ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a relatively short agenda on tap for this month’s city of Ithaca Planning and Economic Committee meetings.

However, with discussions on the Ithaca Gun site and a new Public Safety Facility, there was much to think about regardless. As always, here’s your summary courtesy of The Voice.

For those who want to take a peek at the agenda as they read along, a link to that relatively modest 115-page PDF can be found here. The full meeting can be watched here.

Ithaca Gun Development Agreement Modifications

The Ithaca Gun site at 121-125 Lake Street has more twists and turns than a daytime TV soap opera, but thankfully the discussion on last night’s agenda lacked any drama. Basically, the developer agreement that the city and the developer initially worked out dates back to 2007 when they were dealing with Frost Travis. Now the site is under the ownership of Visum Development Group, who have their own plans for the site, a 77-unit apartment building they call “The Breeze,” with a publicly accessible trail and overlook of Ithaca Falls.

Visum has reached a later stage of the development process where a cleanup plan and a development plan look plausible and project approval may be granted within the next few months. That means it’s now a good time to update and sign off on the revised Development Agreement (DA). Like the 2007 version, the amended DA spells out the terms and conditions of site redevelopment on both the 1.6-acre privately-owned site, and the adjacent 0.95-acre city-owned property that will house the overlook.

The contract basically agrees to Visum’s apartment building, states the trail and overlook will be ADA-compliant and maintained at Visum’s expense, states current site conditions and the planned soil remediation as agreed to by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and professional engineering analysis of the smokestack, with the option but not an obligation for the city to buy the smokestack from Visum within six months of the agreement being signed. Author’s Note: disclaimer, I work for the DEC, but I am not involved with Ithaca Gun in any way.

If the PEDC was comfortable with the proposed agreement and terms as stated last night, they could vote to send on to the full Common Council for approval at their Dec. 14 meeting.

IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn gave the PEDC an explanation of the agreement and proposed changes. Apparently, remediation of the island overlook dropped its overall height four feet due to the amount of material that was scraped away and carted off. Planning director Nicholas explained that public access to the overlook would be open from sunrise to sunset.

During discussion, councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd Ward) complained that the project was gentrification. “I don’t see how the people that I represent are going to be be better off,” she commented. “We need housing at every price point, and this will help our tax base,” said Mayor Laura Lewis in response.

“When it comes to private property, when they purchase a property they get a basket of rights, and that basket of rights allows them to move forward to develop as we set forward by zoning and land use….but what we cannot prescribe by law is the type of people that will live there. As a private property, we cannot, we’re limited. If it was a property that we owned, we could use those opportunities to mold the development we want to see. But as a private development and a private use, there’s limits on what the government can do,” added Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st).

In response to questioning from Councilor Brock, Bohn noted that remediation of the factory site was carried out from about 2004-07 with regular monitoring and repairs around the falls after a major storm last year. The site has a “dwindling amount of lead,” and the plan is to transfer EPA oversight of Ithaca Falls to New York State as contamination has decreased over the years. Cleanup of the factory site and the adjacent smokestack parcel to DEC-verified standards is necessary in order for Visum to be able to move forward with redeveloping the site.

The vote to send on to council for review and potential approval passed unanimously 5-0.

“This is in my ward and my neighborhood. It has been decades of time that people have been discussing and hoping to see some change on this site,” Lewis noted as discussion closed.

Public Safety Facility Funding Allocation

So here’s something interesting. You folks might remember a few years ago that the city explored a joint city hall, central fire station and police headquarters at 310 West Green Street. While that particular idea didn’t come to fruition, the city still has plans to move forward with a new police headquarters.

At the time of the study by Kingsbury Architecture in 2017, after reviewing the needs of all the city’s facilities, the working group assisting Kingsbury determined that a new Public Safety Facility was the highest priority due to the deteriorated condition of the current Police Facility, which has severely inadequate space and storage capacity for current and future needs.

The Kingsbury Report findings showed various costly repairs and safety improvements needed for the existing Police Station, and an immediate need for additional space to house current staff that could not be accommodated in the existing police headquarters, jammed next to Six Mile Creek Downtown.

Fast forward five years to 2022. The Facilities Group engaged Mitchell Associates, an architecture firm in suburban Albany that specializes in public safety buildings, to review the 2017 findings and evaluate options for a new facility. Three options were considered: renovations of the existing facility, reconstruction of a new facility on the parking lot across the street, or relocation and reconstruction of a new facility at a new location.

After considering all options, Mitchell Associates determined that expansion on the existing site would not be feasible and that the adjacent parking lot is too small to accommodate a new building. They further noted that renovation on the current site was not feasible due to a comparable cost to reconstruction, the need to temporarily relocate the existing police department during reconstruction or renovation, and a result that would still not provide adequate space needs for existing or future expansion of the department.

As a result of these factors, the recommendation is for a new Public Safety Facility at a new location, the cost of which is expected to be between $20-$30 million dollars. You can get a lot of building for that. The new fire station in Collegetown is around $10.5 million for building and land.

