ITHACA, NY.—It was a busy meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board last night. Three projects, one on Cornell’s campus and a pair of infill housing developments, got the vote of approval from the planning board, while four others had varying receptions as they shared their planned and made efforts to move forward in the Site Plan Review process.

As always, here’s your monthly summary courtesy of the Voice. For those who like to have the playbill on hand for reference, the 193-page agenda for the meeting can be found in PDF form here. Quick programming note, two of the board members, Chair Robert Lewis and Vice-Chair Elisabete Godden, were absent, so member Emily Petrina served as acting chair for the five members present.

Subdivision Review

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, for 261 Lake Street, site of the Auden II apartment project. To be clear, the project itself is on hold and not actively going through the Planning Board review process at this time. However, should its own, DMG Investments, seek to sell the lot, they want need to subdivide part of the parking lot’s property and combine it into the undeveloped lot facing Lake Street to the west.

Now, the obvious question here is parking, and a couple of you reached out to the Voice’s inbox before the meeting to inquire about that. There would have to be an arrangement of shared parking rights at the existing parking lot with any potential new owner of the undeveloped Auden II site, to meet zoning requirements. That would involve some legal paperwork, maybe a financial deal, but long story short, it is hypothetically possible.

“The Auden II project has been formally withdrawn from Site Plan Review and SEQR,” said Whitham Planning and Design’s Michelle Palmer. She stated that the reconfigured lot, if approved, may either be used to develop a smaller project than what was initially proposed, or sold off to another developer.

“This seems straightforward,” noted Petrina. There were no public comments and the board had no concerns with Declaring Lead Agency or with the Environmental Determination. Board Member Mitch Glass did express concern with potential future development and what a smaller development may look like that fits with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Planning Director Lisa Nicholas said that would be up to the future proposal on whether to comply with existing zoning (R-3a, 4 stories/35% maximum lot coverage) or try its luck with justifying a zoning variance request.

With that, the board approved the subdivision unanimously and moved on to Site Plan Review.

615-617 Cascadilla Street

First up on the Site Plan Review agenda for June is a West End infill housing project that was previously approved back in September 2021. Local developer and landlord Stavros Stavropoulos is planning to redevelop a West End property with four small apartment buildings, each with two 3‐bedroom units, for a total of eight rental apartments. The plans stretch across two zones — the required off‐street parking will occupy the commercial/mixed-use WEDZ‐1b area of the parcel, while each of the four duplexes will be in the R-2b residential zoning. The project includes other site amenities such as lighted walkways, covered bike parking, and landscaping. Vehicle access will be on North Meadow Street and existing curb cuts on Cascadilla Street will be removed. Pedestrian and bike traffic will access the site from Cascadilla Street and North Meadow Street.

The project is seeking modifications for a couple of reasons. One is, after a near-flooding event on-site last fall, they decided to raise the elevations of three of the buildings to be further above grade (the site will be included in the FEMA Flood Maps, most likely). The fourth building has undergone value engineering to bring the costs back into budget. The development teams’ hope last night was that they could get the Planning Board to sign off on these fairly substantial changes.

The board was not particularly enthused about the changes last month, asking for more work to be done with the facades. In turn, architect Daniel R. Hirtler revised the submitted designs this month to try and strike a balance between civil and value engineering, and visual interest that the board would be amenable to supporting. Hirtler also engaged with a landscape architect to develop a more lush and hardy planting plan.

It appears to have been enough. “It’s a really nice project…it’s in a place that’s very walkable, there’s access to grocery stores, and it’s adding needed housing Downtown,” said Glass, who further likened it to a pocket neighborhood. His colleagues Garrick Blalock and C.J. Randall agreed. “I think it’s a cool buffer between Fall Creek and what’s being developed on Meadow Street,” added board member Daniel Correa.

With that, the board opened up a vote on approving the project changes, and the vote passed unanimously. With any luck, the infill project will be ready for occupancy sometime next year.

