ITHACA, N.Y. — Some city of Ithaca Planning Board meetings are short and sweet. This is not one of them. With seven separate presentations on the agenda totaling over one hundred million dollars in planned development from bank branches to imposing highrises, and in varying stages of the Site Plan Review process, it was bound to be a long meeting, and it was – over four hours, in which two site plan agenda items were approved, a few moved further along in the site plan review process, and one was stymied.

Correspondingly, this is also a long write-up folks. Every project gets its due coverage. So pour yourself a coup of coffee or brew some tea, and dive in below. For those who like to read along, the 212-page PDF of last night’s agenda can be found here.

Site Plan Review

There were no subdivisions to review this month, so after public comment (for which no one wished to speak nor were any emails read into the record) the Planning Board jumped right in to Site Plan Review (SPR). Site Plan Review is where the review of new building proposals happens. In the interest of not pushing ten pages of material, 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.

City Harbor (101 Pier Road)

Now, you might be thinking, “wait, wasn’t this already approved”. Short answer, yes. City Harbor received final approvals last August. Quick reminder, the City Harbor project is an 11.09-acre mixed-use project planned for the former Johnson’s Boatyard along Pier Road, across the street from the city golf course. As planned, this 4.35 acre slice of the project would include 156 apartments (96 in phase one), a full-service 5,400 square-foot restaurant, some small-scale retail, a full-service marina, waterfront pedestrian promenade and a community center, to be built in two phases, and parts of phase one are under construction now. The project incorporates a number of cutting-edge sustainability features, with the most notable being the use of lukewarm effluent flow of the nearby wastewater treatment plant to heat the buildings in winter and cool them in the summer (similar to Cornell’s Lake Source Cooling, but using wastewater and on a much smaller scale).

That’s where the issue starts. City Harbor’s project team has decided to develop both phases at once, as negotiations with the board of the wastewater plant to use the effluent flow went longer than expected. Doing both phase one and phase two at once means finishing the phase two designs and getting planning board approvals. The time required to finish that work and go through review puts the overall project timeline out-of-sync with Guthrie Clinic’s new medical office building already under construction. That building will depend on the energy recovery system’s heat exchangers in order to operate its heating and cooling systems. Guthrie can’t afford to wait for a year or more beyond their late 2021 opening so that all of City Harbor’s other buildings can be built.

As proposed, the plan is to build a temporary 1,026 square-foot shed over the free-standing mechanical pump and electrical rooms that will store the equipment for the energy recovery system. The equipment room will later be incorporated into the northwest corner of the ground floor of the Point East 1 apartment building when that building is built in 2022-23. At that time, the shed roof will be taken off, and the exterior concrete masonry block walls that remain exposed after Point East 1 is framed will be finished out in stone veneer with the rest of the apartment building’s ground-level exterior.

The foundation is permanent. The mechanical room and equipment are permanent. The shed structure is not and is only to protect the equipment room until Point East 1 is built. This is basically an interim change during construction that doesn’t substantially change the final product; some mechanical equipment has been shifted from Point West to Point East 1, resulting in the loss of a covered ground-level parking space. The ground-level stone veneer will be extended eight feet to cover up the larger equipment rooms.

A letter from T.G. Miller’s David Herrick dated February 16th shows the board has already been communicating with the project team, and is amenable to do it even if, as board member Mitch Glass put it in the letter above, the whole thing is “kind of weird”.

“This is really exciting, this whole energy scheme is one of the highlights of city development right now…this seems like a clever interim energy, I have no objections to it,” said board member Garrick Blalock. Blalock did, however, note a little caution with the phased construction, so the board added a stipulation to the Guthrie Clinic’s Certificate of Occupancy to have the project team check in and share City Harbor’s schedule later this year so that the board knows Point East 1 is on track to be built and they aren’t left with a drab utility shed for years. With that amendment, the revised buildout plan with temporary utility shed passed unanimously.

***

Outlook Apartments (815 S. Aurora Street)

Visum Development and Modern Living Rentals’ South Hill project was approved a while back as well, in September 2019. The initial plan was to get started in the spring of 2020, but then COVID happened and the student housing market, combined with Ithaca College’s woes, made the economics of the project dicey, and the finances are already tight. The developers still plan to build it starting this spring, but if an outside investor wants to buy it, they’re entertaining offers.

