ITHACA, N.Y.—Some projects have smoother reviews than others. For example, most Collegetown housing proposals and South Meadow Street retail plans tend to be painless, casual affairs. On the other end of the spectrum, some projects are so controversial they prompt changes in zoning. Such was the case with the Visum Development Group proposal at 510 West State/Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr. Street.

First introduced in January 2019, the Ithaca firm’s proposal for 510 West State/MLK Jr. Street generated significant controversy. 510 West State was the first proposal since the State Street Corridor’s zoning was revised in 2013 that would have built to the potential height maximum of six floors. The sketch plans, which had windowless walls readily visible from State Street, did not elicit a positive reaction from city planners, and that led to a proposal from the planning department to restrict the zoning, effectively downzoning the property.

That fall, the Common Council passed amendments to the 300, 400 and 500 Blocks of West State/MLK Jr. Street, which dropped the maximum buildable floors from six floors (62 feet) to five floors (52 feet), and added a minimum height of 12 feet for the ground floor and 10 feet for each floor above.

Needless to say, for Visum it was something of a setback. The 74,700 square-foot building, which included ground-floor retail and 76 units of low to moderate income housing in the 50-80% area median income range, had  already started the process for Site Plan Review and approval. With the change in code, the options were to take a chance on a Planned Unit Development, where they’d once again be at the Common Council’s mercy, or revise their building design to fit the new zoning constraints. Visum CEO Todd Fox had been vocal about which ideas Common Council was considering back in 2019 that would have torpedoed the site plans completely, vs. merely forcing a major redesign. The effort, along with feedback from business owners along the street, was effective; the Common Council did decide to remove a proposal for maximum footprint and mandatory stepback, leaving the door open for Fox to try again with a building of similar footprint if not quite so tall.

A year and a half later, and it appears Fox and his firm are ready to make another attempt on the site. A revised Site Plan Review (SPR) application was filed with the city of Ithaca this week, formally kicking off the project review process, and putting it on track for a trip to the Planning Board later this month.

As before, all of the apartment units would be low-to-moderate income apartments targeted at those making 50-80% of area median income. However, with the loss of a sixth floor, the plans have noticeably slimmed down. The latest proposal clocks in at just under 61,000 square feet (an 18% reduction). The building would house 58 apartments with 95 bedrooms in a combination of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, a community room, and a 942 square-foot retail space facing West State Street.

The footprint of the building is largely the same, aside from being a little more recessed from North Corn Street. A one-story commercial building on West State, a two-story house on West Seneca Street, and gravel parking lot on North Corn would be removed to make way for the project. No on-site parking is provided (there is an unloading space for deliveries), but the project would host external bike racks and internal bike storage space.

Facade-wise, the changes are quite extensive. Previously, the project made extensive use of brick veneer with lighter fiber cement panels on the top floor (to be less eye-catching and obtrusive). The latest proposal by Ithaca architecture firm STREAM Collaborative uses a smaller amount of dark brick, light grey fiber cement panels and pale blue siding, not explicitly labeled but either fiber cement or corrugated aluminum metal panels per the project team’s description. Project documents seem to suggest the the building would be known as “510 MLK”.

The project largely complies with the new zoning, with one variance sought for the West Seneca Street apartment lobby and entrance, seeking a 10-foot rear yard setback instead of the required 16.32 feet (it’s percentage based on site width). The reasoning is that they wish to treat West Seneca as a second front entrance for residents, rather than as a rear yard for the project site, which extends through the width of the block.

The filing for indicates the project will exceed the standards to be set by the Ithaca Green Building Policy code, with electric heat pump, LED lighting, Energy Star appliances and insulated heat pump hot-water tanks. Solar panels were considered for the roof, but have not been pursued due to cost constraints.

Cost estimates for construction have been stated in the SPR application as $7 million, though a revised timeline for construction has not been given. If approved, the construction period is expected to be about sixteen months, contingent on state and local affordable housing grant funds.

One of the points of contention has long been that Common Council prefers redevelopment along West State Street because it’s centrally located close to jobs and services, and offers a number of underutilized properties and larger parking lots suitable for redevelopment into urban mixed-use projects. On the other hand, it also offers an eclectic mix of businesses in some of those underutilized properties, and council members expressed concerns about potentially ruining their “feel” and “vibe”. In turn, some of the business owners spoke out during the 2019 rezoning to say some of Council’s ideas (namely, the maximum footprint for a building) threatened their businesses.

The project team deploys some unusually strong language in addressing comments from the advisory Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Commission that the project does not fit the “distinct character” of neighboring structures. “This language glosses over the reality that this neighborhood has no consistent character, primarily because it has been eviscerated by one-story commercial buildings and parking lots. How does a new building ‘fit in’ to a context that is not only a jumble of different building types and styles, but
also is dominated by car-oriented blight?”

“The reality, which cannot be credibly glossed over by planning language, is that this is an area in need of
redevelopment. There are some remaining two- to three-story buildings that are worthy of
preservation, but these are few and far between. […] The proposed building is indeed NOT compatible with its one-story asphalt-paved surroundings. It is however compatible with some key positive characteristics of the area. These include narrow façade widths, defined street edges, and an active engagement with the street. The
proposed building is fully in character with the intent of the Comprehensive Plan, and helps realize the
vision of West State Street becoming a mixed-use district offering abundant housing within walking
distance of workplaces and amenities.”

It should be noted that since the plans were first presented two years ago, that another project has been approved under the revised West State Street zoning. Arnot Realty’s “West End Ironworks” mixed-use project was approved one block to the east at 430-444 West State/MLK Jr. Street last November. That 113,300 square-foot project, with 129 units of market rate housing and 4,800 square-feet of retail space, experienced relatively little pushback during the review process.

Project review would be expected to take at least a few months, mostly to give time for the Planning Board to conduct the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR). Even if it all goes smoothly, approval would not be likely until this summer at the earliest.

Brian Crandall

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