ITHACA, N.Y. — Some meetings are short and sweet. Other meetings are drawn out with controversy over hotly-contested but important topic matters. Last night’s City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) meeting was the latter. This is a hefty agenda with a number of discussion items, and therefore this is a write-up. Pour yourself a cool beverage, pull up the 283-page agenda if you’re so inclined, and dive in to last night’s recap below.
Buffalo/Court Street Traffic Couplet Update
Initially this was the last topic in the agenda, but at the request of staff from the New York State Department of Transportation who would be presenting this item, this was moved up to become the first item for discussion. Let’s get up to speed – since last fall, the city and NYSDOT have battled 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 larger traffic study before committing to the DOT’s couplet proposal, and for the various West End and waterfront developments to proceed.
Meanwhile, the developers of Cayuga Park were requested by the city and DOT to pay for their engineering consultant, SRF Associates, to create a plan to mitigate increased traffic in the project area. The draft proposal by SRF Associates was given to planners, who first presented it to PEDC last month.
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 Alternative “1”, shown in the diagram above, is the starting point for everything that was discussed last night.
PEDC members expressed concerns last month that neither proposal would provide a significant improvement, so this month DOT and the developer’s traffic engineer were present to explain the traffic analyses, with a Q&A session and simulations to show the committee. In an unusual and fairly well-managed hybrid setup, NYSDOT staff and the traffic engineers from SRF Associates were present via Zoom, while the PEDC and city traffic engineer Eric Hathaway were present in-person at City Hall.
NYS DOT Program Manager Dave Smith explained what’s led to this point – Carpenter/Cayuga Park was the springboard, but the issue has been brewing for a while as traffic into Ithaca grew along Route 13. Absent significant improvements to Route 13 for greater capacity, other mitigations have to be considered, and his colleague, engineer Scott Bates, explained that the city is near safe capacity at peak hour volumes, and traffic signal timing adjustments, the usual first step to solve congestion, are of limited effect here due to short blocks, the railroad, and high pedestrian traffic. Increased vehicle capacity (more lanes) would work, but that’s counter to the city’s vision to accommodate other transit like pedestrians and bicyclists. SRF Associates’ Amy Dake then led the board through an explanation of “Alternative 1” and its design features, which are designed to limit the traffic movements that are most likely to result in right-angle (“T-Bone”) crashes at the West Buffalo/North Fulton and West Buffalo/Taughannock intersections and rear end crashes approaching those intersections.
DOT modeling by Bates using pre-COVID vehicle count data showed modest to substantial operational improvements in traffic movements with the proposed traffic pattern changes, which are primarily on the 700 Block of West Buffalo Street. Bates also ran evening rush hour (i.e. heaviest travel hour) simulations of traffic with modeled individual vehicle movements showing the heavy congestion with no changes, and improvements to flow, if still somewhat congested, with the traffic pattern changes proposed by Alternative “1”.
Of course, the question became whether city councilors believed it. Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st Ward) cocked a smile and called the model “cute” as she opened her questions. She stated concerns with traffic at West Seneca and Taughannock, and that people going from the hamlet of Mecklenburg to the village of Trumansburg would have to go around the block, though SRF’s Dake responded that that traffic movement is very uncommon – the DOT’s Bates added that it would be 18 vehicles out of 2,000 in the peak hour.
“I know these intersections intimately. The use of private property (parking lots) to avoid those turns is quite common….I appreciate the interest in reducing the accident at Buffalo and Fulton, I’m concerned that the anxiety and stress level will be transferred to other intersections,” said Brock. Her West Hill ward colleague, George McGonigal (D-1st), agreed. He expressed additional concerns about impacts to businesses and nearby residents, and that the changes to Buffalo would decrease bike safety on West Court Street, because they might overshoot Buffalo and use Court Street for their travels. Councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th) had concerns with spillover into surrounding residential areas and bike safety.
It was clear that PEDC still had reservations about the plan even with the modeling, though there was some comfort taken by the federally-funded citywide traffic study in the works. “I don’t think anyone’s particularly thrilled by this proposal, but this being tied into the waterfront…I think like everybody, that we’re just asking too much of Seneca Street. All of that said, we need to decide whether to circulate, or say we’re not interested in this,” said PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd).
The vote to circulate for comment by the public and city staff passed unanimously if unenthusiastically. When it comes back in August, they can review comments received and decide whether or not to send to the full Common Council for final approval.
Special Order of Business: IURA Citizen Participation Plan
Next up on last night’s agenda were a pair of Special Orders of Business. In PEDC meetings, Special Orders of Business usually come in the form of Public Hearings where the public can comment before the PEDC discusses the topics amongst themselves and decides with a vote whether or not to send the item in question along to the full Common Council for a vote of final approval.
