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ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a relatively short but eventful meeting for the City of Ithaca Planning Board. One project received modified Site Plan Approval, a few others advanced, and this month served as a reminder that there few things that stir the passions of this board like critiquing building signage. All that and more after the jump.
As always, for those who like to look at the agenda as they read along, that fairly short 96-page document can be found here. Quick topical note, as two seats are currently vacant, there were five planning board members present.
With no subdivisions or Special Permits this month, after the customary public comment to start the meeting, the Planning Board jumped right into Site Plan Review (SPR). Site Plan Review is the meeting segment where review of new and updated building proposals occurs. Rather than give the same spiel about procedural details 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.
In brief, 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, more sensitive neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all concluded 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.
The first item on the Planning Board’s agenda was Visum’s “Stately Apartments” affordable housing proposal for 510 West State/West Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Ithaca’s West End. Visum and its partners propose removing the one‐story commercial building fronting on State Street and a two‐story wood-frame house fronting on West Seneca, replacing them with a 60,953 SF building that is four stories at the back (West Seneca) and five stories at the front (West State). Plans call for 58 dwelling units affordable to households making 50‐ to 80‐percent area median income, community spaces, indoor bike parking and 876 square feet of retail space fronting State Street.
The $30 million project received a major grant from the state this past spring. Legal filings show that “Stately Apartments LLC,” likely the limited-liability company through which Visum and its partners will own the Stately Apartments, was set up in just the past few weeks. Plans call for construction to start this fall.
However, this brings us to the reason why it is before the Planning Board again – Site Plan Approval in the city of Ithaca is only valid for two years. The project received Site Plan Approval in August 2021. They can’t start construction in the fall if the Site Plan approval expires a month prior, so here we are.
Side note, yes, we’re all aware that “Stately” sounds more like the name of an annoying phone app than a clever building moniker. If the Planning Board were to vote with naming as a SEQR impact, half of these projects would never get approval.
Discussion of re-approval lasted all of five minutes and passed 4-1, with the board’s Daniel Correa opposed, citing the massing and eviction of existing tenants for redevelopment. Correa was not on the board when the project was approved, and similar concerns were expressed at the time, though most members came around to supporting the project. Planning Board members are not a bloc, they can have their own opinions and votes don’t have to be unanimous. Anyway, the Stately Apartments has its re-approval and leaves one fewer obstacle to its fall construction start.
With plans for a new shiny steel and glass building confined to the history books primarily due to costs, the Ithaca Farmer’s Market is proposing to renovate the existing market building. The market’s physical issues still remain and the cheaper renovation plan is intended to address the biggest problems—to allow for year-round commerce and programming, and to reconfigure and pave the existing parking area and drive lanes. The renovation plans also create outdoor amenity space for dining and gathering, install shoreline stabilization features, and make other site improvements.
While the wooden pavilion from 1989 stays largely intact in this iteration, the project requires the demolition of most landscaping features, relocation of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail, removal of numerous trees, and installation of enhanced stormwater infrastructure. The project is on City-owned land and requires approvals from Common Council, the Special Joint Committee of the Ithaca Area Water Treatment Plant, NYS DEC, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The project site is in the Market District and is subject to Design Review.
Last night was just a presentation from the Design Team, with no votes planned. Following a public comment by Ithaca Farmers Market board member Jan Rhodes Norman expressing her support for the plans, Whitham Planning and Design’s Yamila Fournier and Yifei Yan presented the project to the Planning Board. Phase one will be the parking lot re-do, phase two is the shoreline stabilization and landscaping, and phase three is the building expansion and renovation.
The presentation focused primarily on phase one, dealing with the chaos that is the parking situation at the market. The bus stop has been moved from the approved 2021 plans, and vendor parking has been moved to between the building and permeable pavers (which is part of the vendor-only traffic circulation). Overall though, the visitor parking configuration remains largely similar to the 2021 plan. There are 371 total parking spaces in 2021 plan, and 362-370 proposed in the 2023 iteration.
Meanwhile, the new landscaping will use a combination of stone dust paths, natural turf and pavers, and the new building will have new heated bathrooms on either end of the long axis of the building. The building will also be sprinklered, as the Ithaca Fire Department has been actively pointing out that the building is not up to code. While last night’s presentation generally focused on the parking, the plan is to have all three phases approved together.
