ITHACA, N.Y. –– To finish out the year, it was a relatively pithy meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board, and earlier in the month than usual thanks to the holidays. In fact, the city’s livestream was hosting three meetings at once last night, sharing bandwidth with the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Board of Public Works meeting, which made for some mild technical issues.

Nevertheless, the Planning Board was able to meet and proceed with last night’s meeting, with two projects advancing towards approval, and one that in the words of its developer and the board chair, went “a step backward” due to unresolved issues and concerns. For those who like to read along to the usual play-by-play, you can access a copy of this month’s relatively short 152-page agenda here.

Site Plan Review

In proof of how abbreviated this month was compared to the usual, there were no Subdivision Reviews or Special Permits filed for review with this month’s meeting. We’ll be jumping straight into the meat of the Planning Board discussion with the Site Plan Review.

For those unfamiliar with “planner’s speak”, 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.

For your quick refresher as always, 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.

Northside Apartments (Demolition and Reconstruction)

First up to bat this December is the Northside Apartments redevelopment. The Voice broke news of this back in March in the before-times of the pandemic. 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 – technically, this is lower capacity than the existing units (225 bedrooms now, 208 bedrooms proposed), because they currently have a number of three-bedroom, four-bedroom and five-bedroom units that will be replaced with smaller one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. The bigger units are harder to fill because families aren’t as big as they used to be, and those in the market for units of that size will often rent an older house in the neighboring towns instead, and get more bang for their buck space-wise.

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. This month, the SEQR process was expected to wrap up with a vote on the Determination of Environmental Significance, and the Planning Board’s recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) regarding variances for the front and rear years setbacks for the townhouses, and for less parking than zoning requires (82 proposed, one per unit, vs. 104 required).

Landscape architect Ed “Keppy” Keplinger led the board through the latest updates. Twenty-two bike racks were placed in the site plans right before the meeting, but the board briefly confered and decided it was not about to hold up review just to see those in the site imagery. Board member C.J. Randall pointed out that the lighting was a cooler color than advised by the county Environmental Management Council, so the board and project team agreed to adjust the exterior lighting from 4000 K to a warmer 3000 K tone. With those details noted, the SEQR negative declaration passed unanimously.

As for the BZA appeal, the board was generally comfortable with the zoning variances sought. The porches are within the setback, but as board member Emily Petrina noted, the porches create a scale and form more fitting for the Northside neighborhood, and the parking needs by the Ithaca Housing Authority tenants are well documented and lower than what the zoning code demands. The affordable price point, design features and increased green spaces were seen as positive attributes to include in justifying recommendation of the variances. With that, the board wrapped up its review of the Northside Apartments for the month,. The project will hopefully be back before the board in January with variances approved and seeking preliminary project approval.

State Street Apartments (401 E. State/Martin Luther King Jr. St.)

Next up 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.

Last time, the board was not thrilled by the bulk of the project and how all of the wings facing Six Mile Creek looked practically the same, “monolithic” as one member put it. In response, some effort has been put in by architect Cooper Carry to break up the massing and differentiate the facades on the southern face through different materials, material colors, and some modest reductions in the bulk and roofline. If you want to toggle between before and after, the old renders are here. The pedestrian entrance from East State Street was widened as well. No votes were set for the project in tonight’s meeting, but along with a report on the design update, the Public Hearing was opened, and the board was going into this with the expectation the public would have a lot to say here.

The project team of six was briefly the same size as the board present, as Vice-Chair Mckenzie Jones is on short-term leave and replaced with alternate Stephanie Egan-Engels, and Garrick Blalock was in the Board of Public Works meeting until joining the Planning Board later in the evening. Multiple members of the team walked the board through the plans, in a rather haphazard process that the Planning Board described later as disjointing, confusing and frustrating, as the project team kept cutting each other off and talking over one another. Of note from the presentation, most of the parking is on the western side of the building, with three levels of parking on that side and only one level of parking on the east side. The formal Six Mile Creekwalk would terminate in an area finished out with decorative paving, picnic tables, signage and trees, with a proposed connection to a natural trail continuing eastward along Six Mile Creek.

The only public comment was a written letter from Dan Hoffman, a former city councilor and Vice-Chair of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Commission, who spoke against the project for size, parking, lighting, massing, and for detracting from the beauty of the Creekwalk. Hoffman also wanted green roofing with a community garden, or solar panels. “We are looking to being a green neighbor and using all-renewable resources and using recycled materials…we’re looking to be as green as we can be,” said consulting engineer James Trasher in response.

