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ITHACA, N.Y. — Last night was a long meeting for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board. With nine projects, the board needed four hours and fifty-seven minutes to get through the agenda. In that long Tuesday evening, four projects received approval or re-approval, while at least one project ran into some turbulence during its time in front of the board.
As always, the Voice is here to summarize five hours into a ten minute piece. Get your drink of choice and dive in below. For those who want to glance at the agenda as they read through, that 222-page tome can be found here.
As there weren’t any Subdivision Reviews or Special Orders of Business to review this month, after public comment the Planning Board delved into what is the usual bulk of the agenda, the Site Plan Review (SPR). Site Plan Review is the part of the meeting the review of new and updated building proposals happens. In the interest of not going into multiple paragraphs of detail every month, if you want a detailed description of the steps in the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.
To briefly sum up 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 good and finished, they vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after reviewing a few final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval.
First on last night’s agenda was Visum Development and Modern Living Rentals’ South Hill project, currently under construction on South Hill. The project still entails the construction of a 66‐unit, 153-bed student housing complex comprised of three buildings constructed on 2.85 acres of hillside on the east side of Route 96B overlooking the planned Chain Works District. Site improvements will include walkways and curb cuts to be tied into a public sidewalk proposed by the Town of Ithaca.
The project revisions would reduce the parking spaces by one (67 to 66 spaces), modify or eliminated a few of the originally planned retaining walls, demolish a portion of an existing concrete industrial building and reuse the remaining portion as a garage, and make some relatively minor landscaping and exterior detail changes.
It’s not uncommon for these modifications to happen with a larger project, and in many cases they’re handled at the staff level without the need for a visit to the Planning Board. But the Outlook Apartments project has been subject to enough controversy and legal wrangling that the approval conditions stipulate that any substantive changes require a trip back before the Planning Board.
Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering and Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative represented the developers before the board to explain the changes and request approval for the revisions. Some exterior parking spaces would be moved inside the industrial building, which had been rented to Ithaca College for storage, so that will reduce the total paved area.
Some members of the board were not thrilled to have the project come back, feeling that approving a project and having it come back for another round of value engineering approvals was poor precedent. They stressed that the wood should be durable and waterproof, and Demarest said it would be a pressure-treated low-maintenance wood (20-30 year lifetime minimum) with a drainage layer behind the retaining wall to let water seep down and not apply additional pressure on the wall. Should it be necessary, repairs can be done by slat rather than replacing the whole wall.
Though not enamored with the changes, the board felt they were reasonable. “I think it’s fine. I am not particularly concerned about the retaining wall changes, the parking changes seem good…I’ll be excited to get the one off our plate forever and ever,” said Board Chair Robert Lewis. The project changes were approved unanimously.
Once again before the board this month was the City Harbor mixed-use project on Pier Road. Final site plan approval to City Harbor was granted back in August of 2020, and the related but separately-reviewed Guthrie Clinic medical office building planned as part of the multi-building project is nearing opening. However, since that time, the development team of Riedman Companies and Edger Enterprises have revised plans to build both phases one and two at the same time.
The new sidewalks, street trees, fire engine turnaround are as before, with total parking between Guthrie and the residences clocking in at about 439 spaces. However, the three buildings have been revised to include more one-bedroom units in the 156-unit total, enclosed parking in both buildings, changing the waterfront restaurant to a smaller, less formal café/bistro, and expanded public waterfront amenities. Plans to replace the Newman Golf Course Community Center with a new building are not moving forward at this time, something that has been a source of frustration for Friends of Newman Golf Course board members. Discussions between the developers and the city are still happening, but it’s clear that a new Golf Course Community Center is some time away from happening.
Tuesday’s to-do list called for a review of site conditions and a potential vote for preliminary approval for the project. At this point, most of the project changes have been hashed out, and it’s mostly just a matter of filing all the necessary paperwork and making sure that nothing looks amiss.
As they’ve done throughout the review, landscape architect Kate Chesebrough of Whitham Planning and Design and building architect Steve Hugo of HOLT Architects walked the board through the latest and greatest site plan and renderings. A small amenity space was added in the Point East I building on the waterfront side and a shading structure, a pergola or something similar, would be added on the south side of Point East II.
The board was comfortable with the City Harbor plans. “I feel like the architecture has gotten a little more conventional over time, which is unfortunate, but I think this is going to be a great project,” said the board’ Mitch Glass. “I’m all for moving forward,” added his colleague Elisabete Godden.
The project team sought final approval at last night’s meeting, which was somewhat difficult to do given the fairly extensive list of stipulations and supplemental material requests in the preliminary approval conditions — these have to be sufficiently complete before final approval can be granted. There was some back-and-forth given materials already prepared and submitted and whether they reasonably satisfied the approval conditions. The traffic study and the state of coordination on the Newman Community Center were the biggest sticking points.
