ITHACA, N.Y. — As Planning Board meetings go, this one was about as long as they get. By rough estimate, the collective value of projects reviewed clocked in at over $150 million spread across eight items, and not even counting the special orders of business or the zoning appeals.

Nevertheless, the Voice is here to condense those millions in plans, four hours of critiques and concerns into a roughly 10-minute summary. It’s what we do here.

For those of you who want to pop a look at the agenda, that 457-page goliath can be found here. If you’d like to watch the happenings, the video recording of the meeting can be found here.

Quick programming note, this was the first in-person meeting since last August or so, and only the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted locally in March 2020.

The Andrus/Home Dairy/Firebrand Books Building.

Special Orders of Business

First up on this very long agenda, Special Orders of Business. One has to do with Historic Designation, the other with a verbal variance of sorts, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Those of you who read this month’s monthly Planning and Economic Development Committee report are already familiar with plans to landmark the Andrus Building at 143 East State Street. Also known as the “Home Dairy Building” and the “Firebrand Books Building” for previous tenants, the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Conservation (ILPC) held a public hearing last month for consideration of landmarking, which provides special protections to protect historic components of its exterior and prevent demolition. The PEDC gave its unanimous approval, and the vote to designate is heading to the Common Council next month.

The Planning Board’s role in this is purely advisory. They can choose to support or oppose and provide their reasons; it offers an option for the board, which hosts a number of architects, project manager and the like, to express concerns that may not have been thought of, or to reinforce existing support. On the one hand, landmarking is a way to protect Ithaca’s architectural heritage and historic structures; the Andrus Block certainly checks that box, dating back to 1872. On the other hand, landmarking can make redevelopment and rehabilitation/renovation much more difficult and expensive, which is why these decisions are approached carefully. 

City of Ithaca Historic Preservation Planner Bryan McCracken gave the board a presentation about the application and why they’re seeking landmarking, which you can watch on YouTube here, or get the brief summary from the PEDC recap here.

The board’s questions were brief; board member Elisabete Godden asked if the Yellow Deli’s renovations were an issue, to which McCracken noted that they worked in consultation with his office and the work they’re doing with entry canopy and signage is reversible and not a major detriment to the building. In general, they were wholly supportive. The board voted to endorse the proposal unanimously.

The other Special Order of Business last night was, as everyone knew going into the meeting, likely to be more contentious. Developer Jeff Rimland is currently constructing “The Ithacan” mixed-use tower at 215 East State/210 East Green Street. The Rothschild Building, being renovated as part of the project, faces the Commons, and has to have a ground-floor active-use, the point being that the Commons is supposed to be lively with retail, entertainment and food service options. Rimland et al. want to have their leasing office designated an active use so they meet zoning requirements. They’re also seeking approval of sign designs, which the Planning Board is notoriously picky about. So to writ, two separate requests with this one.

CHA Consulting’s Bryan Bouchard spoke on behalf of the project team. “I do understand that this board has seen these types of applications in the past…it’s not an explicit statement as one of the allowable uses, but other leasing offices have been allowed by the board”. A conference room and smaller office would face the Commons. Planning Director Lisa Nicholas noted that they had allowed City Centre to use a Commons storefront as a leasing office back when it was under construction a few years ago.

In response to questions from the board, Bouchard said the storefront would serve as a leasing office until tenancy is stabilized; he supposed a year or so, until The Ithacan has its certificate of occupancy. With that in mind, the board’s Emily Petrina suggests a specific time interval, after which the project team would have to seek renewal, which her colleagues supported unanimously. They also stated the signage cannot block the views into the space, as transparency is one of the tenets of the active use rule, and per public comments, lights in Commons-facing rooms would need to be left on until 9 PM.

The board was willing to support the temporally-limited use of the storefront as a leasing office, but the signage permits for the leasing office were more of a question mark that Bouchard was not as aware of. The board unanimously approved the leasing office as an active use, but the office’s signage would potentially need to come back for further review. The building signage includes four on the tower and one on the Rothschild Building, given that the Rothschild is one of the entrances. Maximum signage for residential building is typically limited to 12 square feet.

“I don’t know why you need this kind of branding on a residential building at all,” commented the board’s Garrick Blalock. “To me, it looks really odd to me, squeezed between those two windows.” His colleagues were similarly opposed to the signs on the upper floors (the Type 1’s). The one on the Rothschild Building, they were okay with since it was not illuminated, and perhaps a little smaller, and the Green Street signage they preferred unlit as well. In short, they definitely were not in favor of the signage package, but could support limited portions. “Lose the logos,” quipped Godden. With that split decision, the project heads to the BZA next month.

