Editor’s Note: The Ithaca Voice is attempting a new meeting recap story format to better convey what happens in municipal meetings. You can click the subject linked in the “Topics included” section in the intro of this recap to find the part of the article that interests you. We think this will make relevant information more accessible to our readers — but we’d love to hear what you think of it. Send your thoughts to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

ITHACA, N.Y. — As Planning Board meetings go, for sheer length and number of topics on the agenda, this month was a doozy, with its fair share of debate and uncertainty.

“This was a hard meeting,” admitted Chair Robert Lewis at the end. It was 4 hours and 24 minutes with over a dozen different topics to cover, from small-scale retail to multi-story apartment complexes. As always, the Voice is here to give you the summary, condensing 4.5 hours into a ~10 minute read. This is how we make your day more efficient.

Feel free to delve into the summary of last night’s long meeting below.

Special Order of Business

First up on Tuesday’s agenda was a Special Order of Business to “Appeal of a Determination of the Director of Planning & Development.” This is a fairly rare event where an applicant seeks to have a decision made by the Planning Director overturned and voided.

In this particular case, the subject is Mirabito Energy’s facility at 684 Third Street. The 1.78 acre property is listed for sale at $1.9 million, clearly an effort to tap in on the hot Ithaca waterfront development scene (and according to realtor David Huckle, there are at least four interested buyers). Through businessman Bob Andree, Mirabito operated a fuel depot on-site, but as part of the land sale it planned to demolish the fuel tanks and existing buildings, as well as perform any necessary remediation. The problem is that Planning Director Lisa Nicholas ruled in June that they need to have Site Plan Review in order to demolish multiple structures and site features.

Per Nicholas’s memo, removal of the fuel tanks is fine, given health and environmental concerns. Removal of the buildings and other structures is not. Fact is, most applicants pursuing Site Plan Review deal with existing structures on-site, whether they already own the property or not. But, unless there are special circumstances, like a history of being a crime magnet or a safety risk, they aren’t allowed to be removed until Preliminary Site Plan Approval is granted. This is to prevent long-term empty lots and large-scale removal of trees and greenery.

Andree and his lawyer, Ed Crossmore, were present to speak before the board. Crossmore explained that they see their property as unique given its use for petroleum distribution. He added that the realtor has told them no offer will be submitted unless there is a valid Phase II Environmental Site Assessment, which requires soil examination beneath the buildings on-site, and that they see a complete Site Plan Review as “economically wasteful.”

“I think it’s important to look at the future potential of this land. As I see it, in this instance, in this case, taking down those buildings does not seem like a big deal to me,” said the Board’s Mitch Glass. “I think to fall in favor of the ordinance but in this case to let the demolition through….do you have to do environmental review under the buildings before sale?”

“Four people are currently interested. All four said the same thing. They want a Phase 2 of the entire property. Either I’m going to have to take the buildings down, or they are, and I don’t want to have to get back in there and get the contractors in there if they find something,” said Andree.

“I don’t think the buildings are worth saving. I do think the correct decision was made,” said Emily Petrina. “I wonder if something can happen in place, the next phase of testing, without a full demolition?” The response was that yes, they could, but it’s much more expensive, and “a much better sample in a lot less time”.

“These buildings aren’t significant, but we should be able to make that determination at Site Plan Review and not at this meeting,” said the board’s Elisabete Godden.

No one cared about the buildings, but apart from that, the opinions spanned everything from no exception, to narrow exception for just this case, to tabling so that engineering reports could be reviewed at the next meeting. Chair Robert Lewis stated he wanted to hear the economic case for not doing the Phase II with the buildings on site. (After all, $1.9 million is quite a payday regardless). Planner Nikki Cerra noted that a Phase II is possible with building on site – the Cliff Street Retreat did it at the former Incodema plant.

In the end, there was no consensus. Lewis fielded an up-and-down to see if there was a majority finding somewhere. The consensus was that Director Nicholas made the right decision, so Lewis did not wish to table it. No one liked the scenario where site plan review was never required for demolition permits, or where it was always required. The issue was whether an exemption was merited in this case only, or not.

With some pressing for clarity, the board leaned towards no exception here. The board encouraged development of the site, but did not see the case for a health and safety risk from the buildings (remember, the fuel tanks have the okay to be taken down) as a significant enough reason to let demolition go ahead. With a unanimous vote, the board decided not to allow demolition at this time. As Lewis noted, it wasn’t what the applicant wanted, but it was educational for the board.

At this point, the meeting was nearly an hour behind schedule, which given the agenda, it was clear this was going to be a long evening.

