ITHACA, N.Y. — As Planning Board meetings go, last night’s was short but productive. One major project, the Northside townhomes redevelopment got the coveted vote of site plan approval, as did a pair of minor projects. The remaining two have a ways to go, but they’re playing their cards right and with a little more work, may be able to score project approval themselves as we head towards spring.
For those who like to read along to these summaries, you detail-oriented folks can find yourselves a copy of the 115-page agenda 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 was only one case to be reviewed: The Ithacan mixed-use development at 215 East State Street. The proposal is to make the Rothschild Building one lot, and the new 200-unit apartment tower and rebuilt parking garage would be on the other lot. The reason this is being done now, after the project was approved, is that they will have different ownership structures; Rimland owns the Rothschild Building, but he has outside investors contributing money and taking ownership stakes in the LLC developing the $64.3 million project, so from a business standpoint it makes sense to separate the lot into two parcels.
Planning Board chair Robert Lewis excused himself due to professional conflict, so Vice Chair Garrick Blalock led the board through a quick, rather dry review. CHA Inc. engineer James Trasher led the board through the diagram (seen above – boxes and labels mine). The only public comment was a letter from Sunny Days co-owner Todd Kurzweil, who wanted to ensure ADA compliance, to which Blalock responded that they were all in favor of but it’s not a subject that’s a part of subdivision review. The subdivision itself passed unanimously.
Site Plan Review
For those unfamiliar with the ways of the Ithaca Planning Board, Site Plan Review (SPR) is where the review of new building proposals happens. In the interest of brevity, a quick primer is included below, but if you want a description of the steps in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” is here.
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 in 2021 is the Northside Apartments redevelopment. The Voice broke news of this last March. 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. The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) did not meet last month, so the project is still seeking lot variances for the front and rear yard setbacks for the townhouses, and a variance for less parking than zoning requires (82 proposed, one per unit, vs. 104 required). That just leaves preliminary and final approval.
As has been the case for much of its review, there wasn’t much in the way of comment and the board has been supportive of the redevelopment plans. The county recommended warmer-tone outdoor lighting, which project landscape architect Ed Keppy said would be fine. The approval conditions were modified to be contingent on stipulations of BZA approval (which normally comes before site plan approval but it’s not a rigid requirement), and since both the county and board member C.J. Randall had brought it up before, another stipualtion was added that they had to use warm-tone outdoor lighting (less than 2700 K). Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas also asked for updated work zone plans so engineering could have a look at construction staging before the building permits are issued, and that too was included in the resolution as a condition for approval. With those conditions in the voting resolution, he approval was granted unanimously 6-0, with board member Emily Petrina absent.
“Good luck on your project, it’s a great project,” said Nicholas. Northsiders, expect this project to build out in phases over a few years once funding has been obtained, probably later this year.
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. The development will require the demolition of the existing one‐story building at the eastern end of the property.
The December Planning Board meeting for the project ended on a rather testy note, but the project came back before the board with some significant changes. Among them were a newly added stairway from State Street through the project site to the creek, reductions to the parapet wall along the roof that reduced the height and bulk a bit, some changes in the facade to break up the facade and make it look less imposing, the inclusion of a rooftop terrace, and the addition of compact parking spaces allowing for more green space. The fire department agreed that 20 feet for a right-of-way would work if more durable fireproof materials were used, and while that raises construction costs, it allows the developing team to devote another six feet between the building and the Six Mile Creekwalk for green space next to the building, and trees could be planted as long as they’re short ornamental varieties.
Summing it all up, it does appear the project team made a concerted effort to try and meet the Planning Board’s requests from last month. At the Project Review Meeting, which is a low-key design critique meeting the Planning Board does earlier in the month, members were reasonably pleased with the changes. Not as pleasing was the statement that the project would be paying the city/county housing fund in lieu of including affordable units in the project. This month’s formal discussion on the project had no big decisions on the agenda, instead scheduling a presentation on the updates and continued design review.
The board had been motoring through the agenda and was 37 minutes ahead of schedule when the State Street project’s turn came around. While wonderful for those of us who don’t want to be working all evening, it does mean the project teams scramble to get together while the board looks for stuff they can do, like pass the recorded minutes from previous meetings before taking a quick five-minute break just to pass the time. In my experience, when I compare the city of Ithaca Planning Board to other local boards, it’s much more polished and to the point. The towns, the members will sometimes chat as if they’re having drinks with each other while reviewing plans (heck, maybe now that they’re on Zoom, perhaps they are). In contrast, the city’s planning board rarely drifts or engages in stemwinders.
