ITHACA, N.Y. — John Novarr and Phil Proujansky’s dreams of a Collegetown Innovation District might have fizzled as they hit some hard realities, but the developer duo are pressing forward with plans piece-by-piece. The long-awaited first phase, called “Catherine Commons”, has been submitted to the city of Ithaca for Site Plan Review.

The project, which takes its name from its location along Catherine Street in the Collegetown neighborhood, would replace eleven two-story apartment houses with six apartment buildings, three north of Catherine Street (called “Catherine North”) and three south of Catherine Street (called “Catherine South”), totaling about 265,000 square-feet of new construction. Catherine North would host an eight-story building and two four-story buildings, while Catherine South would host two seven-story buildings and one three-story building.

On the inside, the buildings will contain approximately 360 apartments, 2,600 square feet of commercial retail space along College Avenue, a private fitness center on the corner of Catherine and Cook Streets, and a small parking lot for ADA compliance and service vehicles. On the outside, the project includes streetscape improvements, several ADA-compliant plaza spaces, pedestrian amenities, and public bus stop installations.

In student housing parlance, the preferred way to count residential occupancy is actually by the bedroom rather than by housing units. In Catherine Commons, the project would replace 150 existing bedrooms with 489 bedrooms, a net gain of 339.

The biggest issue likely to face the project is a series of zoning variances requested as part of the project. 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-foot tall building. The proposed structure is for 8 floors and 90 feet in height. As for Catherine South, the two taller buildings would both be 7 floors and 78 feet tall. MU-1 zoning at that site allows for 5 floors and 70 feet of height. Quick aside for clarity’s sake, 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.

At the sketch plan (concept plan) discussion last spring, the city of Ithaca Planning Board did express favorable impressions towards the requested variances. However, the most the Planning Board can do in that regard is issue a recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals, which is the appointed body in charge of issuing variances. In recent months, the BZA has struggled to have enough members present for meetings, and anything that is remotely controversial become a much tougher sell because in a bare quorum, just one dissenting board member can stop a project.

Since the initial presentation of the plans last April, the façade has been redone on two of the Catherine Street buildings to make them more visually distinct from their College Avenue sister, replacing the visually similar brown terra cotta with green terra cotta panels and a greater amount of glass in its façade. Most of the buildings and the exterior landscaping have seen revisions in the latest submission, though the massing and overall design concept remains the same.

According to the filing, the project cost comes in at $39,136,000, and would begin construction in March 2022 if there are no major hang-ups during the Planning Board or Board of Zoning Appeals review (as we saw last month, even if a project is generally favored, never assume it will be a smooth process). The mixed-use complex would open in August 2023, just in time for the Fall 2023 Cornell semester and a year earlier than the originally planned build-out.

Alongside Novarr and Proujansky on the project team are Princeton-based ikon.5 Architects as building architects, Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architecture as landscape designers and project representatives to the Planning Board, Thornton Tomasetti as structural engineers, IPD Engineering for the mechanical/electrical/plumbing engineering, Taitem Engineering for energy consulting and Stopen Engineering for the geotechnical work. If these names look familiar, it’s because they’ve worked on a number of Cornell and Novarr/Proujansky projects, including the Upson Hall renovation, Breazzano Center, North Campus Residential Expansion, 119-125 College Avenue and Collegetown Terrace.

Brian Crandall

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