ITHACA, N.Y.—It was another long meeting last night for the city of Ithaca Planning and Development Board. Nine projects were up for review or permitting, ranging from bed and breakfast to multi-story apartment towers, and nearly $200 million worth of development if it all comes to fruition, which is never a certainty. Four projects—Catherine Commons, the Chabad House Expansion, the Cornell Sprint Football Facility and the Special Permit at 228 Columbia Street—got the greenlight to pursue construction permits.
Big or small, they all need to go through review and received approval before shovels hit the dirt, and the Voice is here to chronicle that, because a 10-minute written summary saves you the trouble of watching a four-hour meeting. You can jump in below, and if your heart desires, you can open a copy of the deceptively short 95-page PDF agenda for the meeting here. Quick programming note, two of the board’s seven members, Chair Robert Lewis and member Emily Petrina, were absent, and Garrick Blalock assumed the role of Acting Chair this month.
The first item on the agenda this month was a Special Permit, which is uncommon but can be triggered for unusual property uses in certain zones, usually lower-density residential areas.
In this case, the application isn’t “new”, but rather a continuation of an existing business—the nine-bed “Inn on Columbia” B&B on South Hill at 228 Columbia Street, which has been operated by Kenn and Madeline Young for 22 years. Procedurally, bed and Breakfasts have an extra hurdle that most special permits don’t have to jump through, in that they have to renew their permits, pay the $150 fee, and revisit the Planning Board every five years. A couple neighbors wrote in to support the application and there are no physical or operational changes planned, so going into the meeting it was likely a quick and easy review. As the board’s Mitch Glass noted, “this seems pretty straightforward.”
The Public Hearing opened and closed without comment, and the negative Determination of Environmental Significance passed unanimously. Comments from the board were brief but supportive, a “no-brainer” per Glass. The resolution passing the Special Permit passed unanimously, about four minutes from start to finish.
Site Plan Review
Following the Special Permit and the regular public comment, the Planning Board jumped right into what is the meat 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 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.
Here’s the short summary. In 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.
City Harbor (101 Pier Road)
Back before the board this month, and leading off this month’s SPR agenda is 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 441 spaces. However, the three buildings have been revised to include more one-bedroom units (the previous total was 156 units), 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 have been shelved.
No votes on the project were planned last night, but rather another round of “response to board comments,” which in this case means trying to justify the large amount of parking, which the board has criticized practically since this project first came before them almost three years ago. They have expressed disappointment with the loss of ground-level residential and commercial restaurant space to covered parking (overall parking totals are about the same, the spaces were just moved from curbside due to fire safety concerns). In response, the Point West flagship building has seen revisions to its ground floor to relocate the café to the northwest side and cluster the parking on the east end, which will open up to and “activate” the waterfront, as well as some landscaping and parking tweaks. This includes specialty pavers to help separate parking courts from the street, more curvilinear features to feel more park-like, a carshare space and a potential paddle park location.
The customary squadron of project team representatives was on hand from HOLT Architects, T. G. Miller P.C. for engineering work, and Whitham Planning and Design. For this project, Whitham’s Kate Chesebrough gave the overall updates and fielded most of the board’s comments, with building updates given by HOLT’s Steve Hugo. Hugo highlighted that the resident amenity lounge and restaurant space were now separate areas into two distinct areas to keep the restaurant size modest while bringing more active uses to the ground level facing the waterfront.
The board appreciated the changes. “I definitely prefer this design,” said C.J. Randall. Mitch Glass asked for clarity on the golf clubhouse situation and a potential replacement. “I’m not really golfer, but I feel like if we’re doing this part of the waterfront, we should find a way to get this done.” In response, Chesebrough that they’re still engaged and trying to find some mutually-favorable path forward on a new clubhouse.
“I think these are positive changes. I love having the café corner, that will be really nice…overall, I like the landscaping and the turnaround, it’s really progressing well,” added the board’s Elisabete Godden. Godden and Glass were a little iffy about where the kayak launch should be located, or if a second should be added, so that will need to be fleshed out.
With the positive signal to continue with the current design proposal, Interim Planning Director Lisa Nicholas noted a second public hearing would be needed given that the second phase would not be built with the first phase, and that Design Review, largely a summary with a few further refinements, would be on the agenda. Though there’s still some work to do, site plan approval later this spring looks to be in the cards.