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“Is there a real time crunch here? Because if there is, I’d like to know about that,” said Glass, noting he’d like to take another month to go from preliminary to final approval. According to developer David Reidman, it’s because they want to have concrete foundation work well underway before next winter, and it takes time to execute the contracts for financing and construction before work can get underway. With that explained, the board said there were comfortable, but Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas asked to “tighten up” the approval conditions so that the golf course building changes would have to come back to the board, as well as modifications to conditions for the traffic study and kayak launch. As a result, the board walked through proposed edits by Nicholas and planner Nikki Cerra to modify the conditions so that staff were comfortable while final approval could be granted. The amendments were unanimously approved, and the preliminary and final approval was granted 6-1 with Emily Petrina opposed. In explaining her vote, Petrina stated that it was symbolic and, while she like the project features, she wanted to protest the amount of parking adjacent to the waterfront. With that, the project is likely to begin construction by this fall.
This project has been in the works for a while and had taken several months’ pause to rework the project to reduce the number of variances required, as the BZA rejected the first version. The Planning Board has been okay with the original iteration, but site issues and a more stringent board of Zoning Appeals led to a reduction from 39 units to 35, in a slightly more compact footprint with building design modifications.
The applicant proposes to demolish the existing two-story structure and to construct a four-story building plus partially-exposed basement on the .185-acre project site. The project includes other site amenities such as landscaping, walkways, and outdoor patios. The project site is in the CR-4 zoning district and has undergone Design Review under the Collegetown Design Guidelines.
The developer would like to get started on this in time to open for the Fall 2023 semester, so the goal of last night was to host and potentially earn a preliminary vote of approval. HOLT Architects’ Tom Clavel explained the design changes to the board, and they were generally supportive, as they had been with the original design iteration, though they were much happier about the building than the concrete retaining walls.
“It does kinda look like a fortress. Although this is adding density to Collegetown…it’d be great to see this be a little more inviting,” said the board’s Daniel Correa. The board did request and vote unanimously for amended approval conditions for a more detailed planting plan and schedule to work out something a little greener and less “heavy.” With that, the board voted unanimously to grant preliminary approval, and the project team will seek final approval next month.
Next on the Site Plan Review agenda for June is a West End infill housing project that was previously approved back in September 2021. Local developer and landlord Stavros Stavropoulos is planning to redevelop a West End property with four small apartment buildings, each with two 3‐bedroom units, for a total of eight rental apartments. The plans stretch across two zones — the required off‐street parking will occupy the commercial/mixed-use WEDZ‐1b area of the parcel, while each of the four duplexes will be in the R-2b residential zoning. The project includes other site amenities such as lighted walkways, covered bike parking, and landscaping. Vehicle access will be on North Meadow Street and existing curb cuts on Cascadilla Street will be removed. Pedestrian and bike traffic will access the site from Cascadilla Street and North Meadow Street.
The project is seeking modifications for a couple of reasons. One is, after a near-flooding event on-site last fall, they decided to raise the elevations of three of the buildings to be further above grade (the site will be included in the FEMA Flood Maps, most likely). The fourth building has undergone value engineering to bring the costs back into budget. The development teams’ hope last night was that they could get the Planning Board to sign off on these fairly substantial changes.
Architect Daniel R. Hirtler explained the changed to the board, which by this point in the night was running half an hour behind schedule, rather unusual for what is normally a tight, efficient operation — City Harbor’s final approval request threw the timing off. And to be frank, for a fairly small project, Hirtler went into exhaustive detail, to the point where Board Chair Robert Lewis had to step in and ask how much was left.
“Overall, I think all the changes make sense. I think the west façade of 617 is lacking. The rest seem to fine to me,” said the board’s Petrina. She also encouraged a dehumidified, sealed crawlspace and as lush plantings as possible. The spartan west façade (bottom right in the lead image) was the source of criticism for several board members and they wanted more visual interest there as well as better plantings, but otherwise they were open to the changes.
While the project can pursue permits to begin foundation work, it will have to come back next month for approvals on the planting plan and façade revisions. So with no vote, this project will be back for potential approval on revisions in June.
Here’s another project that’s stirred its fair share of controversy with the Board of Zoning Appeals. Having trimmed the building down and having finally reduced the number of variances sought such that the board granted a variance for the plans, the project is now finally ready for a vote on preliminary approval, assuming all the paper work is in good order. The Planning Board has long been in support of the project, but, noting this as a general observation of the current board lineups, the BZA is not as lenient as the Planning Board.
The applicant, Red Door Rentals, proposes to demolish an existing apartment house and duplex to build an apartment building containing eleven units on the Dryden Road portion of the site and a duplex on the Elmwood Avenue portion of the site. Combined, the site will have 9 dwelling units with 26 bedrooms.
