ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a broad and multi-pronged meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board last night. One residential project was fully approved, as were revisions to a second plan, while a number of other mostly-residential projects continued forward with their long if thorough journeys through Site Plan Review. Feel free to dive in below, and you can electronically thumb through the 326-page agenda in all of its glory 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. Environmental Review began last month and is ongoing. The project has to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) in October because the two lots have insufficient public street frontage, and last month the Planning Board also requested the applicant look at moving around the utility lanes for slope and accessibility reasons.

Realtor Brent Katzmann presented on behalf of the Georgia-based property owner and gave the board an update on the plans, with revisions to the proposed utility easements per the board’s wishes. With that done, the board had little in the way of further comment on the subdivision, and the vote for a negative declaration on SEQR came and went before Katzmann was even in the Zoom room.

The board was also in unanimous favor (with Board Chair Robert Lewis absent) of a zoning variance, citing no long-term issues with the proposal and that the public street frontage is an existing deficiency the property owner will rectify with a private driveway. The subdivision will be back for one more meeting next month, presuming BZA approval, for preliminary and final approval from the Planning Board. Note that single-family homes are staff-level review, so once the lots are approved that’s the last we should hear about this site.

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.

Cayuga Park (Carpenter Circle)

First before the board for Site Plan Review was a fairly significant downsizing of the Cayuga Park. The first phase, Cayuga Medical Center’s new 65,000 square-foot medical office building and 42 units of lower-middle income housing, was approved last year.

The second phase was originally planned to host 166 market-rate apartments (called the “Steamboat Landing Apartments”) in two six-story buildings, with retail on the ground level and parking on the second and third floors. The revision drops the buildings to four floors each, with retail on the ground floor, one parking level, and two floors of apartments on top. On its website, Park Grove states the number of apartments is now 127, a loss of 39 apartments. The parking garage spaces were reduced from 187 to 113, and the total retail space was reduced from 23,800 square feet to 13,400 square feet. The material finishes were revised as well, and some architectural details were changed up, with fewer parking garage ventilation louvers and the addition of a rooftop amenity deck.

The project was before the board last night to obtain feedback on the proposed changes, and approve minor changes to architectural elements of the phase one buildings. Initially, the plan was to obtain final site plan approval for phase two last night, but they had to delay a month for further building and zoning and code review.

The project team, led by Whitham Planning and Design’s Jacob von Mechow and Scott Whitham, started with the smaller task first, the tweaks to the phase one affordable housing. The revisions include on the lot four more handicap-accessible parking spaces, revisions to the front plaza space, sidewalk and landscaping. To the building itself were modifications of the front stairwell windows, and punched-opening operable windows in place of a glass curtain wall fronting the community room for additional structural support.

“The changes are fine. The wall that faces the main entry is blank with three different color materials. That feels like a missed opportunity,” said board member Mitch Glass. “It feels not very generous, not very elegant.” Whitham offered the possibility for landscaping buffers to cover the windowless sections. Following a question about screening from the back, the project team added that arbor vitae would be used for screening at the rear of the building.

After adding an additional stipulation for greater landscaping to “soften” the effect of the blank walls, the planning board was okay with the affordable housing revisions and approved them unanimously 6-0.

Looking at the reduced size market-rate buildings, developer Andrew Bodewes of Park Grove Realty explained that the issue was break-in access (a new intersection) with Route 13. NYS DOT pushed back against the project’s original size and the break-in access is needed for the project, so Bodewes said the density was reduced to accommodate the DOT’s dictates (his phrasing) and reduce the overall traffic impact. Bodewes added that the DOT has reacted favorably to the changes.

“The new design is very much in line with what we previously presented…we wanted to keep the reduction as simple as possible,” said Bodewes. Bodewes noted that a secondary benefit is that the cost of building the project is also reduced, and a better fit with their budget.

“When this project first came before the board, I had two reactions. How important the site was in terms of visibility, and how challenging it was to develop. It seems that these kinds of adjustments need to be made, and I have a positive reaction overall,” said the board’s Garrick Blalock.

“The context with DOT is really helpful,” said his colleague Emily Petrina. “Aesthetically the changes are great, they’re still handsome buildings. I am sad to see the lost retail, that was a draw for folks walking from Fall Creek.”

“We’re hearing more about buildings with floors being taken off after approval, this is becoming a theme,” said Glass, a tacit reference to the recently-approved 401 East State project.