Site Plan Review

Following the Special Permits came the meat of the agenda, Site Plan Review. This is the part of the meeting during which the review of new and updated building proposals happens. In the interest of not going into several paragraphs of detail every month, if you want an in-depth description of the steps involved in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.

Long story short, in the SPR process the Planning Board looks at sketch plans, declares itself lead agency for state environmental quality review (SEQR), conducts a review and declares negative (adverse effects mitigated) or positive (potentially harmful impacts, and therefore needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while concurrently performing design review for projects in certain neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all settled to the board’s satisfaction, they vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval.

City Harbor (101 Pier Road)

Although the plan was approved back in May, the developers of City Harbor are back before the Planning Board to request a few building design amendments, as well as landscaping plan updates and review of the kayak landing plan.

The pitched roofs have been replaced by cheaper partial mansards (they call it a “bathtub” shape), deletion of some fifth-floor balconies, and increases in floor-to-ceiling heights by 4 inches due to changes in the building frame design. With the joys of technology, you can compare the changes using the slider in the before/after pics leading off this segment.

Landscape designer Yifei Yan with Whitham Planning and Design presented the revisions to the board, with HOLT Architects’ Steve Hugo on hand to explain the architectural updates. Hugo explained that with rapid cost increases in materials and inflation, the project as designed wasn’t financially doable, so they revised the plans to make it more affordable (a.k.a. “value engineering”). The revisions reduce the “loftiness” of the fifth-floor units and standardize floor plans. Apparently, from a framing and utilities standpoint, the top-level setback, once required by zoning but no longer mandated, was pretty expensive. Hugo said they liked its aesthetic but it was proving too expensive with the current cost conditions.

As for the kayak ramp, Fan noted it was designed to National Park guidelines, but Director Nicholas stressed they needed to see additional renderings and drawings to see just how large the stone walls were and just how the kayak launch would look in context.

“I find myself pretty disappointed,” Board Chair Robert Lewis said in response to the kayak plans, calling the design “perfunctory,” and his colleague Daniel Correa agreed, calling the designs “lackluster,” not well designed or fitting with the project.

Overall, the board was comfortable with the building revisions, and while not fans of the kayak launch, they were willing to move it forward and keep discussion going in October. That and plans for a revised gold course layout would be in front of the board for approval 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 site is in the Cherry Street Zoning District (CSD). As a result, it will require a front yard variance and is subject to Design Review. This is a fairly large proposal and there’s been a lot for the Planning Board to go through, but the project is finally at the end of the line, aiming for preliminary and final project approval at last night’s meeting.

The most notable changes were a widening of the fire access driveway, and the resulting trim of the L-shaped south building’s north “leg.” Chief Operating Officer Laura Mattos of Visum Development Group and Architect Scott Selin of CJS Architects were on hand to speak about the updated plans. The number of units remains the same even with the trim in the south building, though a few bedrooms were removed. Murals on the buildings would be decided through a Request for Qualification process in conjunction with Ithaca Murals.

The board was generally satisfied with the final plans. “I think you guys knocked this out of the park, it’s a really nice project,” said the board’s Godden. She encouraged them to add restaurants and retail space in other projects should they plan more in the area (and they do). The motion for preliminary and final approval passed 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. 

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. However, 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. Last night, the board was to continue reviewing Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), with a potential SEQR declaration vote this month – a negative declaration would put the project on path for approval at the October meeting.

As always, the board’s Elisabete Godden, a Cornell project manager, recused herself from the review. Landscape architect Kim Michaels of TWMLA was joined by a cadre of colleagues to present the project to the board. Cornell’s always been very good at bombarding city planners with more planners than they could ever want, and it helps that this project is interior to campus, away from neighbors who might not like it if it were right next door. Feeling they had enough information, the board held a vote for a negative declaration on SEQR, meaning potential negative impacts are effectively mitigated, and it passed unanimously. The project will continue its trek towards approval 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, called “The Gem,” will house 10 units with 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, inner Collegetown is one of the city’s less fussed-over neighborhoods, and it complies with zoning. Review has been generally smooth, with some dickering over design aspects but nothing severe. Last night’s schedule had on tap the continued review of Parts 2 and 3 of the Short Environmental Assessment Form (SEAF) on tap, as well as Design Review.

To increase visual interest, the materials are more varied, particularly next to the corner bay windows, which project slightly. Material finishes include vertical fiber cement lap siding in Sherwin-Williams “Khaki Brown,” horizontal lap siding in S-W “Black Swan,” and stone veneer on the foundation and ramp walls. Being the person who comes up with new paint names is likely tougher than it looks, though I like to imagine otherwise.

