ITHACA, N.Y. — Compared to the past few months, it was a fairly short Planning Board meeting for the city of Ithaca this month. One project was approved, several others advanced, but at least one project appears to be facing some tricky questions as it tries to move forward.

Feel free to see three hours summarized into eight minutes of reading below.

Site Plan Review

Without Special Permits or Special Orders of Business scheduled for this month’s meeting, the topic of business quickly turned to the usual bulk of the agenda, where the sausage gets made: Site Plan Review.

This is the part of the meeting during which the consideration and critique of new and updated building proposals occurs. In the interest of not going into several paragraphs of detail month after month, if you want a more thorough description of the multiple steps involved within the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.

Long story short, 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 debated and settled to the board’s satisfaction, members vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval. A project can usually obtain demolition/site prep and even foundation work permits with just preliminary approval, but for something to obtain construction permits for building framing onward, they’ll need that final SPR approval in-hand.

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.

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.

Last month, the board made it clear they wanted revisions to the façade of the Marketview Apartments, as well as revisions to the circulation. As pointed out by Planning Director Lisa Nicholas last month, to go to the new 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. It was all the airs of being multi-modal/pedestrian friendly, without actually being pedestrian friendly.

In response to these concerns, the development team, repped by Whitham Planning And Design’s Jacob von Mechow (MEH-ko), is hoping to cover blank walls with signage, trellises for climbing plants, warmer colors for site furnishings – red planters instead of black planters, for example. As for the circulation, a new entrance was added to the west side of the building, and avoiding the circuitous path just to catch the bus. It was easier to add an entrance than to physically and legally navigate NYSEG’s heavy-duty power lines.

The board seemed favorable to the proposed changes. “It looks great. I’m not opposed to the string lights as long as they’re sturdy and can withstand winters,” said the Board’s Daniel Correa. His colleague Elisabete Godden suggested a shade/overhanging-light support structure, and Correa felt the signage was a little hard to read.

But other than those quibbles, they were on board with the plans. With a light revision to add back in signed commitments to support transportation and emergency access improvements to Route 13, the revised conditions were approved unanimously.

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 siteThe 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.

After a couple months’ hiatus, the Breeze is back before the board. Initially, it was scheduled for a vote of Determination of Environmental Significance. If a negative declaration is issued, then proposed mitigations of project impacts, and the cleanup plan, is considered satisfactory. However, there are some zoning variance uncertainties, so it was decided to hold off on the SEQR/CEQR vote for a month. Concurrently, the revised legal agreement with the city for public access to the Overlook is going through the Common Council’s review.

Visum Vice President Laura Mattos explained that Gorick Construction will be performing the remediation, with C&S Companies providing the engineering work for the remediation. Excavated, contaminated soil will be taken to Seneca Meadows up in Waterloo. NYS DEC and DOH are providing oversight and regulatory review alongside the city’s review, air monitoring equipment will monitor particulate and volatile organic compound levels during remediation.

Following up were architect Erik Reynolds and landscape architect Marlee Beers of SWBR Architects. Generally, design changes to the building are few, while Beers reviewed the proposed plantings and seed mixes to be used to help stabilize the slopes. The overlook will be connected via a secure pedestrian bridge over the raceway, and have a compacted stone dust surface with a pair of benches to sit and take in the view.

The board was comfortable with the monitoring, though there were concerns with the proposed truck route. “I don’t like all the trucks going by the high school and middle school,” said the board’s Garrick Blalock, expressing concern that the trucks filled with soil will pass through the city to get to Route 96 going northward. His colleague C.J. Randall noted that the J-brakes on trucks coming to a halt after going downhill can be very loud, and expressed unhappiness with the white EIFS (synthetic stucco) which the board has vigorously protested in other projects. There was also some question about fencing around the overlook, trying to balance safety and aesthetics.

As Board Chair Robert Lewis noted, there was still some work to do. As he told the project team, he wasn’t sure the project would pass SEQR if it had been ready last night. Planning Director Lisa Nicholas noted there was still time to work out agreements with the developers before the project came back for SEQR approval. She also asked the board where they’d like to route the trucks, to which Blalock said they should consult the district for some degree of traffic management if they plan to utilize a route past the schools. With those issues noted and topics that need to be addressed highlighted, the project will be back before the board next month.

