ITHACA, N.Y.—Some city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meetings are pithy and efficient. Others are stemwinders, with much discussion but not much in truly measurable progress. That was the case with last night’s meeting, which also demonstrated that even in this Zoom-driven world, if people are opposed to a project they’ll find a way to speak out.
For those of you who like to have reference material, the 155-page agenda can be found here.
First up were the lot subdivision reviews – these are when property lots in the city, technically known as parcels, seek legal reconfiguration, either to be split up, reshaped or consolidated. This month, there were two on the agenda, the first within the South Meadow Street retail corridor, and the second at 238 Dryden Road in Collegetown.
The first subdivision on the agenda is at 710-734 South Meadow Street, or what most of us know better as the Tops Plaza. The owners of the 20.89-acre strip mall want to split and reconfigure the property into four parcels. The Chili’s restaurant at the edge of the plaza (technically called an outparcel, Parcel “B” here) would be subdivided into a 0.335 acre property and sold to Chili’s. Elmira Savings Bank (Parcel “C”) is already its own lot, but would be reconfigured into a 0.625 acre lot because the current lot doesn’t accurately capture the bank’s footprint, especially the drive-thru lanes. Verizon Wireless (Parcel “D”) would be subdivided into a 1.086-acre lot to facilities a potential sale to the Verizon franchisee. Last but not least, the main plaza buildings and everything else on-site (Parcel “A”), which would have no ownership changes.
For the record, the main plaza is actually two tax parcels, but they’re both treated as parcel “A” for this review, and legal easement would allow for shared parking and access. Basically, this is a splitting off and reconfiguration of lots hosting some of the smaller outlying buildings in the plaza, either for financial or logistical reasons.
Attorney Francis Gorman of Harris Beach PLLC and engineer Dave Herrick of T.G. Miller represented the owners of the project and walked the board through the proposed lot lines. The public hearing passed without comment, and commentary from the Planning Board was limited. Planning Board Vice Chair McKenzie Jones asked if the changes affected future development potential, to which city of Ithaca Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas said the impact would be minimal because the lots were unlikely to limit future development. The board’s long-term goal is to see more mixed uses down in this area, and less parking. The negative declaration on environmental review (impacts are effectively mitigated) passed quickly and unanimously. Approval could not be granted because Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) approval is required for area variances, which the board had no issues with, but it means the subdivision will have to come back before the board next month if and after BZA approval is granted.
The other subdivision item up on last night’s agenda was in Collegetown. Developer Todd Fox of Visum Development recently finished his new “The Lux” apartment building at 232 Dryden Road, and has had plans approved for a smaller 8-unit building next door at 238 Dryden, which he plans to start construction on this year. Fox is requesting to split the lot so that 232 Dryden and 238 Dryden are on their own lots, 0.686 acres and 0.091 acres respectively. This will also require a trip to the BZA for lot deficiencies (53.6% and 55.5% lot coverage for the two parcels vs. 50% allowed). STREAM Collaborative architect Brandon Ebel and Visum Vice President Patrick Braga Zoom-called in to speak about the project.
Declaration of Lead Agency passed unanimously and the public hearing had one attendee, Ithaca attorney Ray Schlather, who was there to represent adjacent property owners. Schlather cited the need to keep a right-of-way on the southern end of Summit Avenue, legal deficiencies with the amount of green space, and that there was no construction staging area. Nicholas said she would check with the city attorney for any issues, seeing as they were just learning of some of Schlather’s exhibits. In response to Schlather, Braga said the right-of-way would be preserved, the two parcels would have an easement agreement to maintain a public walkway from Summit Avenue to Dryden Road, and Ebel added that staging would utilize/lease a parking area on Dryden for material deliveries. Ebel disputed the claims on green space, showing their own lot map and calculations demonstrating compliance.
Board members Emily Petrina and Elisabete Godden said they were comfortable with the subdivision, while their colleague C.J. Randall wanted to see underlying deed references as part of the review. The project was only up for SEQR, so the board was happy to move forward with the environmental review, but was happy to wait for the city attorney to weigh in and a complete map of the site before any BZA-approved subdivision comes back to them in April for approval. The negative declaration on environmental review passed unanimously.
Site Plan Review
For those new to the Planning Board experience, Site Plan Review (SPR) 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.
State Street Apartments (401 E. State/Martin Luther King Jr. St.)
First 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. With the project, 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.
