ITHACA, N.Y. –– It was a fairly hefty and detail-oriented meeting at the City of Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting Wednesday night. There was angst on the West End, worries about the waterfront and unease over Stewart Park. You can dive into the committee’s myriad concerns below, and for those who like notes to go with their reading, the agenda from the meeting is here.

Ithaca Farmer’s Market CFA grant application

As covered in the Farmer’s Market piece earlier this week, the Ithaca’s Farmer’s Market (IFM) is embarking on plans to reconstruct the market over the next few years, and much of the funding for that will come from state grant funds. For example, the IFM received a $339,150 state grant in December 2019 to engage in design work and cover the pre-development costs like engineering analyses and environmental assessment work.

The next grant request would be to cover the costs of rebuilding the parking lot, which is a frequent source of complaints from visitors, and a higher priority than new buildings. There’s no accommodation for buses and it’s deficient for bikers and pedestrians, the gravel is hard for those who are mobility-impaired, and fire code has changed such that it’s no longer up to code (it’s grandfathered in, but that privilege would be lost with any proposed renovations). The grant would help cover the costs of re-configuring and resurfacing the parking lot to accommodate everyone and make it safer, as well as add rain gardens for stormwater retention, and electric vehicle charging stations.

Most state grant requests are addressed through Consolidated Funding Applications (CFAs) and this grant in particular would be reviewed by the state’s Local Water Revitalization Program (LWRP), which funded the 2019 grant. The program isn’t open to private entities like the market. However, the city, as owner of the land the market sits on, can sponsor the IFM’s application and submit the application on the IFM’s behalf, which would allow the market to compete for those LWRP grant dollars. This resolution is simply the city agreeing to sponsor the application. There is no financial commitment from the city’s budget, the city just submits the application on the market’s behalf with an additional memo explaining how IFM and the city work together on improving the waterfront.

IFM’s consultant, Michele Palmer of Templeton Landscape Architecture& Planning, Zoomed in to the meeting and told the PEDC that if the grant were awarded, the funding timeline would mean that work would not start until next year. With only brief questions for clarity, the sponsorship was approved by the committee unanimously, and will head to the full Common Council for final approval next month.

Stewart Park Splash Pad & ADA Bathroom CFA Application

This is a different project, but the same idea. In this case, the applicant for CFA grant funds is the non-profit Friends of Stewart Park (FSP), seeking grant funds from the state to construct an inclusive playground and splash pad as well as an ADA-accessible public bathroom building in Stewart Park. The grant request to the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP)’s Environmental Protection Fund is for $500,000, of which FSP would match with $167,000 of its own funds (the project cost is about $675,000). The city applies on FSP’s behalf and would provide oversight as the project is built and maintained, and while this involves no municipal funding commitment for construction, it would result in increased maintenance costs as well as a larger water and sewer treatment bill, on the order of $50,000 in additional operational costs, which makes it more of a commitment than the IFM ask.

Quick side note, the application submission period for the CFA funding cycle is only open from mid-May through July, so that’s why every non-profit seeking infrastructure improvement grants on city-owned land is scrambling to do so right now.

Rick Manning of FSP spoke on behalf of the application and gave a brief presentation on the project. The splash pad and bathroom building are the last phase for the Stewart Park playground reconstruction, and the two structures would be built together because they both rely on the same new water infrastructure and pipes. FSP is in fundraising mode for the project, with some funding secured from the Triad Foundation and the Park Foundation.

“Every time I’m in Stewart Park, which is often, I see families on that playground, which is wonderful, kudos for that,” said councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th Ward). She asked about the city’s financial responsibility should the grant process not be successful, and Manning replied they just wouldn’t be building the last phase.

There was clearly concern about the higher operational costs on the city’s budget, that extra $50,000 cost per year intimidated the PEDC. “That’s a little daunting,” said councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd). Her colleague Cynthia Brock (D-1st) asked if the costs could be split with the county in some way, as the splash pad would likely be a countywide attraction. Manning said they did not have a clear commitment from the county, but they were willing to have discussions and do whatever they have to for maintaining the facility.