The general consensus from the board was that there had been progress, but there was still work to do, and the project had to either provide more public benefits or reduce its bulk. Board member Randall suggested a new access stairwell along the southwest face in an effort to make the building more permeable. Her colleague Mitch Glass appreciated the latest efforts on the south face, but was still nervous about the massing and whether the building was too big, and wanted more separation between the creekwalk and the building, which he acknowledged was in part shaped by fire safety code requiring a 26-foot width access drive for fire trucks. “The north side still isn’t working for me. It’s still this relentless facade. I know you widened the entrance, but you barely notice it.”

“I like what you did with the east side with the height variation. I wonder if you could do that with other sides of the building, to break up the flat roof…I do think there’s a massing issue here. I’d like to see more green space, more trees. And I agree, the walk seems very, very tight,” said Planning Board member Elisabete Godden.

“I’m not sure how I feel about the size,” said Blalock, jumping back in from the BPW meeting. “There are a lot of issues about flood control. The reason the (creek) retaining wall is the way it is, is in case of dam failure further upstream. City engineers say the highest they’ve seen it is six inches from the top (of the retaining wall)….It’s also difficult to me to envision the city maintaining a gorge trail to the east, people don’t realize how expensive trail maintenance is. But (creekwalk) bumpouts may be allowable from an engineering perspective, the mayor was very excited about it and just officiated a marriage on one of the existing bumpouts.”

“I really like the south side and what you’ve done to break up the massing, it looks a lot more sophisticated with residential-sized windows, and the cornice pieces reduce the massing. I’d like to see some of that sophistication and articulation on the north side, but the south side looks really good,” said the board’s Emily Petrina. “I think there’s a missed opportunity to connect East State Street to the creekwalk. If there’s a way to chute people through from State Street to the creekwalk, that would be great from a public perspective.” Petrina also asked for more green space, to which Trasher noted the issue is with fire codes and fire safety. Egan-Engels, who serves on the BZA, acknowledged it would be difficult to obtain a variance to narrow the creekside access road for more green space.

“It still seems huge,” said Planning Board Chair Rob Lewis. “The facade work has done a lot to improve the building, but I’m not sure it mitigates the fundamental issue we’re looking at, which is the size…there has to be a give. Maybe not from the width of the fire truck access, but maybe a bumpout, or a State Street connection, or taking a look at the massing. But something’s gotta give. I don’t hear a consensus that what you have works yet, but it’s improvement from the last version that we saw, and I appreciate the work that’s been done. This is not an easy project to sum up briefly, and I think this could have gone smoother with fewer heads and a list of changes. It makes it harder for us to give you feedback otherwise.”

Developer Jeff Githens said they could look at working on the northern facade, and that a bumpout on the creek was an interesting idea. However, a more exasperated tone kicked in from there. “But a fire lane is a fire lane…if (Fire) Chief Parsons gave us some liberty to the sidewalk being a part of that 26 feet, we’d be open to it. And the sheer elevation between State Street and the Creekwalk, the most logical place for a connection is between the Gateway Building and our building, and that space is to be conveyed by Frost Travis for the Alpha Phi Alpha memorial. We’d gladly provide an easement, but any other point along that wall would just be physically impractical. We’ve got constraints on how much we can compromise for a project to still make financial sense. If we’re at an impasse on what the building is, we’ve got real challenges as a developer. I feel this meeting may be a step backwards, to be honest with you.”

“It probably was. I don’t think tonight was really successful for you. Part of that was the disjointed nature with which we were presented information. Part of it was possibilities presented to you and responded to as impossibilities. Part of it was (building) massing. I don’t think that’s a wrong reading of tonight’s meeting. But I don’t think we’re at an impasse. You can get a majority of the board to approve this project. You’re just not there yet,” said Chair Lewis. “I think that does it for tonight. Have a good evening.”

121 Oak Avenue

Last but not least for Site Plan Reviews, student housing developer and landlord Josh Lower’s plans for the vacant lot at 121 Oak Avenue. As reported by the Voice earlier this month, Lower is proposing a four-story apartment building with partially exposed basement for the site, which has been in his family’s possession since they bought it from the Cascadilla School about fifteen years ago. The building will contain approximately 35 units with 30 efficiencies and 5‐two bedroom units targeted to student renters. The site is sloped, falling from east to west, and the building will be built into the slope such that the ground floor will be completely beneath grade on the east side and at‐grade on the west side. As a result, retaining walls will be needed to accommodate stairs and walkways around the building. Site development will require relocation or burial of the existing power lines, and will include the usual retinue of landscaping, lighting, walkways and other side improvements.

It complies with zoning, isn’t especially large, doesn’t risk any historic structures, and Collegetown tends to be one of the neighborhoods people are less worried about when it comes to development proposals. All those factors generally equate to a project that isn’t likely to stir much debate with the Planning Board or the general public. The board was heading into the meeting with the expectation of a project presentation, and to declare itself Lead Agency to conduct the environmental review.