There were no votes scheduled last night on the project, the development team was on tap to just provide an update and to go through their transportation management and landscaping plans with the Planning Board. The plans are part of the SEQR review process, and the final part of the SEQR is underway now.
Led by CHA Inc. engineer James Trasher, McKinley had their usual medley of engineers, architects and other project team personnel in attendance. Traffic engineer Gordon Stansbury of GTS Consulting said the traffic study was modeled with traffic numbers from studies conducted by the Chain Works developers in the same areas back in 2014, because the current volumes were 39-64 percent lower than recent pre-COVID numbers, and would be unlikely to stay that low as activity returns post-COVID. They advocated left turn restrictions (signage) onto E. State/MLK Jr. Street (the driveway next to where Napoli was), and traffic movements designed to utilize Green Street more. Traffic signals may be adjusted in conjunction with the NYS DOT. Long story short, there were no red flags raised by city or state engineers. Parking lot analysis by the project team allocated 112 spaces for tenants and the rest (190 spaces) for Gateway Commons office tenants, the public, and flex space, 154 more than in the surface lot there now.
Generally, the board was favorable here. Board member Garrick Blalock stressed the need for good signage to direct people towards East Green Street instead of East State, saying that the natural inclination of visitors is to use East State, which is also harder to get in and out of. Godden, who has made clear she is not a fan of the proposal, asked whether the traffic study had taken the nearby “The Ithacan” and “Asteri” projects on the Commons into account given potential construction impacts on traffic flow, such as potentially losing a lane during heavy construction periods. Trasher, who worked with The Ithacan as their lead consulting engineer, said that workers at these projects would be bused to the site from off-site parking areas, and planner Nicholas said contractors work with the city to time deliveries and are managed aggressively to keep traffic issues to a minimum. Member Jones asked about combination parking, like allowing office parking to be utilized by other users off-hours, and suggested that as a mitigation tactic.
Chair Robert Lewis asked if the board wanted a formal Transportation Demand Management Plan, but no one seemed to want to go that far. They did want additional research and resources to be shared with them as they go through the last steps of environmental review, and demonstrated commitments for high parking space utilization and efforts to reach out to organizations like Ithaca Carshare so that traffic impacts are further minimized.
Landscape architect Amy Franco then talked about the landscaping, with deciduous trees and perennials and shrubs to serve as “understory” aesthetics, and also be capable of handling some snow on top of them. Retaining walls would be terraced with plantings. Benches, picnic tables, decorative asphalt and historical signage would also be included in the landscaping plan. Some safety bollards were moved to allow for additional green space. One written public comment was received by the board, asking for more native species in the plantings.
The board had its reservations; namely, they wanted more greenery. “The landscaping needs to be a screen or a buffer between the massing of the building and the experience on the creekwalk, and I don’t think this is doing that,” said board member Mitch Glass. In his view, the landscaping buffer needed to be beefed up much more, and columnar trees should be switched out in favor of more shade trees. Trasher explained that the fire chief preferred columnar trees (growing up rather than out) as an access concern, but that they could add more trees overall for a bigger green buffer. Blalock asked about the historical signage, which Franco said was to be highlight the history of the creek in Ithaca’s history and the nearby trail.
“I’m disappointed in the stamped asphalt, I would have preferred permeable hard surfaces,” said Godden. “The bollards don’t speak to me as part of the trail (…) the landscaping just lacks what a project of this size would have to include.” Her colleague Petrina asked for a welcoming, attractive connection to the trail and to State Street, and Jones also wanted the asphalt switched out for something more attractive. Planner Nicholas stressed the importance of a retaining wall that wasn’t just pretty but also up to the task of holding back the hillside.
The board spent more time than expected in critique, about an hour, but it was productive. The project team will be back in April with updates in response to board feedback.
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. To demonstrate just how quick the process is going here, even though the project was only formally introduced last month, the public hearing, determination of environmental significance, and recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals. The zoning variance is requested because the front entrance is set back 40 feet from the road to accommodate the raised floodplain foundation and accessible sidewalk ramp, but the site only allows a setback of 34 feet. It also no off-street loading space for deliveries, which zoning requires a space (but as seen above, there’s plenty of parking). If approved by the BZA, it would put the project on track for preliminary approval at the April Planning Board meeting.
