ITHACA, N.Y. — It was one of the board’s longer meetings last week as they hashed out three and a half hours of site plans, zoning appeals and other business. A South Hill project finally cleared its impasse regarding facade revisions, and the board gave its recommendation zoning variances sought by a downtown apartment project currently stymied by the Board of Zoning Appeals.

You’re getting this recap a little later than usual because primary night was the same night and this Voice staffer moonlights as a poll worker. Thankfully, the city puts recordings of all public meetings up on YouTube, and it’s times like this where that really comes in handy. For those who want to look at the agenda for the meeting, that 172-page PDF is here.

Subdivision Review

First on last night’s agenda was lot subdivision review — this is 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 for the Cayuga Park mixed-use project on what is now Carpenter Circle.

Astute readers may recall this subdivision has already been before the board, and the preliminary subdivision plans were approved last November. Since that time, the agreement with the Ithaca Community Gardens has been largely finalized, and to accommodate, a land swap will be taking place between Cayuga Medical Center and the city of Ithaca, where CMC gives the city 0.416 acres, and the city gives CMC another 0.416 acres. As a result of this arrangement, the approved subdivision needs to be revised in order to incorporate those lands subject to the land transfer between the property owner and the City that will result in the reconfiguration of a portion of the Ithaca Community Gardens.

If you look at November’s map and compare to the one above with an eye towards the shaded areas, Lots 1 and 3 were transferred to the city and reduced in size, while Lot 2 was transferred from the city to CMC and expanded accordingly. Thanks for joining this month’s installment of “Brian’s butchering of parcel maps with Microsoft Paint”.

Matt Newcomb of Passero Associates spoke on behalf of the project team and explained the changes to the Planning Board. The gardens will also be getting walkways, fencing and irrigation systems as part of the reconfiguration deal with the developers. As expected, the board had no substantive concerns with the revision, with only Vice Chair Mckenzie Jones inquiring if the non-profit governing board for the gardens had been involved in the discussions (Newcomb responded with “we’ve worked side-by-side with them the whole way”). The revised subdivision passed unanimously.

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.

Rendering of the south elevation of the State Street “Gateway” Apartments. Old render at bottom, new render with changes at top.

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.

The project ran into some trouble with the city Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) earlier this month when the board postponed a vote on a 9-foot height variance (71′ requested, 62′ allowed) because they had concerns about the visual impact of the top floor on the adjacent area. In response to those concerns, the top floor has been stepped back on the creek side six feet from the lower floors in the latest design revisions. The brick veneer was revised to a slightly larger brick, some bedroom balconies were also removed, and the retaining wall was revised to create what the development team described as a more natural look (wood lagging, more landscaping, climbing vines to ride over the wall). The Planning Board’s positive recommendation would help make the case to BZA in July, and if granted, preliminary site plan approval can be sought from the Planning Board later next month.

A group of project team members led by engineer James Trasher of CHA Inc. gave the board an update of the plans, including revised landscaping plans, the bricks, and the design changes, including adding some balconies back given earlier Planning Board feedback. In response to a question about parking, developer Jeff Githens said that the Chain Works property would be used for construction crew parking and for some employees of the Gateway Center, with courtesy shuttle service. Board member Emily Petrina suggested setting aside a few on-site parking spaces for short-term visitors and clients.

“I’m starting to see a little more ‘life’ in the building, I’m feeling warmer about it,” said Vice Chair Jones. She asked about local labor commitments, to which Githens said the plan was a 35% minimum, but expected it to be higher, similar to the 50% local labor component used with City Centre when it was built down the street. Jones also asked about the affordability fund, and Githens responded that they would be paying about $1.7 million in two payments into the city-county-Cornell Community Housing Development Fund for affordable housing. According to Githens, rents in the Gateway building will be similar to City Centre and Harold’s Square, $1,750-$3,000/month depending on size and location.