“I’m glad that you’re focusing on the real issues like safety and access,” said the board’s Elisabete Godden. “I think this is a classic example of ‘less is more,’ and I’m really happy with the current proposal.” Her colleague Mitch Glass agreed, saying the latest version “feels right.”
“We’ve only seen a fraction of phases two and three,” Correa cautioned. He appreciated the efforts, but was somewhat uncomfortable with the way the building became closed at the ends, how it accessed the waterfront trail (near the bathrooms) and with the lack of a fully winterized facility.
“I think you’ve gotten some good, useful feedback from the board,” commented Board Chair Robert Lewis (for the record, no relation to Mayor Lewis). “I think people are really enthusiastic about phase one…the one thing I will say about phase one is that it will take a lot of work to make that fire lane feel like a promenade, and I don’t know if you’re there. That’s obviously a challenge. As for phase two and three, I just don’t know yet.”
Given the uncertainty about the later phases, the board stressed that next month should focus on those. Fournier cautioned that those plans are not “fully cooked,” but that they’d have some “fun and exciting” drawings to share. The project will make another visit to the board next month.
Here’s another project seeking changes to the Site Plan after receiving initial approval. The Planning Board granted Site Plan Approval to the Chabad project over a year ago, in March 2022. The applicant is now proposing changes to the approved plans including removing a covered ground-level parking garage, adding on-site parking spaces, removing an approved driveway and adding a circular drive, and small additions to the approved building which will occur in phases. Exterior site improvements and structures still include a patio, an elevated courtyard, an access drive on Lake Street, landscaping, and walkways.
It should be noted that neighbors aren’t happy about the proposal. “While we continue to support the good work of the applicant, a 10,000 square foot meeting facility with no parking on a heavily traveled thoroughfare is simply too intensive a use for this
constrained site,” said neighbor Mark Quinn in an email to the Planning Board.
On tap for last night was potential approval for the modified Site Plans. Architect Jason Demarest (Noah Demarest’s brother, who runs his own firm) presented the changes. Chabad will lease parking spaces from a Cornell property kitty-corner to theirs in order to meet parking requirements, as well as a couple of spaces in the back, and the hope is to break ground on the expansion next month.
The board was generally satisfied with the changes and the overall project. “I think it’s going to be a great upgrade,” commented board member Mitch Glass. With an added resolution by member Emily Petrina’s suggestion to ban parking from the circular drive and denote it with signage, the board went ahead with its vote on modified Site Plan Approval, and passed it unanimously.
“Congratulations, we’re all excited about the project,” said Lewis.
The Ithaca Voice first broke news of this project earlier this month. CSD Housing proposes to reuse a vacant lot and demolish two existing two-story residential buildings to allow for the construction of a new 60-unit affordable and integrated supportive housing project on a consolidated lot. The 5-story building, about 87,000 SF in size, will be comprised of 60 mixed-income, affordable housing units, 30 of which are proposed supportive service units, all ranging in size from studio-, one-, two- and three-bedroom units on the top four floors and garage parking and other amenities on the first story. Site improvements include community space, bicycle parking, offices, 2nd-floor playground terrace, fitness center, rooftop terrace, dog park, lounges, and green walls on the upper floors. The project is in the WEDZ-1a Zoning District and does not require variances.
It’s much-needed affordable housing and it doesn’t need variances, which are two pluses when trying to get approval from a city with “high barriers to entry” in real estate parlance. Last night was the Planning Board’s first look at the plan, and carried with it a potential vote to Declare Lead Agency, which would formally kick off the Environmental Review process. The prolific project sherpas from Whitham Planning and Design were on hand to talk about the proposal with the board, with Yamila Fournier back for round two, and Rob Cain of CSD Housing beside her.
Quick side note from the presented documents, but it looks like CSD Housing already has a general contractor tapped for the project—Christa Construction of Rochester. In fact, outside Whitham and Marathon Engineering’s local office, most of the project team is Rochester-based.
Cain stressed that the choice of location was driven by access to services, and mass transit along with amenable zoning. Five parcels will be consolidated to build the project, and the building will be raised three feet up on its footprint given flood plain concerns. Covered ground-level parking will be accessible from West Seneca Street and from Route 13/North Meadow Street, and the building is pulled back a little from Route 13 with a buffer of greenery so that people don’t feel they’re living on top of its traffic. The building will use a mix of brick, fiber cement and metal panels, and its front entrance is recessed from the street corner.
