ITHACA, N.Y.—As City of Ithaca Planning Board meetings go, this month’s felt relatively fresh. Since projects usually require several months of review, often times it just feels like a rehash with a few new details or changes. This month, three of the six projects on the agenda were either totally new to the board or greatly revised after a long hiatus. These projects also received generally polite receptions, though there are some issues that will need to be sorted out.
As always, the Voice is hear to give you the updates you crave. For those who like having reference notes on hand, you can open a copy of the unusually short 62-page PDF agenda for the meeting here.
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.
There was one subdivision review on the agenda last night, a fairly simple split of a single-family property at 1303-05 East State Street in the Belle Sherman neighborhood. The owners wish to split the 1.3-acre property into the existing home on 0.24 acres, and a 1.05 acre parcel to eventually be developed into another single-family home, which would be set back from the road in a flag lot. The lot subdivision requires no zoning variances.
This is a fairly uncomplicated application with only modest impacts, so environmental review was expected to be straightforward, though there are a lot of steps — Declaration of Lead Agency for SEQR, which they did right off the bat and was unanimous 7-0, the Public Hearing, SEQR Review and Determination of Environmental Significance, and the approvals if all looks good.
Homeowner Matthew Himmel represented himself to the board and gave a brief summary of the subdivision. No one wanted to speak during the Public Hearing so it came and went in about thirty seconds.
“This seemed pretty uncomplicated…I’m pretty good,” said Planning Board Chair Robert Lewis. “The flag lot to me makes sense in that spot,” added his colleague Emily Petrina. In response to questions, it was noted that while the property straddles the city-town line, the town had no comments, and any eventual home would take care to avoid the destruction of mature trees.
The Negative Declaration on SEQR passed unanimously, and final approval was granted unanimously as well. After some paperwork filing down at City Hall, Himmel will have his subdivision and be good to go.
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.
Here’s the short summary. 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 and Edger Enterprises 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 about 441 spaces. However, the three buildings have been revised to include more one-bedroom units in the 156-unit total, 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.
No votes were scheduled for the project in last night’s meeting. The plan was to continue the Public Hearing, and conduct Design Review on the proposed project. Previously, the board has expressed disappointment with the loss of ground-level residential and commercial restaurant space to covered parking (overall parking totals are about the same, the spaces were just moved from curbside due to fire safety concerns). In response, the Point West flagship building has seen revisions to its ground floor to relocate the café to the northwest side and cluster the parking on the east end, which will open up to and “activate” the waterfront, as well as some landscaping and parking tweaks. This includes specialty pavers to help separate parking courts from the street, more curvilinear features to feel more park-like, a carshare space and a potential paddle park location.
New this month were revised designs for the Point East II Building and landscaping updates. Additional front entrance seating and bike parking has been added, as well as revisions to planting beds, the private patio space, and terraced lawn seating areas.
Whitham Planning and Design’s Kate Chesebrough informed the board of the updates, describing the paving treatments to create a more pedestrian-centric environment, the terraced lawn and stone seating (local Seneca Stone) on the south side of Point East II, and the establishment of a “mobility hub” with car share, bus, and pedestrian/bike facilities. Steve Hugo of HOLT Architects gave updates on the building designs, in which Point East II’s dormers were squared off and would have a flat roof vs. the mansard roof on the other two apartment buildings. Materials would be similar, ribbed aluminum siding with engineered wood, stone and metal accents.
The Public Hearing came and went without speakers, which left the board to focus on Design Review. Generally, the board was comfortable with the designs, though not enamored with the revised dormers. “I dunno, I feel like the mansard roof from the previous iteration, I guess I like that better, it had a vaguely nautical theme to me and it looked pretty good,” said the board’ Mitch Glass. “This just looks a little more conventional. But it’s not a deal breaker, it’s fine.”
“I do wonder is there a net gain to the top floor tenants with the flat roof,” said his colleague Daniel Correa. “I picture myself as a second-floor tenant, and I wonder how high the street lights are; would they glare into those units? Nothing critical, just something to keep in mind.”
