project was up for that coveted preliminary and final site plan approval this month. The Asteri project team rolled right into it after being granted subdivision approval.

Landscape Architect Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning and Design walked the board through the latest updates – a wood soffit finish will be used as a design accent on the ground-level exterior ceilings. and some of the material finishes on the garage. The lower levels will pretty much remain as-is except for cleaning and a refinishing of the exposed concrete. The upper level concrete will have “a more clean, architectural” concrete finish, per Vecino architect Bruce Adib-Yazdi. The facade will be accented with a fractured granite form-liner to give a more textured look, and vines growing from “hot orange” planters and along stainless steel cables.

“I hope the ivy works, but I think you’re right, even if it doesn’t the cables will be interesting,” commented board member Emily Petrina. She pointed In response to a query from her colleague Mitch Glass, Adib-Yazdi mentioned that they plan to have a blade-style sign for Cinemapolis on the exterior of the garage.

There was some debate regarding the two garage-building connectors (“skywalks”), which had been mostly glass, but were reduced to smaller windows due to concerns with fire-rating. “I would think a lighter color would be more inviting,” said Glass, who also suggested some recessed lighting under the skywalks. For the sake of granting final approval last night, the addition of lighting and choice of a staff-approved lighter material color were built in as conditions of approval by unanimous vote of the board.

With that, the board came to their vote. Final approval was granted unanimously. “Thank you very much everybody…this is a community project, and that’s how we work,” said Adib-Yazdi. He gave the board two thumbs up as the team logged off and the board turned to the next agenda item.

West End Ironworks (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 113,300 square-foot structure would house 129 apartments and 4,800 square feet of ground-level retail, to be split for up to three tenants. The ground level would host 49 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 design of the building had received some mild updates since October’s meeting, with the deletion of some balconies and other minor exterior changes. Like Asteri, 430-333 West State was up for preliminary and final site plan approval from the Planning Board.

Architect Eric Colbert walked the board through the changes to the project. The parking area and corridor were widened slightly for wider drive aisles (this decreased commercial square footage from 5,500 square-feet to 4,800 square-feet in three storefronts), and the sales and leasing office was shifted southward to West State Street. A wall of seating was added to the State Street plaza, and the Corn Street alley was refined with pavers and both permanent and removable bollards. Some balconies were removed fro the Corn Street side, and ground-floor windows were deleted directly behind the State Street Diner due to building code/safety reasons. There will now be two rooftop green spaces, a fourth-floor space along North Corn Street, and the fifth-floor terrace facing West Seneca Street.

We now also have a name for the building – “West End Ironworks”, a throwback to the site’s use a century ago as the Williams Bros. Ironworks and Foundry.

“I like everything I’ve seen, it’s a handsome design,” said board member Garrick Blalock. Glass asked about the affordability aspect, and project representative Ian Hunter replied that Arnot will be giving $645,000 ($5,000 per unit) to the Community Housing Development Fund. Chair Lewis would express dissatisfaction at the end of the meeting with the payment option as set by the Tompkins County Industrial Development Authority, saying he supports the IDA but no developer will build affordable housing in their project if they can pay $5,000 per unit to a fund to get out of it.

The board decided the filing was complete enough to consider final approval, with a condition added to consult the city forester regarding the street trees and vegetation along West State Street. With that, preliminary and final approval was granted by unanimous vote.

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 partnering with a private developer for 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, starting in what would most likely be 2022 due to the need for affordable housing grants.

Along with the public hearing for the project and review of the Full Environmental Assessment Forms Part 2 and 3 (a major part of the SEQR environmental review process), the project team Zoom-called into the meeting to give their latest update on the proposal.

Landscape architect Ed Keppy stated that the developers had submitted updated information on townhouse elevations (2-D facade images), playground equipment, a detailed budget and program to assist lower-income tenants as existing units are taken off market in phases to build out the project. and informed the board that they had applied for parking and yard setback variances from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

A letter was sent as written public comment to the board from former alderperson Dan Hoffman expressing concerns about the tear down. Keppy said in his presentation that the 70-year old townhouses had significant structural deterioration such that demolition and new construction made more financial sense for the IHA (the original plan did call for rebuilds, until the poor results came back from the structural assessment). Developer Bruce Levine of 3d Development Group added that materials that touched asbestos will need to be thrown out, and it sounded like nearly all of the material will need to be disposed. “I don’t see how you can deconstruct and salvage with lead-based paint or asbestos (exposed) materials in the mix.”

