ITHACA, N.Y.—There’s been a rather uncomfortable trend lately where the Planning Board reviews a project for months and gives initial approval, the Board of Zoning Appeals denies variances, and a drastic redesign is rushed before the Planning Board late in the process. This happened with 401 East State Street, 325 Dryden Road, and now with “The William” at 108-110 College Avenue, which received approvals last night.
It makes the whole process less predictable and clearly there was some wariness about a potential fourth entry to the list with another project discussed last night. Overall, it was one of the board’s shorter meetings, but still consequential for several proposals in queue.
Read on for the Voice’s monthly summary. A copy of the agenda can be found here. and you can watch the meeting here.
- Special Permits
- Site Plan Review
- Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations
Quick programming note, six of the usual seven Planning Board members were in attendance, while member C.J. Randall has resigned to focus on her new position as the Planning Director for the Town of Ithaca.
The first item on the agenda this month was a Special Permit. Special Permits are fairly uncommon and are typically triggered for unusual property uses in certain zones, usually lower-density residential areas. Here, the business owners of the Fru Fru Hair Salon at 309 East Lincoln Street in Fall Creek would like to extend their operating hours, from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, to 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. every day. Technically, those are bounds rather than consistent hours, as the owner only does work by appointment but apparently wants to experiment with days and evenings a little, according to a city planner memo.
Normally, operating hours are a matter of the business’s choosing (and thank goodness for that, because the last thing I want to cover is people demanding Wegman’s close at 7 p.m. because it’s too loud.) However, the reason why we have a special permit with Planning Board approval here is that businesses can only operate in lower-density residential zones through Special Permits, and any major changes to hours of operation trigger review. 309 East Lincoln is zoned R-2b, so it falls under that regulation.
Generally speaking, unless the neighbors hate the business applying, this is just an exercise in paper-pushing. No one spoke in favor or in opposition to the change in hours. The review ran the full retinue of Declaration of Lead Agency, SEQR Review, and permit approval. Discussion was fairly brief, and all steps of the process passed unanimously.
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 meeting segment where review of new and updated building proposals occurs. Rather than rehash the 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.
Short version, 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, 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 Breeze Apartments (121-25 Lake Street)
First up 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 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 was recently completed at the site and was submitted to NYSDEC in April 2021.
The proposed cleanup plan has been deemed satisfactory by city and state review, and the Planning Board is considering Preliminary Site Plan Approval this month, as well as a recommendation for an area variance and a height variance in zoning. Due to the topography of the site, the proposed building is technically five stories in height, though the first floor is actually a partially exposed basement and below ground level on the east side – so four stories at the front, five in the rear. As proposed, the building would be 49 feet above average grade plane, 44′ at front/east, and 54′ at the back/west (an average of 40′ is permitted). Visum is also seeking relief from the rear yard requirement of 50’, with the proposed building will be located about 27′ from the rear property line at the narrowest point.
Arguably, that probably the biggest risk at this point – the Board of Zoning Appeals has been rather stringent about variances lately, and Visum’s hope is that a positive Planning Board recommendation, with the cleanup plan and the public overlook/parklet, are a strong enough sell to obtain variances.
Several letters and speakers spoke in either general opposition to the proposal, or more specifically concerns about the height variance. Planning Board Chair Robert Lewis noted that the project has had the same massing since April 2022 and potential variances have been discussed in prior meetings, but noted that the Planning Board does not make the decision, only recommendations.
Just a procedural detail, if they were to get Preliminary Approval and the BZA turns them down, they could prep the site, clearing and excavation, but they would not be able to build anything with Final Approval. Though, it’s also a situation that both city building department staff and the developer would like to avoid.
Visum Vice President Laura Mattos was before the board with her colleague Julia Bucher and architect Erik Reynolds from SWBR. Mattos and Reynolds were doing their best to sell the board on the use of light-colored EIFS at the southeast corner on the upper three floors. The desire is to create a color and material contrast while taking advantage of its insulation qualities — basically, they’ve used wood-like fiber cement and brick elsewhere and EIFS is cheaper to buy and takes less time to install compared to traditional stucco. In response to concerns about the height variance, Mattos pointed out that there are no rooftop mechanicals, instead tucked against the west foundation wall, and that the building presents to Lake Street as a four-story, 44′ building.
“I think EIFS ages too quickly for a building that’s to be used for housing […] I’d like to see metal panel,” said the board’s Elisabete Godden. Her colleague Mitch Glass agreed. The board’s Garrick Blalock was open to the EIFS, though wanted assurances that the ’90s era beige with grimy streaks wasn’t going to happen here. The general sentiment was that the board preferred metal panel, but could tolerate EIFS because it was energy-efficient. Planning Director Nicholas stressed screening or consolidation of mechanical mountings on the west foundation wall to minimize aesthetic and noise impacts.
Preliminary approval was granted unanimously 6-0. As for the variances, the board cited the site cleanup to residential (24-hour) standards, the bridge and public overlook, and the new sidewalk as benefits in exchange. They also noted the sloped nature of the site, and the distance from neighbors as supporting reasons for the recommendation of the variances. The board’s Godden pointed out that 11-12 feet is fairly common in new market-rate residential buildings due to increasing ductwork and lighting standards — heat pump air exchangers pushed by the Ithaca Green New Deal require greater interstitial space, which is the space between floors.
With a thorough positive recommendation, the project heads to the BZA later in February. The Planning Board certainly sounded wary of the BZA’s decision, with Blalock urging them to walk the site and consider the Ithaca Gun site’s history of multiple failed plans. Even with preliminary approval, this really feels like a toss-up on the variances and, according to Visum’s statements, the viability of the project itself.