Bradley Wells of Visum Development and Steve Hugo of HOLT spoke about the project before the Planning Board, joined later by Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering. Plantings were chosen for their ability to grow up vs. out. In response to prior Planning Board commentary, the building uses a raised stoop to the second floor rather than stepping down to the first floor. The window arrangement has also been revised — for the record, the corner bay windows are living rooms. The existing three-bedroom home on the site will have its materials salvaged, rather than totally demolished and sent to a landfill.

“This has come a long way from the original proposal, thank you for hearing our concerns,” said the board’s Emily Petrina. She preferred actual wood to wood-like fiber cement, but overall complimented the project. The rest of the board had similarly positive comments. “This board appreciates the deconstruction effort,” added Chair Lewis. With that auspicious note, the project will be 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. The station is subject to Collegetown Design Guidelines.

A series of steps were expected at last night’s meeting, including an updated presentation from the city’s project team, Declaration of Lead Agency by the board to perform environmental review, Design Review, and the beginning of review for Part 3 of the FEAF. Remember, as a Public Resource, this project’s SPR process is relatively streamlined.

TWMLA’s Kim Michaels conducted this presentation as well. Although a public resource, the firehouse largely complies with zoning. It fits in setbacks, though lot coverage is higher than what would normally be allowed. Parking for the building is on the north side, at the rear of the structure. I should note that landscaping is revised somewhat from the lede image above, but the structure is practically the same design.

Public hearing came and went without comment. As for Design Review, the board was generally positive. Mitch Glass asked about the fencing, to which Michaels said fencing was only to separate areas of 30-inch drops or more from the sidewalk, as code mandates. The review was uneventful and untroubled, and the station will be back before the Planning Board in October.

The Citizen (602 West Buffalo Street)

Next on the agenda, “The Citizen” in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood. This is another project that comes courtesy of Visum Development, the third of the night in fact.

Visum proposes to demolish the existing 2-story restaurant building (formerly Joe’s Italian) 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, 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.

An updated project presentation was scheduled for last night, as well as the Declaration of Lead Agency by the Planning Board. The Public Hearing was also scheduled to be opened. Visum’s Bradley Wells was here to present this project as well, along with Steve Hugo, who wasn’t getting much of a break last night (I’d feel bad, but all this work is great business for HOLT).

Noting previous board concerns about the grey panels in Ithaca’s cloudy climate, Hugo said that there would be variation in the panels, and that the building now includes colored, slightly projected accent panels – the renderings showed a light green, though the colors aren’t final. There would be slight undulation in the building face to create modest shadows to enhance visual interest.

The Declaration of Lead Agency passed unanimously, and no one had chosen to speak at the Public Hearing. The board was comfortable with the plans and lauded the design tweaks, though they were not without questions. Petrina cautioned about respecting the neighboring structures, and Glass asked about the possibility of sidewalk dining from one of the retail spaces, similar to the Ithaca Bakery down the street. Visum’s Laura Mattos said they could explore that as an idea. The project will pay another visit to the Planning Board next month.

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

This is a fairly modest retail project in Southwest Ithaca. Lansing businessman Gary 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.

On the agenda for last night was an updated presentation, Declaration of Lead Agency by the Planning Board, and commencement of review for Part 2 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form. David Herrick of T.G. Miller gave the project update to the board.

According to Herrick, in revisions to the project, they lost a vacuum station (dropping from seven to six), and an effort was made by John Snyder Architects to borrow from the Lansing location’s design, and add gables and other architectural features to make it interesting — “rugged”, as architect John Snyder called it. There would be a band of stone veneer at the base and the center section (the light blue is preliminary) would be Hardie-panel fiber cement, with board-and-batten in the gables, and asphalt shingles up top. It’s all meant to give a relatively elegant finish to what is in essence a car wash. Hey, Ithaca deserves an upscale car wash, those Subarus and Volvos don’t wash themselves. That blue color is tentative, by the way. They’re also considering grey or brown.

Outside of the building, the landscape would utilize perennials and robust street trees – a larger canopy is allowed on Titus Avenue, so they’re going to deploy that with London plane trees along Titus, and hybrid elms along South Meadow. Redbuds are being considered along the parking area. Before last night, I did not know a rug beater was even a thing. I was just taught by my family of mechanics to hose the mats down and scrub them with a sponge. (As a scientist and reporter not into tuning and sports cars, I am a frustration to them, but I digress.)

“This feels a little like a copy-and-paste from the Lansing location. That’s fine uphill […] but I think it’s really to your benefit that the façade works visually, the aesthetics,” said Correa. “I appreciate the local business, I still think the landscaping is still lacking though, on the strip along South Meadow Street,” added Glass.

“I like the colors of the building, I like the stone and the base,” said Blalock, in a positive comment, However, he said the signage did not align well with the building, the coloring scheme clashed. City Planner Nikki Cerra stated concerns about the South Titus Street exit in the context of pedestrians and bikers.