325 Dryden Road
Next up in Site Plan Review was 325 Dryden Road, a rather controversial plan for a pair of buildings consisting of 13 units with a total of 26 bedrooms to be built on the southwest corner of Dryden Road and Elmwood Avenue on the edge of the Collegetown and Belle Sherman neighborhoods. Currently, the site hosts two apartment homes with 16 bedrooms.
This project is a more complicated review for a few reasons. It’s a transition space between larger apartment buildings and single-family homes, and Belle Sherman residents have been vociferously opposed to the proposal. 325 Dryden Road will require several area variances, including lot coverage by buildings, the minimum amount for green space per lot basis, rear yard setback, and parking. It is also subject to Collegetown Design Guidelines.
This project last visited the Planning Board in November, and the board was supportive of the variance sought, but the Zoning Board of Appeals was only support of some of them, so the project had to go through a redesign if they had any hope of gaining ZBA variances and Site Plan Approval by extension.
Last night, the project sought to utilize a provision of city code regarding off-street parking. The project provides five spaces, but the code requires thirteen. However, the Planning Board can still approve a project if they feel landscaping is lush, screens the parking area, and is overall sufficient. The plan would be held to compliance, because good luck getting a Certificate of Occupancy otherwise. If the Planning Board signs off, it’s one less issue the BZA needs to weigh in on.
“They have to demonstrate to the board that there is a decent reason for not using the setback compliance method and for using the landscape compliance method,” said Nicholas. “There’s a lot of criteria in it. This project has not gotten its variance yet, but it’s what they need for their current project. So if they can explain what the mitigating factors are, the board can make a determination on whether they find that acceptable.”
Ithaca architect Jason Demarest, a specialist in historically-sympathetic building designs, gave the update. Demarest noted that in response to BZA concerns, building length has been reduced 14 feet (from 75 to 61 feet), lot coverage has been reduced from 53% to 45%, and three bedrooms were removed. Demarest noted that with the building changes and parking changes, a revised recommendation was needed, and it was his belief that the BZA was stuck on the parking variance at this point. If they can get the Planning Board’s blessing, that might be enough to win the BZA over and earn their variances.
The board’s Godden was uncomfortable with the use of pavers for an ADA space, out of concerns they may heave with freezes and thaws. Godden also stressed she needed to see a landscape plan on the proposed site layout before saying whether or not she was supportive of the landscape compliance method. Her colleague Glass called the method “a clever solution” and was glad to hear a neighbor was supportive. He was open to the landscape compliance method idea, but also wanted to see a firm plan for the buffer space.
The board agreed to use of the landscape compliance method providing the details are fleshed out, which was the key “decision” that needed to be reached during the meeting. That gives the project team the go-ahead to flesh out their plans, and this project will be back before the board with refined plans at a future date.
Catherine Commons (Catherine Street/College Avenue)
For the next item in the Site Plan Review agenda for this month, we head over to Collegetown for Catherine Commons, the large mixed-use project proposed for several parcels in Collegetown‘s core. The development team led by John Novarr and Philip Proujansky proposes to demolish 11 older student apartment houses and construct a primarily residential $39.1 million mixed-use development.
The proposal includes three multi-story buildings on the Catherine North Site and three multi-story buildings on the Catherine South Site, a total of six buildings, with a combined total gross floor area of 265,000 square feet. The buildings will contain approximately 360 residential units (with a net gain of 339 bedrooms vs. the existing buildings), a 2,600 square-foot commercial space along College Avenue, a 1,600 square-foot private fitness center, and a small parking lot for ADA compliance and service vehicles. The project also includes streetscape improvements, several ADA-compliant plaza spaces, pedestrian amenities, and public bus stop infrastructure.
After several months of meetings, this project is nearing the finish line in the approvals process. With variances secured from the BZA, on the agenda last night was a review of site conditions, and a vote for Preliminary and potentially Final Site Plan Approval.
As has been the norm for the project, landscape architect Kathryn Wolf and building architect Arvind Tikku were on hand to represent the project team. Wolf gave the board a detailed update about the landscape and streetscape plans, with granite seating and specialty pavers, and Tikku explained ADA accessibility paths and elevator access for the sloped site.
Wolf also showed their calculations that utilizing the unrented parking at Collegetown Terrace was enough to handle their parking needs (138 spaces needed by their calculation, with yet another 157 parking spaces available beyond those), and the board seemed comfortable with the calculation after some follow-up questions regarding the methodology and time period of analysis, i.e. it excluded 2020 and its COVID impacts.