The project still entails the construction of a 66‐unit, 153-bed student housing complex comprised of three buildings constructed on 2.85 acres of hillside on the east side of Route 96B overlooking the planned Chain Works District. Site improvements will include walkways and curb cuts to be tied into a public sidewalk proposed by the Town of Ithaca. It will also include 67 parking spaces, as required by zoning.

The project team is requesting to revise the building materials that would allow the exterior walls to be assembled off‐site, which staff weren’t comfortable doing on the staff level and decided to bring it to the Planning Board for approval. The original plan was to use Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs, like “Fox Blocks”). In an effort to rein in costs, the new plan is a more conventional lightweight steel frame with insulation on the outside. The dark brick veneer and the top floor metal paneling would be changed to Dry-Vit synthetic stucco designed to mimic the brick and metal panels and be the same color, as it’s less labor intensive than fastening metal panels and bricking up walls.

Now, synthetic stucco’s architectural reputation isn’t the greatest because it was basically the go-to for big box chain stores in the 1990s and 2000s, and when done poorly it has nightmare issues with moisture. Dry-Vit Systems Inc. staff actually had to pitch the Planning Board’s Design Review Committee on it earlier this month, saying this would be a high-efficiency system that would drain away moisture and mimic the brick and metal in aesthetic appearance. Robert Dazel of Dry-Vit Systems Inc. also Zoomed in to last night’s meeting alongside STREAM Collaborative architect Noah Demarest to demonstrate to the board that synthetic stucco would be an acceptable alternative, as color, texture and performance have improved since the early 2000s.

If you want someone to extol the value and adaptability of Dry-Vit Outsulite Assembly, I’m sure there are some promotional videos out there. That’s essentially what the board got from Dazel last night. For practical purposes, it means that it’s attached to the frame via in all-in-one exterior panel, insulation, finish coat and all, saving time and labor costs on construction. A few of the board members even when to check out samples in person – and none of them sounded happy with it.

“I didn’t love it in person, it felt flimsy,” said board member Emily Petrina. “I’m still concerned that it’s a student building and the lower brick level. I could probably be convinced on the upper level.”

“The (synthetic stucco) brick is not acceptable, it’s just going to get torn apart,” said board member Mitch Glass. “It’s thin. I felt I could break it in my hand.”

“I’m not doubting a claim that it’s durable, but it felt like cheap Styrofoam,” added Blalock. “My gut reaction, uninformed by data, is that the lower level brick should be brick. The upper level, I’m more flexible. But I didn’t have a favorable impression.”

“Your presentation has a lot of convincing points, but I also trust my colleagues about their concerns,” said Vice-Chair McKenzie Jones, who rejoined the board this month after a few months’ hiatus. “I’d prefer the bottom be metal panels rather than subpar brick-lookalike material…we shouldn’t try to pretend it’s brick.”

The concept of pre-built exterior panels was fine. The city’s seen that before; Collegetown Terrace and City Centre did that. But synthetic stucco on a metal frame, basically an Exterior Insulation and Finish System (EIFS), is a material combination that clearly made the board uncomfortable, and all who saw the material in person really did not like it. Most of the board said they were fine with its use on the upper level where wear and tear is more natural than human-induced. But no one wanted a Dry-Vit brick-like base, especially if the building was expected to last 50 years or more. It was readily apparent with a couple minutes that there would be no vote to approve the changes as proposed.

“I don’t know how much additional data is going to change my mind,” said board chair Robert Lewis, who nevertheless offered them a chance to try again. “You have an approved project, and the materiality was a big part of that…I’m very reluctant to put a rubber stamp on any move away from that.”

“Maybe there’s an opportunity for us to better facilitate what a better sample of the solution might be,” said Dazel, as he went into an extended response defending the material. “This product has come a long way over its 50-year history. There are numerous examples of projects that are well-fit and have served tremendously well over time. Maybe there’s an opportunity to supply videos of impact resistance, maybe supply samples with a hammer, to demonstrate the durability of this material.”

While material palettes are generally not something the public focuses on, the Planning Board does. They want a building to look good new, 10 years from now, and 30 years from now. In this case, there’s a gulf between the proposal and the board that has yet to be bridged. We’ll have to see if the project team can do that in the coming months.

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.

