ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a sign of just how stuffed the Ithaca Planning and Development Board would be—the draft agenda rolled out last week and estimated 4 hours, 45 minutes just to get through everything, in a meeting where it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of detail or get bogged down with dissent. It finished about three minutes early, by my watch. Cornell’s new computer science building and the city’s new fire station were approved, while the design of a West End housing development was met with some frustration from the board.

Still, long or short, The Ithaca Voice is here to give you the summary so you don’t have to spend 4 hours and 45 minutes getting up to speed. Read on below.

Programming note, the board has a bare quorum this month, with 3 of 7 members absent (Chair Robert Lewis, Vice Chair Elisabete Godden, and member Daniel Correa).

Site Plan Review

There were no Special Permits or Special Orders of Business at this month’s meeting, and the opening discussion about amendments to the open meetings law is included in “other items” towards the end of this piece. After all, most of you come for the development plans, not the nuances of public accessibility to meetings. Therefore, let’s move right into 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.

In brief, during 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.

Asteri Ithaca and the Green Street Garage (120 E. Green St.)

Asteri, being developed by the Vecino Group and under construction right now, is a U-shaped 12-story building that will consist of 350 parking spaces in a reconstructed Green Street Garage, the 54,921 square-foot Downtown Ithaca Conference Center and a small amount of retail space. The upper floors of the building will house 181 apartments set aside for those making 30-80% of area median income. 

For brevity’s sake, we won’t get too bogged down here on the details. Approval was granted in November 2020, but Vecino’s team now seeks approval for site plan changes which include changing the original design of the climbing vines on the west face of the garage—a trimming of the vines, specifically, because the structural load of vines on that less-visible side became a concern. Modest detail, but the 2020 approval resolution says any substantive changes have to be reviewed and approved. The project team is also asking for feedback on proposed signage options for the Conference Center and Cinemapolis.

Project architect Bruce Adib-Yazdi Zoom-called in from Atlanta with an impressive beard befitting a mall Santa, assisted by local project consultants Scott Whitham and Jacob von Mechow of Whitham Planning and Design.

“We’ve had some structural issues come up relative to the vines on the west side of the building,” said Adib-Yazdi. “Luckily these issues do not impact the south side of the building (facing Green Street).”

Adib-Yazdi said there had been a change in structural engineers within Vecino, which resulted in completely different calculations of what the garage could structurally support for vines, and fear grew internally that the project would be physically at-risk.

The board was not thrilled by the proposal. “I feel like there’s gotta be something to address the stories left out,” said board member Emily Petrina. She asked if planters are some other greenery might be possible instead of vine-covered cables. “There’s really no visibility at this elevation,” Adib-Yazdi insisted.

“One thing you might consider, when you look at the rendering, is that since there won’t be as much green above your head, is there a way to add some kind of lighting, string lights, at the top of the first story? So we perceive it as some kind of roof to that space, so people don’t look up past the lights to the blank façade?” The board’s Mitch Glass asked. Von Mechow explained that they were adding more vegetation down towards street level, and were thinking wild non-fruiting grape would work well in the narrow, cable-dependent conditions of the alley, and the planters would use lush grasses to help fill the planters out. Adib-Yazdi added that they were open to string lights.

The board, namely acting chair Garrick Blalock, said they were willing to approve the cabling changes, but wanted a string lighting plan to come back next month, since they’d have to come back for a signage package anyway. The revised cabling plan was approved unanimously 4-0.

Cayuga Park (Carpenter Circle)

Phase one of the mixed-use Cayuga Park project consists of the four-story 42-unit low-moderate income apartment building, called the “Marketview Apartments,” and Cayuga Medical’s new 65,000 square-foot five-story office building, which at 78 feet tall you’ve probably noticed when coming down Route 13.

As with Asteri, any substantive changes to this project, here originally approved in October 2021, have to be reviewed and approved. In this case, it’s a couple of design tweaks to the Marketview Apartments. This includes landscape revisions, a larger playground, and shifted utility boxes and parking lot striping. Exciting, I know.