After some discussion, the board was ready to move forward on a vote of approval. Without further discussion, the expansive Catherine Commons project received a unanimous 5-0 approval. Expect construction to begin later this year with a tentative August 2024 completion.
Chabad Center (102 Willard Way)
Cornell’s Chabad (ha-BAHD) Center, servicing students of the Jewish faith, has re-submitted plans for a two-story, 5,000 square-foot addition to their Tudor mansion on the corner of Willard Way and Lake Street. The plans include new kitchen and dining room space, a 50-seat community room, classrooms, ceremonial baths called mikvahs, and covered ground-level parking. You can read more about those plans in the Voice archives here.
This project was shelved not long after the COVID pandemic began and the future of in-student attendance looked uncertain. Last month, they picked up where they left off in Summer 2020, with the plans the same as before. Like Catherine Commons, the BZA has given its blessing on the necessary zoning variances, so last night’s agenda called for a review of site conditions and that oh-so-important vote of Preliminary and Final Site Plan Approval.
Architect Jason Demarest was once again present to speak about project plans. Apart from minor tweaks to the landscaping (switching out a redbud to a slow-growing shade tree), the project had no substantial changes of note since last month. With little further discussion, the board had its vote on site plan approval and it passed unanimously 5-0.
Auden II (261 Lake Street)
Next item in Site Plan Review are plans for a second apartment building on undeveloped land adjacent to the Auden Ithaca Apartments, formerly known as the Gun Hill Apartments.
Owner DMG Investments proposes constructing a 4-story building, with an approximately 18,400 SF footprint, as a new student housing complex that will contain 71 residential units with 211 beds. The development is proposed as an extension of the existing Auden student housing complex located across Lake Street and will share amenities including a shuttle service, outdoor spaces, and parking lot and spaces. The project includes landscaping elements such as street trees, ornamental and slope stabilization plantings, and indoor amenities such as a common game room and gym. A zoning variance will be required for parking, and a lot reconfiguration (subdivision review) will be required as well.
Fall Creek residents have made it quite clear that they don’t like this project being so close to their neighborhood, and the public comment was held open from last month because, well, these meetings are already scheduled to be four hours long and there’s only so much time the board can set aside per meeting unless you like midnight matinees.
The board has not been surprised by the pushback, and intends to do its due diligence in review. Last night called for a presentation about any potential site contamination (the soil and groundwater analyses, basically), and continuation of review of the Full Environmental Assessment Form (FEAF). At the meeting, to make room for all the public comments, the board decided to hold off on the FEAF, and do the soil quality presentation first.
Whitham Planning’s Michele Palmer was tasked with fielding the board’s comments and the public’s concerns, with Environmental Engineer Scott Nostrand of Barton & Loguidice giving the report about the soil and groundwater on site.
Nostrand has previously done work on the Ithaca Gun site further uphill, so was well familiar with Gun Hill. Nostrand noted that of the 18 soil samples, two were elevated. One was immediately next to the former Gun Factory on the east end of the Auden parking lot. The parking lot is effectively a cap for that site and would not be disturbed by construction further downhill. Also, a site at the far north corner close to Ithaca Falls had elevated levels. Neither one would be close to the construction site itself. Nostrand stated that standard soil/groundwater vapor barrier techniques and dust suppression would be sufficient for the building site. Palmer added they intended to follow all the recommendations.
As for the Public Hearing, it was still in opposition to the project that felt it was too big, too close to the neighborhood and Ithaca Falls, and too much of an impact. In the interest of time, the Public Hearing will be held open to read in more comments next month.
The board’s Daniel Correa (who I’m nearly certain was Zoom-calling in from Canada, given the “Scotiabank” sign out his window) asked about environmental management methods, and the project team’s Maggie Ellis noted that the soil would be disposed off-site; if there are any concerns at all, that usually means Seneca Meadows. Correa did express discomfort with the scale and was concerned that soil disturbance uphill with the Breeze Apartments project could contaminate the Auden site.
Board members were cautious and asked if it would be possible to get a third opinion. Palmer suggested they may be able to get the opinion of an engineer from the NYS DEC to comment. It sounded like a majority of the board was leaning toward a positive declaration on the environmental review, which would trigger the need for an Environmental Impact Statement. Those tend to be costly and time-consuming, which is certainly not what the project team wanted to hear, but it may be the only way forward. The project will be back for further discussion next month.