Design-wise, the project’s in a good place. “You’ve been through a pretty long process on the redesign, everyone appreciates the effort,” said Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas. The big issues have been sorted out and it’s just hashing out details at this point. The project’s in a strong position for approval by early summer.
109-111 Valentine Place
Next up for site plan review last night was an updated presentation, public hearing and continued environmental review 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 the 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 proposal so far, though they are cautious as expected for something needing two variances and a building lot reconfiguration to move forward. Last night was scheduled to host continuing review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF, and typically the last part of SEQR review), and potentially take a vote on Environmental Significance; a negative declaration, meaning impacts effectively mitigated, would pave the way to a vote of project approval later this spring.
Landscape Architect Kathryn Wolf of TWMLA gave the update to the board, with assistance from CODA Architecture’s Iris Xiaoxue Ma. Larger trees out front have been replaced with medium-size trees (Japanese Maples). The heart-shaped patterns in the gold-toned architectural steel perforation (for “Valentine” Place, after all) was a nice touch.
Correa cautioned against the Japanese Maples as they tend to be a favorite of deer, and Glass said he loved the way the building glowed, and what would like that feeling brought out to the bike storage area. Generally, the board was pleased with the building design, they just wanted to make sure landscape vegetation was sufficient. In discussion of the proposed zoning variances, the bike spaces and parking across the street owned by the same developer was felt to be sufficient for the parking variance, and the building size variance was acceptable with sufficient landscaping. Remember, the Planning Board only make recommendations to the BZA, which may choose to agree or disagree in its vote. It wasn’t on the agenda for tonight, so the formal recommendation will be made in May, for a BZA vote in June.
With that, the board finished its Environmental Review and had its vote on Environmental Significance, which passed unanimously 7-0. Pending BZA approval of variances in June, preliminary approval could be granted as soon as late June.
Breeze Apartments (121-25 Lake Street)
Moving on to the next item in Site Plan Review is the Breeze Apartment proposal for the Ithaca Gun property. Ithaca’s Visum Development Group proposes to build a four-story apartment building and associated site improvements on the former Gun Hill Factory site. The 77-unit, 109-bed market-rate apartment building will be a mix of studios, one- and two-bedroom units and includes 77 parking spaces (47 surface spaces and 30 covered spaces under the building). Site improvements include stone dust walkways, bike racks, benches, a bioretention filter to treat the parking areas and rooftop stormwater, native and adaptive plant species, and meadow areas to restore edges of the site.
The building will be constructed on the east parcel of the Former Ithaca Gun Factory Site which is currently in the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP). Before site development can occur, the applicant is required to remediate the site based on a soil cleanup objective for restricted residential use. A remedial investigation (RI) was recently completed at the site and was submitted to NYSDEC in April 2021.
Long story short, the project will need a couple zoning variances but nothing extreme, may still receive some of Fall Creek’s ire though not as much since it’s farther east than the Auden proposal, and the environmental remediation plan is going to have to be bulletproof given the site’s contaminated history. Not impossible, but Visum and its partners will have some work to do to earn Site Plan Approval. This month was to have an updated presentation and see the board Declare itself Lead Agency to conduct Environmental Review.
Visum Vice President of Development Patrick Braga did the introductory presentation. Braga argued that a full EIS would not likely be necessary, but that a standard SEQR review of “hundreds of pages” would be sufficient, as the contamination exists and the project’s remediation would improve on that existing issue rather than make it worse. Given recent debate about Auden, it’s not clear that will win the board over, and Interim Director Lisa Nicholas warned that the board was not seeking Visum’s advice. However, there’s nothing that stops them from making a case.
That was a rather gutsy tactic, but more important is that there is an existing remediation study from the previous Travis Hyde proposal, and Visum has placed all of its environmental analyses and plans online here. Frankly, there was a surprising amount of transparency with the sharing of materials. Braga said that was guided in part by the public response to Auden II, so Fall Creekers, have at it.
Meanwhile, SWBR Architect Erik Reynolds gave an update on the building design, noting the sunken public plaza at the front east corner, a community balcony space above the covered parking entrance, and touched on the metal, brick and engineered wood that were planned for use in the building’s façade. Everyone likes engineered wood because it looks natural and warm but it’s a lot easier to maintain. Either fiber cement or synthetic stucco/EIFS will likely make it in as well.