Special Permits

The next 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. Here, the homeowners at 969 East State Street wish to convert their basement into a studio apartment with separate rear entry.

The reason why we have a special permit here is that it’s an accessory apartment in a lower-density residential zone, in this case R-1b. The apartment would be 350 SF in a 1,790 SF home, so it’s within the one-third of total habitable area restriction, the driveway has sufficient space for an additional car, and no interior or exterior changes are planned. A neighbor wrote a letter of support as well, and a second letter was in favor of long-term rentals for the studio, but did not want it used for AirBnBs. At this point, the approval mostly becomes an exercise in paperwork.

The review ran the full retinue of Declaration of Lead Agency, SEQR Review, and permit approval. Discussion was fairly brief, and all steps of the process passed unanimously.

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.

KeyBank (500 S. Meadow Street)

Review of the KeyBank proposal began all the way back in February 2021, and in April of that year 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. Fast forward a year or so and here we are.

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.

Last night’s plan was for a vote on approval of the subdivision of land, and potential Final Site Plan Approval, which would give the project the green light to pursue construction permits. We already know that if approval is granted, it won’t be unanimous. Last month, Planning Board member Mitch Glass expressed his opposition to approval, stating his feeling that the project was not an improvement to the Meadow Street corridor.

Project architect Ben Gingrich of HSB Architects + Engineers was on hand to walk the board through the plans. The project team added trees out front and added green space and trees to the parking lot. The board appreciated the changes, and was fine with the proposed subdivision. The subdivision was approved unanimously, while Glass reiterated his opposition in explaining his intended vote against. “It’s an okay building, in the wrong place.” With Glass opposed, the project was approved 5-1.

The Breeze Apartments (121-25 Lake Street)

Moving on to the next item in Site Plan Review: 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 procedural tap in last night’s agenda was continued review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), which is one of the last steps in SEQR Review, as well as discussions of a public bridge and overlook proposal and overview of a recreational river permit process that’s required to make it happen. The Recreational River Permit, which only comes up once every few years, is needed to complete SEQR because the site is adjacent to Fall Creek. The project is hoping to receive a decision on the Recreational River Permit by the time of the October Planning Board meeting.

Erik Reynolds of SWBR Architects represented the project team. The big issue for last night was sidewalk and “Overlook” plans. The idea is to maintain the existing bridge abutments and concrete abutments, and create a new segment for a completely-accessible 80-foot long segment with a ramp and a level section that connects from the plaza, over the raceway (which is not nearly as deep as the gorge) and to the island. It would have guardrails and the expected safety features for a bridge.

City Planner Cerra expressed uncertainty on whether the overlook was in the best spot, and Chair Lewis stressed the need to look at the designs of the overlook and bridge closely. More information on the bridge and overlook is required before a decision can be made on the Recreational River Permit. With that, this item concluded, to come back next month. Even better, by this time the board was only a half-hour behind schedule.

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 a vote on the Determination of Environmental Significance, which if negative (meaning the board finds that the project’s impacts are properly mitigated), the project team can pursue project approval next month.

Chief Operating Officer Laura Mattos of Visum and Architect Scott Selin of CJS Architects were on hand to speak about the plans (best of luck to Visum’s former VP Patrick Braga, who has decided take on his next career chapter in Detroit). Selin reviewed bike storage and rack plans, courtyard placement, and updated renderings, one of which is shown above. The courtyard has a turf area and a heated pool.

The board was generally satisfied. “This is coming along nicely…I appreciate the heated pool, it may be a little silly but it’s practical for where you are,” said Chair Lewis. The Negative Declaration on the Environmental Review passed unanimously, and pending favorable BZA review, an area variance which the board supports wholly, the project could go for approval next month.

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. 

The project is located in U-1 zoning which 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. In demonstration of just how quickly the review is zooming along, alongside an updated presentation from TWMLA’s Kim Michaels was the Public Hearing and at least partial review of Part 3 of the FEAF.

As always, the board’s Elisabete Godden, a Cornell project manager, recused herself from the review. Landscape architect Kim Michaels of TWMLA and civil engineer Frank Santelli of T.G. Miller were on hand to speak about the proposal, with a relatively brief recap presentation from Michaels.

Public Hearing opened and closed without comment. People don’t tend to have much to say about academic buildings on Cornell’s campus, and that held true here.

“The project’s looking great, I appreciate the wayfinding at the turn of the road,” said the board’s Daniel Correa. He asked if there was anything in the works that would give a nod to the baseball field. Michaels said they might look at the location of the original home plate for some kind of recognition, but that there would definitely be something. Most of the outstanding issues are just informational aspects like tree inventories and a building materials report. The project will be back next month.

