ITHACA, N.Y.—For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns began in March of last year, the City of Ithaca Planning Board met in-person to conduct their monthly meeting.

What a meeting it was—arguably one of the longest agendas they’ve had since before COVID at the least. A fair estimate is about $100 million worth of projects, a little retail but mostly residential, with over 500 housing units in some stage of site plan review last night.

Regardless, a jampacked agenda still must be covered item by item—in other words, grab a cup of coffee or tea and dive in, because this is going to be a longer write-up. For those who like reading material to accompany their play-by-play, a link to the 222-page agenda is here.

Quick aside, three of the members were absent, which is fairly rare, and barely quorum. Chair Robert Lewis as well as members Garrick Blalock and Elisabete Godden were absent, with Vice Chair Mckenzie Jones, Mitch Glass, Emily Petrina and C.J. Randall in attendance for the lengthy meeting.

Special Permits

The first major item on the agenda this month was a Special Permit, which is uncommon but can be triggered for unusual property uses in certain zones, usually lower-density residential areas. In this case, it was 201 East Tompkins Street in Fall Creek. Most Creekers are familiar with this building as Tony Serviente’s artisanal glass studio, which it’s been for the past 25 or so years. However, Serviente is moving his business and has a replacement occupant lined up for 2,569 square feet of the ground floor commercial space: a fitness studio by wife-and-husband local gym coaches Jana Leyden and Andy Lonsky.

Being a commercial use in a lower-density residential neighborhood (R-2b) requires a Special Permit, even if it’s already used as a commercial space. As one tends to expect with Fall Creek, about two dozen emails were received about the proposal, the majority in favor, and a few opposed because they feel a fitness studio would make too much noise in the morning and parking, to which Serviente and the gym owners note the building was heavily soundproofed a decade ago, they did sound testing in the past few days with the neighbors present, and Serviente has hosted small group glass art classes for years without parking issues. The gym would host classes of up to one dozen people up to four times per day, and a total of 23 classes per week, with the exercise portions of the class less than 20 minutes (there is also training and coaching, but those won’t have music playing).

The board has to run through the full gamut of environmental review, public hearing and site plan review, though the modest nature of most Special Permits usually makes it a quick process. The Public Hearing had just one speaker, the Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council’s Fernando de Aragon, speaking in his personal capacity about concerns about parking and additional cross-traffic on Utica Street, and neighbor Tom Blecher had his parking and noise concerns read into the record, saying he would have never bought in Fall Creek if there was a fitness studio nearby. Several audience members were in attendance for the project, but did not speak.

“I’m really interested in preserving the environment of the neighborhood,” said Serviente to the board. “I would never choose a tenant that would bring chaos to the neighborhood.”

“Our plan is not to try and grow beyond what the neighborhood can sustain,” added Leyden, noting they expected to have no more than 100 members total.

The board had sympathy for the neighbors’ concerns, but generally supported the plan. Petrina called it a perfect fit for the site and neighborhood, noting that she’d worked on projects in that area and she had never observed parking issues with the art studio. Glass called it a nice use and agreed that it was compatible, feeling that the sound testing done by Serviente was compelling evidence. Vice Chair Jones, who lives nearby, acknowledged traffic impacts but felt that, like Gimme! Coffee and other small neighborhood businesses, it would fit in, and the permit could be revoked if the studio wasn’t meeting its approval conditions, such as not violating the noise ordinance. Reconsideration would be triggered by neighbor complaints.

With some tweaking of the conditions to emphasize noise constraints and limiting class size and music volume, the Special Permit was granted 4-0.

Subdivision Review

Next up were lot subdivision reviews—these are when property lots in the city, legally known as parcels, seek some kind of reconfiguration, either to be split up, reshaped or consolidated. These tend to move quickly through the board, because they aren’t physical changes that trigger an in-depth review.

This month, there was only one subdivision on the agenda, and it has to deal with the 300+ unit apartment building and parking garage planned for 401 East State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street. McKinley Development is buying the 3.689-acre property from Travis Hyde Properties, and once they do they intend to split it into four parcels. Parcel A is 0.112 acres along E. State/MLK Jr. Street and will be deeded to the city of Ithaca. Parcel B is 0.09 acres and will be deeded to Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity for their Jewels Heritage memorial park. Parcel C, measuring
1.048 acres with approximately 182 feet of frontage on E. Green and E. State/MLK Jr. Streets will contain the Gateway Center office building, parking, and a portion of the Gateway Trail. Lastly, Parcel D, measuring 2.641 acres with approximately 184 feet of frontage on E. State Street, will host the new building, a portion of the Gateway Trail, and a fire access road. A cross‐property easement will be required for
vehicular access to ingress and egress on E. State and Green Streets.

