ITHACA, N.Y.— Unlike the Planning Board meeting the night before, The Ithaca Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee was jam-packed with material, well-suited for Zoom as a winter storm bore down around city councilors’ homes. In contrast to the agenda itself, though, discussion was generally brief, less than 10 minutes per item, and it was a fairly smooth meeting. If you want to have a look at the PEDC agenda, a copy can be found here.
City Makes Agreement with Rimland for “The Ithacan”
Special order of business on the PEDC Agenda tonight was the Disposition and Development Agreement (DDA) for the eastern third of the Green Street Garage in Downtown Ithaca. This deals with developer Jeff Rimland’s “The Ithacan,” a $69 million, 13-story mixed-use project with 200 apartments and new academic space for Ithaca College that was just approved by the Planning Board back in October. Rimland owns the the ground under the eastern third of the garage, but the city-owned garage sits on top of it. In a nutshell, the DDA is the product of negotiations between developer Jeff Rimland’s project team that allows the project to move forward under terms that the city is amenable to.
The plan is that Rimland will pay the city $350,000 for the air rights (the space above the land) to develop the site, with provisions for leasing back 116 parking spaces in the rebuilt garage for public use, and a minimum of 10% of its units to be rented at no more than 80% area median income for 30 years. The city has made it clear it prefers 20% of the units be set aside at that price point, and in response, $500,000 will be paid to the city-county Community Housing Development Fund, and the final percentage of affordable units above 10% will be dependent on calculated and third party-reviewed return on investment. Basically, any calculated developer cash return on investment above 8% year-over-year will force more affordable units until the full 20% is accommodated, or developer cash return on investment falls below 8%, whichever comes first. Sunny Days and Home Green Homes are to reimbursed for their legal expenses after fighting an earlier plan by Rimland that would have forced their businesses to move. The project will be required to pay prevailing wages for construction labor as well. If all this happens on schedule, the legal paperwork allowing construction to take place will be finalized and signed by mid-March 2021.
No one was signed up to speak on the Ithacan development and the DDA, so the Public Hearing opened and closed in about 90 seconds. In the general public hearing for the PEDC meeting, local residents Theresa Halpert Deschanes and Theresa Alt wrote in to say to tread carefully on the Ithacan and to express frustration with the amount of parking, and demand affordable housing on-site and in subsidy for the Collegetown Innovation District. “The Theresas,” as the council refers to them, are super on top of PEDC meetings, to the point where councilor Steve Smith (D-4th Ward) accidentally read part of their written public comment from the previous month before one of them pinged him to let him know he had the wrong letter.
In response to question from councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st) about who’s responsible for maintenance, IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn said it was still being fleshed out, but would likely be similar to the deal with the Vecino Group’s Asteri development – the city would operate the garage, set the parking rates and maintain the garage by and large.
Councilors Laura Lewis (D-5th) and Donna Fleming (D-3rd) expressed some concern with a letter received by PEDC that construction fencing had already been put up to the chagrin of at least one business. “I would encourage the developer to share information and progress reports with the city and local businesses on the Commons,” said Lewis. The DDA passed unanimously, and will head to the full Common Council in January for final acceptance.
Dogs on the Commons
This topic is like a dog fetching a stick – it just keeps coming back. According to my editor Anna Lamb, who covered the Common Council meeting earlier this month, “(t)he motion was tabled mostly because of confusing language regarding fines and waste pick-up regulations.”
The city’s Public Safety and Information Commission, which is a citizens’ board that does policy research for other boards, did research on the matter by interviewing residents, city departments and reviewing the dog policies of other U.S. cities with downtown pedestrian malls. Of the nine other cities, only one, (Boulder, Colorado) doesn’t allow dogs. The conclusions were that if the city wanted enforcement, it would need to assign additional police personnel to explicitly go after people with dogs, which came with concerns of inequality in enforcement and that service animals might be targeted by mistake. The arguments for repeal were much longer, though with the condition that leash laws be strictly enforced and the suggestion that a sanitary doggie business space and material (waste bags) be provided.