The Ruby (228 Dryden Road)

This project has been in the works for a while and had taken several months’ pause to rework the project to reduce the number of variances required, as the BZA rejected the first version. The Planning Board has been okay with the original iteration, but site issues and a more stringent board of Zoning Appeals led to a reduction from 39 units to 35, in a slightly more compact footprint with building design modifications.

The applicant proposes to demolish the existing two-story structure and to construct a four-story building plus partially-exposed basement on the .185-acre project site. The project includes other site amenities such as landscaping, walkways, and outdoor patios. The project site is in the CR-4 zoning district and has undergone Design Review under the Collegetown Design Guidelines.

Developer Boris Simkin would like to get started on this in time to open for the Fall 2023 semester, so the goal of last night was to earn final approval on the project and have those coveted construction permits needed to make this building a reality.

In response to board concerns regarding the “fortress-like” front yard, the revised submission, presented by Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering and HOLT Architects’ Tom Covell, provides for a more lush landscape with a more staggered and accessible concrete retaining wall and entry area, as well as seating and bike storage. Ginkgo trees (presumably the non-smelly kind) and juniper trees would be planted in front along with daylilies, and the exterior lighting plan was also tweaked.

Glass stressed they had to be as lush as possible, but he was comfortable with trusting city planning staff to keep tabs. Other than that, he was comfortable with proposal. The rest of the board had no further comments; this project has been before their eyes many times before and they were ready to finally sign off, and the vote to grant approval passed unanimously.

The 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, and the environmental remediation plan has to be bulletproof given the site’s contaminated history. Visum stressed that NYS DEC and DOH both had to and have signed off on the proposed cleanup plan, and with state oversight in that regard, Visum hoped to allay board concerns. On tap for this month was to review design changes and work through some of the Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), moving along but still some work to do before a vote on environmental significance can take place.

The only public comments came from neighbors Samantha Trumbo and Peter Bloom, who stressed the need for a thorough traffic study and consider having a stop light in front of the Breeze Apartments, and expressed concerns with dust stirred up by the project and construction noise. Bloom noted that their conversations with Visum have been cordial.

SWBR Architects’ Robert Fornataro and T.G. Miller’s David Herrick were on hand to talk about the project, which has not been significantly altered in the past month. Conversations about sidewalk extensions with the city to access the smokestack overlook/pocket park are ongoing. Visum Vice President Patrick Braga told the board they hope to start the state-reviewed cleanup by the end of July. “We really want this site to not just be blighted, contaminated land, but a true jewel,” said Braga.

The board was generally comfortable with the proposed remediation plan and timeline, given the DEC and DOH oversight. Glass asked about physical oversight, to which Braga noted involved site visits and a “point-person” at DEC (probably a permitting engineer; disclaimer, I am a DEC meteorologist, and am not in any way involved with this review.) Visum has agreed to publish remediation data online for public consumption, which gave the board some comfort.

With transparency and sufficient detail to please the board, the project is on an auspicious path. The project team will be back before the board next month.

Thurston Hall Addition (130 Hollister Drive)

Next up before 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 which 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. After just a few months, the project was on deck for a vote on preliminary and final site plan approval at last night’s meeting.

Cornell landscape architect David Cutter opened the presentation to the board. Regarding landscaping, eight mature trees will need to be removed, two will be transplanted, and eighteen new trees of at least 4″ trunk diameter will be planted. A couple different paver patterns are being considered. Cutter noted an air emissions report has been submitted and a fire department driveway access variance was approved by the state. His colleague J Shermeta focused on the building itself, with a 20% window-to-wall ratio, detailed ribbing in the façade panels, and a pre-weathered copper fascia above the entrance and ground floor.

