ITHACA, N.Y. — It was a busy meeting to start the year for the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board. Several projects moved forward in their various review processes, though a couple of proposals hit some choppy waters as the board had concerns with their plans.

As always, the Voice is here to provide your monthly summary of what went down. For those who like to glance at the agenda during their read-throughs, a link to that 269-page PDF is here. Planning Board Chair Robert Lewis was absent, so Vice-Chair Mckenzie Jones led the board through the meeting.

Site Plan Review

There weren’t any Subdivision Reviews or Special Orders of Business this month, so after regular public comment the Planning Board jumped 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 several paragraphs of detail every month, if you want an in-depth description of the steps involved in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.

Long story short, in 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 settled to the board’s satisfaction, 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, in this case for the Cayuga Health medical building, trigger re-review.

After a reduction in the initial amount of signage planned (from six to five) and a rule to shut off the illuminated signs by midnight, the signage package looked suitable for Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) review, but further analysis found that the square footage for the signs had been miscalculated and underestimated, so they have to go back before the board for further comment before making that trip over to the BZA.

Whitham Planning and Design’s Yifei Yan gave the board an update, basically to explain the error and show some perspective images of how the signage would look from nearby locales. The board had little in the way of additional comment, with Mitch Glass saying that the signage “still seemed okay” and that he felt the board was being careful with its multi-month review. The board supported the signage variance package so long as the lighted signage near the top of the building are dimmed at close (10 p.m.) before being shut off entirely for the night at 12 a.m. The amended language was unanimously voted into the resolution and the BZA recommendation, and the BZA will make their decision in early February.

City Harbor (101 Pier Road)

Final site plan approval to City Harbor was granted back in August of 2020, and the related but separately-reviewed Guthrie Clinic medical office building planned as part of the multi-building project is nearing opening. However, since that time, the development team of Lambrou Real Estate, Edger Enterprises and Elizabeth Classen have revised plans to build both phases one and two at the same time.

The new sidewalks, street trees, fire engine turnaround are as before, with total parking between Guthrie and the residences clocking in at 446 spaces (previously 445). However, the three buildings have been revised to include more one-bedroom units (the previous total was 156 units), enclosed parking in both buildings, changing the waterfront restaurant to a smaller, less formal café/bistro, and expanded public waterfront amenities. Plans to replace the Newman Golf Course Community Center with a new building have been shelved.

Those plans to shelve the community center led to a letter expressing disappointment and frustration from Gail Smith of the Friends of Newman advocacy group for the golf course, who had a number of questions regarding construction impacts and landscaping impacts, and felt that City Harbor was now a net negative impact on the golf course. Jones noted following the letter’s reading into the record that the impacts would be discussed during review.

A small cadre of project team members joined the board via Zoom, led by Scott Whitham and Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning and Design. (WPD shepherds many projects through review, they certainly have the experience at this point). No votes were planned for last night, just a presentation of the changes for feedback, with plans to come back once any concerns or comments have been addressed.

Chesebrough said the primary change was creating bump-outs for the waterfront promenade for more seating, and more public seating and circulation areas, with larger planted berms and terraced blocks from the buildings down to the waterfront. Basically, it was more outdoor space in general, but especially more public outdoor space. The waterfront restaurant would have had a large outdoor seating area for customers only, but the café/bistro concept makes that a public seating area with a pergola, comfy outdoor seating and fire pits.

HOLT Architects’ Steve Hugo followed with an explanation of the architectural changes, which were driven by the replacement of some of the ground-floor residential to parking spaces. The new parking area will be enclosed in a stone and wood veneer with benches in front to make it still feel inviting to people on the promenade. Some areas will have overhead doors or spandrel glass.

The Planning Board’s reaction was mixed, mostly because of the parking and closing off of much of the ground level.

“I think this project has always been a high-quality material project…but I feel like the changes, adding parking on the ground-floor, makes it feel closed off. It’s very much fortress-like and closed off, it’s a bit disappointing to see,” said board member Emily Petrina. Her colleague Glass called the changes on the ground-level “disappointing” and “a bummer.”

“Overall I like the changes to the landscape, letting the public take more advantage of the waterfront. I like you widened the public access,” said the board’s Elisabete Godden. Garrick Blalock said he was indifferent to the parking changes but had questions about the vehicle circulation.

Acting Chair Jones summed up the concerns as such — it’s nice that the public landscape has been expanded, but how does adding enclosed adjacent ground-floor parking make the public feel more welcome?

“We appreciate the point about the promenade,” said Chesebrough. “It’s an ongoing programming exercise. The café will be a pull to this area, but we’re continuing to look at that. The boat fueling station will remain, there will be public restrooms and showers for boaters.”

“I did just want to stress, the yellow strip along the water was originally a 10-foot, 15-foot wide walkway, the orange was privatized. I do feel like this (new) design is more inviting and offers more variety of seating spaces,” added Hugo. The project team felt that more separation was needed between residences and the promenade, and that the parking was more compatible, especially with building all three buildings at once. In the original two-phase plan, the third building site was to be temporary parking.

