ITHACA, N.Y. — The October meeting is coming a little late from the Voice’s end, as I was on the West Coast when it was live. However, the joy of video streaming means copies are stored online, and Voice staff have no problem spending 3.5 hours taking notes and writing ten-minute summaries so that you can be informed and still do something else with with those 3+ hours. For those who like to look at the agendas while readings, the 223-page PDF is here.

Quick note as we jump in, the board was absent one member in October, as member C.J. Randall was not in attendance. The city was also flooding that evening, which comes up more than once during the 3.5 hour meeting’s discussion segments.

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 had to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) earlier in October because the two lots have insufficient public street frontage, and the BZA approved the variance, which allowed the Planning Board to move forward with a vote on preliminary and final approval in October.

With the BZA’s okay, there was little additional to discuss. Within five minutes, preliminary and final site plan approval was granted.

Site Plan Review

Next up is the typical bulk of the Planning Board 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, which was the result of NYS DOT’s pressure to reduce new traffic generation on Route 13, drops buildings “B” and “C” 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 16,400 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. For October, the revised, reduced Cayuga Park plans were up for final site plan approval.

Things started off on a less-than-ausipcious note when the board arrived to the project team early, and the only person from the team that was available to speak was Whitham Planning and Design’s Jacob von Mechow. As Board Chair Robert Lewis noted in his stern chastising, a project team is expected to be ready to present at any time during the meeting, even if the board gets to them fifteen minutes earlier than the agenda says. von Mechow had to wing it for ten minutes a little while while his colleagues arrived.

The biggest change as von Mechow noted in his presentation was that about 3,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space had been restored to the project in Building “B”, raising the amount from 13,400 square feet to 16,400 sqaure feet. This came in response to concerns the Planning Board raised in September, and the new commercial space replaces eight parking spaces in the indoor garage. Building “C” was unchanged. Some additional outdoor seating and planters were included in the revised renderings.

“COVID’s really changed everything with regards to commercial. We ultimately feel that this is the right mix and the right number…it’s a good compromise,” said Andrew Bodewes of Park Grove Realty.

“I don’t think we’ll regret moving some of that commercial space back in, I think that’s a good decision,” said board member McKenzie Jones in response. The rest of the board was also favorable to the changes and the project overall. The board’s Emily Petrina lauded the use of seating and planter alcoves along the parking garage exterior.

The board was not without its criticisms, though, as member Mitch Glass relayed to the project team. “This continues to be a really great project for the site. On that note…I’m hoping that at the end of the day, that this thing feels more related to Ithaca, this feels a little generic to me right now. I’d love to see some signage that relates it to the Waterfront Trail. Signage, context maps, something that makes it feel more a part of this community.” Chair Lewis also expressed some disappointment with the façade treatments, feeling the Route 13 side was unrefined and “back of house”, and the board asked the project team to engage the B&W Kitchen Supply next door to put a crosswalk across their driveway.

Glass, unhappy with the choice of panel colors (he preferred orange and brown in place of terracotta red and blue), requested an amendment to the approval resolution to have staff and board sign off on final material colors, which passed unanimously. Although material color is fairly minor in the grand scheme of Site Plan Review, the project team did bristle a bit given how subjective color preferences can be, so the final panel color choices remains to be seen. A second amendment from Glass to consider additional plantings in front of alcove areas was also approved.

With that, the board had its vote on the preliminary approval and it was granted unanimously. While the color situation gets hashed out behind the scenes the project is now able to obtain constructions for phase two when it’s ready.

“Did it get a little salty there?” Asked Vice Chair Jones as they moved on to the text item.

“Ever so slightly,” replied Chair Lewis.

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. Projects in the heart of Collegetown typically don’t attract as much scrutiny due to the lack of permanent residents. The revised process has been fairly straightforward, though not without some hiccups, namely the revision of the ground level to delete a studio unit and accommodate a more heavy-duty foundation wall uphill. October’s voting items included the Determination of Environmental Significance, and the recommendation to the BZA. With BZA approval, the project could be ready for preliminary approval this month.