The board was generally amenable. Daniel Correa asked for them to consider some kind of “stopper” on the edge of the bluestone seating, because skateboarders grinding along the edge had thoroughly worn down similar seating on other parts of campus. Glass suggested they might want to look into a red material vs. the grey-green patina of copper. But other than that, they were totally in favor. The vote to grant approval to the project passed unanimously 5-0.

The Hive (132 Cherry Street)

Onto the next project in last night’s lengthy agenda. 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. The itinerary this month didn’t have any votes planned, just an updated presentation and the continuation of Design Review, the architectural and aesthetic impacts of the proposal.

Scott Selin of CJS Architects and Andrew Murphy of RPK Landscape Architects represented the project before the board. The stairwell that faces the waterfront will host a colorful honeycomb pattern and an aesthetic permeable base to feel more open towards the shoreline. Corrugated metals and premium fiber cement panels will be used for façade materials, with a small amount of painted concrete masonry block for the stairwell towers and covered parking area.

On the landscaping side, cherry trees will be planted along Cherry Street, with a host of other mostly-native perennials throughout the site. Ground cover will consist of low-maintenance sumac and red fescue. With boxy planters, overhead LED lighting strings, nice pavers and EV chargers, it’s the standard 2020s urban professional renter vibe.

The board did have concerns with the aesthetics. Glass called the landscaping plan towards the inlet “undeveloped” and wanted a richer variety of trees than a row of dogwoods, calling the screening a real opportunity, and encouraged wood panels in place of some of the fiber cement—”nicer quality materials, and a lot nicer landscaping plan.” Correa was also concerned about the landscaping, while Blalock and Randall were more amenable. Chair Petrina fell between the two groups, generally favorable but wanting renderings of the courtyard interior.

With the mix of feedback, some changes are likely but the project isn’t in a bad position by any means. It will be back before the board next month.

Maguire Hyundai-Subaru (320 Elmira Road)

Next up to bat 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 current 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 an updated presentation and continued Environmental Review, Part 2 and the start of Part 3.

John Snyder of John Snyder Architects gave the project update, with business owner Phil Maguire also on the Zoom call. There’s some effort to tie the planting together with the neighboring Maguire Chrysler-Jeep property, and in response to board concerns, the development team has worked to try and find a place to insert a tree and add some patch of substantive greenery to the front. The board’s Blalock asked about a tree removed from the southeast corner, to which Snyder said he could speak with the landscape architect to see if they could it back in. Blalock said they’d have his vote if they added it back along with all the currently proposed plantings.

The negative declaration for environmental review passed with a unanimous vote. The project team will have a meeting about plantings with city forester Jeanne Grace next month, and be back before the Planning Board in July.

Cornell Computing and Information Science Building (CIS, Hoy Road)

Last up on the agenda is the freshest project, which the Voice shared with you dear readers last month. Cornell University proposes constructing a 4-story L-shaped building, approximately 133,000 square-feet, south and adjacent to Gates Hall (107 Hoy Rd.) and west of Hoy Garage on Hoy Road in the area currently occupied by Hoy Baseball Field. The new building will house academic and research facilities for Cornell Bowers Computing and Information Science (CIS) programs, faculty, and students. The project includes a new quad, plaza spaces, new greenspaces along with native landscaping, pedestrian/vehicular circulation, accessible and electric vehicle parking, and a service drive. The SPR filing indicates hard construction costs (materials, labor) will clock in at about $76 million and the project is aiming for a March 2025 completion. It would also create about 60 new jobs on campus.

As with the Thurston Hall addition, the project is located in U-1 zoning that gives a fairly wide berth for Cornell to design what it wants, and it won’t require any variances. That noted, this is a fairly sizable building with substantial impacts, so it might move a little more slowly than most Cornell projects, if still faster than similar projects of its size and scope.

Plans to vote for Declaration of Lead Agency were removed at the start of the night’s agenda as some NYSDEC paperwork had yet to be received, so there were no voting items this month, just a presentation from Cornell’s lead campus architect, Margaret Carney, and landscape architects Kim Michaels of TWMLA.

