ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a busy meeting Tuesday night for the City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board. The Maguire Family of Dealerships earned the green light to go ahead with its next renovation project, and several other projects around the city advanced forward with planning review, albeit with varying degrees of reservation and future outlooks. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and read on below, and have a glance at the agenda here.

Special Presentation — Overview of Plumbing License Process

Now, some of you might be thinking “What the heck? I came here to read about buildings.” And your probably did, but this ties into a discussion back in May to explain how plumbers and electricians are licensed in the city of Ithaca to perform work. The Planning Board wanted a primer on the topic because lack of available skilled labor has been a constraint on construction projects, and city Plumbing Inspector Tom Hayward agreed to come in and explain the licensing process. Side note, Hayward, a third-generator union plumber, is probably the first guy I’ve seen at one of these meetings who can give Board Chair Rob Lewis a run for totally awesome beards.

As Hayward explained, there is a three-person examining board of plumbers and the first “master plumber” in Ithaca was entitled in 1948. They oversee journeymen and apprentice plumbers and entitle master plumbers. Hayward said they’re not “super, super tough” on licensing but they use tests and other regional cities like Syracuse, Auburn and Oswego use parts of Ithaca’s tests. He noted that the town relies on the Bolton Point water system for review of plumbing permits.

Hayward explained that the plumbing system is old, and that Ithaca “has a unique building phase, there’s a lot of building going on.” That’s a combination for a lot of work and not enough hands to deal with it. People are often afraid of the tests, but Hayward said it’s open-book and Ithaca has a 100% pass rate since October 2018, though some have taken it multiple times — they don’t seek to derail testers. Tests are given twice a year, typically a Thursday in April and in October, with 5 to 7 tests given a year for a fee of $10 and proof of eight years of plumbing experience. Only about two dozen plumbers have active licenses, which has to be done annually, otherwise they have to retake the test (no charge if previously credentialed).

Long story short, there are state constraints, the city tries to run a fair but thorough process, and while the planning board doesn’t want to constrain development, licensing is important and there are only so many plumbers and electricians to go around. To paraphrase board member Emily Petrina, it sounds like the issue is more marketing of licensure than the actual test itself. (Folks, if you know a practicing eligible plumber, put them in touch with the city.) It was an interesting perspective from something the general public doesn’t hear much about, and the board appreciated it.

Site Plan Review

Following the Special Presentation and the customary public comment agenda item, 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.

KeyBank (500 S. Meadow Street)

This project might sound familiar. The Board began review in February 2021, and in April it had advanced far enough in the review process to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals and receive a variance. At that point, it was eligible for preliminary approval; however, the project team never submitted the project for preliminary or final approval. Changes to state construction code regulations in floodplains last year led to the project being put on pause, since the building pad to lift it out of the flood zone would not be cheap, and KeyBank wanted to be sure they wanted to move forward at this site. Well, they have. The project is finally ready to seek approval.

Quick refresher, KeyBank has plans to build a new $1.34 million branch on 1.063 acres of land to be subdivided from the 17.771-acre Wegman’s property on South Meadow Street in the city’s big box retail corridor. Plans call for a new 3,415 square-foot branch office with freestanding ATM canopy. The site will also include 59 parking spaces, two drive through lanes, lighting, landscaping, signage, and internal walkways. Vehicular site access will be from the rear of the property off the internal circulation road of the Wegmans property.

However, there has been some dissent. The board’s Mitch Glass, who was unable to attend the meeting, supplied a letter prior to the meeting stating he would oppose project approval because of two reasons. One, it sits in the 100-year flood plain and is lifted up on a soil/fill pad, which Glass felt made it stand out too much and be out of context with the urban fabric (Glass says it’s a five-foot lift, Keybank’s documents say two feet). For two, it removes eight mature English Oak trees, which he felt would make the building stand out even more. Feeling the project was not an improvement to the Meadow Street corridor, he voiced his opposition.

Project architect Ben Gingrich of HSB Architects + Engineers was on hand to walk the board through the plans. Gingrich said the bank did its best to connect to South Meadow Street, saying that it was a very challenging site and they wanted the building to be approachable. They sought to soften the elevated footprint with landscaping and employing a lower slope to avoid “switchback” accessibility ramps. Gingrich emphasized that “a lot of glass” faced towards South Meadow, providing some degree of engagement and interest. (Apparently, that entrance vestibule is called an “entrance cube.” It’s not a cube, but we’re not mathematicians here.)