“This is a little bit of a mixed bag,” said Vice-Chair/Acting Chair Mckenzie Jones. The board was fine with the appearance, but concerned about the loss of retail and light and ventilation in the parking garage. Whitham acknowledged the loss of density is double-edged, because it reduces it reduces potential vehicle traffic at the expense of ground-level vitality, and Bodewes affirmed that this was not what they wanted to do, but what they had to do to obtain break-in access to Route 13 from NYS DOT.

With no glaring issues that have to be addressed but fire and zoning code review needed, the project will be back before the board in October for final approval of phase two.

The Ruby (228 Dryden Road)

Second on the list of Site Plan Review items was an apartment project in Collegetown called “The Ruby.” The 39-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 other 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 to go over a few minor changes to the project as SEQR continues; the original hope was to have the vote for environmental review this month, but it appears that was pushed back prior to the meeting.

Arguably the most substantive change this month was the loss of the ground-level studio apartment on the east side of the building (so now it’s 39 units) to better accommodate the foundation system. This would also allow for at least one large shade tree along Dryden Road.

During public comment, Collegetown business owner Marty Johnson spoke on behalf of the Collegetown business association in support of 228 Dryden and other Collegetown projects, as they bring more residents (and patrons) into the neighborhood.

Architect Nathan Brown from HOLT Architects gave the board an update on the changes to the foundation, the removal of the lower unit, and the landscaping changes. A side yard variance would be required, and Brown said the BZA is aware. The loss of that unit caused the building to lose rowhouse designation, which had exempted it from side yard setbacks.

The board found no fault with the changes. “I don’t have a problem with this. This is the same building, you just wrapped the landscaping. It’s the same building to me,” said Glass.

“You have our blessing, I suppose, some resounding positive feedback,” said Chair Jones. The project will be back for further review next month.

Cliff Street Retreat (407 Cliff Street)

As readers may remember, developer Linc Morse’s plans to renovate the 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. 

The project is potentially in the home stretch – a vote on the declaration of environmental significance was expected at last night’s meeting. A negative declaration (meaning impacts effectively mitigated) would tee up the Cliff Street Retreat for Site Plan Approval in October.

Updated materials focused on a revised landscaping plan, bus stop location and signage, and further comment was limited; everyone’s pretty much satisfied with the plans and no major changes are expected from here on. The negative declaration for SEQR was unanimous, and the project will be back before the board for site plan approval next month.

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, the project was nearing the finish line, with a planned vote on Final Site Plan Approval.

This was another item where the discussion was brief, just touching on bike racks and light temperatures for the exterior lamps. With those items covered, the board had its vote and gave unanimous approval to the project. Hirtler and Stavropoulos state they plan to start as soon as the construction documents are finalized.

“I look forward to watching them go up,” said Rounds.

325 Dryden Road

Next up the long list of Site Plan Review items was 325 Dryden Road, a rather controversial plan for a 13-unit, 29-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. 

This project is a more complicated review for a few reasons. It’s a transition space between larger apartment buildings and single-family homes, and Belle Sherman residents have been vociferously opposed to the proposal. 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 complicating matters was an analysis from city planners that found the project generally inconsistent with the goals of the 2014 Collegetown 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.

With all this in mind, the board has been hesitant to continue review on a project that is unlikely to make it through the BZA. It was with some baited breath that that development team approached the board last night with a design update for 325 Dryden, because it hinges on the BZA’s potential support. If they consider it potentially acceptable, review will continue. If not, it’s probably the end of the road for this proposal.

“I listened carefully to the developer last month and […] I am not against that project because it is for students, we are not anti-renter. Belle Sherman and Bryant Park are a mix of students and homeowners. My opposition to this is that it destroys the thinking that went into the Collegetown plan. Eleven variances would not be fitting with the plan,” said Belle Sherman homeowner Ann Sullivan.

In fact, the plans presented last night were markedly different. The project had been reduced in size to 13 units and 29 bedrooms (down from 31), and to mitigate concerns about scale, the building was separated into two separate buildings, a two-family home on Elmwood Avenue and the primary apartment building on Dryden Road.

Architect Jason Demarest walked the board through the changes. The two-family will likely need to be shifted two feet north towards the larger building, which would push the larger building closer to Dryden Road and trigger a zoning variance request. Yard and parking setbacks would still be required, which planning staff estimated to now be at seven requested vs. the original eleven. The Dryden Road facade is a work in progress, as it may either be a shed roof or a dormer. Demarest noted the zoning is “weird” given the two districts, and that the developers chose an architecture that conformed, but that it was designed to fit with the architectural elements while making use of an oddly-shaped lot. He also stressed the board to judge the variances for the quality of the requests themselves, and not by number alone.

“The proposal you’re putting forward is a big step forward from the original one,” said the board’s Petrina. “The lot coverage still seems problematic to me.”