The first step in building new facility is to acquire a suitable site. Based on size and location requirements, city planning staff estimate site acquisition and associated costs to be between $3-4 million dollars—it does not appear that the city plans to rebuild on a site they currently own, and the legalese in the resolution suggests this is strictly a police facility, not a police/fire combo.

This month, planning staff are requesting to establish a capital project to begin the process of acquisition for this project, though the site is unknown. Even if they already have a site in mind, they can legally keep it quiet via Executive Session because my writing about it could affect sales price. The initial fund would have $4 million raised from the issuance of municipal bonds, and is earmarked for the land purchase.

Planning Director Lisa Nicholas explained the proposal in a PowerPoint presentation. According to Nicholas, the “Hall of Justice” needs $2.45 million in urgent repairs within the next 2-5 years, mostly due to HVAC systems replacement. It also has numerous physical security issues where people could hide, and victims having to pass perpetrator-holding areas where suspects may attempt to engage victims and where trauma may be reignited. Record storage is so tight they’re being kept in an attic ventilator duct.

So why now? Nicholas noted that development sites are becoming harder to find, land prices are going up, and if there’s any reorientation of the police department’s mission, flexibility in space would be needed. About 44,000 SF is suggested for a new building, with a 19,000 SF footprint, so 2-3 floors. It would have a public meeting room and at least 84 parking spaces according to a needs assessment. Sale of the existing police headquarters is expected to net about $2 million to be used towards the project.

Discussion was brief, with just a question from Councilor Brown to clarify what the initial $4 million would cover (the purchase of land and related soft costs to acquisition). The vote to send onto council passed unanimously 5-0.

Establishing a Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission

Technically, this item is filed as “Amendment to Chapter 8 of the City Code”, but that’s not exactly descriptive. City planning department staff have identified the need to establish an official advisory body to support sustainability initiatives related to the City’s Green New Deal. After exploring several options, staff are recommending amending Chapter 8 of the City Code to establish a fifth Commission, to be named
the “Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission.”

According to the Planning Department, the new commission would support sustainability initiatives in essential ways, including providing guidance and professional expertise from community leaders and subject area experts and conducting public outreach and gather input on critical sustainability initiatives such as the Climate Action Plan, net zero transportation, community choice aggregation, electrification, and so on.

Since 2017, when the Common Council adopted specific climate and social justice goals, they had been delegated to the Community Life Commission. But since that time, new programs, plans and initiatives have been brought forward and implemented, and require the attention of their own dedicated long-term advisory commission.

Last night was a vote to circulate for comment from different city departments and the general public. The proposal for a new Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission would come back before the PEDC at a future meeting, for potential vote to send to council for approval and implementation.

Discussion generally focused on the weak status of commissions, which had suspended meetings when the COVID pandemic forced City Hall to close its doors two years ago, and most of which have yet to begin meeting again. Certain councilors wanted to avoid having a new commission on paper only, that functionally didn’t exist.

“The city has suspended not only the advisory commissions that are in the code, but the advisory boards that are in the charter. None of them have been meeting for the last couple of years. This makes sense, if we have operational advisory boards. Is there an intent to reopen all those advisory groups as described in our charter?” Asked Brock.

“They were suspended during COVID, but there is a plan in place for restarting those commissions…and some of those boards have met or have met virtually,” said Lewis, stating that there was no staffing or infrastructure in place when COVID began, so that was why the advisory commissions were initially suspended.

“It allows an in-depth engagement that is a really strong tool and it’s an advantage to the community, I regret that we haven’t had active advisory committees and commissions in quite some time,” said Brock. City Attorney Ari Lavine added that a small revision to the city charter (to add a line instating the Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission) would also be needed as part of a vote to create the commission.

Councilor Rob Gearhart (D-3rd) asked if they could explore renaming and reconfiguring an existing commission to “rebalance” tasks, to which attorney Lavine said could be done from a legislative standpoint if council wanted, though he wasn’t sure of the details off the cuff. Lewis said “there will be opportunities to have further discussion on this.”

While the question of a brand new commission or a revised existing commission remains a consideration, the vote to circulate the proposal for a Sustainability and Climate Justice Commission passed unanimously 5-0, and will likely be back before the PEDC next month.

Other News and Notes

  • In an update from Nicholas, the Unsanctioned Encampments working group has continued to meet, is considering feedback from city departments, and is on track time-wise. A draft city policy on Unsanctioned Encampments is expected to be put forth for consideration by January.
  • In a piece of positive news, Mayor Lewis reported that the city of Ithaca received a “Community Climate Champion Award” by the U.S. Green Building Council, which was accepted on behalf of the city by Sustainability Planner Rebecca Evans. The board also received an update from Senior Planner Megan Wilson regarding Short-Term Rentals, but there wasn’t much to say this month. Apparently, there will be much more to discuss on the topic at the December PEDC meeting.

Brian Crandall

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