Architect Tim Fish gave a design update, noting the project’s effort to abide by the city’s recently-enacted Downtown Design Guidelines. There will in fact be two pedestrian paths through the site, one between it and the Gateway Center to the west, and the other through the middle of the building via the parking deck. The parking deck was tucked and tugged to create more articulation and facade variation, and a terraced planting area is proposed for the east end of the site. The facade will have full-size mortared brick veneer (not “sticky brick”, and with a little color variation in bake/color to create variation between bricks), dark window frames and three flavors of natural-hued fiber cement panels, grey, brown and tan.
“I appreciate the efforts put into these improvements, it’s a lot better,” said board member Randall. Board member Elisabete Godden questioned why the new green space was against the building instead of by the creek, but engineer James Trasher said it was the fire department’s preference from an apparatus-operating standpoint to have the green space by the building rather than by the creek. Godden was disappointed by that response, saying the site still felt “congested” to her.
After clarifying the rooftop terrace was for tenant use, Blalock expressed support for the design of the project as it has developed before the board. “I agree it’s a little more congested down by the creek between it and the building, but I don’t see that there’s much you can do about that…at the end of the day, I can accept it as is,” said Blalock. “I’m pretty favorable about this.”
His colleague Mitch Glass also expressed favorable opinions of the project, calling it big and dense, but also the kind of denser downtown project Ithaca should encourage. Glass added he would still like more green space by the creek walk if at all possible, which comes down to another conversation with the IFD. Board member Stephanie Egan-Engels stated that she felt more could be done to reduce the mass, and suggested making more use of hiding more of the mass into the cliff face.
“I think it’s a much better project than the one we first saw,” said chair Lewis. “The improvements to the creek side are real, that extra six feet makes a lot of difference. I agree with Elisabete that it still looks a little congested. It’s a big building in Ithaca, on a site that barely fits. The ILPC (Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission, weighing in because a historic district starts across State Street), they’re really focusing on massing, and that’s the one thing that really hasn’t changed. If it came down to a vote today, I would probably vote for it. But it’s still a big project for the city.”
As Blalock’s suggestion, the board did a straw poll, and the majority were comfortable with the massing (Glass, Blalock, Randall and Lewis), but Glass was reluctant to sign off on the project itself without more exploration of what they could do with expanding and landscaping a creek walk. Godden was not comfortable with the massing, and Egan-Engels said it was going in the right direction for her but she wasn’t fully supportive yet, with the creek less of an issue for her than the interface with the neighborhood was. Being a seven-member board, four yes’s are the goal, if the bare minimum of a goal. So the project is in an okay place moving forward, but there are some tweaks and adjustments that the board would like to see. How the creekwalk or State Street facades are explained and adjusted will be crucial to whether the project gets approval this spring.
121 Oak Avenue
Next up was student housing developer and landlord Josh Lower’s plans for the vacant lot at 121 Oak Avenue. As reported by the Voice last 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. However, some of the neighbors expressed frustration with the fact that a couple of mature maple trees at the northwest edge of the site would likely have to be removed – according to city forester Jeanne Grace, the construction itself would disturb the roots so much that it would mortally wound the trees. They might be able to limp on a few more years, but Grace said it was unlikely they’d survive for long.
The project was scheduled to give a presentation/update, have its public hearing, and go through Design Review at last night’s meeting. Lewis had to excuse himself from the project as well, turning the reins over to Blalock again.
STREAM Collaborative architect Craig Modisher walked the board through the changes, which was basically just the addition of a stair tower to the roof per IFD’s suggestion (you don’t really see it in the angle above, it’s on the east side). The change was because the building switched from wood-frame to a non-combustible frame, which also now allows trees out out front. The street-side notch in the road and railing in the image above would be removed per city engineers’ advisement. that’ll be flush with the rest of Oak Avenue.The trees were the subject of some concern, and Modisher’s colleague Noah Demarest suggested they could do a replanting or plant new trees on the rear of the property to compensate.
There was one commenter in the Public Hearing. Jim Hedlund,, the treasurer for St. Luke’s church a couple hundred feet to the west, spoke on behalf of the church. St. Luke’s has concerns about construction vibrations producing cracks. Apparently it happened with foundation work on Visum’s 114 Summit Avenue project, but Student Agencies used monitors for their more recent project next door and it worked out well for everyone. Hedlund, on behalf of St. Luke’s, requested vibration monitors be temporarily installed in St. Luke’s as part of the construction. The project team said they had no objections to doing that.
In general, the board received the project positively. Randall wanted to make sure there was a trash room in the building (there was), and planner Nicolas followed up by insisting they remove the trash cans from future drawings because they were causing confusion on where trash would be stored. Board member Glass wanted as lush landscaping as possible, to which the architects agreed. Developer Josh Lower said they were not only looking at the landscaping, but enlivening the front with outdoor seating to create a more active, street-friendly environment.