This month, the subdivision was up for its public hearing and preliminary project approval—Common Council has to sign off on the easements, so final approval can’t be granted just yet.

Brian Bouchard of CHA Inc. walked the board through the subdivision application. No one cared to speak for its Public Hearing, but Vice Chair Jones did have concerns that the new building on Parcel “D” might be too close to Parcel “B”s property line. Bouchard said they were working with Alpha Phi Alpha to resolve concerns, and a public way easement (a no-build area) between the developer, fraternity and the city was being hashed out.

Acknowledging there would be more questions during Site Plan Review later, Jones said she was comfortable with the subdivision itself. Adding a condition to note that the subdivision was contingent on the site plan and fire separation space for the new building, preliminary subdivision approval was granted 4-0.

Site Plan Review

Now we come to the primary component of the agenda, the Site Plan Review (SPR). Site Plan Review is where the review of new building proposals happens. In the interest of not pushing ten pages of material, if you want a description of the steps in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” is here.

During SPR, the Planning Board looks at sketch plans, declares itself lead agency for state environmental quality review (SEQR), conducts a review and declares negative (adverse effects mitigated) or positive (potential harmful impacts, needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while concurrently performing design review for projects in certain neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all good and finished, they vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval.

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

The first site plan up for review was McKinley Development Company’s proposal for a six-story, roughly 340,000 square-foot apartment building with a 267‐space internal parking garage and somewhere between 326-356 apartments with an ever-changing mix 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 Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) variance request still needs to be approved (last month’s meeting was delayed). In rare cases like BZA meeting delays, the Planning Board can grant preliminary approval. Final Site Plan Approval can’t be granted until the variance is granted and Common Council agrees to reconfigured easements on the property, as noted in the subdivision application.

Emphasizing the need for material samples, additional imagery and detailed landscaping documentation, the board was willing to grant preliminary approval, and it passed 4-0. Contingent on some additional paperwork and the blessings of the BZA and Common Council, the project is near its finish line.

Plans for the entrance gate and garden sheds at the reconfigured Ithaca Community Gardens.

Carpenter Circle Project / Cayuga Park

This project has already received a form of final site plan approval last September and the medical office building for Cayuga Medical Center is just getting underway. However, that first phase of approvals only covered the medical building and the 42-unit low-moderate income housing, to be called the “Market View Apartments”. The Ithaca Community Gardens have to come forward for a separate set of approvals for their final site plan. The 2.1-acre garden site includes a revised layout, new fencing, structures for storage (two 8’x8′ sheds), a little event pavilion and other site amenities.

Ithaca Community Gardens President Marty Hiller joined the board for a walkthrough of the plans. The acoustic fence had been removed and the basic and enhanced fences were tweaked to have a tighter steel mesh (the screening fence along the compost areas will be steel reinforced red cedar wood). A shed was reoriented, a second handwashing station was added, and the entrance road was revised. Concrete pads for weed control, rainwater collection facilities and the event pavilion will be built at a later time.

“I’m excited that the gardens get to thrive and grow a little bit,” said Jones. The board had few questions and worries for Hiller, and approved the new gardens 4-0.

Outlook Apartments (815 S. Aurora Street)

Visum Development and Modern Living Rentals’ South Hill project was originally approved a while back 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.

Quick side note, neighbors are suing Visum to try and stop the project, and the case will be heard by the NYS Court of Appeals in Albany next month. If the project is halted by the courts, expect an article. However, that is outside the scope of the Planning Board’s agenda for this month.

After a couple visits to the Planning Board to pitch facade changes to lower the construction costs, the developer and board eventually settled on keeping the brick at ground level and metal panels on the face facing South Aurora/96B, while being allowed to substitute cheaper synthetic stucco (EIFS, often pronounced ‘ee-fiss’) for the top floor that’s not as visible from the street. This is the formal request for approval so Visum can continue forward with construction.

Architect Noah Demarest and Visum Vice-President Patrick Braga were present to speak on behalf of the project. Demarest said that the upper-floor EIFS would be scored to appear brick-like. The board, having discussed the changes before, had little to add, satisfied with the compromise. The changes passed unanimously 4-0.

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, both aesthetically and with the foundation work, which requires deep piles where the installation will have to be carefully monitored given proximity to neighboring buildings. 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 was the decision on the Determination of Environmental Significance, and the recommendation to the BZA for their planned review of the project next month.