“I just would appeal to these various organizations (you work with) to include in any project a responsibility to oversee the future impact of that and maintaining it…in addition to looking at what we have that could very much benefit from this renewed agency, like the pool, that could benefit from this capital investment. I hope that can be imparted on the various organizations that you are working with, that this could be a focus,” said Brock.

“Everything you’ve done for Stewart Park is amazing, but I think it’s really important that Friends of Stewart Park be a part of plans moving forward and that the city of Ithaca not be stuck with maintenance costs,” said PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd). Manning responded by saying they would look at the possibility of sponsorships or programs to contribute and support maintenance costs. Though with some hesitation, the vote to send to the full council for grant application sponsorship passed unanimously.

Carpenter Circle PUD Amendments

The Carpenter Circle mixed-use project, now going by the name “Cayuga Park”, is nearly ready to begin construction of phase one, the new Cayuga Medical Center office building and the 42 units of affordable housing. The 166 units of market-rate housing, retail and reconfigured Ithaca Community Gardens come in phase two.

However, public/private for-profit/private not-for-profit deals come with enough bureaucratic red tape to tie a bow around City Hall. The lease agreements, scheduling and payment prices are sorted out, but need to be approved before the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning goes into effect and construction can begin. To allow construction to move forward, a pair of legal revisions are proposed to amend the land swap agreement between the city and CMC to facilitate construction of phase one’s office building, and simplifying the language on moving the gardens and the project team’s coverage for the costs of moving the gardens (they had “among other things” in there, which is no longer needed). The agreement says phase one cannot be occupied unless all the details on moving and costs are sorted out and approved by all parties.

Marty Hiller, the Ithaca Community Gardens President and a Common Council candidate, noted the agreement is very close to being completely finished, possibly by the end of the week; the mid-October date proposed for the city-CMC land swap in the resolution seemed unnecessarily long to her. CMC’s Tony Votaw and Park Grove Realty’s Andy Bodewes agreed, but Votaw noted it was intended as a buffer.

“I think we should be able to (finalize a deal shortly), but we can’t afford that uncertainty. I would hope we could….Ideally we would have liked to start the site work a month ago, honestly, we’d like to start ASAP and keep working with Marty (Hiller) and the gardens,” said Bodewes.

This ended up being the rare topic that was so dense, I had to have a follow-up phone call with city planners to explain what was going on.

“The only thing they need in order to move forward is to execute (sign), the land transfer agreement between CMC and the city. For simplicity’s sake, that’s it,” said Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas.

“When Common Council adopted the PUD, there were two contingencies on it, two things needed to go into effect first – obtaining title to the land (the land swap), and the other was the binding agreement between the gardens and the developers. There has been a lot of progress made on those, but no final deal, so we suggested that if they were in agreement but not final, to amend the contingencies to say the land transfer agreement could be executed but not fully purchased until October 15th. They’re ready to sign these agreements, from what we heard. If an agreement is executed before July 7th (Common Council’s meeting), this will be a non-issue. The PUD will go into effect once the land transfer agreement is executed.”

Planning Director JoAnn Cornish had passed along that city staff would allow site prep and equipment mobilization if the amendments were approved by PEDC, though no building permits would be issued until the formal binding agreement is in place between the gardens and developer. Even if agreement is finalized by July 7th, there will still need to be an amendment before the full council in July to allow the transfer agreement to be executed with CMC. If all goes well there, building permits could potentially be issued after Common Council meets.

Resolution in Support of Enactment of FOR THE PEOPLE ACT, S1 in the U.S. Senate

Not necessarily planning committee related, but councilor Brock wished to submit a resolution for Common Council endorsement of U.S. Senate Bill 1, the FOR THE PEOPLE ACT that provides for expanded voting access and voter registration capabilities, campaign finance reform, and the elimination of gerrymandering through independent redistricting.