109-111 Valentine Place
Next up for site plan review last night was an updated presentation, public hearing and continued environmental review for a 30-unit apartment building proposed by local developers Phil Proujansky and John Novarr. The site is currently a pair of apartment houses at 109 and 111 Valentine Place, a dead-end street next to the Collegetown Terrace project. The rather dynamic and avant-garde design is the work of local architect and professor Caroline O’Donnell ‘s firm CODA Architecture, penned by O’Donnell with colleagues Iris Xiaoxue Ma and Shawn Daniels. Fitting for the location, it’s geared towards professional/graduate students and young professional workers. The project will require two area variances for minimum off-street parking and minimum lot size for quantity of units.
It’s outer Collegetown urban infill, it doesn’t stand out in scale given its larger neighbor, and parking will be shared with Collegetown Terrace, which Novarr and Proujansky also own. No major issues have been identified so far. The board has liked the proposal so far, though they are cautious as expected for something needing two variances and a building lot reconfiguration to move forward.
TWMLA’s Kathryn Wolf represented the project before the Planning Board. She noted there had been very little change since last month. Basically, in response to previous board comment, they will put a little more design work into the dumpster enclosure and bike racks. That was it. No one had any comments on the proposal during the Public Hearing. The project continues to move forward with a likely vote on SEQR Determination by May, BZA the following month, and approval by late June or July, barring any unforeseen issues.
As previously introduced to the public by the Voice, Cornell University proposes to erect an 1,836 SF modular single-story locker room structure that will house lockers and changing space for approximately 50 players, as well as showers, restroom facilities, and a training taping area. The proposed modular structure will be fabricated offsite, transported to the project site, and placed on concrete pier foundations. Site amenities include an aluminum ramp and railing for ADA access, stairs, plantings including trees and large shrubs, a 4-foot black, vinyl-coated chain link safety fence to replace a rusty chain-link fence, and lighting.
The project’s small, nowhere close to non-Cornell neighbors, and has not stirred among the public. That said, it has to follow the rules like anything else. Last night called for the board to make its Environmental Determination and potential issue its vote for Preliminary and Final Site Plan Approval for the project. Programming note, the board’s Elisabete Godden, a Cornell project manager, had to recuse herself from this item due to professional conflicts.
Cornell Planners Michael Stewart and Leslie Schill stepped up to field last questions and comments regarding the proposal, which had not changed at all since last month. With only brief discussion, the project went up for its vote of Site Plan Approval. Godden’s recusal left the board with a bare quorum, but it was enough, and the project passed 4-0, and is likely to undergo construction this summer.
Breeze Apartments (121-25 Lake Street)
The last Site Plan Review item on this long agenda is the newest project of the group, first made public by the Voice earlier this month. 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, 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.
Visum Vice-President Patrick Braga introduced the project to the board, joined by several architects and engineers from the site plan team. According to Braga, remediation of Ithaca Gun will be carried out this summer, and he posted his contact information in the presentation for any members of the public to contact him with questions.
Eric Reynolds of SWBR Architects walked the board through the design features, which had undergone a revision to white EIFS (synthetic stucco) panels, wood-like siding (Trespa Pura) and dark grey masonry. The design review was partly in response to comments they read on the Voice’s social media about the project, so believe it or not, developers do read and take note of your online comments, or at least the ones that aren’t filled with vitriol and expletives.
The board’s Mitch Glass wanted to make sure that the Breeze Apartments and Auden were held to similar standards for environmental review, given that this site has known issues and that they were being “uncompromising” with the Auden property. His colleague Correa wanted perspective renders with Auden included, and Blalock was wary of EIFS, which has had a bad reputation from its early days when moisture infiltration issues were widespread. They were amenable to the design overall, and the project will be coming back to the board next month.
Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations
On the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) side, where the board makes recommendations to the BZA on projects seeking zoning variances from city code, the board reviewed three submissions this month. One of those, 325 Elmwood Avenue, is discussed in its segment above.
The other two proposals are 428-30 N. Cayuga Street and 202 East Jay Street in Fall Creek. 428-30 is Gimme Coffee! and its upstairs apartments, for which the four-space rear parking lot has been converted into outdoor seating. This is a parking variance request to make it permanent, which the board wholly supports.
Meanwhile, 202 East Jay Street is a relatively simple case where the homeowners of an older home, grandfathered into zoning, want to expand the back porch. Like most Fall Creek homes, any change in building footprint and size will trigger a zoning review. The general rule, if the neighbors don’t hate it and it’s owner-occupied, the board will support it as a general rule under the general statement that they support investments by homeowners into the properties they live in. That held true in this case as well.