ITHACA, N.Y.—Tuesday night was a lesson in how those in attendance or not in attendance can completely skew a development plan. For the second time in a row, three of the Ithaca Planning Board’s members were absent, which meant a bare quorum. Chair Robert Lewis, Vice Chair McKenzie Rounds and C.J. Randall were absent, with Acting Chair Garrick Blalock, Mitch Glass, Emily Petrina and Elisabete Godden in attendance for the lengthy four-hour meeting.

A large apartment proposal for 401 East State Street was delayed because it needed four yes votes and one of the four members in attendance was the one who has consistently opposed the proposal, thus preventing it from moving forward over the development team’s objection that the delay would cause it to miss its October 2021 deadline for a construction start and therefore delay it by at least one year. Two other apartment projects were approved, and a proposal on the edge of Collegetown and Belle Sherman was met by great uncertainty. There is much to read this month, pour yourself a glass of your preferred drink and dive in below.

For those who like to read along to the summary, a link to the 168-page agenda is here.

Subdivision Review

First up were lot subdivision reviews — these are when property lots in the city, technically known as parcels, seek legal reconfiguration, which could be anything from being split up into two or more plots, reshaped or consolidated from multiple lots back into one parcel.

The first subdivision up for review was the third iteration of a proposal for a vacant 5.45-acre parcel of land at the end of the 400 Block of Campbell Avenue on West Hill. What began as a 20-home for-sale development was replaced with an eight-lot proposal similarly scaled to its neighbors, to a proposal for two lots much larger than its neighbors and as a result they’d likely be more expensive than their neighbors. One lot would be 2.22 acres, the other would be 3.23 acres.

Realtor Brent Katzmann presented on behalf of the Georgia-based property owner and gave the board a quick summary of the proposal. A few neighbors did write in to comment on the plans, a couple with easement concerns and worries about a 1980s pipeline, which Katzmann noted they would avoid encroaching on, and comments that Campbell Avenue was in poor condition, which Katzmann wanted to make the city aware of.

Declaration of Lead Agency passed unanimously for this simple two-lot split, and the public comment passed had only the aforementioned written comments. However, the houses don’t have public street frontage, and they will need approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). Some concern was also raised by the board about the location of utility lines, and the board asked the applicant to consider revising their location, which they said they would do, and that left the environmental review for a return and potential approvals at a future meeting.

The other subdivision reviewed last night was a continuation of a previous submission involving 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.

Final approval was delayed by a month because the reconfigured easements had to be approved by the Ithaca Common Council, but as the project was due to be discussed in Site Plan Review, the subdivision was bundled into that and is continued in the next segment below.

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 apartment building with a parking garage on the lower levels and a 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 big change heading into this meeting was the reduction of one floor from the building, which reduced the approximate number of apartments from 353 to 321, and the number of parking spaces from 267 to 235. The height reduction means that the building no longer requires a height variance from the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). With that no longer a consideration, the project was ready for a vote on final site plan approval at last night’s meeting, once the size reduction and internal changes had been presented to and consented to by the Planning Board.

A screenshot of the revised plans. New design at top, old design at bottom.

According to developer Jeff Githens, the issues with getting a variance from the BZA. There are board vacancies and the BZA has struggled to attain quorum (have half of its members present) to hold meetings, let alone grant a height variance given reluctance from a couple of its members. A portion of the third-floor parking level was converted into residential and part of the ground floor was converted from storage space to residential. Githens said the changes allowed them to financially absorb the reductions.

Among the other changes were new public stairs and an elevator to allow ADA accessibility to the planned Alpha Phi Alpha memorial adjacent to the property, as the electrical transformer nearby could not be built over due to potential servicing and fire code issues. Board member Mitch Glass expressed dismay that the transformer, whose power lines had already been reconfigured as part of the retaining wall reconstruction, was getting in the way of a better urban design.

“In discussion with both Alpha Phi Alpha and Frost Travis, there is no desire to relocate those facilities because, there is a question on where they would go and…there is no intention by either of them to relocate the facilities,” said Githens. “I don’t have that (move) approved with them and Alpha Phi Alpha still has to go through their process with you.”

Basically, the message was ‘we’re trying our best, but that property is beyond our control,’ which the board acknowledged while still expressing some disappointment.