As desired by the board, the less invasive CMC (controlled modulus column) deep pile foundation system will be used. The project will comply with the city’s Green Building Policy. The board was satisfied and granted a negative declaration on environmental review (mitigations effective) unanimously. As for the BZA recommendation, the board felt the request was logical to keep the floors level between different zones, and was supportive. The project will likely return next month pending BZA variance approval for site plan approval.

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. With zoning variance approved, the project is in the home stretch of the SPR process, with a consideration of design changes on the agenda, and preliminary and final site plan approval, which would allow construction permits to be granted.

The design changes are the addition of a black brick “water mark” on the lower part of the facade for visual interest, and changing the synthetic stucco (EIFS) on the front face of the building for higher quality 3″ thick white brick. Red maples planned in the landscaping were also substituted with more drought-tolerant maple varieties.

Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering presented the changes to the board, and aesthetic changes this late in the site plan process can delay approvals, so there was some initial questioning as to whether they’d actually get it last night. However, the board was enthusiastic about the changes. Petrina really liked the white brick, and Glass wanted grey stripes on the building’s rear flanks to reduce visual impact, but was otherwise fine with the design.

With that, the board held its vote. With an added condition to at least consider grey stripes, a return trip to discuss the signage package, and contingent on BZA approval of their zoning variance (one again the board usually waits to grant approval until after a variance is granted, but the BZA delay is not the applicant’s fault, and the board was fairly certain it’d be granted in this case), the board was ready to vote on preliminary and final Site Plan Approval, and passed it 4-0. With any luck, your “finger-lickin’ chicken” will be served up by the end of the year.

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 lot coverage and 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 a continuation of the environmental review (the Full Environmental Assessment Form Parts 2 and 3) were on the to-do list for this month’s meeting.

Architect Nathan Brown spoke about the proposal, noting that nothing major has changed and only minor tweaks have been made since last month. Brown spoke about which trees will be protected and removed, the addition of vines and creeping greenery to soften the concrete retaining walls, and noted the “funky purple piano” will be preserved. The project is attempting to add multiple benches into the streetscape to make the building’s presence feel more inviting. First-floor units will have a rear yard patio space.

The board opened the public hearing for The Ruby and had one speaker, St. Luke’s treasurer Jim Hedlund. Hedlund wanted vibration monitors installed in St. Luke’s during construction so as to make sure the project doesn’t damage the church’s foundation. Hedlund has made this request of other nearby projects and it’s something developers have readily accommodated. Brown said that the project will use both spread footers and helical deep piles that don’t vibrate as they’re installed, but they will have monitoring installed, “we will be good neighbors”.

The board needs time to review the engineering report for the building and site, and wanted additional renders from street level to ascertain the “human scale” of it, as well as the construction staging plan. Petrina also raised concerns about where trash bins would sit on garbage day, to make sure it doesn’t spill over into public walkways. Overall, the prospects of approval by early fall are looking good, though the project will also need to contend with the BZA.

Cliff Street Retreat (407 Cliff Street)

As readers may remember, developer Linc Morse’s plans to renovate the 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 July, the Planning Board planned to host the Public Hearing and move along on the environmental review (as with the Ruby, tonight’s focus was on the Full Environmental Assessment Form Parts 2 and 3).

The major modification for the plan was the addition of two rental cottages on the north end of the property, 1.5-story gable-roofed rentals to soften the physical edge between the former Incodema building and houses to the north. Morse said he intends to take up residence in the property and be its on-site manager.

The Public Hearing had one speaker, West Hill resident and urban planner George Frantz, who was opposed to the plans, citing neighborhood incompatibilities (a mixed-use project in a largely residential area), traffic concerns, and that the project is not in accordance with the city Comprehensive Plan. Frantz had stated in written comments that denser residential uses would be more fitting for the property.

“This is an entirely local development team. We are stakeholders here, we’re locals,” said Morse. “What we’re proposing is really nice. It checks a lot of boxes for adaptive reuse.”

“Why tear something down just to build something bigger and newer? It just seems like our concept and our ideas are fitting with the neighborhood,” said architect Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative.

“The goal is to make use of the embodied energy of this building and make use of what (the building) is,” added his colleague Demarest.

“We tend to agree,” said Vice Chair Jones. Following some discussions about traffic, efforts to address neighborhood concerns, tree management and removal, and environmental mitigations, the board was generally comfortable with the plans as presented. More materials are required in order to complete environmental review, which may happen next month.

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 walkways, 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. Once again, last night’s plans called for the Planning Board to host the Public Hearing and walk through the Full Environmental Assessment Form Parts 2 and 3, with no decision-making planned this month. As you folks have probably figured out by now, Parts 2 and 3 are the more arduous parts of the FEAF process, and for the viewing public it often involves staring awkwardly at Planning Board members as they read through planned mitigations.