The board voted unanimously to declare itself Lead Agency. The board appreciated the website, with Glass calling it “a great model,” though they weren’t sure how they’d incorporate it into their own environmental review. Chair Lewis felt that the design “read cold” to him with choice of materials and palette, but in terms of massing and layout the board was comfortable. The board’s Emily Petrina called the street-facing façade “fantastic.” The board did want to see further perspective renders to judge impacts on viewsheds.
While the board was comfortable with the direction of the project, there’s going to be a lot of review and coordination with the NYS DEC on remediation plans for the site. It’s not that they don’t trust Visum’s explanations on their website, but the board needs to figure out who is in charge of what in making and achieving objectives. Some organizational planning needs to be done for the complicated process ahead, but Chair Lewis called it “an exciting project” and thanked them for the extensive batch of information. The project team will be back next month.
Thurston Hall Addition (130 Hollister Drive)
New to the Planning Board this month are Cornell’s plans to expand the Thurston Hall academic building on its Engineering Quad. The expansion entails a 4-story addition with a basement, approximately 50,550 GSF, to the existing Thurston Hall built in the early 1950s. The addition will house instructional and research labs as well as instructional, research and collaborative spaces for the College of Engineering. The project includes new landscaping, lighting, outdoor seating, and areas for impromptu outdoor classrooms.
The project is located in U-1 zoning that gives a fairly wide berth for Cornell to design what it wants, and the project here won’t require any variances. It’s not especially large and review is likely to be fairly straightforward with minimal public controversy expected. Last night’s review included a brief presentation and a scheduled vote to Declare Lead Agency for SEQR.
As before, the board’s Elisabete Godden excused herself as she is a project manager for Cornell, so they were temporarily down to six members. Declaration of the Planning Board as Lead Agency for environmental review still passed unanimously. Associate Cornell Architect J. Shermeta was the lead presenter for Cornell, discussing the university’s motivations for the project (if you read the Voice article earlier this month, you already know) and programmatic layout, while native Ithacan David Martin of NBBJ Architects discussed the building design. The project will achieve LEED Silver with LEED Gold as a stretch goal, and will comply with the Ithaca Green Building Policy.
No one spoke during the Public Hearing for the project, and the board was favorable to the proposal. “This seems like a fantastic project. This is one of the only additions that looks so natural in the location you’ve proposed it in,” said Petrina. She asked if the staircase leading to the suspension bridge could also be enhanced as part of the landscape work. Glass also liked the design, though stressed that the glass should be transparent (no pun intended).
“There’s a lot to like, this looks like a great project. I’ve taught in Snee and moved to Hollister (Hall, next door). I echo Emily (Petrina)’s comment, that staircase across the trolley bridge, it would be nice if that could somehow be formalized. But overall, this is very welcome,” said the board’s Garrick Blalock.
The project is off to an auspicious start and will be back before the board next month.
The Hive (132 Cherry Street)
Not necessarily new plans here, but substantially revised plans for Visum’s Cherry Street mixed-use project were introduced to the board last night as well. Visum’s latest plan for the former Ben Weitsman property proposes to demolish the existing building and construct a primarily residential mixed-use development with two 5-story buildings. The buildings contain 143 residential units on four floors, two commercial spaces totaling 3,220 square feet, 50 parking spaces on the ground floor, and indoor amenities including a fitness room, multifunctional studio, community kitchen, rooftop terrace and lounge, dog wash and secured package room. Outdoor amenities include a picnic area, a waterfront courtyard with a pool, a plaza along Cherry Street, streetscape improvements and landscaping.
The project is located in the Cherry Street District Zoning District and will require a front yard variance. The project site is in the Cherry Street Zoning District (CSD) and is subject to Design Review. This is a fairly large proposal and there’s a lot for the Planning Board to go through, so expect this to be a fairly involved review process. As with the Thurston Hall item, last night’s review included a brief presentation and a scheduled vote to Declare Lead Agency for SEQR.
