ITHACA, N.Y.—Compared to last month, May’s City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meeting was shorter but still gave results, with one project receiving coveted final site plan approval, and a few others, big and small, moving further along in the process. This won’t be one of the longer writeups, but the Ithaca Voice appreciates your company for this read-through regardless. Those who want to view the 241-page agenda in all its glory can find an electronic copy here.

Subdivision Review

First on last night’s agenda was 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. Back before the Planning Board this month were plans for a subdivision at 710-734 South Meadow Street, or what most of us know better as the Tops Plaza.

To rehash this for the third month in a row, the owners of the 20.89-acre strip mall want to split and reconfigure the property into five 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 would be split into two parcels (Parcel “A-1” for Tops and Parcel “A-2” for Barnes&Noble), which would have no ownership changes. Legal easements would allow for shared parking and access.

This subdivision has taken somewhat longer than most because it needed variances from the Board of Zoning Appeals (which have been granted) and legal easements for access needed to be sorted out prior to final subdivision approval. 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. It has not been controversial, but splitting up a shopping plaza triggers a lot of figurative red tape.

Project team lawyer Francis Gorman gave the board a brief update, as well as one request to modify the proposed approval conditions for more flexibility on inspections for the upgraded dumpster enclosures. Planner Lisa Nicholas noted that the open dumpsters behind the plaza have been out of compliance for years, but was willing to give discretion on when to inspect the enclosures, so long as staff to be able to inspect and confirm the enclosures are up-to-code. With that modification, the subdivision received final approval 5-0, with Chair Robert Lewis and Elisabete Godden absent.

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223 Thurston Avenue.

Special Permit Approval

Rather unusually, the Planning Board had to consider a request this month for a Special Permit for Office Use in an R-U District. Special Permits crop up when an applicant seeks a use that a certain type of zone normally doesn’t allow but will consider with case-by-case circumstance. This is different from a Use Variance in that the Board of Zoning Appeals isn’t involved (and Use Variances are considered the hardest type of zoning variance to get, so one tries for them unless the case is very compelling). Use Variances are nearly impossible to get, but Special Permits are somewhat more routine in design and intent, and somewhat easier to obtain.

In this case, it’s an office use in Cornell Heights, the residential neighborhood and historic district north and west of Cornell’s campus. Cornell previously used the 89 year-old 223 Thurston Avenue as a small 44-person dorm (22 two-bedroom suites) called the Thurston Court Apartments, but to keep it up to dormitory safety code would require expensive renovations, so now the university wants to convert it into administrative office space for 60 staff during normal business hours. Cornell’s undergraduate admissions office is two blocks away in what was once a fraternity house, so it’s not like Cornell hasn’t used former residences for offices before. Plus, as a Historic District, this renovation needs Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC) approval.

Board member Godden had joined the meeting by this time, but recused herself for conflict of interest (she works as a Cornell project manager). Cornell project manager Michael Stewart walked the board through the plans. Staff would use the adjacent 24-space parking lot and nearby parking lots owned by the university. An ADA access ramp would be built on the west side of the building, as well as minor sidewalk changes, the removal of a dying white pine tree, and an ADA access aisle in the parking lot.

The Planning Board was wholly supportive of the reuse plan. Board members Emily Petrina and Mitch Glass thought it complemented the surrounding uses well, and Vice-Chair McKenzie Jones (who was Acting Chair with Lewis absent) called it a “perfect reuse”. Declaration of Lead Agency was unanimous, the environmental review passed unanimously, and the Special Use Permit was approved with unanimous consent. However, the reuse project will need the ILPC’s approval before construction permits can be issued.

Site Plan Review

For those unfamiliar with the ways of the Planning Board, Site Plan Review (SPR) is where the review of new building proposals happens. In the interest of not pushing 10 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.

A rendering of the Gateway-State Street Apartments from East State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street looking south.

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

The first site plan up for review was McKinley Development Company’s proposal for a six-story, 340,000 square-foot apartment building with a 267‐space internal parking garage and 356 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.

