ITHACA, N.Y.—To close out 2022, last night’s city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board was quite pithy. One project received final approval, a few others advanced in their own reviews, and one that wanted to advance could not, much to the project team’s strenuous chagrin. Feel free to see a few hours summarized into a few 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 typical meat of the agenda, where developers’ dreams are made or broken: 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 delving deep into the details every 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.

In summary, 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 issues a negative declaration (adverse effects mitigated) or a positive declaration (potentially harmful impacts, and therefore needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while performing design review for projects in certain neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all discussed and revised to the board’s satisfaction, members vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after review of 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 coveted full SPR 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, with some revisions to the parking garage approved back in October. The development team is seeking approvals on a revised exterior lighting and signage plan, and with this project, any substantial change means it has to take another trip before the board before they can make those changes.

Vecino architect Bruce Adib-Yazdi was on hand to talk about the signage, as were landscape architects/consultants Yifei Yan and Jacob von Mechow from Whitham Planning and Design. Due to its mixed uses, Asteri is allowed six signs, but they are pursuing eleven signs on various parts of the building three for the conference center, three for Asteri itself, two for the retail spaces at ground level, and three vinyl window signs, which yes, those do count as signage. Note that the “sponsorship” name on the conference center in renderings is Adib-Yazdi’s, just for demonstration purposes. The rooftop Asteri “A” has been removed. Fan added that BZA review of the signage package is planned for next month, with potential Planning Board approval in January.

Befitting their reputation for being sticklers on signage, the board was cautious about the amount of Conference Center signage, but generally, the board felt the amount and square footage was appropriate, particularly the signage at pedestrian level. The board was unconcerned with which conference center signage option they went with, blade or mounted letters, as long as they only did one of them. With the Planning Board’s blessing, the project will go to BZA next month, with potential approval of the signage package in January.

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 was recently completed at the site and was submitted to NYSDEC in April 2021.

Initially, the Breeze project was scheduled for a vote of Determination of Environmental Significance last month. However, there are some uncertainties on whether two or three zoning variances would be needed, so it had been decided to hold off on the SEQR/CEQR vote until now. Concurrently, the revised legal agreement with the city for public access to the Overlook is going through the Common Council’s review. If a negative declaration is issued, then proposed mitigations of project impacts, and the cleanup plan, is considered satisfactory, and the project may be considered for zoning variances if needed, and then preliminary and final Site Plan Approval.

Visum Vice President Laura Mattos noted the $3 million cleanup effort, and that getting financing has been a challenge with rising interest rates, so they were hopeful to have CEQR in hand to help sell the project to potential lenders. Architect Erik Reynolds of SWBR Architects noted some tweaks to the fire-truck turnaround to eliminate the need for an off-street loading variance. The project team would really like to stick with EIFS (synthetic stucco) as part of the façade package—the board’s dislike of EIFS is well documented. They also reviewed the truck path for soil removal and had the school district’s assent that the 2-3 truck trips per day would not impact school activities.

“I’m not a real fan of light-colored EIFS,” noted board member C.J. Randall.

“I think it’s interesting that this building is putting EIFS on front…I have more comfort using it if we could see some of the detailing of the panels. If it really does look sharp and it’s ten feet off the ground, you may be able to sell it to me, though I don’t know about anyone else,” said the board’s Emily Petrina.

The EIFS was definitely a sticking point. The brick and engineered wood finishes were fine, and the board liked the contrast color-wise. They did express some openness to it if they can prove the EIFS is detailed and wouldn’t look sooty and grimy after a few years. Chair Robert Lewis praised the warmness of the wood around the balconies, calling it the “saving grace” for the materials.

There was still some uncertainty if a zoning variance would be needed for more off-street loading space, and the board built in a statement in their review that they expected based on the plans that if a variance is needed for the updated landscape and parking, it would be a minimal impact if necessary. A height variance and rear yard variance will be needed, which the board was comfortable with and felt the design mitigations were appropriate—the gorge, planned public outlook and the sloped site noted in particular as explanations for why the variances are acceptable.

As discussion turned to the SEQR/CEQR vote, the board signaled their comfort with the proposal. It passed unanimously 6-0, and the project will hopefully be back before the board next month.