Carney noted the project is driven by the rapid growth in computer science enrollment, faculty, and research, all of which need space for offices, equipment and activities. The building would create a cohesive complex with neighboring Gates Hall and aim to create a pedestrian-friendly experience from Hoy Road.

In turn, Michaels noted the flexibility of U-1 zoning, the small quad between Gates and the new building, the extensive “gorge-inspired” plantings and walkways south of the building, and the elevated connector (skyway) that will attach Gates to the new building. The building have a glassy, transparent ground floor to create a feeling of openness.

The goal is to have approvals by August—which as Planner Nicholas, that might be a bit too quick, but we’ll see what happens. Construction would begin in the first quarter of 2023 and last 24 months.

Providing initial comment, the board was generally favorable towards the initial design, both building and landscaping. Correa, a Cornell alum, encouraged something in the design elements that ties into the site’s history as Hoy Field, and Blalock encouraged adding wayfinding signage, which Carney and Michaels said they would certainly consider. Glass called it an “exciting start,” but was not a fan of the dense plantings along the curve of Hoy Road, noting that it detracting from the ground-floor café space and the feeling of openness.

The board expressed excitement about the plans — about as good a start as an applicant can home for. The project team will be back in front of the Planning Board in July.

Proposed renovations to 622 Cascadilla Street.

Zoning Appeals

Moving on to recommendations to the Board of Zoning Appeals for their meeting next month, the Planning Board had three applications to review for comment.

The first application was to carve out a new bedroom inside each one of two existing units inside a rental duplex at 208 Hudson Street on South Hill. While no exterior changes are planned, it effectively increases occupancy by two people, in a building that was grandfathered in to lot size requirements. Adding more people exacerbates the deficiency, so it needs to make a trip to the BZA.

In brief discussion, the board found no strong reason to be opposed, or in matter for that matter. The building is grandfathered into zoning and it’s a subtle increase in density that, as they saw it, posed no major planning impacts.

Application number two is for 209 Bryant Avenue in Belle Sherman. The homeowners want to construct a new porch and move the porch stairs from the side of the porch to the front, but doing so would violate front yard setback requirements because stairs are a structure per building code. Generally speaking, the Planning Board doesn’t have much issue with owner-occupied home improvements unless the neighbors are up in arms, and no letters of opposition had been received by meeting time. The board had no problems with the requested variance.

Lastly, the third application is part of a commercial renovation. The former Zaza’s Restaurant at 622 Cascadilla Street on the West End is being renovated into the new Ithaca location for Cortland-based Meldrim’s Paint Center, the first expansion for the century-old institution outside Cortland County. The variance is for signage; the business wants to use five signs, but only two are allowed by zoning. Historically, while generally being amenable to most projects (moreso than the BZA anyway), the Planning Board is a real stickler on signage.

“A paint store needs five signs instead of two? Oh, paint cans. I got it,” Glass said flatly as they looked over the renderings.

“Will of these signs be lit?” Asked Correa. Nicholas said the ones facing the residences nearby definitively should not be.

The board found the signs to be a weird execution of styles and locations. They thought one paint can on Route 13 was enough, though Glass disagreed, thinking the sign facing the parking lot was more important. Long story short, they thought it was too many signs, not cohesive, and not good for wayfinding, and encouraged the BZA to seek a smaller signage package.

Other Business

In other business, a new zoning map will be rolling out in the coming months, which will hopefully be a little more user-friendly than the existing one. Planner Nicholas noted the Inlet Island and DOT Third Street sites are likely to make it to the board by the end of the year, and will be fairly sizable projects. INHS’s Founder’s Way is nearly complete, and the Ironworks project is in the home stretch.

Also, pending any further state decisions, the board will meet in-person next month, though it’s not clear if they’ll still be broadcasting online or on YouTube for those who wish to watch remotely.

Brian Crandall

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