ITHACA, N.Y.—Last night’s City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee was short and threw no curveballs. The subcommittee of the city Common Council had their first look at a proposed West Hill redevelopment project, a land swap for the Ithaca Community Gardens, and some late-stage tweaks to the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement. Read on below for the summaries of these discussions, and should you feel inclined, a copy of the agenda can be found here.
Cliff Street Retreat
The Voice first shared news last month of developer Linc Morse’s proposal for a mixed-use redevelopment of the Incodema facility as the custom sheet metal fabricator moves to new digs out on Slaterville Road in the town of Dryden later this year. The plans for the property at 407 Cliff Street on Ithaca’s West Hill call for a bevy of uses—a residential/lodging component of 13 one-bedroom units for short-term and long-term rental, 3,438 square-feet of office space with six suites, a break room and two meeting rooms, 3,900 square feet of retail space fronting Cliff Street, two light industrial maker spaces of 1,200 sqaure feet each, and a lobby, lounge space and conference room. The footprint of the building remains the same, while the site includes the usual complement of landscaping, lighting improvements, stormwater facilities, bike racks/storage, and 86 parking spaces. The $4.5 million project would start in August if all goes well pre-development, with a February 2022 completion.
Last month had Morse extolling the features and benefits of his project; now comes the part where the proverbial rubber hits the road. As reported last month, the site only allows two uses by zoning code, industrial (grandfathered in) and residential. Unlike much of the urban corridor, this part of the city has not been rezoned to allow for mixed-uses. It is also extremely difficult to get a use variance from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to deploy other activities like on-site retail space. As a result, the project has to make its own site zoning, the Planned Unit Development (PUD).
PUDs allow a developer to make your own zoning, but they have to demonstrate the proposed project has a substantial community benefit. The proof of that is that the project has to be approved by a majority vote of the Ithaca Common Council, as well as the Planning Board. The step before the full Common Council is a visit to the PEDC for their feedback and vote on whether or not to send to council when they’re ready. Morse had previously said he met with the project’s elected representatives, the First Ward’s Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal, who he described as having a positive impression of the mixed-use renovation of the facility. This was the chance to see if they were still in favor. The PUD vote last night was to vote to circulate, where it goes out to comment and undergoes revisions based on comment before the PEDC votes on the PUD in a subsequent month. A Public Information Session for public comment must also be held prior to the PEDC’s PUD vote.
Architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative gave the presentation while Morse was on hand to answer related questions. Demarest stressed that the interior buildout may fluctuate in its configuration—for instance, the number of residential units or the size of the lounge/meeting space—and that the PUD was sought to provide maximum flexibility, given that a new industrial user for the entire building is unlikely.
“We’ve had a lot of leasing information…people have had a lot of interest in ‘the last stop on the way to Trumansburg.’ We like the retreat center concept because we like to think it will be a community hub for West Hill, and will provide some flexibility,” said Morse. In response to a question from Planning Director JoAnn Cornish, Morse added that the industrial equipment currently behind the building will be moved out to Dryden in about a week and a half from now as Incodema makes the move to their new, larger facility.
Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) asked who the target market is for the retreat center. Morse and Demarest gave somewhat different responses, though not mutually exclusive.
“Ithaca’s becoming this place to visit and have an outdoor experience. One of the things we noticed this past summer with our water recreation business is that families and kids are traveling together. This might be an alternative to a traditional hotel, a mixture of outdoor recreation and business, you could bike right our your back door and be on the Black Diamond Trail in five minutes. It’s not a large number of rooms, but would be an alternative to a hotel or a motel, centered on the waterfront,” said Morse. Demarest added they see it as a space for small group meetings and rental community gathering space for local functions, similar in concept to The Space @ GreenStar.
There were questions on the project details, but the general response to the project and its PUD request was favorable. Councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th) lauded the creative re-use of an industrial space. She and Fleming asked about a proposed trail connection to Cass Park and the Black Diamond Trail, which would be topographically tricky and require city approvals since it would connect through city property; the trail connection is conceptual for now, but will need to be fleshed out in the coming months. A potential TCAT bus stop just south of the building was also discussed as an idea to explore.
Cynthia Brock (D-1st), the ward representative for the site, spoke in favor of the plan. In fact, it was arguably the most favorably this writer has ever heard Brock speak for a project proposal, and worth remarking on as she’s perhaps the most development-averse member of PEDC, if not all of Common Council. “I think there’s a lot of interest in this project, a lot of excitement in the reuse of this facility. I really appreciate that Lincoln was immediately responsive when I reached out to him…I’ve always found him and his team actively accommodating. I think there is incredible excitement about the idea of a local gathering place for West Hill residents to pop in and grab some milk or a pastry, something walkable and close-by for residents. Believe it or not, we are an active bunch and do use the sidewalks….it will be a welcome resource to have that variety of uses there. The fact that they are opening this space up to the public and the access to recreational space are real assets, and I’m happy to vote this into circulation.”
With that, the vote to circulate carried unanimously. A public information session will follow in the next few weeks, with a return to PEDC next month.
Ithaca Community Gardens Land Swap
On the bright side, the Ithaca Community Gardens is happy to have a home within the greater Carpenter Park mixed-use development, now called “Cayuga Park.” However, while the gardens have a comparably-sized footprint, it’s not the same footprint. The overall site of the ICG will have its boundaries reshaped, losing some land to the west while gaining space elsewhere, mostly north of the access road.
The ICG is city-owned; what this basically translates to is that the city will give some Carpenter/ICG land to the development team for its development activities (really, selling some land for its fair-market value of $82,355, as an appraiser determined the city’s ICG land is worth more than the privately-owned lands in the swap), while the developing team gives the city the land for the new ICG, which the city will lease to ICG for $1 per year for 30 years. This comes with its share of the usual legal paperwork in the event of bankruptcy, every entities’ responsibilities in the land swap, and the legal definitions and precautions to ward off any potential conflicts in the future.