“There are so many exciting things about this project. It’s all affordable, it’s a great project in a great spot. I wasn’t super excited by the elevations, but I’m jazzed by the renderings,” said Petrina.
She appreciated the effort to break up the building’s mass, though cautioned against trying too hard to make it look like a bunch of different buildings, and the project team noted the color palette was an effort to keep consistency. Petrina’s colleague Godden also appreciated the effort to break down the massing.
In general, the board gave the project a warm reception. Members were favorable to the location and the effort to provide affordable and supportive housing. Some members, like Mitch Glass, found the design “overbaked” with too much of a mix of style themes, and Correa recommended it complemented the brick of the West End Iron Works apartments nearby. Planning Director Lisa Nicholas suggested more greenery on the rooftop terraces. But the architectural concerns were small potatoes compared to their support for the proposal overall, they felt the issues could be worked out with some cooperative effort.
“I wish it were a little less gray,” commented Chair Lewis. “A pop of color would really help you, especially if you’re trying to figure out how to activate this entrance and make it more [of] a thing. But great program.”
The board passed its Declaration of Lead Agency unanimously, and will commence with Environmental Review next month.
If you’ve read enough of these writeups, you know that the Ithaca Planning Board is very, very picky about signage. I suspect those giant interstate fast food and gas signs haunt their dreams. Anyway, as part of the Site Plan Approval stipulations for the Squeaky Clean Car Wash under construction at 501-507 South Meadow Street, the signage package needs to be approved by the Planning Board. There are four signs—”A,” a 50 square-foot pylon sign at the corner, “B,” 27 square-foot menu sign, “C,” a 50 square-foot wall sign, and “D,” a 32 square-foot wall sign. Several smaller signs for enter and exit (“E”), and other non-advertising signage are also proposed, as well as a few window posters to advertise specials.
True to form, this signage package made up the single most time-consuming item of last night’s agenda, about forty minutes.
“I think there’s too much signage, and I’ll tell you why,” said Correa. “It’s so close to a residential neighborhood that I think you have an excessive amount of signage, especially sign “C.” You have windows advertising an active, live car wash. Some of these signs are overkill. I promise you, you have an amazing site that will not be missed.”
“Your location is your sign. No one’s going to mistake that building for anything else but a car wash,” added Godden. She found Sign “D” excessive. The board also wanted dimmed signs for the evening and any illumination shut off after close.
Long story short, no one wanted all the signs. The pylon sign “A,” which had a soft LED-lit pole, was a veritable lightning rod for board members’ criticism. They wanted that soft-lit pole dark after hours.
“It’s too much,” said Chair Lewis. “There is a consensus in this room that it’s too much.”
The meeting got a bit testy at points. It never ceases to amaze that large buildings stir less emotion from this board than wall signs. In the end, the signage package was amended, to ban LED lighting on the pole for pylon sign “A,” to reduce “C” from 50 square feet to 32 square feet, to delete sign “D,” rework the traffic signage to Planning staff satisfaction, and mandate that all sign lighting be shut off by 9 p.m. With that, the sign package passed unanimously 5-0.
There were three submissions for potential consideration this month as they head forward to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) in July—a telecommunications tower on the West End, and two area variances for homes in Southside and Fall Creek respectively.
The telecommunication towers always get boilerplate “sees no long-term planning issues” language—they only received review because that was the Common Council’s response to the 5G wireless controversy.
As for the area variances, the homeowners of 605 South Albany Street want to renovate their existing garage to make a 540 square-foot accessory dwelling unit. The board was supportive of the idea, but after differences between the Planning Board and BZA in the past, they’re always cautious about expressing support in a way that the Board of Zoning Appeals would actually take into consideration. They crafted the renovation being low impact to the neighborhood, improved appearance, and being aligned with the goals of city Comprehensive Plan. As for 409 Willow Avenue, the homeowners wanted to expand their rear deck, which exacerbated lot line setbacks. The board generally supports owner-occupied investments and saw no long-term impacts with the BZA granting a variance.
Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com. More by Brian Crandall
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