Whitham’s von Mechow was the consultant leading this review. Von Mechow showed the updated landscaping plan, the additional plantings and amenities next to the entrance (park benches, picnic table, bike racks, trash receptacles, plantings), the adjusted building foundation in response to updated FEMA flood maps, and adjusted parking. Side note, looks like “Carpenter Circle” will be renamed “Cayuga Park Lane.”

“You still have large blank facades at the entries…what you’re proposing there isn’t doing the trick,” said the board’s Glass. He suggested better lighting or entries. Petrina said she appreciated the increased plantings and larger playground, but agreed with Glass that the facades needed work. Whitham chimed in to say they would look at that further.

Nicholas called the proposal out because to go to the bus stop, one had to walk east, cross the street at the intersection, and walk back up to the west, since there was a lack of sidewalks on the north side of the road—basically, a large “U” just to cross the street. Von Mechow argued that there were “spatial limitations” on site. “There may be a real inability on our part to accommodate some of those requests,” von Mechow noted. He explained that NYSEG’s heavy-duty power lines prevented the sidewalk on the north side of Cayuga Park Drive.

“You’re leaving here with a clear message. Give the facades some work and give a college try on the circulation…we’ll see you next month,” said Chair Blalock.

“We get it. We’re gonna look at this…we’ll put that package together and take a look,” replied Whitham.

City Harbor (101 Pier Road)

Although the site plan was approved back in May 2022 and revised building designs were approved last month, the developers of City Harbor are back before the Planning Board for landscaping plan updates and review of the kayak landing plan. The project team now seeks approval for final site plan layout changes for the area surrounding the ninth hole and the Newman Golf Course Clubhouse.

David Herrick of T.G. Miller P.C. was here to speak about the project, as well as Whitham’s Yifei Yan. Folks, given their heavy involvement in the Ithaca development scene, if I could be a fly on any one company’s wall, it’d be Whitham’s.

Yan stated that, working with the city, they believed they’d come to a consensus on a revised parking lot for the city golf course parking lot, and the kayak launch would have a more “curvy, organic form”.

The board appreciated the changes, with Petrina calling it a nice mix of “wild and organized.” Some details are still to be worked out, like landscaping next to the new golf course parking lot and where to put the new tee boxes, but with those minor details noted, the board was ready to vote on the golf course changes and the revised kayak ramp. The vote passed unanimously 4-0. “My knowledge of kayak ramps has improved exponentially,” quipped Blalock.

State Street Apartments (445 East State Street)

As reported earlier this month, in an effort to deal with rising costs and be able to move forward with construction, developer Jeff Githens of Peakmade Real Estate is seeking to add a partial seventh floor to the approved six-story building he wishes to build at 445 East State Street, a surface parking lot next to the Gateway Center on the east end of Downtown. The parking remains the same at 238 spaces, while the project would add 45 apartments, for a total of 376 apartments.

The Planning Board has, excepting member Elisabete Godden, been supportive of a seven-story proposal. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission has been opposed to it (and to the approved six-story version, for that matter, but since the project is adjacent to but not actually in the East Hill Historic District, they do not vote on the proposal). The key issue has long been getting the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to okay a seventh floor. The way this approval is structured is that Githens and Co. can build either version so long as the ZBA signs off on a height variance for the seventh floor.

Engineer Bryan Bouchard of CHA Inc. presented the updated with Githens on hand to explain the cost issues that led up to the request. The board’s C.J. Randall noted Godden’s previous opposition, though she herself did not oppose it. “I like it better this way,” said Petrina. “It breaks up the massing, and it adds density Downtown where we need it.”

“This is going to be a great building, in terms of its materiality…masonry and other kinds of materials really break up the massing, I think it’ll be a really handsome building,” said the board’s Glass.

With that brief, positive discussion, the board approved the changes unanimously. Pending BZA approval, which the board encouraged enthusiastically for its “many positive impacts,” the developer may choose to build either the six-story iteration or this version with the partial seventh floor.

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

Now, a trip up to the Big Red’s campus. 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. With that wide regulatory berth, things have moved quickly. After only three months of review, the project is up for consideration of preliminary and final site plan approval.

Landscape Architect Kim Michaels of TWMLA offered to show a brief presentation with pictures, but the board passed; it was a long meeting and it wasn’t really new information. With the briefest of discussions, the board moved to vote on approval. The wry smile on Planner Nikki Cerra’s face seem to say it all; everyone had seen the info already and was ready to move on. With the standard set of approval conditions, approval was granted unanimously 4-0.

