ITHACA, N.Y. — Tuning into this month’s city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meeting, your pre-holiday get-together was on the shorter side but with potentially significant consequences for at least one project, as well as advancing three others through the often-complicated Site Plan Review process.

No one faults you for tuning out your holiday’s awkward family discussions by glancing at the news, and the Voice is happy to assist. For those who like to look at the agendas while reading through this month’s summary, the 193-page PDF is here.

Site Plan Review

Seeing as there were no Subdivision Reviews or Special Orders of Business this month, after public comment the Planning Board jump right into what is the usual bulk of the agenda, the Site Plan Review (SPR). Site Plan Review is the part of the meeting the review of new and updated building proposals happens. In the interest of not going into exhaustive detail every month, if you want a detailed description of the steps in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.

More briefly summarized, 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 (potentially harmful impacts, and 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)

Now, I know, you’re looking at this, loyal Planning Board Recap reader, and thinking, “wait, wasn’t this approved last month?” The short answer is yes, it was. The second phase, with 127 apartments and 16,400 square feet of commercial space, was approved in October.

However, the project is back before the board this month for a revised signage package that Cayuga Medical Center wants to use on its new five-story medical office and service building, which is being built in the first phase alongside the 42 low-moderate income apartments in the Market View Apartments building. The board is very picky about signage, so any major changes trigger re-review.

The signage package consists of six illuminated building signs, four with the “Cayuga Health” branding, one “CMA Immediate Care” for the walk-in clinic entrance, and one “Main Entrance” sign. City code allows only two signs, and the meeting was intended for board feedback so they can get official recommendations next month, visit the Board of Zoning Appeals in January, and have the revised signage package approved in late January. Whitham Planning and Design’s Yifei Fan walked the board through the signage proposed.

“I think we can remove a couple of these, it feels over-signed to me,” said board member Mitch Glass.

“I generally agree with Mitch. The size for what’s proposed makes sense, but with wayfinding vs. advertising, I struggle with,” said his colleague Emily Petrina. Garrick Blalock suggested the project team rank which ones are most important to them.

“I urge you to consider the brightness of the signs if there needs to be so many,” added C. J. Randall.

Basically, most of the board was comfortable with something more than two but less than six, with some variability depending on location and brightness. With that in mind, they requested perspective renders from the hills, especially the signage near the roof since the building is 78 feet tall. Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas was also wary of the full package. Once again, the board is very picky about signs. The sign package, likely in a reduced form, will be back before the board for a recommendation to the BZA next month.

325 Dryden Road

Next up in Site Plan Review was 325 Dryden Road, a rather controversial plan for a pair of buildings consisting of 13 units with a total of 29 bedrooms 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 is enough to make city planners hesitate. The Board of Zoning Appeals initial impression about the proposal was mixed, liking the design but not feeling the variances were fully justified at this point, so the project’s future is still uncertain.

Up for discussion last night was a Determination of Environmental Significance, and whether or not they would give a recommendation to the BZA—with the situation as it is, a positive or negative recommendation on zoning variances may make or break the project’s chances of being granted zoning variances (and therefore, Site Plan Approval).

Subject matters last night were to include the utility plan, the landscaping plan (they want something more lush than previously seen) and a transportation demand management plan (TDMP) in lieu of parking. Architect Jason Demarest presented the notes if not necessarily the plans, explaining that it will tap into existing utilities. Interestingly, Demarest presented a map of public commenters—the immediate renters/landlords were in favor with the stark exception of the dental office across the street, while the homeowners further away to the south and east were opposed.

Planting and construction staging plans have yet to be submitted in full, so those still have to be sorted out before any approvals are granted by the Planning Board. The board’s sentiment was generally such that even though it’s a physically smaller project than most they see, they want those geotechnical and staging plans before any approvals are granted.

As for the zoning debate, the board is comfortable with the building spacing, and on the presumption of a reasonable plan (the board wants something a little more substantive than initially discussed, and added language stipulating that), the parking variance gets their positive recommendation. The stepping face of the front façade was well-received as well. The rear yard variance was defensible because it’s a corner lot and has side-lot issues it also has to contend with that muddy the waters. The vegetative buffer will be hashed out with the planning board. The one variance that they struggled to justify to themselves was building footprint lot coverage.

“If you didn’t get your lot coverage variance, how many units, how many bedrooms do you lose,” asked Planning Board Chair Robert Lewis.

“I’d say seven bedrooms [of 29],” said Demarest.

“Are those seven bedrooms really important?” Asked Lewis. “I think I have to drag this back from the applicant, and discuss this with the board before we can move this forward at all.” The board can’t consider financial analysis, as that’s out of their legal bounds. But an energy-efficiency argument, placing student housing where “student housing should be,” design features that make it seem less imposing, maybe something density-related, those are aspects that can be argued. It’s tricky, because it’s a transition area where this is not a legal fit to zoning, even though the board likes the project outside of the zoning context.

The board likes the project, the task is justifying the variances. They think they were able to offer an argument. Whether that works, we’ll see. The SEQR negative declaration passed unanimously 6-0, and the project will head to BZA for its make or break moment next month.