The Gem (202 Linden Avenue)

In front of the board again, 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 (TDMP) 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 bickering over design aspects but nothing particularly contentious.

Now, the project is ready for preliminary and final approval. Also under consideration is a Transportation Demand Management Plan, which is essential for Inner Collegetown projects without parking. However, for smaller infill projects like this, it’s a pretty simple process. Provide enough bike rack spaces to service every tenants and provide information on nearby garages and less expensive, more distant parking lots (i.e. the airport) where they can rent a space if they choose to bring a car anyway.

Mattos hung around on Visum’s behalf, joined by Steve Hugo of HOLT Architects and Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering. There isn’t much to add at this point; Fishel briefly discussed the planting and landscaping plan, and Hugo talked about the “three-dimensionality” of the design in response to board critiques.

The board was supportive of the plans, though Correa noted he really disliked the diamond logo for “The Gem.” With additional conditions added to provide a construction logistics plan and fire safety plan to the city’s satisfaction, final approval was granted unanimously, as was the TDMP. “It’s a beautiful building, I can’t wait to see it,” said Lewis.

“Without the diamond, I promise,” quipped Mattos.

The Citizen (602 West Buffalo Street)

Visum is clearly a very busy enterprise, with three in a row on the agenda. Next up, “The Citizen” in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood. Visum is proposing to demolish the existing 2-story restaurant building (formerly Joe’s Italian Restaurant) 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 water, land, and transportation impacts. Architect Hugo with HOLT was on hand to talk about this project as well.

In response to board concerns, the ground floor was pulled back to create a recessed public space at the expense of about 300 square-feet of retail space. The façade was also revised to include more visual interest and color in the panels on the building, creating a more “cut-into” façade with colored accented both projected like sunshades, and recessed into the face. A triangular marquee entrance was added, and local artist Annemarie Zwack has been hired to paint murals along the recessed entryway’s walls.

“I’m super excited about this project now,” said the board’s Emily Petrina. “I was waiting for design development to happen, and it finally happened….thumbs up from me, I hope the rest of the building’s design is developed to this level.” Some concerns were raised, however, about the street bollards and whether everything could be worked out to the satisfaction of city engineers. Board member Mitch Glass suggests some subtle variation in the shading in the façade, and Chair Lewis wanted a rendering against a cloudy sky, to make sure the grey of the building didn’t feel too overbearing.

While there’s still plenty of work to do, the board’s positive reaction to the design update puts the project on an auspicious path. It’ll be back before their eyes for further review and discussion 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 a potential Determination of Environmental Significance. Remember, a negative declaration clears a big hurdle and makes the project eligible for site plan approval as soon as next month.

Engineer David Herrick of T.G. Miller P.C. led the project discussion, with landscape architect Margot Chiuten, owner Gary Sloan and architect John Snyder on hand to answer relevant questions. “Looking at the landscaping plan, I think it’s coming along. Could there be another tree on the Meadow Street side?” Asked Mitch Glass. He also expressed concerns about signage, and wanted more brick and a more subdued color. Glass liked a shade of grey, while his colleague Petrina preferred a navy blue/ Correa liked the current color. (I for one welcome bright colors in this often dark, grey climate—hey, it works for Norway).

Chair Lewis expressed concerns about noise pollution from the vacuums, to which Sloan replied he went to 377 Elmira Road, turned all the vacuums on, stood 30 feet away with a decibel meter and said the reading was consistently below 90 decibels, typically 60-70 decibels.

“We’ve never really had a complaint about the vacuums, at 377 Elmira we have two neighbors pretty close behind us, there’s never been a noise concern,” said Sloan.

The vote on the SEQR resolution for a negative declaration was unanimous. The project will be eligible for site plan approval within the next month or two.

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 design updates and the commencement of review of Part 3 of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF), deep in the SEQR process. Architect Jason Demarest of JKD Architecture was before the board to speak on behalf of the Collegetown infill project.