Architect Jason Demarest gave the board its first update on the project since March. The project would require ten spaces by zoning, but the BZA was willing to grant a variance to allow only eight parking spaces. Like 228 Dryden, this is a case where the Planning Board is much more amenable to an initial proposal than the BZA, so the proposal has to redesign to the BZA’s wishes, and if okayed by the BZA, return to the Planning Board with a revised project in the hopes the Planning Board will sign off as well. Here, they were quite fine with the plans.
“You really have hung in there, great job…I think it’s a really, really nice project. It’ll be a nice addition to Collegetown,” said Glass.
Like City Harbor, the development team asked if a final approval was possible, and the board and planning staff deemed it would be possible, as a lot of the usual requests for supplemental filings and information could be handled at the staff level for a smaller project like this. The amended resolution to allow final approval passed unanimously, and the vote to grant final approval passed unanimously.
Moving on to the next item in Site Plan Review is 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 site. The 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.
Long story short, the project will need a couple zoning variances but nothing extreme, may still receive some of Fall Creek’s ire though not as much since it’s farther east than the Auden proposal, and the environmental remediation plan is going to have to be bulletproof given the site’s contaminated history. Not impossible, but Visum and its partners will have some work to do to earn Site Plan Approval. This month was to have an updated presentation, discuss cleanup plans, host the Public Hearing and continue with the early stages (Part 2) of Environmental Review.
SWBR Architects’ Erik Reynolds gave the updated project presentation. Apart from some new perspective renders and some minor changes to the traffic circulation on site, there wasn’t much in the way of new information to share about the project itself. The Public Hearing had a couple speakers: Eric Sawyer and his wife Samantha Trumbo live nearby and expressed concern with lead-laden dust being kicked up by construction, stormwater runoff and traffic.
As for the remediation presentation, that was given by Nevin Bradford of C&S Engineers. As previously noted, the cleanup plans are posted on Visum’s website here, if you’re interested in having a look. Interestingly, one of the components of cleanup involves injecting food-grade vegetable oil into portions of the soil to feed bacteria that will break down organic solvents.
“I’m not a brownfield expert, I’m not a monitoring expert…I think these are really, really important concerns, and I don’t know how to build that level of trust. If it does work, then the neighbors benefit from a really clean site, which is a win. But I’m curious to know, without taking a leap of faith and just trusting you, of learning how it will work and why it will work,” said Glass.
The board’s Daniel Correa went a step further. “I will mirror Mitch’s comments…if monitoring is going to be ongoing, I might propose — the developer was progressive in sharing the site conditions. Would the monitoring data, maybe weekly, be made readily available?”
It was some food for thought, and we’ll see what a month of discussion holds. The project will be back before the board in June.
Next up before the Planning Board this month are Cornell’s plans to expand the Thurston Hall academic building on its Engineering Quad. The expansion entails a 4-story addition with a basement, approximately 50,550 GSF, to the existing Thurston Hall built in the early 1950s. The addition will house instructional and research labs as well as instructional, research and collaborative spaces for the College of Engineering. The project includes new landscaping, lighting, outdoor seating, and areas for impromptu outdoor classrooms.
The project is located in U-1 zoning that gives a fairly wide berth for Cornell to design what it wants, and the project here won’t require any variances. It’s not especially large and review is likely to be fairly straightforward with minimal public controversy expected. Last night’s review included a brief presentation, Part 3 of the Environmental Review, and a potential vote on the Determination of Environmental significance – this project is practically gliding through the review process.
As is usual for Cornell project, board member and Cornell project manager Elisabete Godden did the ethical thing and recused herself from this review. Cornell’s David Martin and planner Leslie Schill represented the project before the board.
This was a fairly cut-and-dry review. The public doesn’t have issues with it, the impact on resources is limited because it’s tucked away on Cornell’s campus. The rock garden in front of Thurston Hall will be moved to a diagonal path on the west side of the Engineering Quad, and the project is pursuing LEED Silver with LEED Gold as a stretch goal. Cornell hopes to begin construction in January.
Planning staff felt the documentation is fairly simple and complete and Chair Lewis described the project as “not high-impact.” The vote on a negative declaration for SEQR, meaning environmental impacts are effectively mitigated, passed unanimously. The project is now free to pursue preliminary approval next month.
Onto the next project in last night’s lengthy 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 is located in the Cherry Street District Zoning District and will require a front yard variance. The project site is in the Cherry Street Zoning District (CSD) and is subject to Design Review. This is a fairly large proposal and there’s a lot for the Planning Board to go through, so expect this to be a fairly involved review process. The itinerary this month was to have an updated presentation, host the Public Hearing and continue with the early stages (Part 2) of Environmental Review.