“The Ithaca Community Gardens board has reviewed the lease as it went out on Friday and we’re satisfied with it,” said ICG Board President Marty Hiller. “The one thing still pending before we’re ready to sign this is to finalize the binding agreement with the developers, and we’re making good progress there. We are still working out some details with timing and scheduling,” said Hiller.
She followed by asking about the timing of the medical building and the staging area for the gardens as a place to store plants during the construction, and what outstanding conditions would need to be satisfied. City staff said the PUD would have to be in place for the building permits to be issued, and that means the ICG and developers’ binding agreement has to be in place before the PUD is legal and the building permits can be issued. The land transfer and lease agreement with the city is part of the prerequisites that need to be satisfied as part of the agreement. In short, the development can’t start building until they and the ICG have come to terms.
As for “Cayuga Park” itself, co-developer Andrew Bodewes of Park Grove Realty stated that a potential decision on state funds for the 42-unit affordable housing component will come later this month, and that they were optimistic and that it had a great shot. Meetings have also taken place with NYS DOT about the new curb cut, and Bodewes said DOT is supportive but wants additional mitigations for Route 13 traffic. “We’re confident we can find a way to do it if we keeping working with the city. We just need to work through these additional mitigation issues. We’re optimistic on both fronts (the curb cut and the affordable housing).”
Councilor Brock said that she thought the gardens’ land would be deeded straight to the gardens for ownership, but Cayuga Medical Center’s Tony Votaw said that was a city decision to make, as it would be city property. City attorney Ari Lavine added that Votaw was correct, and that the city and Common Council would have to decide separately whether it wanted to deed the land to the gardens. With that noted, Brock also asked why it’s a 30-year lease when the last lease was only 20 years. Attorney Lavine said it was because the gardens wanted the “outer edge” of what was allowed for length of time—as the ICG’s Dan Hoffman pointed out in response to Brock, the gardens wants long-term security as part of this move.
“Even the Farmer’s Market lease isn’t a 30-year lease. This seems unusually long,” said Brock in return. She wanted it compared to the Farmer’s Market and Hangar Theatre, and for there to be consistency among leases, expressing concern that a longer, inconsistent lease could set the wrong precedent.
“One difference is the legal authority that the city has to provide city resources, in this case land, to these organizations,” Brock said. “New York State Law is clear that we can provide free land for community garden, and for the Children’s Garden. Legally it’s a different category under NYS Law because of the land involved. We’re required to obtain fair value for a rental like the Hangar Theatre or the Farmer’s Market, but not in this context.”
Brock said she was still reticent to have a 30-year lease and wanted it reduced to 25 years. She motioned for the vote to amend, but it failed for lack of a second vote to discuss. However, it did not bother her enough for her to vote against the resolution. When it went for a vote to send to council, it passed unanimously, 5-0. The land swap is up for approval by the full council at their May meeting, and its prospects are good.
“It’s a very big, very complicated project, and we’re making good progress on this,” said Board Chair Seph Murtagh (D-2nd).
Ithaca Energy Code Supplement Update
To avoid repeating a thousand words about the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement (IECS) a.k.a. the Green Building Policy, you can read all about how that works, what the benchmarks are and when different parts of it go into effect in last month’s write-up here. Your spark notes version is that the IECS will use a points-based system so that all new buildings produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than New York State code requires, with a tighter standard by 2023 and a requirement that all new construction be net-zero by 2026. The IECS is also circulating for town review as well (both Ithacas, city and town, have adopted it as a policy), and it will include a reference manual for property owners and builders, the IECS itself, and a copy of the ordinance’s legal language. If you don’t meet the code, you don’t get a certificate of occupancy for your building.
Sustainability Coordinator Nick Goldsmith said the town of Ithaca is on track for adoption of the IECS in late May. Unlike the city, the town is more favorable to zoning variances as needed vs. hardship exemptions should the need arise. Goldsmith and new Director of Sustainability Luis Aguirre-Torres met with Cornell to discuss issues specific to them, and to utilize plant data from Cornell published publicly. If you think that gives Cornell too much control over its projects and their sustainability measurements, Goldsmith said that the city would hire a third-party to review, to be paid for by Cornell, as they felt was needed.
Goldsmith said some tweaks were also made to the code itself, mostly with respect to how renewable energy is utilized. On-site and off-site renewables may qualify for up to three points, and the methodology on how to get those points was revised to line up with international ASHRAE code standards. It’s math, and for you algebra fans, the formula are found in the proposed revisions here. For larger new builds and major renovations, a 15-year contract period to purchase renewable energy is no longer required, but annual reporting is required every year for fifteen years to verify renewable energy is being used – if they don’t do the reporting, they can be fined $250 each day and the building’s certificate of occupancy may be revoked.
Small-scale solar arrays (less than 25 kW, which most houses and smaller commercial structures fall under) are exempt from annual reporting requirements, mostly because it would be a big burden on homeowners and small businesses. Any off-site or on-site renewable energy project built since 2015 is eligible to provide the renewable energy, provided there’s clear documentation as to how it’s being allocated so as to avoid double-counting. The devaluation for off-site renewable energy sources was eliminated in the revised IECS, so that off-site (like community solar arrays) and on-site renewables now have the same value in the code.
There were enough changes that the board wanted to vote to approve the revisions, and Brock made clear she wanted a “tracked changes” copy of the Word document of the IECS as written. Apart from that, discussion was brief. The revisions were approved unanimously, and the IECS will head to the council for a vote to become the law of the land in May.