Chair Lewis excused himself due to a professional conflict, so Blalock served as temporary chair for the 121 Oak Avenue review. STREAM Collaborative Architect Craig Modisher led the presentation, explaining that the bright medley of colors adds visual interest in place of facade articulation, and the project makes a strong effort to present a street-friendly presence. The ground floor hosts a laundry room, trash/recycling room, a gym and a few apartments, with more apartments on the upper levels.

The board started its portion of the review by unanimously declaring Lead Agency before starting its round-table critique. Generally, the board’s commentary was positive, though they had a couple of suggested minor design alterations. “I think there is an opportunity for a little bit of relief between colors, some shading. It seems very flat. Other than that it seems like a great project,” said Godden. City Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas stressed to protect the trees at the rear of the site as much as possible given Collegetown’s lack of greenery, and to have a robust tree planting plan to replace any trees that would be removed.

“This is very much keeping with the Comp Plan…I commend the applicant for trying to take on a site that will be a challenge with its steep slope,” summarized Blalock. Expect a return visit to continue environmental review next month.

INHS Plans for 511 South Plain Street.

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 four submissions. One is the Northside Apartments area and parking variances, which you can read more about above.

Next on the list was 613 East State Street. The property hosts two four-bedroom apartments, and requires four off-street parking spaces. Two are on-site, and the other two have been leased off-site since 1987. The problem is, the lease expired and the owner was unable to renew it or locate two new off-street spaces, and has approached the city for relief by not having to provide those two off-site parking spaces.

“I found myself unmoved,” said Chair Lewis. “It’s not like anything is going to change, they just lost a lease. I don’t know if it’s unduly burdensome to find a new lease for the one they lost. We’re not terribly pro-parking in Collegetown.” The board would only support the variance in the context of reducing parking and recognized no long-term planning impacts, but was otherwise not impressed.

Next up was 511 South Plain Street in Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood. Non-profit affordable housing developer Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services (INHS) bought the vacant lot in April 2019. Previously, it was part of a double-lot with the house next door, and had been used for parking since at least 1986. Now in 2020, INHS is proposing to build a duplex on the site. Each highly energy-efficient two-bedroom, 1.5 bath home (~1100 square feet each) would be sold to a lower-income homebuyer and the property would be locked in as permanently affordable housing within INHS’s Community Housing Trust. Claudia Brenner is in charge of the home designs.

Variances are required because of the staggered shape of the duplex. It’s a five foot encroachment in the back, a five foot encroachment in the front, and two driveways (one for each unit) vs. one allowed. The board was wholly supportive given that it’s affordable owner-occupied housing, the porches made it contextual with the rest of the block, and agreed that the variances allowed for a more interesting design and allowed some degree of privacy for each of the homeowners in the duplex. If the variance is approved by the BZA, INHS plans to build out the duplex next year.

Last on the list is 310 East Court Street on the edge of the Fall Creek neighborhood with Downtown. The 19th century home houses an existing dental office (Court Street Dental) in zoning that hasn’t allowed dental offices since 1984. While grandfathered in, it means any changes to square footage must be approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals, as it’s exacerbating an existing use variance. A two-phased project by the dentistry practice calls for adding a wheelchair lift and ramp to the side of the building, which exacerbates an existing side yard variance, and in a second phase, the rear porch would be removed to allow for a two-story addition to the dental practice with a new exam room and employee workspace.

The wheelchair lift could have been in the front of the building, but being a historic house, the applicant met with city planners and went with their suggestion to move the lift to the side of the house, which reduced the visual impact from the street. The Planning Board was supportive of the variances for multiple reasons – it keeps a needed business downtown, the alterations look consistent with neighborhood and the plans are sensitive to the historic nature of the building.

Other Business

The board was set to give initial commentary on the Collegetown Innovation District CID), but the discussion ended up being delayed a month as the developers will be taking another month to respond to comments from the Public Information Session last week.

The board also discussed ways to have more public input and access, and floated closed-captioning for the video calls, publicizing links, live tweeting on Twitter and posting material on Facebook (they at least seemed to recognize that while posting to Twitter and Facebook may have value, they won’t respond to comments there – you still have to email or Zoom-call in if you want to contribute your two cents). You’ll hear more as they hash out the ideas and figure out what they want to give a try. The shoutout for the Voice’s good work in explain Planning Board procedure was sincerely appreciated, though it was an uncomfortable way to be called out for regularly referring to a Planning Board member by the long surname for months – it’s Elisabete Godden, not Goddard. Sorry folks, while I focus plenty enough on project details, I guess I’m not so great with people details.

Brian Crandall

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