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 Determination of Environmental Significant for SEQR—if a “neg dec” is declared, approval of the project could come as soon as next month.

On a positive note, the existing house will be deconstructed in cooperation with Cornell’s Circular Construction Lab. It is believed about 50% of the materials can be salvaged and reused.

Visum’s Bradley Wells was on hand to talk about the project, along with Vice-President Laura Mattos and architect Steve Hugo from HOLT Architects. The corner bay windows are slightly shorter and the 9-inch bumpout is reduced due to cost and zoning concerns. “I’m just really afraid with the market conditions, with each month it gets delayed…that’s why we’re going with a non-variance project,” said Mattos.

The Negative Declaration of SEQR, meaning impacts effectively mitigated, passed unanimously. Things are on track for approval in the next month or two.

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.

As this project is exempt from a lot of the usual review details because it’s a “public resource”, the Determination of Environmental Significance and potential preliminary and final Site Plan Approval were on tap last night. Kim Michaels from TWMLA led the discussion, joined by fire chief Tom Parsons. Board review was brief. SEQR passed unanimously, and preliminary and final approval was granted unanimously.

The Citizen (602 West Buffalo Street)

Over to the West End for this next one. “The Citizen” in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood. Visum is proposing 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.

Scheduled for last night were an updated presentation from the development team and review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form, in particular aesthetics, materials, and open space/recreation sections. Part 3 review is the last step prior to votes of determination of SEQR environmental significance.

Visum’s Mattos was back with HOLT Architects’ Hugo to give the updates on “The Citizen”, along with engineer Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering. Fishel noted the use of salt-tolerant plants and a honeycomb-pattern patio in the rear. The façade will utilize more varied panel colors overall, and dark grey panels at the window bases; window sizes were reduced, likely as an attempt at “value engineering.”

The board was lukewarm to the design. “It feels quite monolithic, it has a flat roof with minimal variations in the façade,” commented the board’s Glass. “I think it needs some serious reconsideration, at least in my opinion….the CMU base, that would be fine I think, but there are some bigger issues here.”

Acting Chair Blalock supported the development in general, but acknowledged Glass’s comments and the concerns raised. Hugo responded that they may project the colored panels slightly to create façade interest, and they were exploring other ways to break up the mass of the building. Planning Director Nicholas encouraged a 3D model or some zoomed-in renders may help sell their case. The project will be back before the board next month.

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

This is a fairly small-scale 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 has been submitted.

On the agenda for last night was an updated presentation, and review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form. During Public Comment, Nicholas read a pair of letters from local businessmen and residents John Guttridge and Marshall McCormick, who said he respected the business but thought the location was inappropriate given its likely traffic impacts on a largely-pedestrian neighborhood.

David Herrick of T.G. Miller gave the project update to the board, with David Kruse of SRF Associates present to explain through the traffic study. The majority of the traffic, about 80%, would be coming from Meadow Street. By virtue of it being an automated car wash, the site can’t really receive more than 60 vehicles per hour maximum, so 48 would be from Meadow and 12 from Titus at its maximum peak hour volume.

“It doesn’t make logical sense to me that 80% of the traffic would come off of Meadow onto South Titus. How did you come up with that assumption? It doesn’t seem logical 80% of people would navigate that intersection,” noted Planning Director Nicholas.

“When we put together a distribution figure, we don’t just look at passing the driveway, we look at the whole area holistically, based on where the population is, based on where the clientele may be passing. You have 2,000 people passing on the through approach during peak hour, vs. about 40 on Titus,” said Kruse. “Car washes can be a pass-by use, which can actually reduce the number of new vehicle trips because are already traveling by and decide they want to stop and get a car wash, it’s not a destination but a pass-by trip.” Business owner Gary Sloan says if they get backed up they make two lanes on-site, but they never line patrons up off-site.

Long-term plans call for cooperation for turning the block between the car wash and Fair Street into a landscaped, pedestrian walkway, which the board appreciated.