As far as the Planning Board’s role, the project is starting to enter the final stretch; it was scheduled last night for a vote on the Determination of Environmental Significance, which if approved as a SEQR negative declaration (meaning its detrimental impacts are effectively mitigated) could then go on to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a vote per the Planning Board’s recommendation. With that in hand, preliminary approval could be granted as early as next month’s Planning Board meeting, though other votes by the Board of Public Works and Common Council will be needed because the complicated site would require moving around public utility easements.

There was one public comment. Giles Street resident and Cornell landscape architecture professor Thomas Oles, who was opposed to the project for being too driven by corporate design in building and landscaping, as well as project impacts on the neighborhood.

The project team provided an update to the Planning Board, starting with a walk-through of the new drainage easements, shoring wall/tie-back easement and pedestrian right-of-way easements. An easement for the creekwalk will remain in place as it currently exists. In response to a question from Nicholas, CHA Inc. engineer Brian Bouchard said the project would use shallow spread footings on the northwest corner of the site, and deep-driven steel foundation piles elsewhere, ranging from 10 feet to 70 feet deep depending on location and the load they need to carry in a particular spot. Monitoring equipment would be used to ensure vibrations during pile driving don’t exceed safe limits, and be completed in late September and October of this year. Nicholas noted some further analysis may be requested by city engineers prior to site plan approval.

The Planning Board’s Godden, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the size of the project, asked about efforts to reduce scale and density. Bouchard replied that roof heights had been brought down in areas, setbacks were added and the facade became more varied in material and treatment, as well as larger green space next to the building. Godden responded those were tweaks rather than substantive reductions. “I feel like I’m hearing you did not make many mitigations.”

Vice-Chair Jones focused on the size and density for a round of comment from the board. While Godden still felt the building was too large for the site and had too many units for the site with not enough spacing, board members Garrick Blalock, C.J. Randall and Mitch Glass said they were comfortable with the massing.

“I do feel comfortable with the mitigations to offset with the massing…we’ve gotten feedback from residents over time rather than during the public hearing, which has been unfortunate. I feel like the mitigations are substantial. The thing that clinches it for me is that otherwise this project would be in a neighborhood in a piecemeal fashion,” said Emily Petrina. As Blalock added, if the applicant wanted to reduce size, that would be fine, but it was not something his focus was on, with him, Petrina and Glass more interested in discussion on landscaping and traffic mitigations. Jones reminded Godden that she was welcome to cast a vote against a SEQR negative declaration if she felt there weren’t substantive enough mitigations.

On the parking and traffic topic, C.J. Randall asked about on-site parking management, and Bouchard replied that the parking garage would be sectionalized with some designated areas for resident, business and public sections, with the business section turned over to the public as well after hours. It would primarily be managed by smartphone and camera-enforced. The project also has an agreement in place to use the Chain Works site a half mile up South Hill for construction worker parking.

When it finally came time for a vote on the negative declaration for environmental review after an hour of discussion, the vote was 5-1 with Godden opposed and Lewis absent.

As for the variances, the area variance for the easements was more straightforward and supported by the board. The height variance was trickier. The project team stressed the parking decks necessitated some of the additional nine feet in height, and the upward slope of State Street helped to conceal some of that height behind the hill. There was some uncertainty from the planning board if a floor variance was needed due to the split-level parking garage setup (if the building is seven floors instead of six, it also needs a floor variance), which city staff would have to determine. But the board was willing to support the height variance primarily on account of the topography, and it will go to BZA next month.

“It’s certainly not our last meeting, but a milestone for sure,” said Jones.

A rendering of 321 Taughannock Boulevard, from the street looking eastward.

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.

With approved zoning variances in hand, the project is at the finish line in the municipal approvals process, with preliminary and potential final site plan approval on the agenda last night. The latest discussion on the plans was very brief. Architect Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative said they had received approval from the state to perform tree removal on Canal Corporation land that was intertwining with steel on the backside of the existing boathouse.

“I’m pretty confident this is going to be a really nice project,” said Godden. Her colleagues agreed, with unanimous praise for the project. “We’re generally pretty pleased and prepared to vote tonight,” noted Jones. Preliminary and final approval was granted unanimously.