Architect Ben Gingrich led the board through the fairly smooth review. “This is a tough site, it’s in a flood plain. We did need to raise the building…we’re addressing that with the landscaping and how we did our sidewalks,” said Gingrich. Gingrich sought a “grand staircase” effect with the front entrance, and landscaping to lessen the effect of the rise mandated by the state’s revised code for building on flood plains.
The board was generally supportive. Jones wanted an emphasis on the pedestrian experience towards South Meadow Street and that corner. Randall was “driven crazy” by the “sidewalk to nowhere” due to the disconnect on the Chili’s property directly to the south, which was beyond KeyBank’s control but a source of frustration regardless. Gingrich said it was something they could study a connection to.
Board member Mitch Glass, however, was torn by the proposal. “I think the building is fine and I always think buildings filling in parking lots is a good idea, but I’m just stuck with this idea with building in the 100-year and the 500-year flood plain. I know it’s a state requirement to build two feet above grade, but with climate change…I just feel there’s a better site for this building.”
The board gave a negative declaration on the environmental review (i.e. it passed) with only Glass opposed. As for the BZA recommendation, the board supported the idea of infill development for the site and was supportive of the variances. Pending a BZA review and potential approval, the project will be back for those project approvals next month.
Water Works Phase 1 (321 Taughannock Boulevard)
Next up in last night’s meeting was 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.
Last night the board was scheduled to before architectural and site plan design review for the project, and host the public hearing for all interested members of the public to chime in with their thoughts and concerns. Architects Craig Modisher and Noah Demarest of Ithaca’s STREAM Collaborative were there to talk about the project.
Modisher said that red cedar shakes would be used on the headhouse at front, with black brick, heat treated ash wood paneling (the heat makes it rot resistant), and insulated metal panels on the new wing. Public hearing had one commenter, neighboring property owner Sonny Carubia, who said the project was aesthetically appealing but was concerned about parking and issues with the sewer pump station not being to handle the development.
Modisher responded that they weren’t sure why the pump was still an issue (it has been for years) and Demarest added they would dig into the problem to figure it out. The board was concerned about the wastewater issue and wanted that addressed, Nicholas made clear they would hit that hard as part of environmental review. On the bright side for the project team, the board found the building design “lovely”, “very nice”, “contextual” and “handsome”. “This might be the lightest touch Design Review we’ve gone around on, this is just such a beautiful building,” said Chair Lewis. The project will be back before the board next month.
510 MLK (510 W. State / W. Martin Luther King Jr. Street)
Last in last night’s Site Plan Review is Visum’s “510 MLK” 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 a zoning area variance. Like Water Works, last night the board was scheduled to before architectural and site plan design review for the project, and host the public hearing.
The public hearing had one speaker, West Hill resident Josh Adams, the owner of the adjacent apartment house at 505 West Seneca, spoke against the project as being out of character and scale and wanted a maximum of three floors. Plus, the residents across the street wrote in with concerns about construction impacts on foundations, slowing down traffic, and the homeowner at 503 West Seneca also wrote in to speak out against the project’s scale.
Visum’s Patrick Braga explained that the project makes a strong effort to meet the goals of Ithaca’s Comprehensive Plan, comply with zoning, and provide socially inclusive housing in a city that has struggled to provide affordable and special needs housing. Braga said he was surprised to see this much opposition to an affordable housing project when Arnot’s West End Ironworks project a block away had virtually no community opposition, and had taken umbrage to the comments about “neighborhood character” as it’s often a coded word for a certain income or racial group. “The corridor is going through its awkward adolescent years,” said Braga, as it transitions to a more inclusive and sustainable neighborhood.
Architect Noah Demarest said the dark brick and cornices on the lower levels was an effort to fit in with surrounding structures, with more modern design elements above. “Boothbay Blue” fiber cement lap siding would provide a traditional feel to a contemporary design, with insulated corrugated metal panels to provide visual interest.
The board reaction was mixed. Board member Godden lauded the choice of materials, though a slightly recessed ground floor on West Seneca might provide some slight visual relief, something Demarest said they were already looking into. Her colleague Glass liked the design, but wanted a sun/shade study and had reservations given the concerns of neighbors. He noted, given that the project site was already downzoned once, that it was frustrating that the board was being asked to adjudicate size when this has already been addressed by city council in 2019. Petrina wondered if the facade on Seneca could be softened up (cornice, architectural detailing, brick) in an effort to better fit in. Noting the tot lot, she asked if there could be more space of greenery as a buffer with neighbors.