One of the key issues was that Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas felt this was a lot for the board to absorb in one meeting, while Githens stressed they needed approvals tonight to break ground in October. Glass said that the changes were physical reductions that resulted in lower site impacts and as a result he was comfortable moving forward with approval. His colleague Emily Petrina agreed, with some tweaks on signage and public access walkways. Blalock was also comfortable moving forward. But the last member present, Elisabete Godden, has never been a fan of the proposal and was reluctant to grant approval. With only four members present, the project could only be approved if she agreed. Things were in a bind due to the applicant’s tight timeline juxtaposed with a smaller-than-usual planning board.

In the end, with only three votes to grant approval, one opposed, and three absent, the project could not be approved, much to the development team’s consternation. If a vote was forced, Godden made it clear she would say no and that would be the end for the project.

“We’re at a situation where there aren’t four votes to proceed on this…we should move onto a vote next month. There are only four members here today. Next month that might not be the case,” said Blalock.

“Elisabete, what else do we need to provide here? How can we condition this to give the board complete cover? Moving this a month, we’ll lose a whole year, that’s the implication. We’ll have to sit on this until ’22, and hopefully hold onto it,” said Githens.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put a member on the spot…you had said the project was not financially viable if you reduced the number of units, yet you were able to do so,” said Godden. “I don’t see a significant change or any other mitigations that came from you…it’s not realistic for you to put the onus on one member of the board. It’s your timing. What would I like to see? The same things I’ve said before. But it’s not right to pressure a member of the board who hasn’t changed her views on the project since the beginning…I didn’t have to say what my vote was ahead of time. I’m throwing you a bone here.”

“It’s a lot to process. The board just needs more time,” said Nicholas. With that, the project review was delayed further until next month. This, folks, is an example of how bare quorums, whether BZA or Planning Board, can really throw the review process out of whack. The project lost a floor and will likely be delayed a year in part because of a lack of appointed members present in each hearing.

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 876 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 requires a zoning area variance, which was approved by the BZA earlier this month. That allowed the project to pursue Preliminary and Final Site Plan Approval at last night’s meeting.

Visum Vice President Patrick Braga explained that they had reached a deal with Catholic Charities to set aside 15 units for those recovering from substance abuse issues, and five units for those escaping domestic violence situations. Additional paperwork for site lighting, landscaping, and playground equipment on the east side facing North Corn Street was also submitted for review. Generally, the board had nothing but good things to say about the proposal, and in this case, all four board members present were comfortable granting approvals. After some brief discussion, the project was approved 4-0, and is applying for affordable housing grants in the hope of moving forward with construction some time next 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 had 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. Last night’s discussion had no vote planned, and was just a continuation of the environmental review and analysis for the midrise apartment project.

Changes this month were minor. Per HOLT Architects’ Nathan Brown, the only notable change was the removal of some of the benches to make room for visitor bike racks (residents have indoor bike racks). The project team is also discussing with NYSEG any possibility of moving or burying power lines by the front east corner of the property. The rooftop will not have solar panels installed at the start, but the project team is designing it to allow solar panels to be installed at a later date.

The board found no major issues during their continued environmental review. Board member Glass did note that some rather large trees would be removed, and encouraged another look at the landscape plans to incorporate space where large trees could grow out, and questioned why the trash can pad was next to the handicap area. He also described the front facade as “rather cold,” but also felt the new street elevations shown with context to The Ruby’s neighbors was super helpful in demonstrating color and scale. Godden also encouraged landscaping revisions, and Planner Nicholas expressed worries that the glass balconies would lose their attractiveness if students clutter up the balconies with stuff; architect Brown suggested they could use frittered glass to retain “lightness,” or build in rules in the lease prohibiting the use of balconies for storage.

The project is hoping to receive the board’s okay on the environmental review when it comes back next month, and then make a trip to the BZA in October for area variances for the rear yard setback. That would put it on track for a late October approval.

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 this fall if all goes well pre-development, with a Spring 2022 completion. 

There’s some concurrent review underway at the moment because while the PUD has been granted, the Common Council also gets to vote on the actual project plans just as the Planning Board does, and both need to grant their approval in order for the project to move forward (this is the drawback of PUDs, it’s DIY zoning but it comes with more scrutiny and greater risk of rejection). There are no indications at this time that the Common Council has issues with the plans as they are, so it’s just a matter of effective mitigations and going through the requisite bureaucratic hurdles. The Planning Board was going to review the project’s proposed zoning and continue with review of Part 3 (the final part) of the environmental assessment—potentially, project approval could come as early as October.