Ithaca Farmers 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, which was to take place last night along with review of portions of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) used in SEQR.

This month, more bike parking was added, a new bike lane and extended pedestrian walkway were added, parking was revised to accommodate the turning radii of larger vehicles and a trail, play features, and a small performance space were added near the waterfront.

Whitham Planning and Design was back to give another overview, this time courtesy of landscape architect Kate Chesebrough, and the board was generally favorable to the changes. There were no votes scheduled for last night, so it was just a matter of going over documents they’d need to submit in order to complete environmental review. This discussion was fairly uneventful and uncomplicated compared to the previous items. Review on SEQR will continue next month.

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 six 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 November meeting, just a review of the outline for the FEAF, which tends to be a fairly detailed and lengthy writeup of impacts and proposed mitigations. When it heads for a vote, mitigations become stipulations, mandated as part of project approval.

The project team, led by Landscape Architect Kathryn Wolf of TWMLA and Arvind Tikku of ikon.5 Architects, presented the results of a requested shadow study as well as new perspective renderings and elevations that the board asked for to ensure the massing would not be particularly detrimental to historic buildings. Wolf sought to emphasize the high-quality materials (aluminum panel, terra cotta), glassy expanses, and articulated façade as building mitigations, as well as the board’s enthusiastic support for setbacks from the sidewalk to allow for public plazas and wider sidewalks along College Avenue. Power poles will be buried towards the top of Catherine Street at the developer’s expense, and Ithaca ReUse will be involved with the deconstruction of the eleven existing building on-site. It did appear that the project team was thorough in responding to public comments and concerns.

The board lauded the extensive follow-up as they launched into their virtual round-table critique. C.J. Randall asked about how they were planning to justify the height variances sought, and Tikku explain that the buildings utilize shorter roof parapets (the walls along the edges of a roof) to minimize the visual impact of the variance, and only the three buildings along the more built-up College Avenue need height variances.

Petrina reiterated her support for the height variance, and had questions about design aspects she thought would be better saved for the Special Meeting for Design Review in January, like the way different buildings relate to each other and the staircases along the street fronts. Blalock was also in favor, and Glass said the variance didn’t seem extreme and was reasonably mitigated. Godden was amenable, but wanted to see lighting plans first. So generally, the board is looking favorably towards a height variance when it comes time to make a recommendation. However, there’s still some Design Review and environmental review that needs to happen first, and review will continue 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 November. One is 325 Dryden/320 Elmwood, discussed above. The other is 815 South Aurora Street on South Hill.

This appeal is more complicated than most, and has a lengthy backstory involving state courts. You can read the full story here, but the short version is that the city zoning administrator (Gino Leonardi) had never published with the city clerk his reasons for saying there was no need for zoning variances, and state courts have mandated that the Board of Zoning Appeals weigh in on whether or not variances are needed. The two neighbors suing to try and halt the project are seeking to argue five separate regulations (rear yard setback, driveway grades, front yard parking lot coverage, fall zone setback, and landscape compliance method).

The debate here from the state court’s perspective is not whether Leonardi is wrong, it’s that he has to show how he came to his conclusions. All that matters to the judge is whether he has detailed and solid reasoning he can share. Should the BZA find flaws, a majority vote is required to overturn Leonardi’s decision that no variances are required here. Leonardi has submitted a thorough and detailed explanation rebutting all five claims made by the lawyer for the neighbors. The BZA is going to have to decide next month who’s right.

Mike Belmont, who has been the public face of the neighbors opposed, reiterated their stance that variances are required during public comment, as did their lawyer, Russell Maines. A couple of neighbors submitted letters, one detailing issues regarding the construction itself, and another neighbor who decided to veer off and verbally attack the Planning Board, which I wouldn’t advise but you do you. For the record, the Planning Board does not have the authority to revoke building permits, that authority belongs to the city’s building and codes department staff. Lisa Nicholas explained that the Planning Board is free to make a recommendation on the appeal, but doesn’t have to, as it’s not their decision to make.

“Our action tonight is limited…we can make a recommendation one way or the other,” summarized Chair Lewis after public comment. Later in the meeting, he summarized his thoughts as thus: “I say we punt.” Lewis had no desire for the Planning Board to comment on the situation either way. “We’re not speaking to the issue of whether the Zoning Administrator got it right. We speak to planning issues….I kinda see it as ‘not our wheelhouse.'” His colleagues agreed, taking no stance on the matter and leaving it to the BZA to hash out.

Other Business

The board is planning a Special Meeting for Catherine Commons on Jan. 13 to go through all the building designs and facades in detail. It’s a big project and benefits from the additional time to review. A ‘training opportunity’ in early February to go over BZA and Planning Board’s roles with each other is also being discussed. Director Nicholas said the city had received several applications to replace former Vice-Chair McKenzie Jones on the board, as she resigned at the end of last month to focus on her young family, and will conduct reviews on applicants in the coming weeks.

Brian Crandall

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