With this feedback on their minds, the project team will be back before the board for a “few more meetings” by Chesebrough’s own admission. The phase one changes and all of phase two still need to be approved, and that will take some time.

401 East State Street

McKinley Development’s Downtown apartment project has been approved, funded, the land has been sold and work is set to get underway. However, they want to make a few interior and exterior tweaks that require Planning Board re-approval. Those include removal of some tenant storage space and a parking space and breaking up larger apartments into smaller units, with the cumulative effect of raising the total number of apartments from 321 to 331. A few exterior canopies and door/window treatments have also been adjusted, though largely the design remains the same. In fact, normally these details are approved at staff-level, but being a high-profile project, city planners wanted the board’s input for comfort’s sake.

McKinley’s Jeff Githens gave the summary of updates, joined by architect Donny Kim of Cooper Carry Architects as well as other project team colleagues on hand to answer any question the board might have. But no one really had strong feelings about the relatively minor changes, though Petrina wanted a closer look at the area around the Alpha Phi Alpha monument, which is vague because the fraternity’s monument plans are a separate project. Although no resolution was initially planned, Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas said that the changes were minor enough that the board could approve the revised plan right then and there. Since the board had no objections to the idea of the project, the project tweaks were approved.

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.

Updated traffic circulation, bus stop and tree planting/landscaping plans were submitted for last night’s review, which included on the agenda a potential vote on environmental significance (SEQR negative declaration) and therefore a major step towards approval. However, that would only be one of a few approvals the project needs. The project is on city-owned land and requires approvals from Common Council, the Special Joint Committee of the Ithaca Area Water Treatment Plant, NYS DEC, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Whitham’s Kate Chesebrough was back to give the board an update, saying that revised plans provided twelve more parking spaces, and updated documents were provided for the stormwater and building foundation plans. The new TCAT bus stop would be at the front of the site along Third Street.

No major issues were raised by the Planning Board as they conducted their review of the latest information and reports included with environmental review. There was some back-and-forth about parking near the waterfront and biking dismount areas, details that will have to be hammered out prior to final site plan approval. As Acting Chair Jones pointed out, it’s a big change in a beloved location, so everyone wants to make sure this is done well from the start up through the end of the last phase.

The board wants a narrative explaining the project team’s public outreach as part of the proposed project, but other than that there was enough information available for the board to take a vote on SEQR. The negative declaration passed unanimously 6-0, and the project will be back with building and parking design updates next month.

Catherine Commons (Catherine Street/College Avenue)

On to the next item in the Site Plan Review agenda for this month, we head over to Collegetown for Catherine Commons, the large mixed-use project proposed for several parcels in Collegetown‘s core. 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.

Design Review was held in a special meeting earlier this month and this meeting was devoted to review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), which is one of the later components of the SEQR environmental review process. The FEAF is going to be a rather beefy document given the size of this project. The project team also had an informational meeting with the ILPC earlier this month, which was generally positive.

The FEAF review tends to be a rather boring part of Site Plan Review, because board members reading through report summaries while project reps, in this case Kathryn Wolf of TWMLA and Arvind Tikku of ikon.5 Architects, twiddle their thumbs. It could always be worse for a developer, at least the board isn’t loudly tearing the project apart. The board approved of the parking variance mitigations (bus shuttle, tenants can lease spaces at Collegetown Terrace), the yard setback variances seemed acceptable, and the board supported taller building in the context of pulling the buildings back from the street further to increase street-side amenities and design features that break down the bulk.

No votes were planned or held on the project, but Catherine Commons is in good shape to move forward. Environmental review will continue next month, and a potential vote on environmental review may happen at the next Planning Board meeting. This could allow the project to obtain site plan approval as soon as April, if the BZA approves the variances.

Chabad Center (102 Willard Way)

Cornell’s Chabad (ha-BAHD) Center, servicing students of the Jewish faith, has re-submitted plans for a two-story, 5,000 square-foot addition to their Tudor mansion on the corner of Willard Way and Lake Street. The plans include new kitchen and dining room space, 50-seat community room, classrooms, ceremonial baths called mikvahs, and covered ground-level parking. You can read more about those plans in the Voice archives here.

This project was shelved not long after the COVID pandemic began and the future of in-student attendance looked uncertain. Now, they’re ready to pick up where they left off in Summer 2020, with the plans the same as before. With no changes, the plan was to jump back in at the step they left off at, Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF).

Architect Jason Demarest refreshed the board’s memory on the project. A parking variance and a couple of yard setback variances will be required, so a trip to the BZA will be necessary. The plan is to minimize construction disturbance and the routing of utilities so as to preserve some of the mature trees on-site.

The board was generally supportive of the project and its variances. However, there were a couple of concerns. The board’s Mitch Glass was not a fan of the driveway turnaround out front, which would forces some mature trees to be removed and was “just a lot of pavement”. Elisabete Godden asked if they could consider another garage door, as the proposed door “didn’t feel right” for the building and neighborhood. But overall, the sentiment towards the project was positive.