The only formal submission in the public hearing was a written letter from a nearby resident asking about construction hours, tree protection plans, a line on a map received by neighbors (which was just a line showing properties within 100 feet of the site), and access to the streets during construction. Keppy said streets won’t be closed but sidewalks will need to be closed temporarily and they will be submitted a plan to manage pedestrian circulation. The project team is also working with city forester Jeanne Grace on tree protection plans.

A lot of material still needs to be submitted by the project team to the Planning Department as part of the review of Part 3, not so much complicated subject matter but needed information nevertheless. The project will be back before the Planning Board next month to continue with environmental review and seek the board’s recommendation for the BZA variances.

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 347 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 an updated presentation on the project as well as review of Part 2 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form and an overview of what would be sought in Part 3. FEAF Part 2 is mostly fill-in-the-blank form completion, while Part 3, a full writeup on project impacts and mitigations, is much meatier and specific to the project. Among the extensive set of 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. The tentative review schedule wouldn’t have this project receiving site plan approval until June 2021 at the earliest.

Revisions to the design included more lush vegetation and streetscaping along East State and Six Mile Creek, more architectural variation on the State Street facade, with decorative arches and balconies, and a little more visual interest in the brickwork and cementitious panels that would finish out much of the exterior. A traffic study will be submitted to the city in early December.

The board found things they liked, but Chair Lewis made clear from the start of the discussion that the project team still had work to do. “I appreciate the design that has developed, I think the articulation really helps. But basically it presents as five repeating units, I like those individually. Any one of those repeating blocks is solid…but it’s still super overwhelming, taken as a whole to me it’s just way too much. It reads as something of a different scale, almost hospital-like in scale. It doesn’t feel like a residential project that fits within the city of Ithaca yet.”

“I really like this industrial factory aesthetic. I don’t mind the blockiness. I agree with Rob (Lewis), the repetitive nature of the five blocks is problematic from the creek side. The State Street side, it works, the materials are less overwhelming on that side. If there was a side to make it feel more residential, balconies, sunshades, smaller scale features, this is the side to do it, on the creek,” added Petrina. Petrina asked if a connection from the east end to the Creekwalk to East State might be possible, but developer Jeff Githens said the steepness of the slope and residential neighbors to the east make it infeasible.

Blalock led the board through a presentation response from his own computer showing different riverwalks and creekwalks, leading to a question of whether a waterside stairwell below a balcony could be undertaken, to let people enjoy Six Mile Creek as it’s fairly hidden between the slopes in that location. Githens had expressed reservation since they had viewed the retaining wall as a fixed condition, but were open to exploring sightlines to bring people closer to the water.

Board member Glass thought punched openings in the railing and a small overlook might do a lot to connect to the creek, and suggested the “monolithic” nature of the building could be helped by modulating the roofline by either subtracting portions here or there, or otherwise modifying the roof line, balconies, or planters or vines like Asteri’s along the parking garage. “The public space component of this project is critical and complicated. You need a first-class landscape architect on this project.”

“The sooner we can get people parked and engaged with the Creekwalk, the better […] it just seems like a very long stretch before you can get out […] there could be the possibility of some flood mitigation and green infrastructure elements that expand access to the creek, could be some opportunities, maybe even some grant funding with it,” said board member C.J. Randall.

In sum, treatment of the Creekwalk and creek infrastructure and treatment of the facade to make it less imposing seemed to be the big issues on the minds of the board. More materials will be crafted in time for the next meeting next month, when environmental review discussion resume along with the start of an extended public comment period – the board is keen to start early in the process because they expect this project will garner much public commentary.

“I very much appreciate the work that you’ve done, I hope the comments you’ve received from us are hopeful. I hope that informs your actions and visions as we move forward in what looks to be a long review process over the next seven months,” said Lewis.

Reports

Wrapping up the meeting with Reports and Old/New Board Business (in an extreme rarity, there were no zoning variances to review this month), the board’s comment was sought regarding the legal presence of dogs on the Commons.

“In my experience there are plenty of dogs on the Commons anyway. I don’t think the current legal structure is accomplishing a whole lot,” said Lewis. The rest of the board was also warm to the proposal, and unanimously endorsed the legalization of dogs on the Commons. In fact, they explicitly asked for Lisa Nicholas to say that the board is giving their “two paws up”.

Brian Crandall

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