More specifically to last night were a pair of agenda items related to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA). One was the “IURA 4th Amendment to the IURA Citizen Participation Plan”, the other being the naming of a preferred developer for the city-owned parking lot on the 400 Block of Taughannock Boulevard on Inlet Island.
As IURA Executive Director Nels Nohn explained, the IURA Plan is fairly straightforward once you break down the formal “whereas” clauses. In response to COVID and the need to socially distance, federal HUD gave municipalities flexibility in how they held public meetings on disbursing grant funds. The emergency waiver allowed communities to reduce the public comment period from 30 days to 5 days, and allowed virtual meetings so long as the public could comment via email, video or in-person. That allowed grant dollars to be administered to projects and program more quickly, which the city of Ithaca liked. The temporary IURA amendment to accommodate the HUD waiver expires at the end of this month, but the HUD waiver is still in effect, so the amendment allows the city to continue with expedited comment periods and virtual meetings so long as the feds allow it.
There was no one who wanted to speak for the public hearing on the IURA Citizen Participation Plan amendment, and following a quick question from councilor Brock asking if it has been in fact useful (Bohn said it had been), the PEDC passed the amendment unanimously, sending it to council for final approval at their August meeting.
Special Order of Business: Inlet Island Preferred Developer
The other IURA action item relates to Common Council’s in the redevelopment of the city-owned parking lot on Inlet Island. The IURA’s Economic Development Committee has scored the three proposals received to the city’s Request For Expressions of Interest and named Finger Lakes Development as the top scorer, and the IURA’s Executive Board reviewed and named them preferred developer.
For a quick refresher, the $40.19 million Finger Lakes Development plan consists of two five-story buildings, called “the Stays,” a 78-90 bed extended-stay ‘hometel’ concept, and “the Anchor,” would be developed in partnership with INHS and provide 50-56 affordable housing units (30-120 percent area median income, but mostly in the 50-60 percent AMI range). The Finger Lakes Boating Center would be retained, and a new pedestrian bridge will link the Inlet Island site to the proposed Agora neighborhood, and parking facilities would be shared with the Agora project. An extended and improved Cayuga Waterfront Trail would wrap around the north side of the Inlet and provided green space would host picnic lawns, a dog park, a playground for young children, and public seating. The existing Coast Guard Auxiliary building would remain in place and be improved to serve boaters and provide educational programming. There are 225 parking spaces included on-site as part of the mixed-use development.
With the IURA having made its decision, now comes Common Council’s part. Only council can transfer city-owned land to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. Later on in the process, only council can permit the IURA to sell to the developer once negotiations are complete and both sides are satisfied. In short, Common Council has to review this twice. The first is the environmental review of the transfer itself (the Planning Board will review the project), which is also an agreement to the project in concept. The second review and vote is for the authorization of sale following negotiations on the final project plan, which will have already been approved by the Planning Board by that time.
This is just that first vote, where the PEDC reviews and decides whether to send to the full Common Council for approval of transfer only. Two parcels are already in IURA possession, three more can be transferred to the IURA by the city, and the last, the Coast Guard Auxiliary building, is owned by New York State (the state is open to turning the property over to the city subject to negotiations).
There were two speakers in the public hearing. Frequent PEDC visitor Theresa Alt spoke of her disappointment that the project did not have more workforce housing included, and stated that she favored the competing Visum proposal because it offered the most affordable housing, while the often-fiery Fay Gougakis said she felt everything going on development-wise was too much. Heading into the discussion portion of the meeting, IURA Economic Development Committee member and former councilor Chris Proulx walked PEDC through the history of the process, and Fingerlakes Development Group’s Steve Flash gave the committee a presentation about its project, or as close to a presentation as Adobe PDF would allow between crashes.
If the council wanted to really shape or even halt the plans, this would be the time to do it, before thousands of more dollars are spent fleshing out plans, and city staff-hours are spent reviewing them. Chair Murtagh said he liked INHS was involved and the pedestrian access, but was concerned about all the parking and a lack ground-floor active uses, feeling like it reduced its value as an attraction. Councilor Lewis was also happy to see INHS involved and felt it a “perfect spot” for workforce housing, but also had concerns about the amount of parking and active uses on the ground level. In response, Flash said they could explore commercial uses in the Coast Guard Auxiliary building, but relied on seasonal uses like food trucks and the activity on the flood control channel itself.
