ITHACA, N.Y.—It was another fairly short meeting for the City of Ithaca Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) this month. Nevertheless, it was quite the newsbreaker, as the Ithaca Farmer’s Market announced plans to renovate instead of building a new pavilion at Steamboat Landing.
As always, The Ithaca Voice is happy to provide you with a summary, and for those who want some reading material on the side, the PEDC agenda can be found here.
Ithaca Farmer’s Market Redesign
As many readers are already familiar, the Ithaca Farmer’s Market (IFM) has planned for a shiny new market building along Ithaca’s waterfront at Steamboat Landing, as well as revised landscaping and parking facilities. That project has been approved by the city of Ithaca Planning Board and is in the fundraising process.
Since 2009, the City of Ithaca has leased the Steamboat Landing site to the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA), who in turn sublease the site to the Ithaca Farmers Market Cooperative. Since the IFM wants to undertake significant changes to the site and the structures upon it, the co-operative is seeking changes to the lease agreement.
The current lease agreement is a 20-year term to Dec. 31, 2028, with the option to renew for another 20 years ending in 2048. The base payment in 2009 was $36,004, and adjusts for the rate of inflation. IFM assumes all responsibility for operation and maintenance.
Technically, the lease structure requires consent from the IURA, but not the City of Ithaca Common Council, for modifications to existing structures and new structures. But that agreement only makes sense to approve modest changes to structures, and was not designed to handle a reconstruction of this scale.
As a result of the unusual circumstance, the IURA requests guidance from the Common Council regarding any IFM-proposed changes before considering consent to the site’s redevelopment. Relatedly, the IURA also wants to know if the Common Council prefers to let the IURA use its sole judgment to review the current proposed changes at Steamboat Landing, or if the Council wants to be involved. This is just a discussion item, with no voting on the agenda.
IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn was on hand to talk about the IFM lease agreement, and landscape architect Yamila Fournier of Whitham Planning and Design spoke about the project itself. Essentially, they won’t be doing the new building that was approved over a year ago. Don’t worry, the architects and engineers who worked on those plans still get paid, whether it’s built out or not.
Fournier explained that during the pandemic, as the $16 million building was in the process of being designed, revenues at the market dropped substantially as people avoided the market’s crowds. Add to that the significant increases in material costs since the plan’s 2019 inception (up past $20 million for construction) and changes in the co-operative’s leadership.
“There was not as much of a desire, an appetite, to take on the cost of building an extremely costly new structure that would really disrupt the ability to continue to have the market at that site,” according to Fournier.
As a result of those rising costs and difficulties in paying for a brand spanking new building, last fall the IFM began to consider alternatives. With stakeholders expressing “a lot of love, a lot of affection for the pavilion as it stands,” a plan was drawn up to renovate and make some improvements, and to bring the 1989 building up to 2023 Building Code.
Phase one would be a new and improved parking lot, increasing from 341 spaces to 381 spots, phase two would be improvements to the waterfront with additional seating and improved access to the shore itself, and phase three, originally to be a new building, will now be building improvements, with a few additions and material refurbishments.
Michael Barnoski of Design Trade Build presented the revised plans, which call for expansions at the north and south ends, additional office space for the market administration, and new code-compliant bathrooms. The circular end would be replaced with a ten-stall pavilion addition, as vendors complained the round end felt like a dead end and deterred visitors. The clerestory roof would be enclosed with translucent greenhouse panels with hemlock frames; new cable bracing would be installed to support the new semi-enclosed structure, and the existing roof and gutters will be replaced. A dry-pipe (nitrogen) sprinkler system would be installed for fire safety.
Off the cuff, the project’s additions are a small-enough proportion of the existing building’s square footage that the project may not need to take a trip before the Planning Board. The possibility did not come up during last night’s meeting, and the PEDC was fairly positive regarding the revised plans.
“This feels, to much of the market, like a good time for transformative change…there’s a lot of wrangling to get things done. The process has been moving forward pretty consistently for the last few years, we had our vendor meeting the other night and there’s been a pretty solid response from the market vendors. The adjustment of the original plan to this new plan saves the current pavilion and keeps a lot of what members really like about the market,” said Max Buckner, President of the IFM’s Board of Directors.
Frankly, the revisions were a surprise. “I am very grateful at the keeping of the original structure, I’m glad that message was heard and incorporated into this,” said councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st). She did express apprehension at the additions at the ends making the structure feel more enclosed and darker, and also had concerns about parking on the waterfront side of the building from a fire safety standpoint.