“What we bring today is a mixed-use building that activates the waterfronts and retains the industrial character through materials. Visum is being very intentional with the concepts behind every one of its concepts that it brings to the board,” said Visum Chief Operating Officer Laura Mattos. “The Hive, by definition in the urban dictionary, it’s a place buzzing with activity, and where people come together.”
CJS Architects’ Scott Selin spoke about the building plans themselves. Selin noted that IFD had concerns with access with the original one-building plan, which was one of the leading reasons why they split the original building into two smaller structures with the revision. The two retail spaces will sit at the corner of Cherry Street and Cecil B. Malone Drive, and on Cherry Street adjacent to Arthaus.
The board unanimously declared itself Lead Agency for Environmental Review and did its virtual roundtable of comments. “I like the density in this spot, I like the design, I like the pops of color…and I’d like to see a little more,” said Chair Lewis. “I appreciate the efforts at connectivity,” added C.J. Randall.
“Lean into the color,” added Petrina. “Your project along with Arthaus makes this a neighborhood, and creates an interesting mix of people, so that’s really cool.”
“How about a honeycomb pattern, if you’re calling it ‘The Hive’ “? Asked Glass. “Having some affordable component, if possible, would be good.” Godden added that she would like to see some more landscaping in the interior courtyard space. The project was well-received, and will be back before the board for further discussion next month.
Maguire Hyundai-Subaru (320 Elmira Road)
Last in the Site Plan Review agenda last night was the Maguire Family of Dealerships’ plan to renovate its Hyundai-Subaru dealership in Southwest Ithaca. The proposal calls for a multiphase renovation project for the 2.53-acre site and the
existing 18,000 square-foot building, which contains two vehicle dealership showrooms, offices, a service reception, a service garage, parts storage, and a store mezzanine. The proposed work for the building includes many exterior and interior renovations including service garage slab replacement, window replacement, partial height CMU partition walls, and interior and exterior painting. The proposed site renovations include removal and replacement of existing gravel parking with asphalt, planting beds and islands, curbing, and concrete aprons and pads.
The project is located in the SW-2 Zoning District, which is fairly permissive as the city of Ithaca’s zoning goes – SW-2 is basically the catch-all for suburban commercial and small-box/big-box retail, car dealerships included. With no zoning variances needed and being a renovation rather than a new construction, the review should be fairly smooth. Last night had a presentation about the project, the scheduled opening of the Public Hearing, and the Planning Board’s vote to Declare Lead Agency for SEQR.
Declaration of Lead Agency was granted unanimously as the project came to the floor. John Snyder of the eponymous local architecture firm gave the presentation. “This is a largely a repair of the existing building with some significant upgrades to the electrical and the plumbing components of the project,” said Snyder, as he walked through the plans for the board. Snyder cautioned there are some unknowns with front façade driven by corporate branding that may necessitate some changes in the next month or so.
No one spoke at the Public Hearing. As for board feedback, both Petrina and Glass raised the idea of a setback with planting strips and bollards between the road and parking area, for aesthetics and for safety’s sake. Snyder said they would look at ways to address green space in the front, but pending results on the unknowns from automaker corporates, they’re not ready to make final decisions. The project will be back before the board in May.
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 four submissions this month.
228 Dryden and 325 Elmwood have trimmed proposals to try to reduce the size and number of variances required; but without really touching on them as they’ve already recommended variances for both, the board chose to not issue further comment. A three-bedroom unit for a renovated basement space at 123 North Quarry didn’t raise any concerns as it was a renovation and subtle increase in density. 204 Homestead Terrace, which wants to replace a stoop with a porch and aggravate the front yard variance, was seen as an aesthetic improvement and being an owner-occupied home, the board is generally supportive of these kinds of renovations.
In other news, the overwhelming lack of enthusiasm for being Vice-Chair for the Planning Board in place of McKenzie Jones was ever so clear to Chair Lewis, as he tried to sell other members of the board on it and considered it practice for if someone wants his chair role someday. I didn’t hear much excitement for the position at last night’s meeting either, though Godden expressed interest even if she has to sit out Cornell projects.