STREAM Collaborative architect Craig Modisher gave the board an update on the project, showing off some architectural tweaks and explaining the zoning (it’s the same content as my Planning Committee recap, which you can read here). Godden asked about curb cuts (they’d be reusing existing curb cuts and removing one of the current cuts), and Glass wanted to make sure driving sightlines weren’t obstructed. Petrina asked about the trail connection, and developer Linc Morse extolled the revised connection and how it was maneuvered to give privacy to the apartments and extended-stay rooms, while preserving the steep embankment by mounting the wood plank walkway on helical piles, in essence screwed into the existing slope rather than reshaping the slope.

As for the zoning, Glass said it seemed reasonable to him, though he thought it was a little odd some uses like libraries and fire stations were still in the zoning from its copy/paste of B-1a city code. Ostensibly, the project team was fine removing fire stations from its code. Lisa Nicholas said a few details were missing from the environmental review forms, though they could be addressed at next month’s Project Review Committee meeting. No votes were taken and environmental review may be completed next month. If negative (meaning its impacts are effectively mitigated), site plan approval may be granted as early as October.

615-617 Cascadilla Street

Next 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 has been fairly quick and straightforward. Last night had a vote on the Determination of Environmental Significance, and if negative, potential preliminary Site Plan Approval.

Architect Daniel Hirtler was on hand for questions from the board, but the board didn’t have much to critique. Petrina lauded the scoring on the Green Building Policy (11 points), and with that they had their vote and unanimously passed a negative declaration on environmental review, and shortly thereafter preliminary site plan approval was granted unanimously.

325 Dryden Road

Next up the long list of Site Plan Review items were 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 last 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.

Further complicated matters was an analysis from city planners that found the project generally inconsistent with the goals of the 2014 Colllegetown zoning. As city planner Megan Wilson contended in her memo, the form districts were never meant to result in contiguous buildings that placed two apartments in two-family zoning, and then bunched the rest of the building on the higher-density parcel. According to Wilson, the lower density zoning was meant to be detached structures, and the proposal before the board was asking for too many zoning variances as a result. Along with the zoning discussion, the board was due for an updated presentation and to open the Public Hearing for the project at this month’s meeting.

Several Belle Sherman residents spoke out against the plans in written and spoken comment. Pro tip, I assure you using phrases like “behemoth” and “shameful” and “it’s a cancer” do not score bonus points with the Planning Department or Planning Board. Be direct but cordial, like the example from resident Ann Sullivan below, from the spoken part of the Public Hearing.

“It is a handsome building, but it really blows a hole in the Collegetown Form Based plan (the Collegetown Area Form District), something we worked really hard to create. This project demolishes two houses, and I urge you to look at them. The one on Elmwood is particularly handsome…(t)his eliminates green space and blows a hole through the zoning. This places an apartment building in an area the Collegetown Area Form District never envisioned. I’d be more supportive if it had affordable housing, but it doesn’t.”

Acting Chair Blalock acknowledged that with nine requested variances and “intense opposition,” he was not optimistic, but gave architect Jason Demarest the go-ahead to give his presentation anyway. Demarest sought to explain that the properties were in effect a transition zone and sent a mixed signals on redevelopment, encouraging it on the CR-3 parcel along Dryden, but not in the CR-2 parcel on Elmwood. The units are intended to be 2-3 bedroom units and not conducive to the “frat house” environment some commenters claimed. Demarest said renovation would be more expensive per square foot and contended that the unusually shaped lot did not allow strict adherence to zoning. Demarest’s take was that grouping the housing onto the parcel with denser zoning was in the spirit of the zoning.

Demarest showed several massing diagrams, including how a zoning compliant version would actually have a bigger visual impact less in line with the zoning’s goals. In this context, he showed how the project might not conform to zoning as written, but could be seen as more appropriate for the goals of a transitional site between two-family housing and low-rise apartment buildings. “Better design can come through a reasonable interpretation of zoning…and looking back at a project as whole, a synergy concept, greater than the sum of its parts,” said Demarest.

“This is a tough one. I have a variety of feelings about this. There’s been an outpouring from the neighborhood in opposition to this project, which I take seriously, and a lot of work went into the zoning,” said board member Glass. “On the other hand, the architecture of the building is good, and the alternatives you showed were helpful to show the differences between the two. But you mentioned the concession of reducing certain sides, and you need to make gestures that are more in line with the CAFD (Collegetown Area Form District).”

“I don’t think it’s just correct to combine them (the two lots). You have to mitigate this proposal moving forward,” said Petrina. “You need a lot more green space.”