“I really love the idea of taking the existing structure and giving it these kinds of improvements, it is an iconic facility. I do note that the original plans involved enclosing to create a year-round market, so I take it that’s no longer a part of those plans,” said PEDC Chair Rob Gearhart (D-3rd). “From this body, you have an endorsement.”
Federal Carbon Reduction Grant
First up for a vote last night was the authorization of matching funds for a federal carbon reduction grant related to a transportation network project. A vote of approval here would send the project on to the full Common Council for final authorization at their April meeting.
Let’s break that bureaucratic heading down to laymen’s terms. The United States Department of Transportation, through the recently-passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, established a Carbon Reduction Program to fund projects that have the effect of reducing carbon emissions. New York State is allotted a share of that funding. The local transportation metropolitan planning organization, the Ithaca Tompkins County Transportation Council (ITCTC), is tasked with distributing $463,855 of Carbon Reduction Program funding to municipalities within Tompkins County for carbon reduction-related transportation projects. The City of Ithaca was the only community in the county to submit a project for consideration for this funding.
As described by city Transportation Engineer Erin Cuddihy, the City of Ithaca Engineering Department has expressed interest in using this funding to do a detailed block-by-block conceptual plan of a bike network for Ithaca, starting from the work that Bike Walk Tompkins (BWT) did through their Better Bike Network project, and the public outreach they performed in the past. Through their outreach and work, BWT identified six routes that would form the backbone of a robust bike network in the City, of Ithaca but the routes are currently rough sketches.
The Engineering Department’s proposal, called the “Ithaca Active Transportation Network,” would plan, with extensive public outreach, the actual routes. At the end of the project, there would be a proposed design for each street block on the bike network, knowing exactly where curbs would need to be moved, as well as approximate construction costs. Pedestrian improvements and traffic calming along the corridors would also be planned out. With a detailed conceptual plan in hand, the city would be in an “extremely good position” to apply for large federal implementation grants that could potentially fund the complete buildout of the network.
According to Cuddihy’s memo, doing all the planning work in one fell swoop would be better accepted by the community because it will be seen as less likely that the city is “picking on” or favoring residents and property owners of any particular street (and frankly, anyone who’s familiar with the transportation debate in Ithaca knows there are extremely passionate pro-bike and anti-bike residents that make any planning a delicate task).
As the project is estimated at $587,000, the federal grant would cover 80%, and the city would pay $123,145 for the planning and design work by their staff and an assisting consultant. As designed, the city pays $587,000 up front and is reimbursed the $463,855 by the feds once the work is completed. Common Council has to vote to authorize that expense.
Cuddihy and her colleague Erik Hathaway were on hand to discuss the project. Side note, kudos to councilor Tiffany Kumar (D-4th Ward) for being able to verbally speed-read through resolutions.
“We wouldn’t need this money all at once,” said Cuddihy. “We did talk to NYS DOT. They’re very supportive of this project receiving this funding. This is exactly what this funding is made for, transportation options that reduce carbon emissions.”
Cuddihy stressed that “a lot of public outreach” is built into the planning and design process, and that the money funds only projects within city limits.
“For West Hill, for example, there are so many barriers to having a really good pedestrian network,” said Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st). “It would be ideal if there could be a connection from the West Village Apartments down to Floral (Avenue). I’m hopeful that this might be an opportunity not just to reinforce the existing networks that are there, but how we can identify opportunities to create new connections, so that these isolated pockets can be integrated back through a pedestrian and bicycle network. I hope that this is one thing that would allow us to do that.”
“I’ve been in conversations recently with the property owners of building above Floral Avenue about bringing a path through there, reconstructing the steps at Floral and 79 that go up to the apartments directly above,” Cuddihy responded. “At this point, those property owners are not interested in participating with us for various reasons, maintenance costs and other reasons like that. We can’t build through their property, right? We’re talking about that, it’s something that we were hoping to address through the $7 million TCAT grant. We were hoping that we would be able to include walking paths directly from the West Village Apartments to Floral Avenue with that project. But so far, we don’t have partnership to allow that to happen.”
Councilor Phoebe Brown (D-2nd) expressed concerns that the city would skimp on outreach; in general, Brown has regularly expressed some hesitation to support bike and pedestrian plans, feeling that they don’t give enough consideration to car-dependent lower-income households. In contrast, Councilor Kumar said she was excited about the proposal, calling it “really, really great.”
