ITHACA, N.Y. — It was a relatively short pre-holiday meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board this month, but nevertheless necessary, as one plan received final approval, two more continued forward in their reviews, and a new Collegetown proposal was presented to the board and planning staff.

As always, the Voice is happy to give you a rundown of what went down. For those who like to glance at the agenda during their read-throughs, a link to that 90-page PDF is here. McKenzie Jones has decided to return to the Planning Board as Vice-Chair, which made her acting chair last night as Chair Robert Lewis and board member Garrick Blalock were absent.

Site Plan Review

Since there weren’t any 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.

To briefly sum up the SPR process, 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 therefore 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)

Back before the board this month is 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.

Last month’s initial proposal for six illuminated building signs was seen as rather excessive by the Planning Board, so the project team, represented by Whitham Planning and Design’s Yifei Yan, presented revised plans for five signs, removing an illuminated “Cayuga Health” sign from the upper northwest corner of the building, and keeping the rest. The other signs are street-level entrance signs, or face Route 13 – presumably, when they drew up their priority list of signage, they decided it isn’t as worthwhile to have “Cayuga Health” shine across the inlet. (If I had to see that every night from my backyard, I’d go to Guthrie out of spite.)

Last night was an update, and if the board approved, the project team can before the Board of Zoning Appeals next month for a signage variance, as only two signs are allowed by code. The backlights for the signage will be turned off at 12 AM, two hours after the last patients can come into the on-site clinic for care.

The board was generally supportive. Planning Board member Emily Petrina was comfortable with the proposed signage, as was her colleague, who thought the sign removed from the northwestern corner was the right move. However, as Acting Chair Jones noted, they wanted to see the zoning analysis about which signs are considered the “extra” signs before recommending anything to the BZA, so they’ll be back next month before a likely trip to the BZA in February. Signage, it’s not easy here.

Ithaca Farmers Market Reconstruction (545 Third Street)

Next up before the Planning Board is the Ithaca Farmer’s Market reconstruction project. 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 was a continuation of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF) used in SEQR, looking at land, water and open space impacts.

Updated documents generally focus on shoreline stabilization during and after construction, and requests from the city for details about stormwater protection, and what types of trees would be planted where plus how big would they be to start. Requests were also noted for more details on traffic circulation for cars, bikes and people, and project renderings from across the lake to ensure aesthetic impacts were reasonably mitigated.

Whitham Planning and Design’s Kate Chesebrough gave the update to the board, noting that the on-site bus stop locations and some of the plantings were still in flux. Although not shown yet, they plan to use bollard lighting for evening events. For being right on the water, the spit of land the market sits on has a bit of elevation, so it’s actually in the 500-year floodplain. much of the inlet and Fall Creek is in the more imperiled 100-year floodplain.

Acting Planning Director Lisa Nicholas expressed concerns on how the plantings and sidewalk will work, given there’s no barrier to prevent cars from landing on the sidewalk or hitting trees. In other words, as board member Elisabeth Godden noted, they need some kind of wheel stop. Board member Glass wanted to see how the bus stops would work with the traffic patterns.

This is going to be a complex process, as NYS DEC will need to weigh in at some point, as well the usual complement of city engineers. There’s just a lot more information that needs to be provided, and the design still has some fleshing out to be done (Chesebrough described the design drawings as 30% complete). There isn’t any strong concern from the board at this point, but this long-distance run is nowhere close to being over. The project team will be back before the Planning Board next month.

Catherine Commons (Catherine Street/College Avenue)

Nest on the Site Plan Review agenda 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.

This is a large project, and so the December meeting was focused on the outline of what would be covered in Part 3 of the FEAF, as it’s going to be a fairly meaty and broad document with a lot of impacts and proposed mitigations to review in the coming months. The amount of material is such that a Special Meeting is planned for January 13th to go over the Design Review, the building designs and facades, in greater detail.

The project team, led by Landscape Architect Kathryn Wolf of TWMLA and Arvind Tikku of ikon.5 Architects, presented updated plans, showing a selection of proposed façade materials and colors. The choice of finishes and the palette is quite varied. Terracotta shingles, aluminum panels both vertical and “fish-scale”, thermal granite near the base, and a variety of colors, from “Antique Pewter” to “Santiago Rose”, and “Slate Red” to “Field Green”.

Tikku, who largely led the discussion this month as it focused on the buildings, emphasized the setbacks and recessed entrances to provide wide sidewalks, breaking up the buildings and implementing interior courts to reduce overall mass, and generous vertical window expanses to make the buildings seem less bulky. Some presenters wing it at these meeting, but Tikku always sounds very well-rehearsed in his presentations.