The revised ordinance clarifies that leashed dogs are the only animals permitted on the Commons with a Special Permit and must follow the rules (i.e. the City Code, Chapter 164 Article II, “Dogs”). A retractable leash will also be allowed so long as it is locked to be no more than six feet in length. The other rules proposed last month – no more than two dogs per person, leashed at all times, no tethering to stationary objects, clean up after your pooch and keep them out of the planters – are all still in there.
Councilor Fleming suggested simplifying and clarifying the language to simply say no animals allowed on the Commons except those with special permits and with leashed dogs, and dog handlers and dog owners are required to clean up after dogs, as well as eliminating multiple redundancies in different sections in the code. In contrast, councilor Brock argued to have repeated language in parts of the code to make it easier for laypeople to find reference information, and the board seemed to side with that along with the simpler language prescribed by Fleming. The PEDC discussed banning dogs from festivals, but expressed hesitance to go through with it due to difficulties in enforceability. Mostly, the effort here was verbal cleanup and to close any potential loopholes before they’re exploited, fairly brief and without any major hang-ups. The revised language allowing dogs on the Commons passed unanimously and will head back to Council in January.
PEDC rescinds preferred developer status for Inlet Island site
This probably sounds more off-putting than it actually is. This specifically deals with the large parking lot on the northern half of Inlet Island, for which the Voice broke news of dueling proposals for development of the city-owned site. Developer Steve Flash has had the preferred developer status on the property since 2006, and his proposal for a five-story hotel was shot down by Common Council the following year. While Flash planned a revised proposal, the late 2000s financial crisis hit, and no new plans were put forward until this fall, when he and business partner Jeff Rimland proposed a housing-focused project for the site (top).
However, at the same meeting another local developer, Lincoln Morse, put forth plans of his own (bottom). Morse’s plan has less of a focus on housing, but with a boutique hotel to be run by Avi Smith, the operator of the Argos Inn and Bar Argos – in short, it’s a second, serious proposal. Morse is hoping for Flash’s cooperation on other adjacent parcels to optimize the development, but that’s outside tonight’s discussion.
In order to weigh both of the plans on their merits, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency has to put out a Request For Expressions of Interest, and to put all potential applicants on an equal footing, the preferred developer status has to be rescinded. It’s nothing against Flash, it’s just to make sure everyone gets a fair shake. For Flash’s partner Rimland though, this may bring back some unpleasant memories. After proposing a two-tower plan for the Green Street Garage in 2017, it was decided to open up the property to a formal Request For Proposals, which eventually resulted in the western two-thirds of the garage being awarded to the Vecino Group’s Asteri proposal. The eastern third, which Rimland owned the ground rights to, became “The Ithacan” discussed earlier in this report.
There was practically no discussion, though Committee Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd) said he enjoyed reading the old council minutes from before his time. The board vote to rescind preferred developer status passed unanimously.
Cass Park Mountain Bike Trail
Coming back before the PEDC this month was a “Resolution to Approve Entering into an Agreement with Cycle CNY for Mountain Bike Trails in Cass Park”. Cycle CNY, a non-profit group dedicated to awareness, safety advocacy, and promotion of mountain biking, worked with city staff to identify a small section of Cass Park that has been identified that can accommodate a small network of mountain bike trails that would be easily accessible to city residents, and will provide opportunities for skill building for beginner mountain bikers. The resolution is essentially signing off on a public/private partnership where Cycle CNY and the city build and maintain the network, which is slated for a stretch of land between the ball fields and the Black Diamond Trail. Cycle CNY will handle trail construction with city approval, and take care of the less-intensive maintenance of those trails (small downed tree removal, pruning, keeping the paths in good shape, and so on).
The PEDC wanted to give more time for stakeholder comments, so they decided to give another month for review before voting this month. The public feedback has been mostly positive, with almost a dozen letters of support from the public, and the legal framework and responsibilities of the city and Cycle CNY have been reviewed and approved by city staff. One letter from local resident Dave Nutter was received in concern that the park would lose natural habitat space and there would be harmful environmental impacts from the bikes and maintenance of the trail.