“It’s tricky for projects that require variances, the zoning laws don’t always make sense. I think what you got here is a project that needs to gain the variances through a combination of design iterations…and selling it to the community. You’re on your way to doing that, and you have to see where it goes from there,” said Blalock.

“The two different buildings make quite a difference and help it fit into the neighborhood,” said planning board member Elisabete Godden. “These are good changes.”

“We’ll keeping working with you towards positive resolutions to the variances,” said Chair Jones. With that, it seems the board is willing to continue review, though the BZA remains a major concern, when they hear it in November or more likely December. It means more time and money into a project that still may falter a couple months from now. Variances are common, but more than a couple variances is unusual. However, some of the seven variances are pre-existing and would be judged less stringently. “Zero (variances) is the safest bet, but if that’s not the reality of the project, that’s not the reality of the project,” Jones added.

“We’ll do everything we can to make the project go through the process as efficiently as possible, you just did a major redesign,” said Senior Planner Lisa Nicholas. “We can do Design Review in an iterative way. In terms of SEQR, we need to know what you’re building, and that’s still changing. We’ll do our best, but we do need an actual footprint of the building and where it will be on site.” Nicholas was also hopeful the BZA might offer some early feedback. With that, the project will be back before the board next month, though its future is still unclear.

Ithaca Farmer’s Market Reconstruction (545 Third Street)

This project has been in the works for several years and is finally making its way through the Planning Board. 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.

Last night had a few steps built in to the review. There was to be a presentation on project updates, a Declaration of Lead Agency by the Planning Board to begin the SEQR examination, and a review of a potential timeline. The timeline and SEQR are likely to be a very complicated process, given the multiple agencies involved, so to get their bearings on who reviews what and when is important to make sure nothing gets missed or has to be redone.

The declaration of lead agency happened right off the bat and passed unanimously. Whitham Planning and Design’s Kate Chesebrough gave the board an update on parking revisions, and Mimi Hoang of nARCHITECTS led the board through building design updates. Hoang noted the building is hemmed in by the NYSEG easement, the waterfront and its setbacks, the Waterfront Trail, and the sewer easement, which causes the building columns to work around it as it cuts underneath the pavilion. The interior will host wide aisles for circulation, public gathering spaces, and 88 stalls – 27 winterized with five hosting cooking equipment, and 61 outdoor stalls, ranging from 10’x10′ to 12’x10′. Wood from the current Farmer’s Market would be repurposed for flooring or interior ceiling finishes. It will be fully sprinklered.

The board praised the proposed design. “I really like the progress. It’s a more sophisticated version of what we have…and I think you’re hitting the mark on it. It feels new, but it has familiar moments to it,” said Petrina. Her colleague Glass expressed similar sentiment, though had worries about how people would make it through the rows of parking, and wanted a closer look at the outdoor spaces facing the waterfront.

Planner Nicholas suggested the project team come back next month with plans showing pedestrian and vehicular circulation, which Chair Jones agreed with. “It is looking really beautiful and exciting,” said Jones, echoing the sentiment of her colleagues.

Next month will begin the Public Hearing, and then there will be at least three more meetings to go through the SEQR environmental review process. Approval won’t be until February 2022 at the earliest.

Catherine Commons (Catherine Street/College Avenue)

Last up in Site Plan Review for this month is Catherine Commons, the large mixed-use project proposed for several parcels in Inner Collegetown. The development team led by John Novarr and Philip Proujansky proposes to demolish eleven older student apartment houses and construct a primarily residential $39.1 million mixed-use development. The proposal includes three multi-story buildings on the Catherine North Site and three multi-story buildings on the Catherine South Site, a total of xis buildings, with a combined total gross floor area of 265,000 square feet. The buildings will contain approximately 360 residential units (with a net gain of 339 bedrooms vs. the existing buildings), a 2,600 square-foot commercial space along College Avenue, a 1,600 square-foot private fitness center, and a small parking lot for ADA compliance and service vehicles. The project also includes streetscape improvements, several ADA-compliant plaza spaces, pedestrian amenities, and public bus stop infrastructure.

The biggest issue likely to face the project is a series of zoning variances requested as part of the plans. The more restrictively-zoned portions of the property (CR-3 and CR-4) would require variances for minimum rear yard setback and parking space requirements in the CR-3. These are not unusual requests and are unlikely to be controversial.

However, the parcels that are zoned for higher density along College Avenue seek a number of design variances for aesthetics and to allow for expanded sidewalks and pedestrian plazas. These include street façade treatments, doorway location and recessed entry regulations, and a required chamfered corner where the developer would like to do a traditional right angle building corner. A rear yard setback variance is also required here as well. The most discussion, however, will likely deal with the building and floor height variances.