Councilor Brock, usually more development averse than her colleagues, said she appreciated job creation opportunities and the recreational spaces on the water and in the property, but questioned how environmental cleanup costs would be handled and the financial benefits for the city. The IURA’s Bohn said the developer is responsible for cleanup of the half-acre of contaminated land formerly used for bulk fuel storage, but in return those costs come out of the purchase price. According to Bohn, the cleanup will cost at least $700,000.
Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd) liked the housing, the coast guard remaining on-site, and liked by the “hometel” concept, and overall she was generally pleased with the plans. However, she was uncertain what the “draw” would be, and whether retail or restaurant space was needed to bring in local residents. Councilor Lewis noted some concerns had been raised by the size of the apartment and hometel buildings, both five floors, to which Flash said was in part the result of having to cover site cleanup costs and the poor soils, which makes expensive deep foundations more of a necessity even with smaller buildings, so they build taller to compensate. Flash responded that the city is willing to go with a reduced price or fewer demands, they could do a smaller project. INHS’s Joe Bowes struck a similar tone, that their building’s size was dependent in part on the cost of the city’s demands for the site – the more expensive the demands, the more of a financial need to go bigger and spread the costs out among more apartments.
McGonigal, noting that the first Common Council meeting he ever attended was when the council halted Flash’s hotel project on the site in 2008, said that he appreciated that Steve Flash was “a townie who loves the waterfront” and that INHS was involved. He also liked all the parking. However, as he’s stated for months, McGonigal felt all the proposals and all of this proposal’s components were too big. He also added that the plans didn’t have enough space for small businesses, adding that he felt a second restaurant was needed on Inlet Island. His ward counterpart Brock agreed, adding that the proposal seemed to be “missed potential”.
As they often do on development matters, councilor Steve Smith (D-4th) disagreed with McGonigal. “The trends of the last fifty years have gotten us where we are with traffic, the suburban sprawl…Not having enough housing in the city and enough ways to get around the city absent a car is what’s gotten us where we are with traffic. More development in the city will…get us away from car-centric culture and clogging our streets with more vehicles.”
Brock stressed that now was the time for council to decide whether they comfortable with the plans. As noted before, trying to change it months from now and so late in the process would be unfair to everyone involved. Brock wanted to slow down and give the public a chance to comment. But as Planning Director JoAnn Cornish explained, while there are concept plans, they are not final plans, and making an oblique reference to a project years ago (to this reporter, it sounded suspiciously like State Street Triangle), she didn’t want people to freak out over a design that was only a concept, when the focus at this point should be on the proposed uses like the housing, hometel and public amenities.
Expressing comfort with the concept and a strong interest to move on in a busy meeting, Murtagh called the vote to send to council. It passed 4-1, with Brock opposed. The IURA land transfer approval will be before the full Common Council in August.
401 East State Street Easements
Let’s start with a quick definition – an easement is a legal right to use another person’s property. At 401 East State Street, the city has an easement allowing for pedestrian access and a storm drain, and therefore legal rights in what happens with that property and any redevelopment that occurs. McKinley Development is proposing a six-story parking garage and apartment building that would require a reconfiguration of the easements. The developer is offering to complete the Six Mile Creek trail and railing and extend it 150 feet eastward as well as provide the replacement easements (pedestrian stairs and drainage) as part of the deal for the city to release its rights on the current easement and allow the reconfiguration to occur. In the image above, the two thin red lines are the current easements, and the blue shaded areas would be the new easements.
As it involves giving up real estate rights directly and not a transfer as in the case of the IURA earlier, the release and reconfiguration of the easement will require a supermajority approval from council, eight of ten members.
Councilor Brock asked about the blue square, which according to Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas, it is an easement for a pedestrian bridge from East State Street to an entrance of the new building. Other than Councilor Fleming’s strong fear of what the parking situation is going to look like, there was little additional comment, and the easement reconfiguration passed unanimously, heading to the Common Council meeting next month.
Dryden Road Garage Wall Mural
Further on in last night’s agenda was a proposal for a new wall mural inside the Dryden Road Garage in Collegetown. The work, proposed for a blank interior wall on the first floor of the garage and crafted by artist and Cornell student Yerke Abuova, is intended to honor those who have passed from the COVID-19 pandemic and express support for the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Community.
Abuova’s family is originally from the central Asian country of Kazakhstan, and the two figures are Abuova’s grandmother, who passed away from COVID-19 in Kazakhstan, and her best friend’s grandfather, who passed away from COVID-19 here in the United States. “By depicting them with wings and surrounded by an angel garden, I am showing their peaceful and happy transition to heaven and the mural would serve as a memorial for them and their families,” wrote Abuova to the PEDC.