510 MLK (510 W. State / W. Martin Luther King Jr. Street)

The next item on the Planning Board’s agenda was 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 has been a 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.

In addition to the physical quirks and zoning tweaks, the project has been the subject of some controversy from neighbors. The board has been trying to strike a balance between the applicants’ need and sensitivity towards adjacent properties. The area is transitioning towards a denser environment, so it stands out, especially with its unusual footprint, The board is trying to accommodate concerns while letting much-needed affordable housing be built on the property. Last night consisted of project updates an continuation of environmental review, focusing on one of Part 3 (the final part) of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF).

There weren’t any changes to design to go over, and updates to the Part 3 were limited because some information still needed to be submitted by the development team, which consisted of Visum Development’s Patrick Braga and STREAM’s Craig Modisher last night. Planner Nicholas requested more detailed information on the type of pile driving that would be used (ideally the less disruptive, the better), and Jones asked for more documentation on the project’s affordable housing to include within the FEAF. They also stressed the need to engage with the neighbors to assuage their concerns about the proposal.

“This project’s going to be an awesome community benefit…but we also understand change has its pain points, we’re happy to discuss this project with the neighbors and get this project done in a way that’s respectful,” said Braga. The project will come back before the board next month.

Commercial Building (KFC, 405 Elmira Road)

The next item on the Planning Board’s Site Plan Review agenda were the plans for a new KFC restaurant at 405 Elmira Road on the southwest side of the city. Quick refresher, Kansas-based KBP Investments proposes to construct a new 2,200 square-foot drive-through restaurant on what is currently an underused parking lot. The project also includes 23 parking spaces, curbing, dumpster enclosure, landscaping lighting, signage, and new pavement markings. The project will require area variances for front yard, width, parking setback, and signage.

Even with those variances, this is one part of the city where review tends to be less strict; there are few historic buildings and few residents in the city’s portion of the Route 13-Elmira Road corridor. This is also a fairly small proposal. Given those factors, the board was expected to issue its Determination of Environmental Significance and make its BZA recommendation, which would have put the project on track to have its approval by the end of June. However, a public notice snafu by the development team resulted in the project’s neighbors not being notified of the requested variances in time, and so the BZA recommendation will have to wait another month until June, and therefore a July project approval.

Engineer Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineer led the board through the latest updates with another half dozen or so project team members in attendance. The project team discovered state parks owns the land slated for the proposed rail trail connection at its rear and the slope is steep, so they’re revising the trail connection plans accordingly. The public dining patio will also have a railing per the Parks Commission’s suggestion, and in response to a question from Blalock, the applicants noted the exterior is a washable synthetic stucco (EIFS) system, which the board wanted samples of prior to next month’s meeting. At the very least, that wasn’t going to hold up the environmental review, which granted a negative declaration of approval (impacts effectively mitigated) by a unanimous vote.

The Ruby (228 Dryden Road)

Last on the list of Site Plan Review items is a project new to the board, one that the Voice first broke news of earlier this month – it’s called “The Ruby”, and it’s a proposal for a 40-unit apartment building on the eastern end of Inner Collegetown at 228 Dryden Road. The building, to be developed by local homebuilder Boris Simkin, will be four stories above average grade with a partially-exposed basement story below grade, for a total of five habitable stories. The project includes other amenities on the 0.185 acre like landscaping, walkways, and outdoor patios. The project site is in the CR‐4 zoning district and requires an area variance for a rear yard setback. It is also subject to Collegetown Design Guidelines, meaning the Planning Board will need to conduct Design Review.

This is a sizable project, though comparable to a number of midrise apartment buildings that have been built in Collegetown since the zoning was amended to allow for more urban, less parking-focused developments in 2014. The project largely complies with zoning, and typically projects in the heart of Collegetown don’t attract as much scrutiny due to the lack of permanent residents. As long as the development team provides proof of traffic mitigation measures and no unforeseen engineering issues arise, the review process is likely to be smooth and straightforward.