The accent lighting has been revised, as has the landscaping and the sunken patios around the building—the walls around the patios are 18 inches lower, so it feels less claustrophobic.

The board had some critiques—Daniel Correa suggested a translucent material on the lower-level balconies to allow more light into the sunken patio areas, and there was still some degree of unease with the sunken patios overall. The accent lighting was also somewhat divisive, between creating a feeling of safety for pedestrians vs. a general dislike of ambient façade lighting.

In discussion, the board felt comfortable with a lot coverage variance when the time comes to give a recommendation, but to justify the rear yard setback, the board wanted a more lush, vegetated buffer at the rear (west side) of the building, and there will be more debate on the matter. The project will be back for further review in December.

105 Crescent Place Site Plan.

Board of Zoning Appeals

There were four zoning appeals-related items on the agenda for this month. First up was the property at 604 E. Buffalo Street, currently home to the offices of the Cornell Radio Guild. At various times, the converted home has housed professional offices, residential units, and a student center. Area variances for parking, off-street loading, and yard setbacks were granted with changes in use back in 1995, 1996, and 2012.

In the 2012 variance, for off-street parking, the Cornell Radio Guild moved in and occupied the entire building for office use. This required seven off-street parking spaces by code. One space is provided on site and three off-site. The BZA granted a variance for the three deficient spaces, provided that the three off-site spaces were leased off-site in perpetuity.

Fast forward 10 years, and the Guild would like to amend the variance so it doesn’t have to lease three off-site any longer; it just wants to maintain one on-site space. According to the filing, the Cornell Radio Guild has changed operation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are no longer any full-time staff and many operations are conducted remotely. So the variance is exacerbated because they want to drop down to one parking space instead of four, when seven are required. Discussion was brief. The board didn’t identify issues with the proposal and said they were comfortable with the requested variance.

Second to bat is 105 Crescent Place on South Hill. Fairly run-of-the-mill homeowner improvement here—the owners want to replace their existing detached 11′ x 19′ garage with a new 14′ x 22′ garage, To align with the existing driveway and not take out the rear deck, the garage would have to be on a similar footprint to the existing garage, which exacerbates rear-yard and side-yard setbacks by three feet and two feet respectively. It also exceeds total structural lot coverage (26.3% vs. 25% allowed in R-1b).

Generally speaking, as long as a proposal doesn’t upset the neighbors, the Planning Board is supportive of homeowner improvements. The board went with its usual neutral boilerplate on this one, “no negative long-term impacts identified.”

Next up, GreenStar. The Co-Op is applying for a signage variance at their Collegetown store at 307 College Avenue. The store has window graphics up that count as illegal signage. Storefronts in MU-2 zones are allowed 2 signs and 60 square feet of coverage. With the graphics. GreenStar has 4 signs and 73.2 square feet of coverage. You could be forgiven for thinking this is much ado about nothing, but zoning rules are rules.

With Chair Lewis excused due to professional conflicts of interest, the board discussed the proposal. Given that the graphics weren’t that intrusive and that the site has suffered from the College Avenue rebuild, they were supportive of the signage variance here, which is really saying something here because the board usually despises excessive signage.

Lastly, AT&T seeks to install seven internet/phone wireless service units on power poles at locations across the city. The telecommunications law says a variance is needed if within 250 feet of a residential building, school or daycare facility, and 1,500 feet from any other wireless facility. This all stems from the 5-G wireless debate last year.

I know some of the local listservs were in a tizzy today about the proliferation of 5G, but the cell equipment was a late addition to the agenda and the real discussion/vote is the BZA’s meeting on Dec. 6. So far, only a pair of comments have been received in opposition. Chair Lewis said he had no problem with the proposal but the city had the telecom zoning law on the books for a reason. “I can’t tell if it’s for real reasons or ‘woo-woo’ reasons,” said Lewis. “This strikes me as a zoning board problem. We don’t have to say anything….I am totally and completely ambivalent on this one.” So no recommendation was made on this one.

Brian Crandall

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