The Citizen (602 West Buffalo Street)

Next up on the agenda was another Visum proposal, “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 with 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 was a potential vote on the Determination of Environmental Significance for SEQR/CEQR. Approval last night would have meant the project could have Site Plan Approval in hand and construction contracts out to bid in time for the spring construction season.

Visum’s Mattos stuck around for this presentation as well, with architect Steve Hugo from HOLT Architects, who had a presentation ready to go. Hugo explained that legal easements for fire truck access to the rear are coming along swimmingly. Additional rendering in cloudy conditions and looking south were shown, and the “head building” at the corner will use a high-quality fiber cement board, with a less showy fiber cement material used on the portion of the building tucked away from North Meadow Street. In response to board concerns, the masonry pillar wrap at street level has been replaced with a columnal metal finish.

Meanwhile, engineer Adam Fishel with Marathon Engineering explained they had meetings with DOT about the parking area access drive on Buffalo Street, and initial communications suggest that there are concerns but all parties believe they should be able to be mitigated with geometry changes to the driveway shape and size. Engineer Doug Nemec added that the project will use a hydraulic hammer for pile driving to reduce noise and vibration during deep foundation construction.

“I think the ground-level corner of Meadow and Buffalo will be fantastic,” said the board’s Mitch Glass. “But I’m still kinda lukewarm about the box above it. It just feels a little watered down to me, it feels like a box. There’s no real interesting roofline, no balconies to speak of…I just worry about that.”

“I like the box…I don’t have as much worry about it as much as Mitch does. I might agree if the sunshades had been removed, but…I really like this project,” said Petrina in contrast.

“I think this is an excellent building, I appreciate the (ground-level) columns are much better. Stainless steel should be fine with salt and all that. It will be an amazing corner there,” said member Elisabete Godden.

“The sunshades are doing a lot of work. It is a very grey building, a very big building, it’s not a very interesting design…it’s worth thinking about, I’m kinda with Mitch there,” said Chair Lewis.

The board was generally comfortable with the proposal, but planning staff felt there were still a couple of uncertainties. The applicant’s lawyer, Nate Cook, stepped up to explain the negotiations with easements with Tompkins Community Action, and said it was written up but not final because they had been waiting for city legal to review, which was only just now occurring. Basically, TCAction is okay, the fire department is okay, Cook and Visum just didn’t have the time to get the final legal paperwork in the packet because city attorneys had been unable to tend to the review right away.

“We all want this project to move forward. The board likes the project. I want a defensible SEQR,” said Planning Director Lisa Nicholas.

The board seemed generally comfortable with the foundation design, and was favorable to the building design, if with some possible revisions. But the board felt they didn’t have enough information to vote tonight, they needed more data—impacts on land, impacts on traffic, construction staging impacts, and community impacts. Lewis pointed out they spent an hour reviewing the project even though 20 minutes were allotted. Visum’s lawyer Cook became rather defensive and tried to argue there was enough to vote on, but Chair Lewis made clear he did not have comfort pushing it through with a lack of data that may not be defensible in a legal situation.

“I think we have to move on,” Lewis summarized. “There is no way to get there tonight. I am sympathetic to this, but that’s how real estate approvals work. I’m sorry, it’s not a negotiation. We can’t do it. We’ll see you next month. We hope you’ll get a [negative impact declaration] then, but the ‘I’s aren’t dotted.'”

With that firm verbal cutoff, the board moved on to the next project.

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 South Titus Avenue into one, for which a Traffic Impact Study has been submitted and approved by city planning staff.

The project was approaching the end of the line in its review heading into last night’s meeting. On the agenda were final remarks and a vote for Preliminary and potential Final Site Plan Approval. Engineer David Herrick of T.G. Miller provided color chips for building finishes and renderings of building signage, which is in compliance with zoning. Curb ramps that the board wanted were added to the plans.

The board wasn’t exactly thrilled about a car wash, but were comfortable with the plans. “It’s good to go, this corner has been a problem for a long time and I look forward to seeing it fixed,” said the board’s Garrick Blalock.

With that, Chair Lewis called for a vote. Preliminary and final approval was granted 6-0. With any luck, the new car wash will be ready to lather and rinse your Subarus and Priuses sometime next year.