“For my part, this looks like a compromise for a site that needs help and is a crucial gateway,” said Glass. He still wanted to see more extensive landscaping along Meadow Street, however.

“I really do think that this could be compatible…I appreciate the applicant putting this idea forward and showing how these could co-exist,” added Petrina.

“If we want to make Titus a park, this proposal is not closing the door on that possibility,” noted Blalock. “I feel good about this.”

“It was our best guess for what the city was looking to achieve there. As long as we can ingress and egress in our piece there, from South Meadow, we’re fine with that,” said Sloan.

The project appeared to be on better footing after this month’s meeting, and will be back before the board next month.

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 (50% lot coverage allowed, 58% requested).

On the agenda for last night were an informational presentation and Design Review on the building itself (Collegetown-zoned project are required to go through both SEQR and a Design Review).

Architect Jason Demarest led the board through the presentation on behalf of owner Chris Petrillose. Demarest noted the building is Ithaca Green Building Code compliant and they added some secure bike storage and bike racks outside the building. The building exterior will be faced in blue and light grey fiber cement siding and grey stone veneer, townhouse-like to make it less imposing. The ground level has sunken patios.

The sunken patios were not lauded; the board felt they would be dark and cramped. The rest of the building was fine. “I like everything about the building, but I can’t wrap my head around these sunken courtyards, I think they compromise the yards,” said Petrina. “I’m not sure about the sunken, kinda pit things, but the rest of it looks good,” added Randall.

The board was supportive of the variances, though cautioned that the BZA is a different board and they can only make recommendations. The project would likely head to the BZA in December or January.

Sign Review

This is exactly as it sounds; as part of the Site Plan Review process, certain buildings in Design Review areas (i.e. Collegetown and Downtown) have to have proposed changes in signage reviewed. This month, the board is reviewing applications for signage changes at “The Ithacan” at 215 East State Street Downtown, and “The Lux” at 238 Dryden Road in Collegetown.

Bryan Bouchard walked through the signage package for “The Ithacan”. Small channel-lit letters sit over the entrance on Green Street with a new logo atop it, while the logo signs on the upper-levels of the building were deleted. The board has long been opponents of names and logos on top of buildings, the Marriott Downtown probably being the best example.

Long story short, the board still hates the logo. “It’s a hexagon for the sake of being a hexagon. And the “I” with two colors? It’s silly,” said Blalock. The channel lit-name by the entry was fine. Bouchard tried to explain that it was about brand identity for the co-owners of the project with developer Jeff Rimland, Aptitude Development. Similarly, here’s Aptitude’s “The Marshall” in Syracuse. Bouchard said BZA has actually been more favorable to the overall sign package than the Planning Board.

As for “The Lux”, the signage is a single stud-mounted, Italic-font with back-lighting on a dimmer for late hours. The board is not a fan of the different font between “The Lux” and the older “112” sign for its address, but otherwise was not getting too worked up, apart from Glass’s consternation over “why does every building have to be named.” (It could be worse). The board gave it their okay.

Board of Zoning Appeals

There were two zoning appeals-related items on the agenda for this month. One, the area (height) variance for 445 East State Street, is discussed in its Site Plan Review section above. The other was an area variance for 626 Stewart Avenue, which is being renovated by its owner on the inside to add a new sixth apartment, which exacerbates lot size and parking space requirements (2 existing, seven-now-eight required). The change is strictly interior. The board had no issues with the proposal and gave it a recommendation for approval for when it heads to the BZA next month.

Other News and Notes

City assistant attorney Victor Kessler explained that per the amended “Open Meetings Law” of New York State. As long as there’s a state of emergency, meetings can be fully remote. Hybrid meetings, where meetings have an in-person quorum (4 of 7, in the case of the Planning Board), with people able to speak remotely, is allowed at any time. Members may also take part and vote remotely due to personal emergencies, per the Board Chair’s decision. They would have to be visible, hearable and labeled on their camera. City staff and the public can attend remotely. Speaking personally, as a meteorologist who may be on-call, I appreciate this immensely.

The board is also planning a “working retreat” later this winter to explore strategies to make panelized building materials and signage more attractive. There have been a lot of projects with mixed results lately, so they want to narrow down strategies for what aesthetically works and what doesn’t.

Brian Crandall

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