Given the long gap, the board encouraged the Chabad Center to rekindle public outreach about the project, which they will have to do for the BZA, and may be a little testy as some of the neighbors were not fans of the proposal when it was first submitted almost two years ago. The board wants to know about parking and demolition plans to make sure they’re effectively mitigated, and only then will they take a vote on a complete environmental review. There are auspicious signs, but still some work to do. Expect this project to come back to the board in the coming months.

Auden II (261 Lake Street)

Last up in Site Plan Review is the project the Voice first broke news of earlier this month, plans for a second apartment building on undeveloped land adjacent to the Auden Ithaca Apartments, formerly known as the Gun Hill Apartments.

Owner DMG Investments proposes constructing a 4-story building, with an approximately 18,400 SF footprint, as a new student housing complex that will contain 71 residential units with 211 beds. The development is proposed as an extension of the existing Auden student housing complex located across Lake Street and will share amenities including a shuttle service, outdoor spaces, and parking lot and spaces. The project includes landscaping elements such as street trees, ornamental and slope stabilization plantings, and indoor amenities such as a common game room and gym. A zoning variance will be required for parking, and a lot reconfiguration (subdivision review) will be required as well.

This month was dedicated to an introductory presentation of the project to the board, and a vote to Declare Lead Agency to conduct environmental review. Jacob von Mechow from WPD was on hand to walk the board through, with assists from Joseph Manzo of DMG Investments and Kimberly Rosentel of architecture firm Miller Rosentel Associates.

The building has its four-tiered profile because the slope of the site changes over 50 feet from its lowest to highest point, and breaking the building into sections keeps it from looking as massive. Floorplans are generally similar per floor, since the building will be built with modular walls, which is also a time and labor cost consideration. The part of the site closest to the former Ithaca Gun smokestack will be left undisturbed, and the environmental contractor’s report, submitted to both the city and the state, have not found contaminant levels that would require remediation. The retaining wall will use bluestone veneer with a combination of wood-like lap and batten siding.

The board was receptive to the plans. The façade differentiation was appreciated, the planting plan was described as robust, and members of the board had particular interest in the fire lane and how it would look from Fall Creek downhill. “With student housing, we want something that’s relative close to campus but not interfering with single-family homes; this fits the bill,” said board member Garrick Blalock. His colleague Mitch Glass did express some concerns about material quality and architecture, so while the developers are off to a good start, it’s not going to be clear sailing. Declaration of Lead Agency passed unanimously, and this is only the start of what will be multiple trips before the Planning Board in the coming months.

Board of Zoning Appeals

This is a rather busy month as BZA recommendations go, with a total of five reviewed by the Planning Board last night. As usual, the BZA are the decision-makers, but they give the Planning Board’s recommendations a fair amount of weight while conducting their own review. Cayuga Park’s sign variance is discussed above, while the other four involve two Fall Creek properties, a Belle Sherman home, and a rooftop telecommunications facility on top of Eddygate Plaza in Collegetown.

First off, Gimme! Coffee wants to make permanent an outdoor seating area “the “Disco Garden”) in their rear parking lot at 428-30 North Cayuga Street, space originally laid out to accommodate customers during the initial waves of the pandemic. To make it permanent requires a parking variance, as it would take away four parking spaces in an area considered deficient by Ithaca’s ca. 1971 zoning code.

The board was wholly supportive of the Gimme! Coffee variance. Several members lauded the space and its ability to be a community asset. It was strongly recommended for BZA approval by the Planning Board.

Secondly, the BZA role in the telecommunications facility at 110 Dryden is the result of recent changes in city law regarding telecommunication facilities, fallout from the 5G debate. As of December, any time a telecommunication facility is modified and it’s within 250 feet of residential uses (most of the city), it now has to go through the BZA. Previously, this was handled at the staff level, and was never a source of any planning debate previously. This was approved without much debate last night.

The other projects involve homeowners running afoul of Ithaca’s Partridge Family-vintage zoning code. The homeowners at 308 Ithaca Road wish to replace htier existing detached garage with a slightly larger new garage, but it will violate lot coverage (28.9% coverage, 26.4% existing, no more than 25% allowed) and side yard setbacks (4.8 feet vs. 6 feet required). Next, the homeowners of 1203 North Cayuga want to enclose their porch and build a new entry staircase and landing, which will violate front yard and lot coverage regulations.

Generally, if an owner-occupied property wants to make the home a better fit for their family and lifestyle, and the deficiencies are relatively minor, the board is supportive of the variances. That held true for 308 Ithaca,. However, the board felt the owners could do a better job designing 1203 North Cayuga to reduce the size of the variance, and in a rare move opted not to recommend the variance as requested. The lack of drawings of how it would look didn’t help.

Other Business

At the opening of the meeting, acting Chair Jones announced that she was retiring from the Planning Board after nine years of service, and her years on the board and her thoughtful commentary will be missed. For what it’s worth, she has expressed interest in being an alternate member in case of pre-planned absences. The board will also do a group retreat next month with BZA to help learn about and navigate their complementary roles. A new Planning Board member, Daniel Correa, will be joining the board next month in place of Jones, pending Common Council approval.

Brian Crandall

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