ITHACA, N.Y.—Last night was a long and busy one for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board. There were several projects on the agenda ranging from little music studios to multi-building mixed-use complexes, projects with positive public sentiment and proposals that have become lightning rods of controversy. There was something for everyone in Tuesday night’s agenda.

For those who like to read the meeting materials alongside the Voice‘s monthly rundown, you can find that 226-page novel here. Once you’re ready and you have a cup of your favorite beverage in hand, feel free to take the plunge and read on.

Programming note, six of the seven members of the board were present. Member C.J. Randall was absent, and McKenzie Jones has resigned after 10 years of service to focus on other endeavors, replaced by newcomer Daniel Correa.

Special Permits

The first item on the agenda this month was a Special Permit, which is uncommon but can be triggered for unusual property uses in certain zones, usually lower-density residential areas. Last night’s item was a special permit for a music studio at 105 Wood Street in the Southside neighborhood. The homeowner would like to re-use the site of a garage torn down several years ago to put up a new two-car garage with a second floor hosting a 576 square-foot music studio, which the owner intends to use for teaching music lessons. Local architecture STREAM Collaborative is designing the new accessory structure, finished with white cedar shakes and composite wood siding painted Sherwin-Williams “Kimono Violet,” which is certainly different from the norm.

The reason why we have a special permit here is that it’s a commercial use (music studio for lessons) in a lower density residential zone (R-2b), and this is your semi-regular reminder that Ithaca’s use-based (Euclidean) zoning would prefer you keep your home life and work life physically separate. The owner lives next door and no letters of opposition have been received, so this is mostly just an exercise in paperwork.

Regardless, he board has to run through the full gamut of environmental review, public hearing and site plan review, though the modest nature of most Special Permits usually makes it a quick process. The board was certainly favorable to the proposal. 

“Great to see this use…thanks for fixing up the house, I think it’s fine,” said board member Mitch Glass.

The environmental review passes unanimously, the public hearing came and went without public comment, and the Special Permit was approved unanimously.

“I was a lot of actions for something relatively straightforward, but I’m glad we were able to get it done in one meeting,” said Board Chair Robert Lewis.

Site Plan Review

Following the Special Permit and the regular public comment, the Planning Board jumped right into what is the meat 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.

City Harbor (101 Pier Road)

Back before the board this month, and leading off this month’s SPR agenda is the City Harbor mixed-use project on 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 Riedman Companies, Edger Enterprises have revised plans to build both phases one and two at the same time. Lambrou Real Estate and Elizabeth Classen are no longer involved with the proposal.

The new sidewalks, street trees, fire engine turnaround are as before, with total parking between Guthrie and the residences clocking in at 441 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.

The initial reception to the changes at last month’s meeting was lukewarm at best. The board liked it when there were apartments on ground level, as well as more commercial space. They are not a fan that the revisions change that to parking, when they’ve stated for years that the project has, in their eyes, more than enough parking already. The additional landscaping plans received a warmer critique.

Here’s a fun feature we rarely use on this site — you can play with the slide in the image above to do your own cross-comparison. Old 2020 design at left, new 2022 design at right. You can see why a board focused on the vitality of public spaces would prefer living spaces to vehicle spaces; even if the curtains are drawn, windows feel more inviting than walls. Last night had no votes planned, just discussion from the development team on how they planned to handle the board’s concerns.

Digging into the details, the parking layouts look the same, and the second phase apartment building, Point East II, was intended to have ground-level parking, built over a temporary surface lot between phase one and two. But the original two-phased plan had a “T”-shaped driveway, and the revised plan changed it to an interior loop (“U”-shaped) with entry and exit on either end of the building. That ate up space previously intended for parking, so to compensate the development team shoehorned spaces into the ground floors of the other two buildings. Eight street-side spaces were also removed to better make room for the fire lane.

A cadre of project team representatives was on hand from HOLT Architects, T. G. Miller P.C. for engineering work, and Whitham Planning and Design as landscape designers and project sherpas through the review process. For this project, Whitham’s Kate Chesebrough gave the overall updates and fielded most of the board’s comments, with assistance from HOLT’s Steve Hugo.

“We understand some of the comments about animating the ground floor…to make a counterpoint, as an architect, we struggle a bit putting apartments close to public spaces, that separation of public and private spaces…(N)ow we don’t have those apartments there, but we extended the public realm,” said Hugo. Chesebrough added that local restauranteur Kevin Sullivan (Luna, Purity), has shown interest in the 3,200 square-foot waterfront bistro space.

The board still felt like the ground-level parking was a disappointment. “I think this is overall a great project, but there’s a massive missed opportunity with…doing covered parking in such an incredible location,” said the board’s Correa.

“I would strongly advise the developers to look at other collaborative uses – daycare, a gym, offices – anything other than parking. I really dislike the idea of using such an expensive space for parking,” said his colleague Elisabete Godden. Chair Lewis added that the covered parking along the promenade next to the restaurant bothered him more than parking on the ground floors overall. “What kills me is that the space furthest out you gain all of fourteen spaces. It’s hard for me to imagine those fourteen spaces as a difference-maker.”