CJS Architects’ Scott Selin gave the project updates. Following talks with the Cherry Artspace, Visum is looking to incorporate a public gallery space in about 1,443 SF of ground-floor space at the SW corner of the project, adjacent to the waterfront. During the public hearing, the primary concerns addressed were that the project needed to be more pedestrian friendly and have less emphasis on parking.
The board appreciated the mix of material choices on the façade and encouraged the project team to explore options with Ithaca Carshare to help reduce the parking, and limit its impact on the waterfront. They did want some more color, though – as Correa put it, “don’t be afraid to be bold”.
Lewis expressed some disappointment that the project had lost some of its flair and creativity, it’s “fun”, since its first concept. “Try to find the fun. This could be a very fun, very cool project. I think that would speak to some of the artists’ feedback as well. There’s a lot of ways to make this fun and happy,” said Chair Lewis. The project will be back in front of the Planning Board next month.
Last in the Site Plan Review agenda last night was the Maguire Family of Dealerships’ plan to renovate its Hyundai-Subaru dealership in Southwest Ithaca. The proposal calls for a multiphase renovation project for the 2.53-acre site and the existing 18,000 square-foot building, which contains two vehicle dealership showrooms, offices, a service reception, a service garage, parts storage, and a store mezzanine. The proposed work for the building includes many exterior and interior renovations including service garage slab replacement, window replacement, partial height CMU partition walls, and interior and exterior painting. The proposed site renovations include removal and replacement of existing gravel parking with asphalt, planting beds and islands, curbing, and concrete aprons and pads.
The project is located in the SW-2 Zoning District, which is fairly permissive as the city of Ithaca’s zoning goes – SW-2 is basically the catch-all for suburban commercial and small-box/big-box retail, car dealerships included. With no zoning variances needed and being a renovation rather than a new construction, the review should be fairly smooth. Last night had an updated presentation and continued Environmental Review, Part 2 and the start of Part 3.
John Snyder of John Snyder Architects and Dan Schultz of Saratoga Associates gave the project update. Three bioretention areas were added on the northern side of the property and some effort was made to add some “curb appeal” to the frontage among Elmira Road.
The board was amenable if not exactly enthusiastic, though perhaps that was more due to the meeting pushing 4.5 hours at that point. “I think this is a stretch for the guidelines,” said Lewis. “I think the absence of vegetation as part of your solution along the creek is unfortunate. I don’t have a line of sight as to what success along this little creek will look like. I don’t hear redounding enthusiasm for what’s proposed. There may need to be some thought on how that’s going to develop.”
The board’s Garrick Blalock, normally one of the most lenient members, went one step further. “On the one hand, it’s an improvement, it’s better than what’s there now. At the same time, I just don’t think this is a very appropriate site for a car dealership. That’s just the bottom line. It’s like trying to force something that just really doesn’t work at that site. We’re trying to squeeze every last little parking space in there, to the point where it seems like asking for a tree is too much…maybe there’s a solution that could put some of these cars on a neighboring property.”
“Our sites are 100-150% utilized,” replied Snyder. “You can contrast with the big box sites where on a Friday afternoon half the parking lot’s empty. It’s a different use on this site and every one of our dealerships are that way. We need the spaces. We welcome a shared parking idea, but that would take some zoning effort to implement that.”
With no votes taken, the project will be back before the board next month.
Turning to recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals for their meeting next month, the Planning Board had three applications to review. At 108 Campbell Avenue on West Hill, the homeowners are seeking to put an in-law unit and rear deck on their home, which will slightly exceed allowed lot coverage (23% requested vs 20% allowed). Plans for a new 30-unit apartment building at 109-111 Valentine Place, already reviewed by the board, are seeking the BZA’s approval for lot area and parking variances. On Southside at 222 South Geneva Street, a lot variance was being sought to allow a handicap-access ramp and an expanded rear porch to permit safer egress. A neighbor wrote in against the variance, citing poor tenant and owner behavior.
The neighbors’ complaint about 222 South Geneva gave the board some hesitation, but for handicap-related renovations they’re inclined to be supportive, though they did not want to say anything further beyond the safety and accessibility aspect. The board continues to be supportive of 109-111 Valentine Place, and had no issues with 108 Campbell Avenue’s plans.
In new business, board member Elisabete Godden was named Vice-Chair, meaning she’ll host chair duties when Rob Lewis is absent. There’s a little concern about how Cornell projects will be handled and if she could lead a meeting and simply not vote on those, but that will need to be discussed with Common Council.
There’s been some debate on the licensing of plumbing and electricians, and the board will be getting a presentation from an inspector on that. With that, the meeting the adjourned until next month.
Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More by Brian Crandall
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