After a testy December, a majority of the board had become more amenable to the project in January with substantial revisions. 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. The latest revisions also call for planter boxes on the balconies and terraced plantings on the eastern end of the site to allow for more greenery.

Last night, the board was scheduled to review Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), a later step within the SEQR process. Special guest was city Fire Chief Tom Parsons, in uniform on Zoom. The board favors six feet of sidewalk by the Creekwalk, Parson preferred next to the building, which would allow better aerial access (the angle of a fire truck’s aerial lift is limited, and the further the road is from the building, the better, hence the sidewalk preferred next to the building. Parson made it clear his primary concern as fire chief isn’t the apartments, it’s a car fire in the garage. So the preferred solution was Study 2 in the lower right of the image above – from north to south, a 5′ sidewalk, 3′ planting strip, 20′ fire lane, a 5′ planting strip, and a 8′ creek walk. If that’s what Parsons was okay with, the board was okay with it as well.

With that issue settled, the project team noted a few minor changes. This included the addition of planters, as well as landscaping by the retaining wall and additional greenery to soften and spruce up the surroundings, in an effort to keep the building from standing out as much. The eastern face was much glassier and more architecturally detailed, which the board appreciated.

With that, the board walked and talked through part 3 of the FEAF environmental review. The board does want to be careful and through in responding to concerns to the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission, much has concerns with the project due to its proximity to the East Hill Historic District, and responses to their concerns are being drafted up. Some members of the board were also strongly advocating for an overlook along with an extended creek walk, which city engineering staff were hesitant to support and are being asked to come to next month’s meeting to comment on. Overall, it seemed like the project was in a good place. Board member Elisabete Godden made it clear she still felt it was too dense for the site, but it seemed like, barring no major issues in the remaining review and a few more design tweaks, chances of site plan approval later this year are good.

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 and has not stirred to stir much debate with the Planning Board or the general public. The project was up for Determination of Environmental Significance and potential preliminary and final site plan approval, which would allow it to apply for construction permits (the goal is to start later this year and open by August 2022.

As part of the last steps of environmental review for CR-4 zoned properties, the project has to submit a Transportation Demand Management Plan (TDMP) in lieu of parking, and being student housing practically at Cornell’s doorstep means bike racks and provision of Dryden Road parking garage space rental information to tenants will suffice. STREAM Collaborative architect Craig Modisher said that primary changes from last time were a “beefed up” planting plan, and the trash landing was moved from the curb to the flat paved or permeable paved area at the front west corner (right corner above), which property owner Josh Lower liked because it could also double as an outdoor seating area outside of trash days.

“Anything I do I try to envision if I was living there,” said owner Josh Lower. “I think it’ll make it an interesting place for people to sit and lounge, and activate the streetscape. I like what Noah’s come up with here, and I’m a big fan.”

Chair Lewis excused himself due to a professional conflict and Blalock led the board through review. The board reviews were positive and supportive. “This is really much better, I appreciate you working with us,” said Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas.

“It might as well be a multipurpose space,” said McKenzie Jones. “I think as long as we’re clear this is a programmatic approval and we don’t have a lot of clout to enforce it, this is a reasonable solution.”

Board member Godden asked why, if Demarest could deploy fiber cement here, why not with 815 South Aurora discussed earlier. Demarest replied it was a cost concern, because the site work involved with 815 is much more extensive (and expensive) with the bedrock. The only concern the board really had was with trees on a neighboring property and an effort to demonstrate good-faith effort to cooperate with that neighbor – developer Todd Fox is the neighbor to the east and the project team says they’ve spoken to him, and the neighbor to the west has been unresponsive, but the board wanted  documentation of outreach and planting plans just in case. Apart from that rather meandering segment, the review was uneventful. The  negative declaration for environmental significance (meaning impacts are mitigated) passed unanimously, and with the stipulation of submitting the latest drawings, preliminary and final site plan approval passed unanimously.

“This is the kind of development we like to encourage,” said Blalock. “This fits very well with the Comp (Comprehensive) Plan and I’m happy to see if move forward.”

KeyBank (500 S. Meadow Street)

As previously reported earlier this month, KeyBank has plans to build a new branch on 1.063 acres of land to be subdivided from the 17.771-acre Wegman’s property on South Meadow Street in the city’s big box retail corridor. Plans call for a new 3,415 square-foot branch office with freestanding ATM canopy. The site will also include 59 parking spaces, two drive though lanes, lighting, landscaping, signage, and internal walkways. Vehicular site access will be from the rear of the property off the internal circulation road of the Wegmans property.