The board’s Blalock noted that the Arnot property wasn’t next to houses, but small commercial properties, so there was a less awkward transition in that case. “There has to be a first building. The way it kinda snakes through…initially it will look quite odd. But in 10-15 years, as the block fills out? Maybe something that would make me feel better is if the project and the neighbors, and on the margins there were mitigations that could address some concerns. I don’t know what that could be, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
“I’m not often surprised by the opposition to the affordable housing,” said Vice Chair Jones. “If we do want to do some mitigations, we could look at roof angles, or a stoop or porch, design features that you could explore as this is a transition time for this corridor. But I think it’s an appropriate building based on the future visions of the city, not based on the past but its goals for the future.”
In general, the planning board was supportive conceptually, but acknowledged that it was an awkward fit because it was the first on the block that utilized the 2013 and 2019 rezonings. The sun study was a must, and some efforts to meet with neighbors and try to soften the transition were desired. Demarest suggested going through SEQR and allowing them to formulate a comprehensive response rather than tweaks now and tweaks later, and the board was amenable to that, as long as the concerns are addressed. The project will be back before the next month, where the board hopes to figure out what’s “reasonable and possible,” to quote Chair Lewis, in order to satisfy concerned parties.
Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations
On the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) side, where the planning board makes recommendations to the BZA on projects seeking zoning variances from city code, the board reviewed four submissions this month, three of them of which are already covered in this piece – area variances to accommodate the subdivisions at 710-734 South Meadow Street and 238 Dryden Road, and the KeyBank proposal at 500 South Meadow Street. That leaves us with the last BZA submission, one that the local foodies might want to keep an eye on.
Back in late February, Chris Kim and Soyong Lee, the owners of Maru Ramen on West State Street, bought the former Byrne Dairy at 215 North Meadow Street for $600,000. Now their plans have come forth – a new family restaurant aptly named “The Milkstand” that will provide breakfast, lunch and dinner service (sorry restaurant buffs, the application gives no idea what kind of cuisine will be prepared beyond that).
From the outside, there will be very few changes apart from some re-striping of the parking lot and landscaping. Inside, the building will be converted to a full-service restaurant designed by local architect Jason K. Demarest, who’s done work for other local restaurants such as Simeon’s, Mercato and The Westy. Interior plan show a full kitchen area and table and counter seating for about 60 or so patrons in a non-socially distanced post-COVID world.
The one small fly in the ointment is that the zoning here (WEDZ-1b) requires a parking space for every 50 sqaure feet of restaurant seating area. The seating area is about 1,100 square feet, so 22 parking spaces are required, but the site has eighteen. So they need a variance to provide four fewer parking space than zoning code requires.
The board felt it was a positive re-use and was supportive of the proposal. Glass wanted to make sure they included a handicap space, which Nicholas did confirm. The Milkstand earned the board’s recommendation without dissent.
With concerns that Planning Board members are having issues making Thursday morning monthly Project Review meetings, which are low-key pre-planning board discussion meetings. The board discussed moving to an earlier morning or an afternoon format.
“Would 7 a.m. really fly?” Asked Nicholas in good humor.
“It would suck, but it would work for me,” said Chair Lewis, laughing in his chair. 7 a.m. did not seem to be a real proposition, but the Project Review Committee is likely to be adjusted time-wise for future meetings, so that more board members can make it.
At Randall’s request, the board was going to switch to a “roll call” format for votes, which would take a little longer, but avoid it looking like they were automatically going to vote yes. Chair Lewis said he was happy to give it a go. Mitch Glass asked about getting the diversity statement updated, and expressed a little concern that the board was not as in the loop on upcoming projects as media outlets.(I don’t know if that was meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it.)
In a similar vein, Blalock wanted to know why certain projects stopped review, and if they could get feedback on those cases. He mentioned the pair Visum planned for Cherry Street (which Visum is still planning, as Phase One of the Neighborhood of the Arts), and the Ithaca Falls development from Frost Travis (the last this reporter heard, Travis was focused on resolving issues with Library Place and opening that development before returning to the Falls Park Apartments; Nicholas did note during the meeting that Travis was still struggling with securing construction crews for Library Place). In my experience, few projects ever just “die” in the site plan review phase. They might be revised, they might be pulled due to opposition, the developer might decide to change the mix of uses; but they rarely die. Which is at least good in that it keeps this reporting fresh and interesting.