Other members of the board definitely had some discomfort with the loss of the oaks. Board member Petrina wanted the trees preserved if however possible, as did her colleagues Garrick Blalock and Elisabete Godden. The building was fine, and Petrina said she suspected it was so the building would be more visible, but the trees are quite large and the boars would prefer those be kept alive. Planning Director Lisa Nicholas felt the 59 parking spaces was excessive, and city planner Nikki Cerra wanted trees along Meadow, retained or not.

In response, Gingrich said it was a challenge, and that this site had to be regraded due to the floodplain issue, which is what drove the removal of the trees. “Unfortunately, almost anything you build here is going to require some form of modification due to regrading.” He emphasized that KeyBank took a long, hard look at this corner and looked at other properties in the area over the past year before moving forward, and that they are replacing trees in-kind.

Generally speaking, the board was willing to move forward with a vote, but also add a condition regarding enhancement of the landscaping. “You can approve the project with the condition of a revised landscaping plan, but you’ll have to specific about what you want to see,” said Director Nicholas. “I would give some general guidelines, tree islands or some of that parking.”

“This is a heavily-parked site in a heavily-parked area,” said Chair Lewis. “The landscaping you’re proposing, while an improvement, is not quite where we’d like it to be.”

Gingrich said they could consider more landscape islands in the parking lot if that was something the board would consider. Nicholas emphasized shade trees and enough soil volume to support large trees, which Planner Cerra agreed. In sum, the board was willing to grant preliminary approval on the building, and wanted to see a revised landscaping plan prior to final approval. With a condition to review the landscaping plans prior to final approval, the board was willing to grant preliminary approval, which would grant footprint work. The issue isn’t the building, it’s the landscaping. Unanimous preliminary approval was granted, with final approval to be considered next month.

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.

On tap for this month was to review design changes and work through Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), particularly the open space and historic/aesthetic resource impacts. This project is moving along in the SEQR process, but still has some work to do before a vote on environmental significance can take place.

Visum Development Group Vice President for Development Patrick Braga led the development team into the meeting. Now, speaking from observation, Braga, a Cornell and Harvard alum, is cut from a different cloth than most development folks, in that he tends to speak with a certain high-mindedness that one doesn’t normally see in these meetings. His narratives are less about profit and feasibility, and more about character and community connection, which is a different vibe than the norm.

Assisting Braga where engineer David Herrick of T.G. Miller and architect Rob Fornataro of SWBR Architects. Herrick pointed out a bioretention/stormwater filter in front of the building to filter runoff through soil media, and Fornataro noted the public plaza serves as a fire-truck turnaround. Some bracing was adding to the ground level facing Lake Street. The smokestack inspection is either to be a split cost for the inspection and a $1 “sale” to the city as a public park if in preservable condition, or at Visum’s discretion if the city chooses not to split the inspection costs.

“The project is progressing really nicely, it’s a tricky site,” said the board Daniel Correa. “It seems like this team is finding solutions for everything, this is very positive,” added his colleague Garrick Blalock. The board’s Godden emphasizing going with fiber cement cladding over EIFS (synthetic stucco). The primary concern remaining seem to be about the amount of paving near the gorge, but Chair Lewis said they’d address that on another night.

The project is making progress and a vote on environmental significance is likely in the next month or two. The project will be back before the Planning Board next month.

The Hive (132 Cherry Street)

On to the next project in last night’s 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 was an updated presentation from the project team, and some of the Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF).

Chief Operating Officer Laura Mattos of Visum and Ryan Kelly of RPK Landscape Architects represented the project before the board. Mattos said the 575 square-foot pool had been repositioned and explained how the courtyard was designed to host multiple activities, such as a grille space and a lawn area. Kelly emphasize their efforts at biodiversity along the inlet with a variety of plant species and a layered approach to the bioretention area, with 600 plants total, to sheath aspects of the architecture. The repositioned pool maximized south and west exposure.

The board lauded the planting plan and outdoor spaces. “The plaza’s looking really good, the plantings look varied, a really great area with shading from the pergolas, I love it,” said the board’s Godden. City planners sought to dissuade the project from using invasive vinca minor plants, and cautioned them on floodplain impacts. The board also seemed very comfortable with the zoning variances sought.

“The project’s looking real sharp, I’m excited to see this continue to progress,” said Chair Lewis. The project 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 a potential vote on preliminary and final site plan approval.

Quick side note, some of you might have noticed Maguire bought Willcox Tire at 233 Elmira Road. In a request for comment prior to the meeting, CEO Phil Maguire stated “(w)e do not have any immediate development plans for the property. Wilcox Tire will remain as the tenant. We decided to purchase the land for future expansion purposes and to reduce parking congestion at Honda, Chrysler, Hyundai and Subaru around the corner. It’s a great location zoned for automotive within walking distance.”