Stavropoulos was joined in front of the board by his architect, Daniel Hirtler. The siding will be fiber cement lap boards, in grey and harvest gold. Hirtler likes to work subtle architectural details into his designs, for instance the gables and windows bays, to add character and better blend with older homes. Stormwater plans drain away from the street to the rear yard.

The Public Hearing opened and closed without comment, and the board begin to dig into the environmental review forms. “I continue to like the project. I’m not totally excited about the elevations of 617 (Cascadilla), I feel better about 615. The 617 window openings look very small to me, and quite fragmented,” said Glass.

“I would prefer to find elements and I would be happy to take input as to what people would like to see that aren’t windows facing Route 13, because the roar of the traffic will certainly not be attractive in any way to the use of a house,” said Hirtler. The board asked Hirtler to see if they could give the western face of 617 Cascadilla a more residential feel.

“This part of town needs a TLC, I look forward to seeing the improvements,” said Vice Chair Jones. The project will be back before the board next month.

325 Dryden Road

Last on the long list of Site Plan Review items is a new proposal before the Planning Board, plans for a 13-unit, 31-bed apartment building to be built on the southwest corner of Dryden Road and Elmwood Avenue on the edge of the Collegetown and Belle Sherman neighborhoods. The Voice first broke news of this project earlier this month.

This project will be a more complicated review for a few reasons. It’s a transition space between larger apartment buildings and single-family homes. 325 Dryden Road will require several area variances, including lot coverage by buildings, the minimum amount for green space per lot basis, rear yard setback, and parking. The proposed design will provide six parking spaces, whereas zoning requires 13 parking spaces. It is also subject to Collegetown Design Guidelines. For now, the board was only expected to Declare itself Lead Agency for environmental review.

Developers Greg Mezey and Chris Petrillose went up to the applicant’s table, joined by their architect, Jason Demarest of JKD Architecture. Demarest led the board through a presentation about the site and the building design, his specialty being historically-inspired buildings well suited for more sensitive contexts. It is a rather tricky site, given the very different physical dynamics between Collegetown (midrise student apartments) and Belle Sherman (upscale and owner-occupied family homes).

“It looks nice. I’m interested in hearing what comes back from the parking analysis,” said Randall. “My first reaction was that it was way too big…but the size and style of it feels more residential, it’s a good transitional building with a lot of good detail on the facades. I have no problem with the variances, they seem appropriate,” added Petrina.

“It does seem like a sensitive treatment to a change in zoning and is residential in style. It feels appropriate. We’ll go to bat for you for the zoning variances, especially since you’ve provided a rationale,” said Vice Chair Jones.

“It’s great for the board to be supportive, but there are a lot of variances,” warned Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas.

“We chose Jason as the architect for a reason. It was important to us as developers to respect the neighborhood and that area, be that nice transition. We need to respect the character of the community, that is important to us, and hopefully that translates to the work we presented,” said Mezey.

The public hearing for the project will open next month.

The porch reconstruction planned at 1204 North Tioga Street. As the house is non-conforming, and building footprint changes require a zoning variance.

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 three submissions this month, one of which was 510 West State/MLK Jr. Street and is discussed in the 510 SPR segment above this section.

The other two submissions are both in Fall Creek, 109 York Street and 1204 North Tioga Street, area variances for porches and additions. The long story short is that Fall Creek was built before the current zoning, and the current zoning is not amenable to its older homes, so whenever the building’s footprint is being modified, chances are it’s being exacerbated in some way, shape or form.

The board’s general rule with this kind of thing is that as long as it’s not a detriment to neighbors and not an enormous request, they’re supportive of improvements homeowners make to their homes, so the recommendations came quickly and wholeheartedly.

Other Business

In new business, Glass suggested that, as the city is a veritable construction maze at the moment, that this would be a good opportunity to review projects underway and make sure they were positive enhancements and helping the city work towards its goals from an urban planning perspective. It seemed to evolve into a picture-taking show-and-tell where they would share photos they had taken to comment on the pros and cons of various new builds recently built and underway. They also talked about citing a map to help (how convenient, the Voice has one here).

Planner Nicholas reported 411-15 College Avenue, West End Heights, and Arthaus on Cherry Street are nearing completion within the next month or two, as well as the first phase of Cornell’s North Campus Residential Expansion, though the heavy rains this fall were killing a number of Cornell’s new saplings. The Aeroplane Factory is also continuing through its first phase of construction.

Brian Crandall

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