The Gem (202 Linden Avenue)

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. Last night’s schedule had an updated presentation on tap courtesy of Visum Chief Operating Officer Laura Mattos, and the opening of the Public Hearing.

Bradley Wells and Laura Mattos were on hand for Visum, as well as HOLT Architects’ Steve Hugo. Hugo noted that the entrance had been revised to go up rather than down to the entry, so now it’s on the second habitable level of the three-story building. An entrance was explored on Bool Street, but Hugo said that that created issues with zoning and was more complicated given Bool Street’s steeper grade. There is an accessible ramp from Bool Street. The project would use a combination of dark and wood-textured fiber cement board, as well as a stone retaining wall.

Public hearing opened and closed without comment. “It’s a very nice looking project,” said the board’s C.J. Randall. “It looks like a really handsome building,” added her colleague Glass. Correa expressed concern with the four-bedroom units having only one bedroom, and asked that an additional half-bedroom be considered in those units. Godden asked to see some visual interest in the flat wall surfaces.

“For my piece, the Linden façade is really making progress…the Bool Street façade does seem a little flatter than I think you’d want it to read. This project does seem to be improving with each iteration,” stated Chair Lewis. The project will make a trip back before the board next month.

East Hill Fire Station (403 Elmwood Avenue/408 Dryden Road)

To try and keep the explanations brief, you can read more about the business deal and financing behind the project here and here. The City of Ithaca Fire Department proposes to demolish two existing residential buildings to allow for the construction of a new two-story fire station of 13,816 square-feet. The proposed fire station will include resting quarters, a workout room, classroom, multi-use facilities, and indoor parking bays for fire apparatus. Proposed site improvements will include vehicular and emergency apparatus access, utility extensions and relocations, landscaping, lighting, and a rear parking lot with nine spaces. The project is located in the CR-2 zoning district, but as it is a City of Ithaca project (i.e. the building is considered a “Public Resource”), it will not require zoning variances. Otherwise, it would have needed a lot coverage variance. The station is, however, subject to Collegetown Design Guidelines.

Being the project’s first visit to the Planning Board, last night’s tasks were a presentation on the plan, the Declaration of Lead agency to perform SEQR, and an overview of the approvals, financing and overall construction schedule.

Kim Michaels from TWMLA was back before the board for a second time last night to talk about the fire station plans, and IFD Fire Chief was also present to talk about the history of the plans, which go back eight years. Plans to develop on the Cornell-owned property on Maple Avenue fell apart as Cornell became less and less enthused about the plans. Visum’s plan for the College Avenue site called for a fire station with apartments above (which is a thing), but the city felt it would too be challenging with the zoning, so they went with the alternative proposal from Intergated Acquisition and Development, the firm of local mega-developers John Novarr and Phil Proujansky.

The design of the station has largely stayed the same, with only minor tweaks, along with some landscaping revisions. The board is supportive and excited about the plans, and as long as the neighborhood’s comfortable with it, it will likely be smooth sailing for review.

The Citizen (602 West Buffalo Street)

The first of three new projects on the agenda this month, and first shared by the Voice a few weeks ago, is “The Citizen” in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood. This is another project that comes courtesy of Visum Development, which clearly has a lot of irons in the fire.

Visum proposes to demolish an existing 2-story restaurant building and a paved
parking lot to allow for the construction of a new 5-story apartment building approximately 80,000 square-feet gross floor area. The building will contain 80 residential units (20 studios, 40 one-bedrooms, 20 two-bedrooms), a residential lobby, bike storage, 2,560 square-feet of retail, and a ground floor parking area with 29 parking spaces. The project is located in the WEDZ-1a zoning district and is expected not to require any variances. On tap for last night’s agenda were a presentation on the project, and a vote to Declare Lead Agency for SEQR.

Wilson and Mattos of Visum, and Hugo of HOLT Architects were back. Credit to Mattos, she represented three separate projects last night. As explained by Hugo, the building will have a plaza at the rear and fire access from the front and back. The first floor has retail space facing the street and interior covered parking, with apartments on the four upper floors. Hugo explained that the building uses three different colors to provide variation that feels like stone rather than the “checkerboard” patterns that people complain about (looking at you, City Centre).

In initial reactions, the board’s Godden noted that building felt fairly large in context, but was withholding judgement for the moment. Her colleague Glass was favorable to the proposal, calling it an “opportunity” to bring more people to the area, and he liked the modulation of the façade. He did want more color, however.