As political folks likely know, the bill would need sixty votes to avoid a filibuster that would prevent it from being voted on, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the voter rights bill, and so any Republican support is unlikely. The filibuster would have to be removed by 50 senators plus the vice president, and there are exactly 50 Democrats in the Senate, but unless someone can convince West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to support removing the filibuster and support the bill, it’s dead in the water. Although beyond its control, if Ithaca’s Common Council wants to issue a resolution to voice its support for the bill, they can do that. Voting rights non-profit Common Cause NY is promoting the vote and the county legislature vote has also voted in endorsement of the bill.

The vote spent less than one minute in discussion; it enjoyed clear, broad support, and was unanimously approved to send to council for formal endorsement.

Special Order of Business – Tompkins County Economic Recovery Strategy

For Special Order of Business last night, the PEDC was treated to a presentation by Ithaca Area Economic Development’s Heather McDaniel on the proposed strategy to recover from the economic damage created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan seeks to provide both a snapshot of the short-term actions undertaken or underway to triage the immediate impacts wrought by the pandemic, and provide an economic “roadmap” to guide long-term planning and recovery of Tompkins County’s recovery.

There is no doubt COVID-19 and the shutdowns to rein in outbreaks caused much damage to the local economy. Sales tax plunged as events were cancelled, entertainment venues shut down, and out-of-area visitors stayed home. Unemployment shot up as workers were laid off. Office vacancies rose and public transit use plummeted as those who could worked from home.

The recovery details three stages – the initial response during the initial wave and in the months that followed, which included over 120 disbursements of emergency loans and small business relief funds, the stabilization to prevent more closures and limit the damages caused by COVID-related disruptions, (PPP Loans, disaster loans, childcare assistance grants), and opportunities to grow as COVID recedes, in targeted market sector support (manufacturing, tourism, other impacted local businesses), workforce development (green jobs and manufacturing job training, talent attraction), and infrastructure (broadband buildout, retail space mini-grants, transportation systems, promoting redevelopment of underused properties in and around Ithaca). You can dig into the presentation more here.

“As we broke this out, we made it very much consistent with the countywide development strategy…it’s very much a companion piece to the economic development strategy already in place.” said McDaniel.

Councilor Brock, noting that McDaniel said office demand may take until 2025 to come back, asked how those spaces might be repurposed. McDaniel said small-scale manufacturing, non-profit service spaces and residential uses were being considered by local landlords. While there were no voting items here, the committee was supportive and appreciative of IAED’s effort as Ithaca and Tompkins County look to recover from COVID-19.

The layout of Alternative “A” as proposed by SRF Associates.

Buffalo/Court Street Traffic Couplet Update

At last check back in September 2020, the city and NYSDOT were coming to battle over opposing views of how to handle DOT’s suggestion of couplets in order to allow development to proceed along the Route 13 corridor. The unexpected award of a federal grant, however, allowed the city the opportunity to do a traffic study before committing to the DOT’s couplet proposal, and for developments to proceed.

Meanwhile, the developers of Cayuga Park were requested by DOT to use their engineering consultant (SRF Associates) to create a plan to mitigate increased traffic in the project area. The draft proposal was given to planners, who gave it to the PEDC for discussion last night.

Two proposals were examined, along with the base case where nothing changes. One proposal, Alternative ‘1″, was to convert the 700 Block of West Buffalo Street to one-way eastbound, while leaving West Court Street in its two-way configuration. The other, Alternative “2”, was the “couplet” pattern, or “one-way pair”, where two one-way streets whose traffic flows combine on both ends. The 700 Block of West Court Street would only flow westbound in this case.

The initial traffic analyses suggested there was no benefit to making West Court Street westbound only, but that there would be benefits to making the 700 Block of West Buffalo eastbound traffic only. As a result, city planners were more inclined to focus on discussing the less obtrusive Alternative “1” as a starting point for discussions and analysis in conjunction with NYS DOT.