Nathan Brown of HOLT Architects gave the project update, and not much had changed since the September meeting. The five variances sought are for green space, area, side yard, front yard, and building length, the latter few of which were triggered because the building met the “rowhouse” definition until the easternmost ground-level studio unit had to be eliminated. Without a unit at ground-level along its entire width, it fell into different building-type definitions and a mess of red tape. Rather unfortunately, after further analysis and talks with NYSEG, the power lines in front of the building cannot be buried as the project team initially hoped.

The board was generally comfortable with the variances in this circumstance, with Mitch Glass describing the rowhouse definition as “semantics” given the overall design remains rowhouse-like. The negative declaration for SEQR passed unanimously 6-0. In their favorable recommendation to the board, the board cited the block’s urban context, the “rowhouse typology” and existing lot deficiencies in supporting the variances. The board did emphasize that the landscaping needs to be as lush as possible for the project to have their support. With that, the project was forwarded to the BZA as it continues to move towards 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. 

October was the potential last stop in the review process, as the project was finally to be considered for preliminary and potential final site plan approval. Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative gave the project update, noting that the only substantive changes were tweaks to the layout of parking areas to better accommodate fire trucks.

The board had little to add; they’ve been comfortable with this project for a while, and there have been few changes. “Very attractive project; ready to move on,” noted the board’s Garrick Blalock. With those brief words, Chair Lewis brought the approval vote to the floor, and it passed unanimously.

“This is an exciting one, happy to see it come together,” said Lewis.

“We’re going to get building soon!” chimed Morse.

325 Dryden Road

Next up in Site Plan Review 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. Currently the site hosts two apartment homes with 16 bedrooms.

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.

The project has been subject to intense scrutiny, both from the surrounding neighborhood and from city planners, who have concerns with the seven variances sought – two or three is not unusual, but seven was enough to make city planners hesitate.

Architect Jason Demarest gave the update, noting that the wing facing the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Dryden Road had been pulled back a little, and the rooflines were revised. The larger apartment building and the new duplex will have similar roof pitches but exterior material differences (various styles and colors of fiber cement board) so as to be visually distinct from each other. The distance between the two was buildings widened slightly, from 15 feet to 16 feet.

The zoning discussion was delayed, as BZA had yet to have a chance to weigh in and would not do so until early November. However, the board was favorable to the design itself. “I’m liking this more and more,” said the board’s Blalock. “What attracts me is the high quality of this building…it adds density in an attractive, high quality way.”

With that, the board closed their October discussion waiting for BZA’s comment. As I’m writing this after watching the BZA meeting, I can say the BZA likes the design but has mixed feelings about the variances, for which they fault the zoning itself more than the applicants. It would likely be a split vote if voted on today, with no clear signs for if either the “yays” or “nays” would win. We’ll see how that impact’s November’s Planning Board discussion.

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 an updated presentation, the opening of the Public Hearing on the project and allow for public comment to commence, and a review of a portion of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) that is including within SEQR, in particular the transportation and utilities systems impacts.

Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning and Design gave the board the latest news about the Farmer’s Market plans. There have been a couple of updates, mostly with pedestrian routing through the site. In response to traffic analyses and the Planning Board, more walkways and more protected walkways were added, as well as revised bike access with bike shelters to serve Waterfront Trail and Third Street bicyclists. The Wastewater Treatment Plant has given its initial consent to the designs so far, so that potential worry has been abated for now. The parking arrangement was revised (new version above, old version here), with more green space was added in lieu of parking on the eastern side of the property, as well as a larger green buffer near the Waterfront Trail.

Two comments were received during the Public Hearing. Frequent visitor Sheryl Swink spoke about a lack of proper bicycling and pedestrian facilities, and a vendor targeted the Farmer’s Market for not consulting vendors more, not enough maitenance of plantings, and for using a Brooklyn-based architecture firm rather than a local company.