The vote to send to council passed 4-0, and will be reviewed and discussed further at the Common Council meeting in early April.
Ithaca Falls Overlook Revisions
For those of you who follow the Planning Board writeups, you know that local firm Visum Development Group is approved to redevelop the vacant and contaminated Ithaca Gun factory site at 121-125 Lake Street into “The Breeze,” a 77-unit apartment building. Along with the environmental remediation comes a proposed public benefit in the form of a public parklet to “the Island,” a city-owned promontory that juts out from the Ithaca Gun site.
Visum would provide a prefabricated bridge from the parking area to a new Ithaca Falls Overlook with seating, historic signage, viewing pad and protective railings and fencing. Related plans to preserve the Ithaca Gun factory smokestack, the last remaining structure from the old facility, are still being debated, and were not a part of last night’s meeting.
Reception to the overlook was chilly during last month’s PEDC meeting. Councilor Brock described it as an “attractive nuisance” and a “can of worms.” The summary of that discussion is that the council was generally reluctant to support a new public overlook out of fear it would become a magnet for risk-takers and lawsuits. While some ideas were floated for other ways to use the money Visum intended for the overlook, there were no firm alternatives.
In response to the Common Council’s concerns, Visum is offering a revised plan that would fill in some of the raceway to create a walkway instead of a bridge, revised fencing perimeters and overlook dimensions, and a steel-spiked fence lined with short but spiky evergreens. The goal is safety, although the description of the revised plan sounds a little intimidating in all honesty.
Visum Vice President Laura Mattos was present to talk about the revised overlook plans with the PEDC. After explaining the plans, the PEDC was still less than enthused.
“Am I understand the intent that filling in the raceway would be done with stones or rocks unearthed from the construction project? Would it actually be a pathway?” asked Gearhart.
“By filling the void, it wouldn’t be a regular bridge anymore, it would be a path,” replied Mattos. Councilor Brock said she appreciated the attempt to address their concerns, but was wary of on-site soil being used because of the risk of re-contamination. In her opinion, the money would be better used to create improved access and safety for Ezra’s Tunnel.
“I don’t think it’s even allowed by the DEC,” said Planning Director Lisa Nicholas. “The evergreens, I understand where you’re going with that, but this is a natural historical resource, we’d want it to be compatible with its surroundings.”
Brock noted that Visum and the city were wedded to the overlook idea by the original 2007 Ithaca Gun redevelopment agreement, but questioned why even bothering with it.
“There’s not even any there, there,” she said, noting that the views of the falls are obscured. Mattos replied that they thought it would be a good amenity, but as a last resort they’d consider putting the money intended for the overlook into another site of the city’s choosing. “We believe that there’s potential there (at the overlook) to be something special.”
The PEDC appreciated the effort to try and address their concerns from last month, and acknowledged an original goal of the city was to allow the public to still somehow enjoy the property. But Planning Director Nicholas added that it was difficult to design access to the city-owned overlook site in a way that the city would be comfortable with. The raceway filling was a no-go, they didn’t like the fence design, and they weren’t keen on the shrubbery.
“I don’t know where we go next,” said Gearhart.
“Our (apartment) approvals are dependent on this. Is there anything we can do at this point?” asked Mattos.
Planning Director Nicholas that it was unusual for the PEDC to play the role of “Planning Board” here, and the planning staff could handle a lot of the site plan details once the committee felt that their safety concerns were addressed. Mattos invited councilors to visit the site, with Director Nicholas open to scheduling, and there was hope that the city would compile a list of things they want and don’t want with the overlook site so that some sort of clear agreement on its treatment could be reached. For now, it’s still a rather foggy picture.
We’ll include a brief summary of the unsanctioned encampments workplan here, mostly to describe the review process. Details on the plan will be covered by my colleague and editor Matt Butler in a separate piece.
The working group has a draft prepared, and it’s being put out for comment among city and county staff, and parties that work with homeless individuals.
“We really need to try something rather than nothing,” said Nicholas, who noted that it was a pilot project to help inform refinements to the approach next year. “We are working with our partners for supportive housing. This policy is about homeless encampments on city property, but we are working to try and find a more permanent solution.”
“We definitely need cooperation of all of our partners to make this work, I look forward to the discussion,” said councilor Brock, who is a member of the working group. Expect the plan to come forward for public comment next month, with review by the full Common Council likely later this spring.