“I was relieved to see that only Buffalo Street will likely only be changed…I was also pleased that there was space to add a bike lane,” said Hiller during public comment.

“As a person whose bicycle is their primary mode of transportation…I’d like to see the city provide for a bike lane on Buffalo Street if this proposal goes forward. Bicyclists need a dedicated lane like the one on North Cayuga Street,” added resident Sheryl Swink.

Erin Cuddihy, the city’s new transportation engineer, was on hand to explain the options before PEDC, as was one of the city’s more tenured engineers, Eric Hathaway. Councilor Lewis asked why the memo described Fifth Street as a four-way intersection when the council has expressed preference for a three-way with no vehicle connection from Carpenter Park. Cuddihy said it was her fault as she was doing the write-up and missed that, and would correct it accordingly.

There were concerns from council that while making movements in that area more efficient, that it would increase traffic congestion at adjacent intersections – a “Tetris, spill-over effect” as councilor Lewis called it. One issue cited was the circuitous approach to going eastbound on West Buffalo to turn north onto Taughannock Boulevard. “I just can’t imagine this making things any better if we’re making people take extra turns and go out of their way, to get to the way they want to go,” said councilor Fleming.

As Hathaway noted, there have long been differences in planning philosophy between the city of Ithaca and NYS DOT. The city wants multi-modal approaches and traffic calming on Route 13, the state just wants to move cars in and out as quick as possible. It’s not clear if DOT would accept the proposals as SRF analyzed, though city engineers were optimistic in that regard. As for the West Buffalo to Taughannock turn, traffic analysis suggests that the movement is relatively uncommon.

No one was thrilled by the idea of changing traffic flows, and it’s going to continue to be a thorny topic between state and city as they attempt to mitigate traffic impacts with development on Ithaca’s West End, and technical revisions, the addition of bike lanes and multi-modal access, and extensive public outreach need to be undertaken before any votes are taken. DOT and SRF will be invited to next month’s PEDC meeting for more detailed discussions next month.

Waterfront Emergency Access

Last on the list of agenda items for discussion was a proposed resolution to affirm Common Council’s support of waterfront development with the fire and access points as they are. This stems from months of discussions that have delayed the full construction of the City Harbor on Pier Road, which has only Willow Avenue as an access point. There is some concern that a second access road is needed for emergency vehicle access once the apartments are built – the worry being that emergency vehicles could be left stuck west of the the tracks if a train comes through while they’re responding to an emergency on Pier Road. Given that there are 2-4 trains each week and ten structure fires annually, advance notice of trains coming through and fire suppression systems in newer buildings, the outright risk of that happening is quite low, but it’s still a potential risk.

Since City Harbor has less than 200 units (156, to be exact), Fire Chief Tom Parsons has the discretion to decide if a second road, a bridge over Cascadilla Creek, is needed under state fire code – above 200 and it becomes mandatory. A new connection would be something to be explored as plans to reconfigure Route 13 are evaluated, and in the short term it would likely prevent any redevelopment of the TCAT site of Newman golf course. This resolution is Common Council acknowledging there is a risk, albeit a low risk, and that further transportation connections should be evaluated under the BUILD grant awarded last fall before any more projects come up. City Harbor would be allowed to proceed, but it likely prevents further projects on adjacent properties until the emergency access issue is mitigated.

There was some discussion to move the resolution to council now, as the goal is simply to have it on council’s radar prior to any new development proposals (I am not aware of any, for the record). Chief Parsons said he was comfortable with full buildout for City Harbor as long as their was a commitment to study and come up with solutions and that resources would not be stationed on Pier Road, so if the rare case happens where an emergency occurs at Guthrie or City Harbor and the train blocks access for a couple minutes, it is what it is. With that, they did decide to vote to send to council, and did so unanimously.

Brian Crandall

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