This is a fairly small project in the city’s Southwest zoning, which is fairly loose as city zoning goes. The $1.5 million project isn’t expected to make waves or be the subject of much debate, it’s just a fairly routine environmental review with some extra paperwork due to the subdivision. The project team was set to give a presentation to the planning board last night since this is the first chance they’ve had to formally look at the plans, and the board was expected to declare itself Lead Agency to perform the Environmental Review.

Project architect Ben Gingrich of HSB Architects + Engineers stated that due to the flood plain and state regulations, the building is set on a raised site pad two feet above street level, and makes use of stairs and ramps in the landscaping. Setback variances from the street corner to the northeast will be required. Gingrich said 40% of the exterior was Dry-Vit, which felt a little awkward in the context of the earlier discussion with 815 South Aurora.

“I don’t have problems with the use of Dry-Vit in the use of commercial plaza-type buildings because they aren’t expected to be used for long life expectancies,” said board member Godden. Generally, the board was receptive to the proposal, though they still had some questions.

“I don’t quite understand the state requirement…from a design perspective (the five foot berm) is completely unnecessary,” said Glass. “I think I need a lot more information on why this is happening.” The project team said the state changes to having the floor plate be two feet above the 100-year flood plain came from New York State late last year, and they were informed of the changes by the city building department during the pre-application process.

The board unanimously passed declaration to be Lead Agency and conduct the environmental review. Schedule-wise, the project is aiming for public hearing next month, and a fairly quick review process, with likely approvals by May or June, and there’s no compelling reason at this time to suspect it will take any longer than that.

321 Taughannock Boulevard

Next up in last night’s busy meeting is the mixed-use proposal for 321 Taughannock Boulevard on Inlet Island. The property owners (Linc Morse, Jodi Denman and Sue Manning) are proposing to construct a three‐story mixed‐use building on the 0.168‐acre project site. The building will have five units of for‐sale housing on the upper floors, 400 square-feet of office space on the second floor and approximately 3,000 square-feet of retail commercial space on the first floor with access to a boat slip area. The existing steel‐framed building on the site will be incorporated into the new building. Site improvements will include four parking spaces, landscaping, sidewalks, lighting, and other site amenities.

No votes were scheduled for last night. Architects Noah Demarest and Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative Zoom-called back in to give a project update and presentation, and hash out an approximate schedule for the site plan review process. This project is a little more complicated than most of its size because it will require zoning area variances due to the small lot size right on the water, and it has to go through architectural and design review, the Waterfront Design Guidelines.

During the presentation, Modisher noted the site is constrained by NYSEG utility lines out front. The steel structure facing the waterfront will come down, but the “head house” will be reused. Boat slips for pleasure boats will be included along the waterfront.

The board was very pleased with the proposal. “I think it’s a very handsome building and it looks so contextually nice,” said board member Jones. “I want to know if shared parking makes any sense with the buildings around it, and pedestrian access in and out between buildings, but I think it looks very nice, it looks great.”

“The comments have been uniformly positive…It’s a compelling project in a compelling spot,” summarized Chair Lewis. It was a good sign for the project, as it prepares to come back to the board to begin environmental review in the coming months.

510 W. State / W. Martin Luther King Jr. Street

Last in last night’s Site Plan Review is Visum’s affordable housing proposal for 510 West State/West Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Ithaca’s West End. This project has had a major design overhaul since its first submission in 2019. Visum and its partners propose removing the one‐story commercial building fronting on State Street and a two‐story wood frame house fronting on West Seneca, replacing them with a 60,953 SF building that’s four stories at the back (West Seneca) and five stories at the front (West State). Plans call for 58 dwelling units affordable to households making 50‐ to 80‐percent area median income, community spaces, indoor bike parking, and 942 square-feet of retail space fronting State Street.

This is going to another rather complicated review for the Planning Board. The 0.413‐acre project site comprises two tax parcels and has frontage on W. State, N. Corn, and W. Seneca Streets and is in two zoning districts: CBD‐52, in which the maximum height is 52 feet, and B‐2d, in which the maximum height is 40 feet. This is subject to Downtown Design Guidelines and will probably require an zoning area variance. But for last night, the plan was only to give a presentation on the updated proposal, since it’s been two years since the board last engaged in a review of the proposal. We were also 3.5 hours in and everyone was getting a bit tired – perhaps including architect Noah Demarest, as this was fourth project of the night.