“We had an RFP and went through a long process, and the vendor committee went through a selection process. We’re delighted with their proposal,” said Ithaca Farmer’s Market President David Stern in defense of their choice of nARCHITECTS.

The board’s preference was towards making the pedestrian walkway directly connected to Third Street the primary route (page 3 here), rather than a walkway along the circulation loop. “I feel like as much as we can tap into the existing urban grid, the better,” said Vice Chair Jones. “I think pedestrians will end up using all these paths, but this one (from Third Street) is preferable,” added Elisabete Godden.

With the board’s input on traffic layouts, and an acknowledge that the Wastewater Plan and Farmer’s Market had an agreement on utilities layouts, the project team got what they set out for in October, and will be back for another round of discussion and review in November.

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.

Not too much was planned for the October meeting, just a project presentation to update the board on the latest and greatest design tweaks, and an opening of the Public Hearing on the project.

Landscape Architect Kathryn Wolf of TWMLA opened this month’s presentation, and was joined by Arvind Tikku of ikon.5 Architects. Perhaps the biggest change from previous iterations of the project is the exploration of different terra cotta panel colors, not unlike the discussion of Cayuga Park earlier in the evening. In place of the salmon pink shade (which bore strong similarities to the Cornell North Campus Expansion that ikon.5 also designed) were gold, pea green, and slate grey tones. The project team is not settled on the color choices and are weighing different options. Along with the window spacing, the intent is to break up the building mass and make them appear less bulky and imposing. Although not visible from more distant renders, the metal and terra cotta panels are textured seam and shingle-style respectively, adding more visual interest. The project is aiming for spring 2022 approvals for an August 2023 opening.

There was one written and one spoken comment in the Public Hearing. Outgoing Fourth Ward councilor Graham Kerslick spoke in opposition to the requested height variances for the project, citing concerns about a lack of light and air circulation on College Avenue and aesthetic impacts on historic structures. Kerslick said the granting of the variances would create an “alarming precedent”. Speaking in-person was Gregor Brous, the owner of Collegetown Bagels, who lauded the project for its connectivity to the street and high quality design.

The board’s Mitch Glass praised the color studies, but given Kerslick’s letter, he wanted more information about impacts on historic structures, noting that variances are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and that they should demonstrate why the extra height is needed. His colleague Petrina agreed, though she added that in this case she was supportive of the height variance so long as it allowed for more space and public amenities at street level.

Chair Lewis noted a “positive consensus” from the board as they moved to wrap up, but not before one last detail. Acting Planning Director Lisa Nicholas noted that the vacant houses set to come down for the project have been magnets for vandalism as well as safety hazards. Discussions were being held to allow demolition prior to site plan approval, which is generally prohibited, and Nicholas wanted the board’s thoughts.

Given the concerns, the board was “not excited” about the idea per Lewis, but was willing to grant consent to start demolition, with a construction fence and potential signage for the plans as they are being reviewed. With that concluded, the project will come back before the board next month.

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 two submissions in October. One of those items was 228 Dryden/The Ruby, which is discussed above.

The other was in Fall Creek. The business owners of 201 East Tompkins was requesting a sign variance so they could put up the desired window decals for the new fitness studio in the former Serviente Glass building. The board can be picky about signage, but in this case the board felt the windows decals was “inoffensive” and had no strong opinions on it, saying that the proposal was fine. The bigger concern they had was with the code, and why window decals should be considered signs given that they’re not quite so obtrusive. But, that’s for another day.

Other Business

In other business, Vice Chair Mckenzie Jones is resigning from her seat, saying she would take a sabbatical if she could, but needed the time to focus on other parts of her life; Jones welcomed a new baby this year. “I feel like I’m ready to pass the baton, ready to open the door for somebody else.” Anyone interested in joining the Planning Board (and watching me quote you monthly) can contact the Mayor’s Office. As someone who’s spent years quoting Jones, I just want to say she’s always been candid and clear in her comments and quips, and I will miss her astute and thoughtful observations.

Brian Crandall

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