The project team was somewhat defensive, explaining that Phase Two had not been fully fleshed out during the 2020 review, and that they’re trying to strike a balance between Guthrie visitors and workers, the general public, and residential and restaurant tenants. Without the shared parking agreement they would need over 650 spaces. SRF Associates, a Rochester firm that handles most traffic studies locally, has been retained for a parking utilization and traffic study to verify the needs of the project. The Community Center can still be pursued in conjunction with Newman, but it will take more time to hash out.

The board decided to take a vote on whether to reopen the environmental review given the changes. In general, though, the board wasn’t in favor because they felt the overall result would be the same, and it might as well be documented in the overall Site Plan Review. In Chair Lewis’s words, he felt that the changes were negative, but the project overall was still a positive — just, not as positive.

From here, the project will continue with design critiques and hopefully a couple of changes to the Planning Board’s liking. It looks like there’s a clear path forward for approval at some point in the spring.

Catherine Commons (Catherine Street/College Avenue)

For 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 11 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 project is entering the home stretch of what has been several months of review. Last night’s agenda called for finishing Environmental Review, a potential vote on negative declaration (i.e. effective mitigations, can move to next step in process), and writing up a recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals. In the project team’s favor came the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission report that gave the project a thumbs-up, though they want to see more face work down on the west facades that face downhill and towards much of the city. (No doubt some “brownie points” were earned when the developers paid extra to deconstruct and salvage materials from the 11 homes on site, rather than bulldoze them and send all that material to the landfill.)

Some revisions had to be made to the review to accommodate a plan to keep sidewalks open on Catherine Street, but otherwise there was little additional discussion. “I’m so excited about this project and getting these awesome public spaces, I think it’ll really transform the street,” said board member Emily Petrina.

The negative declaration on the SEQR passed unanimously. As for the variances and BZA recommendation, the board is enthusiastic about the proposal, support building upward to make room for public spaces on the street level, and did not identify any long-term planning issues with the plans. Barring any curveballs, this project is on track for approval within the next couple of months.

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, a 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. Last month, they picked up where they left off in Summer 2020, with the plans the same as before. Like Catherine Commons, last night’s agenda called for finishing Environmental Review, a potential vote on negative declaration, and writing up a recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

A coalition of sustainability and historic preservation groups provided a group letter asking that the existing house at 107 Lake Street be moved or at least salvaged for materials rather than bulldozed. Historic Ithaca has offered to take the lead on trying to find someone who would take the house for free and move it to their own land (at the new owner’s expense). There’s nothing in city code that mandates relocation or deconstruction, but it’s something they’re encouraging the Chabad folks to explore.

In response to that request, the Chabad Center has said they’re willing to give what would be the cost of demolition (which varies, but estimates in-meeting came to $50,000) to anyone who relocates the 2,000 square-foot home, but should that fail to entice, then they’ll have the home dismantled and the more valuable parts salvaged. Side note, $50,000 would be a sizable payment, but moving a house is not cheap. One person has expressed interest, but the “must-move” date has to be within the next 12 months.

Architect Jason Demarest was there to speak about the plans. Little has changed since last month, though the board’s new member probably appreciated the refresher. A parking survey was conducted; strict religious adherents to Jewish Shabbat aren’t supposed to drive after the big Friday night dinner, so there’s only about a dozen cars in and out from the 100-person big Friday night gathering, and hardly any traffic otherwise. The project also had a revised grading plan and got rid of the circular driveway turnaround (I do not have a revised render handy, the one above is now outdated), and no longer needs the 8% driveway grade variance.

The board was generally supportive of the proposal. Members are really pushing for recycling of 107 Lake Street if it can’t be relocated, and at Glass’s suggestion, a segment of existing sidewalk that spills out onto Lake Street will be removed. City planners suggested fewer ornamentals and more shade trees. The neg dec passed unanimously. As for the zoning variances, the board was favorable, identifying effective mitigations for the requested variances and identifying no issues with the requests themselves. If the BZA is amenable, the project could receive preliminary approval next month.

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.

Last night’s plans called for opening the Public Hearing and responding to initial feedback from the board given last month. The board was amicable to the proposal at its initial presentation last month, though noted they would want to review façade materials, stormwater plans and environmental filings carefully. It’s also adjacent to Fall Creek, where a number of residents have been moving to oppose the project since last month’s meeting.

Some letters of concern are better crafted than others. Resident Simon Wheeler smartly asked specifics about traffic studies and surface runoff mitigation plans, backed up by photos he has taken. On the other end, other residents complaining that the Auden plan and its potential residents don’t fit the neighborhood’s character should understand, and I will likely be saying this to my dying day, those arguments don’t work and may actually backfire.

For one thing, the building’s size is within zoning code in this case. More importantly, “those people aren’t like us” arguments have been used for decades to justify racial and ethnic segregation in communities, so there’s an unsavory element there, intended or not, that the Planning Board has no interest in touching.

Whitham Planning’s Michele Palmer gave the board an updated presentation. It was noted by Palmer that Auden’s current parking lot, serving 260 or so students, is only half-full, which is part of the reasoning why they’re pursuing a variance to better utilize the existing parking lot — assuming the rate of parking space rental stays similar, they have enough room in the existing lot already. Her colleague Yifei Yan shared some perspective massing renders, though board members preferred they photoshop the building into photos to better illustrate the perspectives.