“The landscape seems okay, but I still want some more information about the pass-through from State Street…that needs to be a signature space,” said board member Mitch Glass. “These are really important, these will be people places for those who don’t live in the building, and they will be used a lot.” The board had some concern that the balconies, which are a narrow “juliet” style, are too limited and modest, which the project team described as a budget-driven change, an “Armageddon of materials and price rises” per Githens.

The board had requests for further renderings and information on details like maintenance of the pass-through walkway and other publicly-accessible areas. As Chair Robert Lewis noted, there didn’t appear to be any big, glaring omissions, just routine information requests.

The project will go back before the BZA in July with the Planning Board’s positive recommendation. If the zoning variance is granted, site plan approvals could potentially be granted at next month’s meeting, provided the further requests for information are provided and deemed satisfactory.

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 in the near future, 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.

Visum Development’s Patrick Braga was back before the board this month as a last-second addition to pitch revised building materials, which have previously been met with a lack of enthusiasm from the planning board, to put it politely. The proposal is now to keep the brick on the ground floor, and metal panels on the sides of the facade facing Route 96B, as the Planning Board wanted. On the top floor, the material would be synthetic stucco (EIFS) finished with a metallic coat of paint. It’s Visum’s hope that the combination of higher-quality material near public view and less expensive materials further from discerning eyes, that the board would be flexible and allow the compromise.

“It’s a great compromise and I’m happy with the proposal,” said board member Emily Petrina. Her colleagues generally agreed. “I’m happy you brought the brick back to the bottom floor,” said Elisabete Godden. “It’s a fine compromise now that you have the brick underneath.”

So on the third try, Visum’s compromise with the board was the lucky charm. The resolution to approve the changes wasn’t ready to go, so no vote could be taken, but once the revised documents are filed, the resolution will be written and voted on next month with little additional debate.

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 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 focusd on Part 3 (the final part) of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), the Determination of Environmental Significance, and the Planning Board recommendation to the BZA for an area variance.

One person, Bike Walk Tompkins’ Hector Chang, spoke in public comment on behalf of the project, commenting that it was a great location to encourage alternative transportation options to personal cars, and the affordable housing providing would be a welcome addition to the city of Ithaca. Historic Ithaca sent a letter regarding 510 West State/MLK Jr. and other projects to encourage that materials be salvaged and recycled wherever possible to limit the waste produced by building removal.

The big issue at this point was less design-related and more about construction noise and vibration impacts. Some neighbors were satisfied, but two were still vociferously opposed, with one of them saying had not been contacted, which Braga disputed fiercely. After a minute or so of detailing the exchanges, Chair Robert Lewis interjected to make clear that the board did not have an interest in getting between the squabble between the developer and one of their neighbors. “The back-and-forth between you and a particular neighbor isn’t within our preview. the impacts about your building and the construction impacts are,” said Lewis.

There was substantial concern regarding mitigations on the pile driving. The development team was considering CMC piles, or “controlled modulus columns”, but not fully committed per architect Brandon Ebel of STREAM Collaborative. While CMC piles are less noisy and produce less vibration than traditional deep pile foundation work (and are more expensive), and vibration monitoring would be deployed, the foundation work would be right on the property line and still pose potential issues to neighbors. From an impacts standpoint, it’s a mitigation, but the question was whether it was enough. Apart from lingering concerns about strategies to mitigate pile driving for the foundation, the board was largely satisfied with the mitigations.

“I generally feel comfortable with the project and design…however, I’m not yet comfortable with the construction piece of it, the noise and vibration. It has to either be a study, or in absence of a quantifiable number, some sort of subsidization of neighbor-tenant rent or workspace,” said Petrina.

“I empathize with the neighbors, but they don’t own the property next door, and I feel that no matter what kind of system is used, they will be impacted, and they will complain just the same with any system of foundation. I don’t think there’s any way to mitigate it,” said Godden. “In 25 years of construction, I’ve never had to negotiate temporary rentals for neighbors…If contractors are meeting state and local regulations, I feel this is a neg dec (negative environmental declaration, meaning effectively mitigated). People will complain no matter what.”