Steve Hugo and Nathan Brown of HOLT Architects led the board through its introduction to “The Ruby”. According to Brown, the goal was to create a “fun and energetic” building design. All of the units will be studio apartments, and all units will have a balcony or patio. The undulated facade and entry porches are meant to create the impression of townhouse-style units. The board was receptive, and declared itself lead agency to conduct environmental review by unanimous vote. Goddard asked for more information on materials and floor plans, which will be presented at the next meeting. Glass asked about affordability and parking, which as a student-oriented project, the project planned to use a transportation demand management plan but had no plans for on-site parking, as student “commute” down the block to Cornell.

“I think it’s great that all the units have balconies, the light and the air is great through that. The stairs allow for a public-private interface through there…I’d like to see a beefy landscape proposal, as the building has a greater lot coverage than what was there before, and I want to see how you mitigate the loss of vegetation,” said Emily Petrina.

With that reasonably positive start, the project team will be back before the board to begin environmental review 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 four submissions this month. The State Street Apartments request is discussed above, and as noted before, the KFC appeal was postponed a month.

The other two are small and uncomplicated. The homeowners of 106 Cascadilla Park Road in Fall Creek want to install a new carport in front of their house with new retaining wall and walkway, as it has no off-street parking, which is unfortunate given that Cascadilla Park Road is like Ithaca’s version of San Francisco’s Lombard Street. The project, however, exacerbates both the front yard setback deficiency and lot coverage allowances. Several blocks to the north, the homeowners at 109 East York Street in Fall Creek want to expand their front porch and create a deck, which exacerbates both lot setback deficiencies and lot coverage allowances.

Generally speaking, as long as it doesn’t upset the neighbors, the Planning Board is okay with the zoning variances involved in projects likes these – its an investment in an owner-occupied homes, and most single-family homes in Ithaca were around decades before the zoning was and have never been compliant.

In the Cascadilla Park case, the board was, in Vice-Chair Jones’ words, lukewarm. Design-wise, they liked it. Jones called the Cascadilla Park carport design “ingenious” and Petrina said she was glad to take a parking space off the street. However, Godden was opposed to the plan, and Glass said he was a little torn about the plans. He asked if neighbors had commented, and they were notified of the proposal. One person offered a letter of support while a second expressed concerns over ADA compliance and stormwater runoff, to which Blalock, as Board of Public Works liaison, said city engineers had extensively reviewed the plans and had “thoroughly vetted” the proposal. The debate ended up being something of a back-and-forth between Glass’s concerns and Blalock’s insistence BPW had thoroughly reviewed. Planner Nicholas stressed she wanted clear language about the need to limit stormwater runoff and erosion impacts. In the end, the board went with cautious language saying the carport and walkway proposal was appropriate in this unique case and site and they would support it here, but they weren’t thrilled about the additional curbcut and retained lingering concerns about stormwater runoff.

As for 109 East York Street, the board was more wholly supportive. Board member Glass, pulling up Google Maps Streetview (ah, the joys of Zoom), thought the plan fit with the block. Goddard felt that the plans could have been more thorough and that they lacked clarity, but was fine with the request. The others agreed.

Planner Nicholas, however, was more circumspect, as the deck was only one foot back from the sidewalk. However, she didn’t feel it was inappropriate, just that they had to make sure it didn’t impede on pedestrians. The board recommended the variances, but stressed that the applicant turn in better, clearer drawings to the Planning Department prior to the BZA’s June meeting.

Other Business

In a sign of COVID’s slow but steady recession, the board agreed to consider an optional recreational retreat, families invited, sometime next month, with a specific date TBD. It will be the first time the board has seen each other in person since the pandemic blew up in March 2020. Blalock provided a BPW update to the board about the unexpected $2 million in damage to the Water Treatment Plant, which my IV colleague Matt Butler covered here. Nicholas noted that the Green Building Policy has been adopted and will take effect in early August (90 days after adoption). The board won’t be calculating the points, but the board will be included in that aspect of review. It was also noted that live streaming meetings will continue for the foreseeable future as the Governor’s Executive Order is still in effect and City Hall has yet to reopen, though a phased return of personnel to their offices is in the works.

Brian Crandall

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