ITHACA, N.Y. — For developer Jeff Githens, it’s a sigh of relief. After unforeseen bureaucratic issues threw his firm’s apartment project into a logistic predicament, the city Planning Board held a Special Meeting last night to grant the lot subdivision and preliminary approvals needed for Githens’ McKinley Development Group to move forward with his project in Downtown Ithaca.

Though once again a bare quorum given the timing of the Special Meeting, the subdivision passed 4-0 pending submission of property easement paperwork, and the preliminary approval also passed 4-0, with board members Garrick Blalock, C. J. Randall, Mitch Glass and Vice Chair/Acting Chair McKenzie Jones in attendance. Members Elisabete Godden, Emily Petrina and Board Chair Robert Lewis were absent.

The primary factor behind this special meeting was a confluence of unfortunate circumstances. The apartment and parking garage at 401 East State Street on the eastern end of Downtown Ithaca has been under consideration for almost a year, and while the discussion and review had not been completely issue-free, it had generally progressed at a reasonable pace by Ithaca standards.

However, the project ran into trouble earlier this summer when the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) disagreed with the city Planning Board’s recommendation and tabled (in effect, declining without a vote) to give a nine-foot zoning variance for height that the developers had been seeking—they wanted to build 71 feet tall, while 62 feet is allowed by the CBD-62 zoning. Two members of the BZA were opposed, and while the board seats five, the BZA has been plagued with attendance issues and vacancies. Seeing that circumstances were unlikely to change in its favor anytime soon, the 401 East State Street project had its top floor lopped off so that it wouldn’t have to go before the BZA for any variances.

A Zoom snapshot showing the reduced height building at top, and the previous design at bottom.

The second issue to arise was at the Planning Board’s meeting last month. The reduced project, which would now bring 321 apartments and a 235-space parking garage to market, was facing a bare quorum of Planning Board members, only four of the seven were present. The problem was, one of those four, Elisabete Godden, had regularly been outspoken against the project, and she wasn’t about to change her opinion.

Normally, a one-month delay is manageable. But developer Jeff Githens of McKinley Development Group stated that because of the construction timeline and need to be ready for occupancy by August (the local rental market revolves around the academic years of Cornell and Ithaca College, so most renters move apartments during August), the project would have the be delayed a year.

“The applicant requested a special meeting in order to receive final approval before the end of September,” said City of Ithaca Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas. “They felt that the additional 2-3 weeks gained would positively impact their construction schedule, particularly as winter approaches. The Planning Board agreed to it. Larger projects frequently require a special meeting because the Planning Board agendas are so packed.”

What also helped the city’s effort to be accommodating is recent revisions to state regulations allowing for the return of Zoom-based meetings as the latest pandemic wave brought on by the Delta strain of the COVID-19 virus continues to wreak havoc on in-person gatherings. The Zoom meetings have offered various boards greater logistical hurdles for their members, and especially for the Planning Board as two members have newborns to care for—it’s a lot easier when one is in the next room over rather than halfway across the city, let alone limiting potential COVID-19 exposure.

The subdivision of the 401 East State Street parcel.

“I know that not having everybody (last month) made it very difficult to achieve the goal of giving you final approval last month, so we are moving forward this evening with the hope of doing that,” said Jones as the meeting opened.

The project as shown this month was the same as shown to the board back in August, so apart from updating Randall and Jones on those changes, who weren’t in attendance last month, there wasn’t much more additional information to share. The most notable additions were some new elevation drawings and material samples as presented courtesy of architect Donny Kim of Cooper Carry Architecture. As previously stated, a public walkway and bridge will pass through the Alpha Phi Alpha memorial to be developed separately, through the public stairwell tower in the new apartment building, and down a staircase to the creek walk. A simpler path proved impossible due to an existing electrical transformer that posed safety and fire code issues.

“I know there’s been trouble with the BZA, sorry about that…I know it’s a pretty big shift to make this late in the game, and I commend you for being able to do so,” said Jones.

“I’m totally ready to vote to approve the project tonight. I do feel a little disappointed by the creek walk to be honest with you. I know moving utilities is difficult, but this building is going to be around a long time,” said Glass.

“I think it’s the best that can be done under the circumstances,” said Blalock. “I see a lot to like about this project. Housing where we need housing, density where we prefer density, it’s replacing a surface parking lot, it provides access to natural amenities. The one issue that was most gnawing at me was the massing, but with the recent revision that’s been mitigated. I’m ready to move forward.”

Pending the submission of a standard package of exterior finishes diagrams, material samples, detailed landscape diagrams, lighting maps showing dark sky compliance, construction staging plans and review of ventilation systems (board member Randall pointed out that changes without prior approval have caused issues with another project that has been blowing out its HVAC exhaust onto a public walkway), the board was ready to sign off on the plans. The vote came and went in a quick and anti-climatic unanimous vote.

“I like to think you’ll miss us, but I know you’re ready for the next phase,” said Jones.

“You can all come to the grand opening,” replied Githens. “Thank you for your efforts. I know you guys are volunteers, and I admire what you do.”

Brian Crandall

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