There was a clear divide in the board. Petrina and member Garrick Blalock were not comfortable without further studies or mitigations on foundation work, while Godden was fine with the plans as-shown, Jones was open to it but wanted another month to review and think it over, and Glass was noncommittal. Chair Lewis asked for advice from Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas, who made it clear that they are to make their considerations on what is thought to be effective while practical and reasonable, as well as severity and permanence of impact.

In the end, the board decided to hold off on the SEQR vote for a month, asking for more information on vibration and noise impacts with both conventional and CMC pile driving. If that comes before the board next month and it looks reasonable, the negative declaration is likely. However, it’ll be a month before that determination is made. “I do feel a sense of relief tonight, not having to vote on what I don’t know,” said Lewis.

Commercial Building (KFC, 405 Elmira Road)

The next item on the Planning Board’s Site Plan Review agenda was the plan 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.

Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering les the board through the updates. The changes coming before the board this month were modest, the most notable being planters and railings were installed by the outdoor patio dining area, and some revised green space with red maple trees. Sidewalk easements and trail maintenance to connect to the state’s trails are still being hashed out.

The bright synthetic stucco EIFS facade remains a topic of some debate, particularly for the board’s Mitch Glass, though most of the board had no major issues with it – the color scheme is “fun and whimsy” as Chair Lewis called it. However, the board does want the materials to be good quality with architectural detail, and something that ages well. Jeanne Grace, the city forester, wrote in to ask for more drought-tolerant trees than red maples. The board did not vote on the environmental significance yet as they wanted more information first, but was amenable to supporting the requested zoning variances. The project team can take care of that in the meanwhile, and it’s possible the determination on the environmental review and potential site plan approval may both be done at once next month.

The Ruby (228 Dryden Road)

Next up on the list of Site Plan Review items an apartment project in Collegetown called “The Ruby”. The 40-unit apartment building is being proposed for the eastern end of Inner Collegetown at 228 Dryden Road. The structure, 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. the Public Hearing and Design Review were scheduled for this month’s meeting.

Nathan Brown of HOLT Architects led the board through the latest plans. The building has largely remained the same as before, though the landscaping was revised to reduce the concrete wall size and use more vertical plantings instead of grasses, in this case narrow juniper trees, and shrubs that will flow over the concrete walls. The sidewalk was also widened from 5 feet to 8-9 feet to reduce pressure on the street and create a more welcoming space. It appears the funky purple piano currently mounted on-site will be refurbished and kept on the property (under the arrow in the screenshot above).

There was a snafu on publishing notice of the Public Hearing, so that will be held to next month while public comment would be taken now. The only comments were from staff of nearby St. Luke’s, who wanted vibration monitors in the church to ensure their foundation wouldn’t be damaged during construction, and a neighbor with questions about retaining walls.

The board was generally satisfied with the plan, calling it a handsome building and a very nice design. Multiple members complimented the pullback from the sidewalk. The board did make clear, though, they want a closer look at the other sides of the building, with better visuals, and more greenery would be appreciated. The board was comfortable with the design and the project appears to be on a smooth path forward, and will be back for further review next month.

Cliff Street Retreat (407 Cliff Street)

As readers may remember, developer Linc Morse’s plans to renovate the soon-to-be-vacated Incodema manufacturing plant into a mixed-use building have already received a high level of scrutiny because he had to apply for a Planned Unit Development to allow the R3a-zoned facility (the industrial use was grandfathered in as legally non-conforming) to host the wide mix of uses requested. The plan is to convert a 25,297 SF industrial building into a multi‐use building which will include long and short‐term residential rentals, small conference and lounge spaces office, and retail.

Now that the PUD has been granted, the nitty-gritty of Planning Board Site Plan Review can commence. Per the filing, the renovated building will comply with 2020 NYS building code and the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement. Site improvements include new building facades, more well‐defined parking areas, landscaping, dark‐sky compliant site lighting, street facing entries, and garden/terrace spaces facing the hillside. The $4.5 million project would start in August if all goes well pre-development, with a February 2022 completion. For June, the Planning Board was only expected to begin the environmental review by Declaring itself Lead Agency.