It’s tempting to decry this as “fast-casual architecture“, and it is a colorful, boxy mid-rise design. But these don’t have the usual design tricks or value engineering techniques, like tiny balconies and awkward windowless expanses. The extra money is being spent for nice materials like terracotta vs. aluminum panel everything, and there’s a variety of texturing from shingles to standing seams. Not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but the effort is clear, and the Planning Board thought as much too.

“The lightwells, to me, this is the first time I understood them, and I like them a lot…they give you the opportunity for students to enter in small groups of people as well as from a big lobby,” said Petrina. However, she was a little uncomfortable with the glassy connectors in Buildings 2a and 2b from a bulk and security standpoint. Tikku explained they were intended for resident convenience, to avoid inclement weather when accessing amenities. Godden asked if mechanical utilities would be housed within buildings or on rooftops, to which Tikku said there’d be both, and the roof units would be in the middle, smaller mechanical units, and less visible from street level.

“I’ve supported it the whole way and I continue to support it,” said Glass of the project. “These are rich, complex buildings to take in…overall I’m really glad you’re using terra cotta instead of all-metal panel or, God forbid, EIFS (synthetic stucco).” Glass did say that the steel stoops felt a little cold to him, and he was not a fan of the “skybridge” connectors either, as well as some worries about narrow windows in less visible areas.

“I can imagine the colors are meant to translate to various uses…I’m a fan of them. I’ll also +1 the comment about having active uses on the ground floor,” said Jones. Generally, feedback was positive, and the project is on the right track per Jones. Review will continue on the design in a few weeks.

109-111 Valentine Place

Last on the site plan review last night were sketch (concept) plans for a 30-unit apartment building proposed for a a pair of apartment houses at 109-111 Valentine Place, a dead-end street next to the Collegetown Terrace project. We’ll be taking a closer look at the proposal in a separate piece to follow later this week.

Kathryn Wolf was on hand to present this concept proposal as well, and joined by architects Caroline O’Donnell of CODA and Shawn Daniels. In an update to the original submission, Novarr Mackesey was identified as the project developer.

Wolf noted that while there are few trees on-site now, the development will have “robust landscaping”. A new retaining wall would be built along the northern edge of the property. The building will be lowered vs. the current building’s ground level to better meet the street and reduce bulk. On the architecture, O’Donnell explained the façade lifts up to the main entrance and leasing office.

Rather unusually, the façade is perforated gold-toned metal, “appropriate to and respecting of the existing context”. Architect Andrews added that the project will need two variances for parking (Novarr plans to share with Collegetown Terrace next door, and provides a shuttle for Terrace tenants) and minimum building lot size for the building. The lot allows 17 units, they’re proposing 30. Andrew said the discrepancy is because their project mostly provides smaller studio and one-bedroom units, while the zoning code effectively encourages larger units (it’s not square-foot based regulation, but based on the number of residences). The formal SPR is expected to be submitted next month, with a goal for approval in July 2022.

“It’s unique and contextual, I like the spirit of it,” said Jones. She added she would want to see the biking and transportation plans. Petrina added that using Collegetown Terrace for parking seemed “clever” and “a win”, and stressed the façade material would need to be high quality on all sides of the building.

“This metal panel is really interesting and really nice. I think it’s great to see. Totally support the parking variance,” said Glass. “I’d be careful about hiding the façade with shrubs…this has the potential to be one of the most interesting and unique buildings in Ithaca.”

The board expressed cautious optimism for the project, and as long as the paperwork is thorough and the variance requests well-explained, the project’s prospects are good.

Board of Zoning Appeals

The only BZA item on the agenda for tonight is nothing that will excite anyone. Thanks to recent changes in city law regarding telecommunication facilities, any time a facility is modified and it’s within 250 feet of residential uses, it now has to go through the BZA. Previously, this was handled at the staff level. This means that replacing the rooftop satellite dish with an antenna on the Hotel Ithaca (222 South Cayuga Street) now has to go through the BZA, which absolutely no one seemed excited about, and no one had any problems with.

Other Business

There wasn’t much in the way of other business, just notes to complete anti-harassment training and plans for an instruction seminar on joint-board meetings down the line. The Planning Director position, left vacant by JoAnn Cornish’s retirement, is accepting applicants, and a new planner position is open as well. As Nicholas noted, 2022 is looking like it’ll be a busy year for the board.

Brian Crandall

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