The project will go through Parts 2 and 3 of Environmental Review next month, and is likely on a path for early spring approval. 121 Oak Avenue will be coming back next month, and it’s looking good for their chances of obtaining approval later this year.
522 Stewart Avenue
The Planning Board covers projects big and small. This one is small, and rather awkward. Local landlord/developer Charlie O’Connor recently purchased 522 Stewart Avenue in the East Hill neighborhood, and is in the process of renovating it, which requires construction permits and for everything to be legal and above board. As it turns out, it’s not. The parking lot was illegally expanded in the 1990s to host 13 cars. O’Connor is looking for permission to retain a ten-car parking lot on the spot, and not have to put it in the rear where there are a group of mature trees. A new sidewalk, curb cuts, and lawn would be built/seeded.
This was like the smorgasbord of Planning Board reviews. On the agenda were a presentation, Declaration of Lead Agency, Public Hearing, Determination of Environmental Significance, Consideration of Conditional Site Plan Approval and the Recommendation to the BZA. Now you might we wondering, why all that at once? The exterior issue is existing, we’re talking about landscaping/parking modifications which aren’t exactly an in-depth analysis, and the rest of the renovation for 522 Stewart is interior space, and not in the Planning Board’s legal realm. The parking area variance was also the only agenda item to be discussed for potential recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals, who will host their meeting early next month.
“We’d like to stick with the existing asphalt for a couple of reasons. It doesn’t make sense to tear up an existing parking lot, and there are a lot of trees in the rear lot,” said Trade Design Build’s Michael Barnoski.
Lead agency was declared with issue, public hearing opened and closed with comment. The board was not bothered by the proposal. “What the applicant is proposed is a big improvement…big thumbs up from me,” said Blalock.
“It’s a great improvement…I was very pleased to hear about all the arrangements for trash pickup on the other (rear) side. I do worry about coordinating the students, lugging the totes down a set of stairs, that might not work out so well. I’m just concerned about them lifting the totes down, that could be an issue,” said Egan-Engels. Some concerns were also expressed about ADA accessibility.
“I wish this could have been taken care of at staff level,” said Chair Lewis. “I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the ADA stuff though.”
Barnoski said that their review determined ADA accessibility wasn’t necessary for the first-floor unit in this case, but that a ramp could be accommodated with some aesthetic sacrifices to the century-old apartment house. An accessibility aisle from the front porch to the front parking space seemed to be favorable to the board as a good balance in this case. The board gave a negative declaration on limited environmental review and unanimous approval was granted to the project, conditional on the BZA’s action. On that matter, the Planning Board will write a recommendation encouraging approval of the variance to keep the rear lot, as it has positive impacts by allowing improvement of the front and the pavement in the back already exists anyway.
Last on the list, the Statler Hotel renovations up on Cornell University’s Central Campus. The university is proposing to remove the existing porte cochere and associated driveway and sidewalks, and to install a new, expanded 1,600 SF steel and glass canopy, new entry doors, sidewalk, driveway and site drainage. As Ithaca Journal alum Simon Wheeler recently noted to me, the current bubble canopy drains water off at the corners and makes a gigantic, slippery mess, dripping even when it hasn’t rained for days. The 1980s called and said we can keep their crap designs, they won’t want them back.
Once again we saw a fairly quick review process, because this is within the city’s U-1 zoning (“University”, which basically allows Cornell to do what it wants without having to battle the Board of Zoning Appeals) and the proposed changes are fairly modest compared to the grand towers and large buildings that often show up on these agendas. Scheduled were the Presentation/Update, Declaration of Lead Agency, Public Hearing, Determination of Environmental Significance, and Consideration of Site Plan Approval.
Cornell Project Manager Andrew Germain gave the board an update on the plans. Lighting would be dark sky compliant and the existing vegetation would be transplanted elsewhere on campus, instead of being destroyed. The board unanimously declared itself lead agency for environmental review, the public hearing had no commenters and open and closed in less than a minute, and the board was fine with it. Building materials had yet to be received, but the board indicated they were fine with review of materials on the staff level. The project received a negative declaration and the board granted site plan approval unanimously. They don’t typically move this fast, folks, trust me.
As far as old and new business, apart from a potential visit from fire chief Tom Parsons to discuss fire code impacts on projects currently before the board, and a debate on buying the transcription option for Zoom meetings, there wasn’t much else to discuss. Not building-related, but the board will follow-up on plans to group-buy a congratulatory gift for board member McKenzie Jones and her new baby (congratulations and best wishes McKenzie). Jones is on leave from the Planning Board for a few months, but has plans to be back later this year.