Architect Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative walked the Planning Board through the plans, which has largely stayed the same since first proposed, though the interior uses continue to be tweaked to reflect what they think will work best. The board was supportive of the plans and had nothing but praise for the design, especially the rear decks and the bridge to the Black Diamond Trail. There is some work to be done with providing more information about potential curb cut changes as well as additional drawings, but this is looking like it’ll be a fairly uncomplicated site plan review process. Declaration of Lead Agency passed unanimously.

Infill Housing, 615-617 Cascadilla Street

Last up on the Site Plan Review agenda for June is a West End infill housing project the Voice first shared news of at the end of last month. Local developer and landlord Stavros Stavropoulos proposes to demolish an existing two‐story residential house and then construct four buildings each with two 3‐bedroom units, for a total of eight rental apartments. The plans stretch across two zones – the required off‐street parking will occupy the commercial/mixed-use WEDZ‐1b area of the parcel, while each of the four duplexes will be in the R-2b residential zoning. The project includes other site amenities such as lighted walks, covered bike parking, and landscaping. Vehicle access will be on North Meadow Street and existing curb cuts on Cascadilla Street will be removed. Pedestrian and bike traffic will access the site from Cascadilla Street and North Meadow Street.

This is a small-scale infill project in an area that’s seen a fair amount of redevelopment in recent years, and unlikely to ruffles neighbors’ feathers all that much (Stavropoulos’ preferred mode of development is modest, unobtrusive infill). With that in mind, Site Plan Review should be fairly straightforward. The Declaration of Lead Agency and Public Hearing were scheduled for this month’s Planning Board meeting, but due to issues getting the Public Hearing notice out, it was reduced to Declaration of Lead Agency only.

Architect Daniel R. Hirtler provided the overview of the plans – he’s done most of Stavropoulos’s infill builds, so this is standard procedure for him. The board started with unanimous Declaration of Lead Agency. The board wanted to see materials and contextual elevations with neighboring houses, but felt the scale and design was appropriate for the location and supportive of the project overall.

“You’ve done a really nice job creating an interior space that looks quite interesting, and the architecture looks really nice…good start,” said the board’s Mitch Glass.

“This is the third project I’ve seen from years that’s done a good job finding underutilized spaces and putting housing in there…fourth, actually. In keeping with the Comprehensive Plan, it scores very highly,” said the board’s Garrick Blalock.

With the usual requests for more information, the project received positive feedback and will be back next month.

Other Business

The only Zoning Appeals to be considered were the 510 West State/MLK Jr. and 495 Elmira Road/KFC plans, so there was nothing separate to consider with this month’s meeting. The primary piece of remaining business three hours in was a request for comment about plans to expand the East Hill Historic District. As previously covered, it’s largely small office and residential space for a group of 19th century structures. It’s suspected they were left out of the original creation of the district due to property owner pushback, which is also an issue now, with a law office threatening to sue the city over it if they move forward.

The board’s Blalock, who’s always been cautious on infringing on owner rights, said he was agnostic about the proposal and encouraged the rest of the board to take that approach. Glass disagreed somewhat, wanting to protect good building from inappropriate additions, though acknowledging more regulation isn’t always the best approach. The board saw value in the nineteen buildings involved and per Chair Lewis “they were comfortable with it”, with no objections to the expansion.

On a procedural note, with planner Nikki Cerra, the board discussed areas where paperwork and filings could potentially be streamlined in site plan review, to make life easier for applicants. Cerra mentioned early work on guidelines for acceptable native plantings and biorentention-friendly plantings for ideas, as well as a guide for how materials might be salvaged and how to determine if they were worth salvaging from buildings to be torn down. It’ll be a months-long effort, but the board is amenable to anything that will make their task easier moving forward.

Brian Crandall

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