Blalock said he could see the board eventually getting a negative declaration from the Planning Board, but did not want to guess what the BZA would do. “If you went to the BZA with the support of neighbors, your chances would be much stronger.”

“I don’t want the board spending a lot of time reviewing a project the BZA won’t approve,” said Planner Nicholas. “You can get preliminary feedback from the BZA, get a zoning interpretation, but I’m not sure we should move forward with this until we’ve heard from the BZA, just to get a read on where they’re at.”

It was clear the board was hesitant to move forward without seeing what the BZA thought. If they show disapproval of anything development-wise, the project dies. If they leave some options open, it may come back to continue review. 325 Dryden’s future is up in the air at this point, and we’ll have to wait and see what the BZA says.

Ithaca Farmer’s Market Reconstruction (545 Third Street)

This project has been in the works for several years, and made its public debut in just the past few weeks. The non-profit board of the Ithaca Farmer’s Market is proposing to construct a new two-story market building to allow for year-round commerce and programming, to reconfigure and pave the existing parking area and drive lanes, to create outdoor amenity space for dining and gathering, to install shoreline stabilization, and make various other site improvements. The project requires the demolition of most site features, relocation of the Cayuga Waterfront
Trail, removal of a number of on-site trees, and installation of enhanced stormwater infrastructure.

As projects go, the approvals process for any improvements to the Farmers Market is extremely complicated. The site is city-owned land and requires approvals from the Common Council, the Special Joint Committee of the Ithaca Area Water Treatment Plant for reconfigured sewage easements, NYS DEC, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The project site is in the Market District and is also subject to Design Review.

Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning and Design gave the board an overview of the proposal. The land was once an island, as it turns out, though it was filled in to the mainland before the Ithaca Farmer’s Market moved there in 1988. The parking area improvements are the first phase, in 2022 if final site approval is in hand for that portion by then. Other waterfront improvements like the new pavilion will be separate, later Planning Board reviews. A pedestrian promenade and fire access lane will be in front of the building, and flexible gathering areas finished out with pavers will face the waterfront. WPD’s expertise is landscape design, so expect a lot of attention and quality detail to the proposal as they shepherd it through review.

Mimi Hoang of nARCHITECTS spoke on behalf of the new pavilion design, and the need to create an enclosed, winterized portion, as well as ADA accessibility and fire sprinklers. The east and west ends will not be winterized, and the overall building takes on an A-frame shape with a rather open and porous floor plan. Split bathroom areas are on both the first and second floor (instead of a larger first-floor bathroom area) in order to make more room for stalls on the first floor.

“This is so exciting to see, I appreciate you all putting your minds to this, rearranging a beloved space. This is all super interesting,” said Glass, as the board began comment. He stressed using a good transportation consultant to review parking and traffic. He liked the extensive landscaping in the parking lot, though was not a fan of its size, and felt the connection to the dock was weaker than he’d like.

“I think this is a great project, I’m very excited to see it,” added Godden. “I appreciate its wood construction. Are you going to be able to do that given it’s an assembly space?”

“We are studying steel vs. wood regarding the structure, the columns and the rafters. Regardless of the structure material, the dominant material will be the underside of the roof, which will be wood, tongue-and-groove. It will be sprinklered, we understand the concern about assembly,” said Hoang. “We’re thinking to salvage as much of the wood as possible and reusing it in the new building.”

“I was married in the Farmer’s Market, and will always love it for what it is, but I think this will be a great asset for Ithaca,” said Petrina.

“That’s a lot of parking,” said Blalock. “Is there any way to move some of the parking to the neighbors, the medical facilities, Cayuga Medical or City Harbor, or do a water taxi? If you could remove some of the parking…I have an issue here. The attraction is the waterfront. What percent of this is on the water? Just open it up to the water more. Too much parking, not enough park.”

“The building really hemmed in by the water and the easements,” said Whitham’s Chesebrough. “With the Waterfront Design update we hope to give, we hope to show we’re taking seriously how beloved that space is, as well as the importance of vendor access to stalls, to load and unload.”

“This isn’t any more spaces than we currently have, and it completely fills up on Saturdays and Sundays,” said IFM Director Anton Burkett. “We are working on better multi-modal (bike, bus, kayak, etc) access.” Chesebrough added the market currently has 397 parking spaces, and 380 are proposed.

In response to questioning from Nicholas, the project team did stress they’ve been having community engagement sessions and surveys. Generally, the outlook for the project is optimistic, if long and arduous. Look for a return for review of the parking plan in the near future.

Brian Crandall

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