As the Public Hearing opened, there were three speakers and a number of letters that asked to be read into the record, all in opposition. There we so many that in the interest of time, they just left the Public Hearing open so they could continue reading them in next month.

The board didn’t appear to be surprised by the pushback as no doubt some of them have seen the verbal call to arms on the Fall Creek listserv, but they did seek to make it clear they are very careful regarding the environmental data, they are sensitive to traffic impacts, and are doing their due diligence, and they are double-checking to make sure it fits with Comprehensive Plan. The debate will continue in March.

109-111 Valentine Place

Next up for site plan review last night was an updated presentation for a 30-unit apartment building proposed by local developers Phil Proujansky and John Novarr. The site is currently a pair of apartment houses at 109 and 111 Valentine Place, a dead-end street next to the Collegetown Terrace project. The rather dynamic and avant-garde design is the work of local architect and professor Caroline O’Donnell ‘s firm CODA Architecture, penned by O’Donnell with colleagues Iris Xiaoxue Ma and Shawn Daniels. Fitting for the location, it’s geared towards professional/graduate students and young professional workers. The project will require two area variances for minimum off-street parking and minimum lot size for quantity of units.

It’s outer Collegetown urban infill, it doesn’t stand out in scale given its larger neighbor, and parking will be shared with Collegetown Terrace, which Novarr and Proujansky also own. No major issues have been identified so far. The board has liked the style of the proposal, though they are cautious as expected for something needing two variances and a building lot reconfiguration to move forward.

Last night’s plan was to take a step forward by giving an updated presentation and asking the board to declare itself Lead Agency for Environmental Review. O’Donnell gave close-up views of the gold-tone finely-perforated metal finish, and the abstract heart elements within the perforations are a nice touch for a Valentine Street location.

The board really liked the design elements of the proposal. “This is exactly the part of town where we want to build student housing, this appears to be a sensitive way to do that…I’m excited to see this project move forward,” said Chair Lewis. The resolution to declare Lead Agency passed unanimously and the project will be back before the Planning Board next month.

Cornell Sprint Football Modular Building (141 Kite Hill Drive)

As introduced to the public by the Voice earlier this month, Cornell University proposes to erect an 1,836 SF modular single-story locker room structure that will house lockers and changing space for approximately 50 players, as well as showers, restroom facilities, and a training taping area. The proposed modular structure will be fabricated offsite, transported to the project site, and placed on concrete pier foundations. Site amenities include an aluminum ramp and railing for ADA access, stairs, plantings including trees and large shrubs, a 4-foot black, vinyl-coated chain link safety fence to replace a rusty chain-link fence, and lighting.

The project’s small, nowhere close to non-Cornell neighbors, and is unlikely stir passions among the public. That said, it has to follow the rules like anything else. Last night called for the board to Declare itself Lead Agency for Environmental Review, host the public hearing and sit back for a presentation about the project. Programming note, the board’s Elisabete Godden, a Cornell project manager, had to recuse herself from this item.

Cornell Planners Michael Stewart and Leslie Schill gave the board a presentation about the project. Stewart said that Cornell had exhaustively searched for a space to re-use but simply couldn’t find one appropriate for a locker room. The board was generally amenable to the plans. Chair Lewis asked about the lifespan of the building, and Schill replied they planned to keep it for 20-30 years. Sprint football might move out someday, but something else would move in.

The Declaration of Lead Agency was unanimous, the public hearing had no speakers (being four hours into the meeting, it was something of a relief among attendees), and it closed without issue.

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 five submissions this month. Three of those, 105 Wood, Catherine Commons and Chabad, are discussed in their segments above.

The other two are 304 Utica Street in Fall Creek, and 112 Fayette Avenue in Southside. Both are single-family owner-occupied homes with homeowners looking to add on some living space for their families, which comes into violation of Ithaca’s constrained zoning. Fun fact, over half of the city’s single-family homes are out of compliance with the zoning code (mostly because they were built before zoning), so any modifications trigger a fun and exciting trip to the BZA.

One of the neighbors to 304 Utica Street spoke against the proposal, citing the size of the addition and stormwater concerns. The addition would occupy an additional 400 square-feet of yard space, with a living room on the first floor and a bedroom and bathroom on the second floor (so about 800 square feet in the addition). They also drew concern that the architect, Emily Petrina, was on the board, but Petrina had no problem recusing herself and sitting out when the item came up for discussion.

The Planning Board is trying to be more cognizant after their joint training session with the BZA that the BZA looks at things differently and is more likely to get hung up over the size/scale of deviation of a variance from code while the Planning Board is more interested in context. The board has no issues with it though acknowledge some neighbors have issues, it doesn’t stick out like sore thumb in their eyes, and is generally supportive of owner-occupied home investments.

Likewise, Petrina’s studio also did the rear home addition for 112 Fayette, which appeared to be about 400 square-feet in size, as well as removing a decaying garage. The board had no issues here either.

Brian Crandall

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