Councilor Brock led off the discussion with her qualified reluctance to support the mural. ‘I think it’s a wonderful idea, I would love to see a mural or some art installation to recognize all those who have passed from COVID, and I support the intent that was laid out in the description here. I am hesitant to support this for several reasons. Typically when we memorialize an individual they are individuals who are known in our community and…I don’t want to say warranted, but there is an attribution as to why they are being honored on city property. In that sense, I am hesitant to have an image of an individual who is not tied to the community, or these individuals. Also, the Kazakh community is predominately Muslim (about 70%), and the Muslim community is reticent to have a person presented in art form. I support the intent, but portraying images of individuals on city property…”
“I understand what you’re getting at, but…we have lots and lots of mural throughout he city with images that don’t necessarily reflect people that we know,” said Planning Director Cornish.
“This is the personal expression of an individual artist. I think, in general, we’re doing what the public art program allows us to do, which is to allow artists to express themselves,” said Murtagh.
“I think it’s very sweet,” said Fleming. “It can only make the garage look better.”
The vote to send the mural to council for final approval passed 4-1 with Brock opposed.
Ithaca Housing Authority Property Ownership Transfer
The Ithaca Housing Authority is planning to transfer ownership of three apartment complexes from public housing to a mixed private-public partnership. The Northside Apartments, Overlook Terrace on West Hill, and the Southview Gardens Apartments in Southside would be moved from IHA’s sole control, and into a public-private partnership between the IHA and 3d Development Group LLC.
As previously reported, the Ithaca Housing Authority (IHA) is partnering with 3d Development Group for a complete tear-down and replacement of its dilapidated 70-unit low-to-moderate income housing complex in Ithaca’s Northside neighborhood for a new 82-unit affordable housing development. 3d Development Group is footing the bill for the reconstruction of the Northside Apartments, as well as renovations to the Overlook and Southview complexes. So basically, the IHA is selling a percentage of its ownership in three apartment complexes it owns to 3d Development Group, who in return will pay to reconstruct the Northside Apartments and renovate the other two. That’s their “payment” in order to have that co-ownership with the IHA, which receives much needed property reinvestment in return. This public-private approach has its pros and cons, but regardless the Common Council must sign off on the ownership transfer.
Chair Murtagh asked about the plans to relocate people for construction, and IHA staff explained it would be that they were working with tenants for staged movement. Most tenants would have priority to return when the new apartments are complete, all they would have to do is apply to the new units and they’d be accepted. However, six households making above 60% area median income would not be able to return because they make above the income limit, and IHA was working with them to find housing. The project cannot begin until everyone has been safely relocated.
The PEDC voted to send the action item to approve ownership transfer to the August Common Council meeting unanimously.
East Hill Historic District Expansion
Another item before the PEDC last night was a proposed expansion of the East Hill Historic District. The proposed expansion involves 19 properties on East Court Street, Linn Street and North Aurora Street, which were built from the 1830s to the early 1930s. Now, this is not a decision process they take lightly, as it comes with pros and cons. The obvious pro is it helps maintain architectural integrity of a neighborhood deemed to be of significant cultural, architectural or aesthetic value. The con is that every bit of exterior work, or interior work readily visible from the outside, has to be approved by city staff—or if more substantial in scale, like a new porch or stair railing, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC). This means authentic or appropriate replica materials or designs worthy of their approval. These historically accurate materials and complementary designs are often more expensive than a regular renovation or home project, and have at times been described as tools for accelerating gentrification and displacement of lower-income homeowners. In short, you have increased labor costs, and the possible gentrification effect to consider.
In outreach to the owners of the properties involved, it’s clear that opinions run the full spectrum. Some are happily in favor of the expansion, and others are incensed; a law firm that owns one of the properties is threatening to sue the city if they go ahead with it. Groups like Historic Ithaca are in total support, while the aforementioned law firm told the Planning Department that “Historic Ithaca is not a welcome parasite”. As with many planning and development issues in Ithaca, the historic preservation debate can be rather acrimonious.
Anyway, the ILPC has stated its support for the expansion, and the Planning Board hasn’t identified any issues from its perspective, so its now it’s up to PEDC and Common Council to decide whether the expansion of the East Hill Historic District becomes reality. City Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken practically wrote a novel detailing the histories of each of the buildings.
Councilor Fleming asked about the rationale for designating all 19 rather than just a few of the more special buildings. McCracken acknowledged that some of the 19 are not as spectacular looking, but said that the concentration of buildings, their association with significant people, and their historic architectural elements made them worthy – they have greater value as a grouping rather than individually. The PEDC was generally in favor of the proposal and voted unanimously to circulate the historic district expansion, which will be back in front of PEDC next month for potential forwarding to Common Council.