“Meadow Street is difficult because it has an urban landscape feel but it’s also the highway going through town. Having something large and tall and close to the street conveys the feeling that I’m in the city. I like it for that reason. I like the mixed-use, more people down there walking…I welcome anything that makes that area of town feel more urban,” said the Planning Board’s Garrick Blalock.

Chair Lewis was not thrilled with the color palette, saying it was too grey for its size, and cited Ithaca’s grey winters as a concern. He acknowledged grey was in vogue, but this was too much grey façade material for the location. The color issue seemed to be the board’s biggest concern with the plan, and overall that’s a fairly minor issue for a project team to have. The project will be back before the board next month.

Squeaky Clean Car Wash (501-07 South Meadow Street)

I’ve had a bunch of complaints about this one since we broke news of it earlier this month — from many of my pro-development commenters, in fact. It’s not that they have issue with business owner Gary Sloan. It’s that for a prominent corner that is zoned to allow for denser mixed-use development, an automated car wash is definitely not in line with their expectations, let alone their hopes.

Sloan proposes to demolish two existing single-story buildings to allow for the
construction of a new automated car wash “tunnel” building, equaling approximately 35,500 square-feet. The new proposed construction includes vacuum stations, site pavements, utility extensions and improved landscaping. The project is located in the SW-2 zoning district and is expected to require no variances. Four off-street parking spaces will be provided, and the applicant is proposing to permanently close three curb cuts on South Meadow Street and consolidate four curb cuts on S Titus Ave into one for which a Traffic Impact Study (TIS) has been submitted. The project is subject to Southwest Area Design Guidelines.

Last night’s activities included a presentation, the Declaration of Lead Agency, and a Public Hearing. The project complies with zoning and isn’t very large, so review should be fairly smooth from a legal standpoint. David Herrick of T.G. Miller spoke about the project, with Sloan in attendance. Herrick said they hope to maintain the walnut trees at the edge of the property and ingress/egress would be off of South Titus Avenue – being so close to the intersection with South Meadow, a Meadow entry/exit drive would be difficult to use when traffic gets backed up at the light.

Board members appreciated the sidewalk and bringing the building edge to Route 13/South Meadow. Godden asked if trees would be possible on South Meadow, while Blalock said he appreciated the effort to clean the site up, acknowledging it’s a difficult site to develop.

“I’m not thrilled to reinforce the auto-centric nature of Meadow, but it’s a nicer building than I expected,” said Glass. The project will be back before the board at a future meeting.

The William Apartments (108-10 College Avenue)

Finally, last item in Site Plan Review. The applicants, led by local landlord/developer Chris Petrillose, propose to demolish two existing apartment houses to allow for the construction of ‘The William”, a new 4-story, historically-inspired apartment building with a total finished area of approximately 24,400 square-feet on a consolidated lot. The building will contain 34 dwelling units with a total of 54 beds and a gym located in the basement. The project is located in the CR-4 zoning district and requires variances for rear yard setback and lot coverage.

On the agenda for last night were an informational presentation and a vote on Declaration of Lead Agency. Architect Jason Demarest spoke on behalf of the proposal with developer Petrillose in attendance.

Unsurprisingly for the location, the intent is student housing. The building is designed to comply with rowhouse definitions, which tend to be kinder with the length of facades. Apartments are a combination of studios and two-bedroom units, standardized per floor as a downstream effect of the rowhouse design. Demarest said they would be a “little cozy,” though comparable to Catherine Commons.

The board was favorable to the design and felt that it fit within the site context. Glass felt the mansard roof was a little clunky and preferred something more similar to 325 Dryden Road, but otherwise had no strong issues with it. Correa said he wasn’t a fan of the “Neo-Victorian” but that it was a nice change from all the modern designs going up. Lewis said he liked the architecture, though noted his professional background is in real estate development, not architecture. The vote of Lead Agency was held off until next month, though that shouldn’t be much of an issue.

Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations

Moving on to recommendations to the Board of Zoning Appeals for their meeting next month, the Planning Board had three items, one of which was the area variance for “The Hive” as discussed above. The other two were telecommunications facilities for 115 Northcross Road/Mary Donlon Hall on Cornell’s North Campus, and on the Hotel Ithaca property on 222 South Cayuga Street.

The inclusion of telecom facilities as a BZA item stems from fallout from the 5G debate. As of December 2021, any time a telecommunication facility is modified and it’s within 250 feet of residential uses (i.e. most of the city), it now has to go through the BZA. Previously, this was handled at the staff level, and was never a source of any planning debate previously. The board had no issues with these two either.

Brian Crandall

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