John Snyder of the eponymous local architecture firm represented the project before the board. Snyder noted that he and City Forester Jeanne Grace were planning a meeting to “unify” planting with the neighboring Maguire Chrysler site. The board was comfortable deferring to staff on review of the final planting plan, and with little further discussion that they took a vote on final approval, which was granted unanimously.

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

Next 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. 

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.

With all paperwork in good order, plans to vote for Declaration of Lead Agency and begin review of FEAF Part 2 were on the agenda, as well as a presentation from Cornell landscape architect David Cutter as well as landscape architect Kim Michaels of TWMLA. As is usual for Cornell project, the board’s Elisabete Godden, a Cornell project manager, recused herself from review.

It had appeared there had been architectural revisions based on the presentation – the warm salmon-toned panels had been replaced with a more neutral grey palette, with variation in the metal fins for visual interest. Michaels acknowledged the desire to honor Hoy Field in some way, and said the design team is working on that but does not have an answer yet. Cornell is seeking preliminary approval on the project by the end of September for its Spring 2025 completion.

The board’s Declaration of Lead Agency to conduct SEQR passed unanimously. The board was generally favorable to the plans. Some concerns were expressed about more lush landscaping from certain angles. Planner Cerra cautioned that the approval timeline was still rather aggressive, but the project is moving forward and will be back before the board in August.

The Gem (202 Linden Avenue)

The Voice broke news of this modest Collegetown infill project earlier this month. Local firm Visum Development Group proposes to demolish an existing two‐story house and accessory garage to allow for the construction of a new three‐story apartment building with a partial story below average grade. The apartment building will house 10 units, equaling approximately 9,150 square-foot total building area. The project is located in the CR‐4 zoning district and will require no variances. No off‐street parking will be provided, and the applicant will submit a Transportation Demand Management plan as required. The project is subject to Collegetown Design Guidelines.

It’s a small project, Collegetown is one of the city’s less fussed-over neighborhoods, and it complies with zoning. This is not likely to be a big newsmaker or an extended debate, and the review process is likely to be a fairly smooth routine.

As explained in the presentation by HOLT Architects’ Tom Kinslow, the entrance is actually slightly below grade, and the project team is trying to make the lot as lush as possible beyond the building footprint. Materials staging during construction would be along the street and west of the building footprint.

The board voted unanimously to declare itself Lead Agency. “This is a strong project in a place where we need housing,” said Chair Lewis. However, he did want to see more development of the street-facing facades. “This project can and should be a home run.”

“Admittedly, a lot of these homes are decrepit, and adding density is a great thing to see. Looking forward to seeing this project evolve,” added the board’s Correa.

Not all feedback was positive though. “I find the front entrance extremely unusual and not very urban at all,” admonished Director Nicholas. “I don’t understand why you need to do that.” In response, the project team stated it was because of the grade. “It’s on a sloping site, it’s not below grade but it is below sidewalk,” said HOLT Architects’ Steve Hugo. Above 30 feet, because of power lines and aerial fire apparatus access issues, the project costs would shoot up, so they sought to keep it below 30 feet in height.

Clearly, this was going to be a sticking point, and it would need to be addressed during review. There are similar projects in Collegetown in street presence, for instance 119-125 College Avenue, but this is clearly going to be a debate topic in the coming months. The project will be back before the board for further debate next month.

Zoning Appeals

Moving on to recommendations to the Board of Zoning Appeals for their meeting next month, the Planning Board had one application to review for comment, a signage package for “The Ithaca” at 210 East Green Street.

The development team is proposing to install 3 building signs on the north and south elevations of the building located at 210 E. Green Street. The Sign Ordinance limits each business to 1 freestanding sign or 2 building signs, and each sign is limited to 50 square feet in sign area. In addition, any sign advertising a residential building is limited to 12 square feet in sign area. Two of the proposed building signs (The Ithacan logo, identified as Type 1) will be 94.5 square feet, and the third sign (The Ithacan) will be 22 square feet. So too many, and too big. As previously noted in these writeups, the board tends to be sticklers on signage.

“This isn’t Miami, right? there are single-family homes surrounding everywhere here,” said Correa. “I don’t see why a multifamily residential building has to be branded extensively.”

The rest of the board was similarly opposed to the amount and size of signing proposed. The board clearly disliked the idea of illuminated signs on a residential building and felt that signs near the roof were unnecessary. The board was more comfortable with signage near the building base for wayfinding purposes. So no positive recommendation here.

With no further business of note, the board wrapped up and called it a night.

Brian Crandall

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