The William Apartments (108-10 College Avenue)

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 was a potential vote on the Determination of Environmental Significance for SEQR/CEQR, and thus clearing a pretty big hurdle in the site plan review process.

Architect Jason Demarest led the board through the presentation on behalf of owner Chris Petrillose. The sunken patios were revised, and the ground on the west side had been leveled out to a 30-inch “planter” with retaining wall on the western edge, three feet shorter than previously proposed. It’s a more expensive approach, but Petrillose, like most developers, wants to avoid the Zoning Board of Appeals while meeting the Planning Board’s and city planning department’s satisfaction. The exterior lighting and landscaping was also tweaked.

The board appreciated the changes, though some concerns were raised about the smaller sunken courtyards, which the board felt were a safety hazard. To Chair Lewis, he felt they were the “weakest point of the design, but not a deal-breaker.” He did feel the safety concern about people tripping and falling into the sunken courtyards did need to be addressed during Site Plan Review. The board was support of the yard variances sought, deeming the location and overall massing appropriate for the Collegetown location.

With that, the board help its vote on SEQR/CEQR. The neg dec was issued with a unanimous 6-0 vote. With the board’s positive recommendation for the variance, the project will visit the BZA next month, and if all go well, preliminary approval could be issued at the January Planning Board meeting.

Alpha Phi Alpha Residential House Renovations (105 Westbourne Lane)

Plans for this renovation were first shared by the Voice back in April. Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first African-American fraternity and founded at Cornell in 1906, is planning to renovate an existing vacant fraternity house in Cornell Heights to serve as its new home.

The project team, which includes Alpha Phi Alpha and Cornell University, proposes to renovate and restore the existing building, demolish the existing lower‐level addition, expand the building footprint by 275 square feet with a 1,120 square-foot replacement addition, and modify the site to accommodate new ADA compliant parking. Site improvements include a regraded entry drive lane for ADA accessibility, permeable grass pavers, a 1500 SF rain garden, and landscaping.

The project is located in the R‐U zoning district and will require variances; it is also a contributing property to the Cornell Heights Historic District, which means the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission will have to sign off the renovations in order for them to move forward. In sum, three committees—Planning, BZA and ILPC—have to sign off on this renovation. On tap for last night was just a project presentation, with no voting items planned this month.

Some concerns were raised by a neighbor that the renovations were unsympathetic to the landscaping and stone walls surrounding the property, but that was it for public comments on the project. Architect Georges Clermont of AEPMI and civil engineer Frank Santelli of T.G. Miller were on hand to do the presentation.

Leading in, Clermont noted that a conditional Certificate of Appropriateness had been issued by the ILPC, which takes care of one of their three required reviews and reduces the Planning Board’s focus to environmental impacts. The handicap lift is completely within the building, not attached to the exterior. Clermont added that some of the concern that was raised by the neighbor was an accident of the project team’s doing, a graphical issue that happened when they were putting together the paperwork.

“Looks like a nice refurbishment of an existing building. You’re ticking all the boxes here,” said Petrina.

“You’ve got a really nice start,” added Glass. He did feel that the grass pavers were a little excessive though.

With the generally positive feedback, the project’s Planning Board review is off to an auspicious start. The project will be back before the board next month.

NYSEG Hudson Regulator Station (220 Grandview Avenue)

Now, I’m sure the discussion of gas regulation facilities thrills some of you like a Hollywood blockbuster. You do you, you unique gem. For most readers, this is not attention-grabbing, but legally it is necessary.

NYSEG and its contractors are planning to construct a 164 square-foot gas regulator house (shed) with “appurtenant facilities,” per planning staff. I’m a professional writer and I look up what the heck “appurtenant” means, and it’s basically “secondary but pertinent.” Anyway, NYSEG has secured a 1,200 square-foot utility easement from the 220 Grandview Avenue property owner, the South Hill Church of Nazarene. Proposed site work includes the regrading of the site and landscaping around the proposed structure. Current, the site is a gravel parking lot for the church.

On tap for last night was a presentation, Declaration of Lead Agency, and the Public Hearing. A letter of opposition was sent into the board by a pair of neighbors, stating it would be noisy, unsightly, diminish neighborhood character and land value, and could release natural gas into the South Hill neighborhood that poses explosion risks. There is planting at the front, but it does sit on the “unbuildable” northwest corner of Grandview and Hudson, which makes it visible to passersby.