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. The project team tried hard to obtain a “neg dec” last month, but the board declined, citing too many unanswered questions that they hoped would be satisfactorily answered prior to this month’s meeting.
This time, Visum’s Bucher, a Senior Project Manager, led the presentation. Most of the issues from last month appear to have been sorted out in staff meetings and at the Project Review workshop meeting that happens earlier in the month. Given proximity to neighbors, an extensive monitoring system with a more expensive but less invasive and noisy hydraulic impact hammer pile driving method (vs. the usual diesel hammer) will be deployed. Adam Fishel of Marathon Engineering added that as a result of discussions with DOT, the Buffalo Street driveway would take vehicles coming from either direction, but only allow right turns out, a change that earned them the DOT’s blessing to move forward.
The board was generally comfortable with the foundation plan and the project overall. Glass critiqued one of the perspective renderings for having an inaccurate perspective render (not the one shown above) and asked if the Buffalo Street curbing could be built out, though Fishel noted that the wider lane adjacent to North Meadow Street was to accommodate truck turns. But generally, they felt the plans were thoughtfully designed and well-explained to the board. With unanimous approval, the negative declaration on SEQR was granted, and it is eligible for preliminary site plan approval next month.
The William Apartments (108-10 College Avenue)
Next up on the agenda, “The William.” 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 in Collegetown.
The original proposal had requests for lot coverage and rear yard setback variances, which the BZA denied earlier this month. As a result, the project has taken quite a trim in this late stage, from 34 units and 54 bedrooms, to 29 units and 44 bedrooms. The project is up for preliminary and final site plan approval, which is always a little awkward when a project has been drastically changed in response to BZA, though the SEQR stands here it’s usually for mitigations of a larger project.
“We scrambled to squeeze the building down,” said architect Jason Demarest. The changes were mostly from slicing the back side off with minor adjustments elsewhere in the design. The rear yard got larger, so the grade of the property was adjusted. The retaining wall was removed as it was no longer necessary, and additional trees were added. The building was also pulled back a little from the street.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get your variances, but I think it serves your project better,” said the board’s Petrina. “You always put yourself through a lot of work. Maybe you should try to stay within zoning,” noted Glass, implicitly referencing Petrillose and Demarest’s 325 Dryden Road, which went through the same awkward rush of redesign with BZA denial. But the Planning Board was happy to approve “The William” project, and it did so unanimously.
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 1,500 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. Last night was Declaration of Lead Agency, Public Hearing, and review of some of the Full Environmental Assessment Form.
Architect Georges Clermont and engineer Frank Santelli represented the project. There had been some debate about a sidewalk on Wyckoff at the city’s urging, but the village of Cayuga Heights was opposed due to drainage concerns. The landscape is very extensively worked with grass pavers, a new circular drive, walkways and plantings. Older trees will be preserved.
The board was generally in favor, though Mitch Glass expressed concern with the idea of parking on the grass pavers outside of special events — Planning Director Nicholas noted that wouldn’t be allowed by zoning anyway. They appreciated the sidewalk extension and the attention to landscaping detail.
“I think this looks really nice,” surmised Godden. “This seems positive and things are moving forward in a reasonable way,” added Lewis.
Public hearing opened and closed with no speakers, and Lead Agency was declared. The FEAF still has some question marks, which the applicants will need to provide in order to move forward. But it’s worth noting, the process has been fairly smooth so far, and the project is in an auspicious spot moving forward.
NYSEG Hudson Regulator Station (220 Grandview Avenue)
NYSEG and its contractors are planning to construct a 164 square-foot gas regulator house (shed) with associated support infrastructure. 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. Currently, the site is a gravel parking lot for the church.
On tap for last night was the Public Hearing, review of the Short Environmental Assessment Form (SEAF, this isn’t a large project after all), and potential SEQR/CEQR Determination. Arne Larsen of DDS Companies handled the presentation on behalf of NYSEG.
Of the many projects I have covered in almost 15 years, this has to be one of the least physically impactful. It’s a pre-cast concrete grey-green stained shed structure on a sliver of otherwise-undevelopable South Hill land (the original plan was red like the nearby church, but the grey-green blends into the landscape better, and the building has been rotated 90 degrees).
However, it drew some strong opinions. The board strongly encouraged the applicants to meet with neighbors to assuage concerns about even infinitesimally small explosion risks just to cover their bases. Most of the board was fine with the plans, except Chair Lewis (which is pretty unusual, as he’s usually one of the easier “gets” on the board). Lewis was unhappy NYSEG staff didn’t already meet with neighbors, and didn’t use brick on the outside. He stated he felt they didn’t care at all.
“If this were up for final approval tonight, I wouldn’t vote for it, I find it very disappointing,” Lewis said.
Glass, normally one of the more critical members, seemed rather amused as well as taken aback, as Glass added that he didn’t have major issues with the small, utilitarian structure.
Lewis did say that he wouldn’t vote against the negative declaration, though, as he felt that was a more specific set of details apart from his concerns. The SEQR/CEQR negative declaration was issued unanimously, and the project will be back before the board next month.
Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations
As for the Board of Zoning Appeals, other than The Breeze discussed above, the other variance to review was the modification of existing permits to allow the Lincoln Street Diner at 309 West Lincoln Street to operate from 5 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Sundays.
Now, you might be wondering the hair salon needed as Special Permit while the diner just needed a BZA sign-off. It’s because of the degree of change — one more day at the usual hours for the diner, versus extra hours daily and adding weekends to the hair salon.
Anyway, the diner is barely breaking even and Sundays are expected to be more profitable, allowing the owner to instead close for a day during the week to rest. The board was enthusiastically supportive of the application.