“I don’t know if (South Titus) street ever gets closed,” said Chair Lewis, noting obliquely that the Southside Plan calls for South Titus Avenue to eventually become a pedestrian walkway on this block. “As to whether or not that is something that ever becomes real, I’m not quite sure. What is sure is that any interaction with that street needs to work, as part of the living condition and of being a good neighbor.”

The thing is, because of the intersection right there, an entrance off South Meadow doesn’t work, they just get stuck between lights. The board has concerns with the South Titus Avenue entry/exit, and this will prove to be a debate topic in the coming months as well. “Whatever the mitigation strategy is will include land that’s not yours, which makes it harder for you….because there are some connectivity issues, we’d like to see some engagement beyond your site to mitigate these impacts,” said Lewis.

“I don’t know how we’re going to move forward,” said business owner Gary Sloan.

“We have a legal obligation to take that neighborhood plan into account in our decision. We’re not describing a solution for you. But there is a requirement for a solution from your end,” replied Lewis.

It seems like they’ll have to work with city to determine some kind of decision. If South Titus is closed, forcing entry/exit onto Meadow will be a mess. It’s a major obstacle. “That’s about as far as we can push it tonight, I don’t know if there’s anymore juice we can squeeze from this,” noted Lewis. Things definitely became testy towards the end of the discussion.

“With the improvements on site, this is going to look significant better than the abandoned buildings there now. With the flood maps coming, I predict those abandoned buildings will be there for years to come,” said Sloan.

“I think you’re reading more hostility into this than exists…we will come back to this issue next month and beyond. What we have tried to make clear tonight is our constraints in this project,” Lewis said back.

It was not the smoothest of meeting items, certainly. We’ll see how next month goes.

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 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 led the board through the presentation on behalf of owner Chris Petrillose. The landscaping and paving has been revised, as has the design, foregoing the original traditionalist look for a contemporary design, along with lusher landscaping.

Petrina expressed preference for previous designs that created a structural mansard, and asked about deconstruction, to which Demarest said Cornell’s salvaging students could take what they want. Glass preferred the more contemporary version, and Chair Lewis said he didn’t see a version that he didn’t think would work. The vote to Declare Lead Agency was unanimously in favor, and the project will be back next month.

Board of Zoning Appeals

There were three zoning appeals-related items on the agenda for this month. One, the signage variance for The Ithacan, is discussed in the Special Orders of Business section above. The other two involve renovation plans at a home in Ithaca’s Fall Creek, and a small apartment complex in Collegetown.

In Fall Creek, the new-ish owners of 706 Linn Street are seeking a variance to convert a section of their home into a one-bedroom apartment. There would be no exterior changes to the building. However, the building exceeds the maximum allowed lot coverage. The renovation would result in a change in legal occupancy (from the owner-occupying family to the owner-occupying family plus one tenant), so it needs an area variance to proceed.

As a general rule, if there are no substantial exterior impacts, and it’s a “subtle” increase in density in an owner-occupied building, the board supports it. That held true here. The board had no issues with the requested variance.

Meanwhile, over in Collegetown, the new owner of 108-110 Eddy Street intends to renovate the existing apartment building, the Greycourt Apartments, with a gut renovation of the interior, the only outside change being repairs to the exterior.

As currently designed, the building hosts nine units with 25 bedrooms and, given the large size of the bedrooms converted from dining rooms and parlors, a legal occupancy of 43 people, which is served by five on-site parking spaces, which had received a variance because nine are required. The renovation would reduce that to 34 people, in eight four-bedroom units (two of the units would have a larger bedroom suitable for a couple).

However, because parking spaces are counted by bedroom and not be legal occupancy, the new owner would have to add parking spaces even though it’s a decrease in occupancy, for a total of sixteen parking spaces. The zoning variance requests that the current variance, last approved in 2016, be kept in place, so that five spaces remain on-site.

The board did not see any long-term planning impacts with the proposal, they appreciated the renovation, and were comfortable with the requested variance. With that, it’ll head to the BZA for an actual decision in a week or so.

New Business

Some debate was had about adding “active use” requirements to waterfront zoning, at Petrina’s suggestion. Playing Devil’s Advocate, Lewis noted that it was a good idea, but required adjacent density, which did not exist in many parts of the waterfront. Planning Director Nicholas expressed similar concerns.

The Squeaky Clean proposal came up again, and the board resolved to ask Common Council for interpretation and guidance given the nebulous possibility that their preferred entry/exit might be closed at an unknown future date.

Some discussion was also held about the possibility of limited virtual attendance, although all board members were present last night (I recall an occasion during the virtual era where the board’s Blalock Zoomed into a meeting from overseas). Correa had suggested it, but Director Nicholas cautioned that it’s up to state law, not the city.

Brian Crandall

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