The zoning for the tallest building, on Catherine North, is MU-2, which allows for a 6-story, 80′ tall building. The proposed structure is for 8 floors and 90′ in height. As for Catherine South, the two taller buildings would both be 7 floors and 78′. MU-1 zoning at that site allows for 5 floors and 70′ of height. Side note, the building at the corner of College Avenue and Cook Street is on a sloped lot, so while it is shorter from College Avenue, the mean elevation for measuring height is lower because it has to use the median elevation of that sloped lot. The board has been warm to initial plans, but the BZA is usually the tougher sell when it comes to obtaining variances.

Similar to the Ithaca Farmer’s Market agenda, there was to be a presentation on project updates, a Declaration of Lead Agency by the Planning Board to begin the SEQR examination, and a review of a potential timeline for this multi-faceted. multi-building proposal.

The board opened by unanimously declaring lead agency. Arvind Tikku of ikon.5 Architects and landscape architect Kathryn Wolf of TWMLA led the board through the latest and greatest building and landscaping design work (and my thanks goes out to city Office Assistant Anya Harris for solving the technical issues). Large plazas up to 40 feet in width will front College Avenue. The streetscape will host generous glass expanses. Building tenants will be offered parking for rent at Collegetown Terrace. The buildings use two-story architectural features to make them appear shorter. The Catherine Street buildings (2a/2b) were revised to further break up the building mass with glass and courtyards, and use a different color palette for visual interest. The buildings remain on target for an August 2023 completion.

The board expressed support for the height variances, comfortable that the design helps mitigate some of the height, and that the wide pedestrian plazas are a welcome addition. Board member Glass did ask for a sun/shade study, and to look into ways to modulate the facade through overhangs, box windows or other ways to address the “flatness.” Tikku says the panels do undulate, but they didn’t have time to finish those images and will have them to share with the board. Petrina also wanted a few more perspective renders to make sure the height isn’t obtrusive from downhill.

“The extra height is a minimal cost for what you’re offering the public,” said Blalock.

“The effort to underground (bury) the utilities here is appreciated. Nice project,” added C.J. Randall.

With the board’s support, things are looking good for the project as it progresses through environmental review in the coming months.

The garage proposed for 116 Irving Place.

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 is the Campbell Road subdivision discussed earlier, while the other two are variances for a student apartment house at 209 Eddy Street in Collegetown and a single-family home at 116 Irving Place in Belle Sherman.

The 209 Eddy Street proposal involved converting the two existing three-bedroom apartments in the house to one seven-bedroom unit. As this would likely mean four of more unrelated occupants, this is considered a “multiple dwelling”, and the 6,600 square-foot lot size fails to meet the 7,000 square-foot minimum. It also requires four off-street parking spaces where there are currently only two.

The board had no strong feelings about the proposal, though it was unclear if a group house with seven bedrooms was allowed in an R-3a zone. With the stipulation that it must comply with occupancy rules for the zone, the board had no opposition to the renovation plans.

The 116 Irving Place request is fairly simple enough – the homeowners want to replace the existing 12.25′ x 18.5′ garage at the rear corner of the lot with a new 18′ x 24′ garage at the same location. The problem is that the existing garage was built before zoning setbacks were a thing, so rebuilding on the same location violates the zoning setback regulations, let alone the (albeit modest) size increase.

Generally speaking, if homeowners want to invest in and improve their property and the neighbors aren’t opposed, the Planning Board and BZA are willing to look past the city’s often outdated 1920s-1970s zoning laws and permit a variance. Though some board members would prefer they just build the new garage within the setbacks, provided no neighbor objects, they have no issue with it.

“As someone with a garage I can’t fit a car in because it’s a contributing structure (to a historic district), even with the mirrors folded in, I can understand,” said Randall.

Other Business

In other news, Blalock, the Department of Public Works liaison, reported the upcoming Sidewalk Improvement Districts have been approved. He also expressed frustration that the NYS DOT had boxed in the Cayuga Park project on design, causing them to downsize the project to appease their engineers, and felt certain agencies were still placing too much emphasis on cars, especially those originating from outside the city. Glass and Planner Nicholas agreed, noting that it often takes compromise to negotiate the demands of different levels of government.

For what it’s worth, Nicholas did not think the Farmer’s Market project would have similar troubles because it wasn’t really growing or adding traffic. As for the newly-acquired Arnot property at the former NYS DOT waterfront site, that could be a major issue down the road.

“Oh, the irony,” noted Glass.

Brian Crandall

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