Arne Larsen of DDS Companies represented NYSEG before the board. He explained that the project has been in the works for a couple of years, and that one of the objectives is to reinforce a high-pressure gas main along Hudson Street, due to pressure differentials with surrounding service pipes. The existing structure, an underground vault, is at the end of its useful life and can’t be rebuilt at its current spot. Vaults are also obsolete because they’re prone to water infiltration and pose safety hazards to service staff (i.e. people fall in). The church was not their first choice, but after a few misses, it became their best option.

“There’s no electrical, there’s no lighting. We’ve situated it on the north side away from the guardrail. It’ll be a 10′ x 16′ pre-cast concrete building,” said Larsen. The equipment doesn’t make noise and the brick lining will be matched to the church’s brick, so as to blend in better, and staff only drop in to check on equipment monthly or as needed.

The Planning Board was fine with it. “This seems completely reasonable to me, it’s a small impact. I wonder how much outreach there could be to make people feel safe?” Asked Petrina. She also suggested green as a color, which Larsen noted that NYSEG would probably like that since it’s their corporate color.

Lewis pointed out the concerns are about noise, emission, and explosion. Documenting those concerns and demonstrated they’ve been addressed in a sound matter would really help move the project along. With that, the board voted to Declare itself Lead Agency, which passed unanimously. The project will come back next month.

Argos Inn Expansion (408 East State Street)

Last but not least in Site Plan Review last night, the Argos Inn expansion. The applicant proposes to demolish an existing 1800 square-foot terrace north of the Argos Inn building and construct a 5135 square-foot, 3‐story addition. The addition will contain 11 guest rooms (24 rooms total) and hotel office space. Site improvements include reconfiguration of 2,385 SF outdoor terraces for seating,
relocation of the existing terrace to the north end of the parking lot, creation of a utility building to screen the outdoor seating from the street, the paving and striping of the parking lot, landscaping, and lighting.

The project is located in the B‐4 zoning district and will require rear yard and parking variances. It also requires ILPC approval, as well as BZA and Planning Board. It’s another three reviews for one project package deal.

The presentation was handled by Craig Modisher from STREAM Collaborative, with assists from colleague Rob Morache, landscape architect Yamila Fournier from Whitham, and hotel owner Avi Smith. Modisher noted that the initial ILPC review is positive and it seems like all that’s left is a little more architectural finessing and paperwork before a Certificate of Appropriateness may be granted for the proposal, perhaps next month.

Modisher sought to highlight that the expansion is intended to complement and fit in with the historic 200-year old main building and not impose on any of the neighbors. The landscaping includes stone terraces, lush landscaping, and exit stairs on the rear side of the property, away from the street.

The board praised the proposal as a smartly designed project, and appreciated the extensive landscaping plans. The bigger concern is likely with getting parking variances from the BZA, but that’s largely out of the Planning Board’s purview and there have already been informal meetings with the city Zoning Administrator (Megan Wilson) and the BZA about what they need to do to obtain the variance. But the Planning Board, at least, looks like it’ll be smooth sailing at this point.

Board of Zoning Appeals

There were two zoning appeals-related items on the agenda for this month. One, the area (height) variance for 108-110 College Avenue, is discussed in its Site Plan Review section above. The other was an area variance for 209 Elmwood Avenue in the Bryant Park neighborhood, for which the homeowner would like to build a new, slightly larger carport, which exacerbates lot size requirements. 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

  • Not much of note was had to close out the meeting. The board will be doing a retreat to learn more about façade materials, better design strategies and EIFS, the EIFS part of which they did not sound super-excited about—1990s/2000s era EIFS has a history of failing, which means they don’t have much of an appetite for contemporary new and improved versions. Also, recent projects like Amici House and the Hotel Ithaca have posed issues with sudden or questionable façade design changes.
  • On a final note, a hearty congrats to Elisabete Godden on becoming the board’s new Vice-Chair. Few times have I felt more embarrassed than discovering I had spelled her last name wrong in meeting summaries for months following her initial appointment to the board, to the point I was called out in a meeting. I’ll try my best to not do it again, Ms. Godden (not Goddard).

Brian Crandall

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