“Todd (Fox, CEO of Visum) has connected with a project partner, Providence Housing, so this project will be 100% affordable,” said Demarest. “The funding application to (NYS) HCR has already been submitted. We’re a little out of sequence with the timing for applications and with project review, but we were somewhat confident given that you’ve already seen this project, though there have been changes in the façade.”

Since 2019, the building is one floor shorter as the Common Council downzoned the block. New street trees will be planted and a “tot lot” will be landscaped into the North Corn Street side. Demarest acknowledged the footprint was rather awkwardly-shaped, but a pedestrian would really only interact with the parts facing the street. Siding included brick along the streetfronts with fiber cement panels and corrugated metal panels set back from the street. A zoning height variance is being sought, for an additional seven inches on West State Street (52 feet allowed) and four feet on West Seneca Street (40 feet allowed) due to floor-to-ceiling heights of 9′, and effort to make floor plates continuous, and sloping of the property towards Seneca.

“I was prepared to not like this project but I’m coming around to it,” said board member Glass. “I like that it’s 100% affordable. I like what you did with the facades on State and Corn (with the brick), that was a clever move.”

“Great way to utilize the property, great to see the surface parking turned into housing,” added his board colleague C. J. Randall.

Multiple members in fact stated they were prepared to not like this project but felt the design appropriate and the arguments for the shape and the treatment of the street-front facades were well done. The 100% affordable housing was a big bonus in their eyes. The only area of real concern was the treatment of the West Seneca entrance, which they felt needed a little more work to fit in, and perhaps a little more expressive window treatment on the top floor. But generally, the board was cautiously optimistic. Chair Lewis they noted visuals from street level perspectives would be crucial to show to the board as review continues. Design Review will commence next month, and environmental review will begin with a vote to declare Lead Agency next month.

***

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 two submissions this month.

The first is an area variance for an apartment house at 222 South Geneva Street in the Henry St. John Historic District. Owner Joshua Cope wishes to take the 9-bedroom, 11-person “party house” and turn it into an 11-bedroom, 11-person “co-living” house with private bathrooms, sinks, microwaves and mini-fridges. The reason is that “party houses” with shared spaces have lost appeal thanks to COVID, and the new setup would allow more substantial private living quarters. The renovation is primarily interior, with a few rear windows and a rear door to be changed or removed but otherwise the house will look the same from the outside. The variances are needed because the lot coverage requirement in the R-3aa zone is calculated by bedroom, not legal occupancy (so the splitting of large bedrooms exacerbates the lot coverage requirement), and the property is deficient one parking space. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) will also have to sign off.

In this case, the board was fairly comfortable recommending the variance. The exterior impacts were minor and there was no change in occupancy.

The second BZA recommendation is an area variance for the subdivision at 215 East State Street, which was covered last month when the subdivision was filed for now-approved “The Ithacan” high-rise and the Rothschild Building to its north. It doesn’t change the project, it just has to deal with different ownership groups for the two properties. From the board’s perspective, the variance was in line with the project they approved and therefore in line with the Comprehensive Plan for Downtown, so it too received a recommendation for its requested variance.

Other Business

Regarding the Collegetown Innovation District, Planner Nicholas explained that John Novarr and Phil Proujansky’s project team did not receive the reception they hoped to have when the CID was first presented, and have decided to hold off on a Planned Unit Development. However, they want to move forward with one of their large graduate student housing sites, and would like to do a Sketch Plan in April, so the Planning Board can look forward to that. Given that all of their PUD sites didn’t comply with zoning, it’s not clear if this will be a previously-shown design, or a brand new creation.

Planner Nicholas mentioned in her report that the Green Building Policy’s adoption is imminent and that will mean some changes for the environmental review process, though many applicants are already trying to meet the standards. The city planning department is also looking to hire a Director of Sustainability in the coming weeks. The city is hoping to hash out its actual construction plan for the rebuild/redesign of the Route 13 Corridor (the costs of the design study is being covered by last year’s BUILD grant) in time to tap into funds from the likely federal infrastructure bill being prepared in Washington.

Brian Crandall

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