“I’m not a biker, but I think it’s great to have opportunities for mountain bikers in Cass Park,” said Chair Murtagh. Discussion was fairly brief. The board acknowledged that the comments from Nutter were fair and some more information about maintenance was appropriate. Cycle CNY’s Donal Fitterer stated on the call that the maintenance would largely be by Cycle CNY volunteers, and they’d be in consultation with the city forester). Overall, they felt the park site was an appropriate location for the trail. The vote to support the mountain bike trail’s creation passed unanimously.
Other Agenda Items
It’s worth noting that, while not on the agenda, several members of the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement was present to demand updates on why the Green Building Policy was taking so long, and complaints that it was too lenient by allowing natural gas to be used in some projects, making it difficult to transition to the goals of the Green New Deal in future years. “When Ithaca passed the Green Building Policy, it promised to be a leader on climate change. I don’t see that since the last draft. Allowing buildings to use fossil fuels sets the city up for failure,” said speaker Katie Sims. “Along with not allowing buildings to use fossil fuels at all, the number of (sustainability) points to qualify should also be increased.”
In response to the comments about why it was taking so long, Planning Director Cornish issued a mea culpa due to the pandemic, but that the GBP will be before the PEDC in January for a vote to circulate for 30 days for public comment, potentially then be voted upon for acceptance and adoption by PEDC in February, and Common Council final approval at their meeting in early March.
Not as flashy but still important, the PEDC also voted this month on “annual lead agency concurrence” with the city of Ithaca’s Planning Department. This is done at the start of every year and basically says that city planners will work on behalf of Common Council for projects in which Common Council is an involved agency in review – basically, every Planned Unit Development, like Chainworks or the Collegetown Innovation District to be reviewed in 2021. Council still have their discussions, but Planning Department staff do the paperwork and analysis for Council to read and inform those discussions. “This is a pretty routine thing, we do this regularly,” said Murtagh. The vote for concurrence passed the PEDC unanimously.
The city’s Historic Preservation Planner, Bryan McCracken, also gave the PEDC notice of a shared services opportunity with the Town of Ithaca, which has been looking to add a historic preservation program in recent years and consulting with the city for guidance. According to the memo from McCracken, “(t)hese conversations led to the idea of establishing a shared City/Town historic preservation program that would include reciprocal landmarks ordinances, a combined City and Town of Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission, and joint staffing,” and the town is offering funds to reimburse their use of McCracken in exploring the feasibility of a joint program.
“This is a good opportunity for shared services…and it looks like we will take this up at the January PEDC Meeting.” said councilor Lewis.
“This looks like a good opportunity to support historic preservation in the community,” added councilor Fleming. The rest of the board was fully supportive as well, so expect that to be a voting item at next month’s PEDC meeting.
Last but not least in this report, Department of Public Works Watershed Coordinator Roxy Johnston submitted to PEDC a “Resolution of Support for the Owasco Lake Watershed Rules and Regulations”, basically endorsing plans by the city of Auburn and village of Owasco to enact revamped watershed rules and regulations, which have to be approved by New York State. The goal is to prevent harmful algae blooms, and Johnston and other stakeholder representatives are hoping to use the Owasco Lake regulations as a model for updating Cayuga Lake’s rules and regulations (the existing regulations are so old, they still make reference to privies and carcass disposal). The agenda item is simply a request Ithaca Common Council’s vote of support for Auburn and Owasco’s efforts, because they’re uncertain if it will encounter pushback from the state’s Agriculture and Markets agency.
Committee chair Murtagh praised Johnston’s work on her thorough memo to the PEDC. “I think this is a tremendous opportunity of support to basically endorse a process that Cayuga County and the municipalities in the Owasco Lake watershed have undertaken to update their watershed rules and regulations, and something like we hope to bring to the city in the future,” added councilor Brock.
The committee was fully willing to provide its support for the effort to update Owasco Lake’s watershed regulations, and the formal vote to endorse will be held next month.
Correction: The original version of this piece said that Lincoln Morse requires Steve Flash’s support for his Inlet Island project to happen. Project architect Noah Demarest wrote in after publication to say “it would be nice to see a collaboration with Steve (Flash) so his property could open up access and views to the water on the inlet side. But it’s not a deal killer.” The Voice appreciates the additional information and correction, and has updated the article accordingly.