ITHACA, N.Y.—It was a brief meeting for the City of Ithaca Planning Board last night. Two projects received final approval while two others made advancements. While a relatively short meeting at one hour and six minutes, The Ithaca Voice can save you about an hour by providing the summary, and you probably have better use for that hour than watching Planning Board members flip through paperwork and ponder. A copy of the agenda can be found here.

Quick programming note, last night began as a bare quorum for the Planning Board. C.J. Randall’s seat remains vacant after she resigned to focus on her work as the new Planning Director for the Town of Ithaca, while Daniel Correa was late and Garrick Blalock arrived later in the meeting, so South Meadow Square had four voting members while Alpha Phi Alpha had five.

Site Plan Review

As there were no Special Permits or Special Orders of Business scheduled for this relatively short Planning Board meeting, the topic of business quickly turned to the typical meat of the agenda, Site Plan Review, where developers’ make their best pitch and hope the board’s on board.

This is the part of the meeting during which the consideration and critique of new and updated building proposals occurs. In the interest of not delving deep into the details every month, if you want a more thorough description of the multiple steps involved within the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.

Commercial Retail Infill (736-744 South Meadow Street)

First up on the agenda last night was a re-approval for a previously greenlit project. Benderson Development is proposing to construct a 7,000 SF building within an existing parking area at the corner of Fairgrounds Memorial Parkway and an internal circulation road that connects to Route 13. The project also includes lighting, landscaping, walkways, and other amenities. The applicant submitted a trip
generation report that demonstrates that the traffic counts for the proposed new retail is consistent with the Southwest Area Land Use Plan and therefore no additional environmental review is required.

The Planning Board granted final approval of this project on October 27, 2020, and it has since expired; Planning Board approvals are only good for two years from the original approval date. If no permits have been filed in that timeframe, they need to seek re-approval, which is typically an uncontroversial affair. Benderson would like to build out their pad building this year, they’ll need re-approval to do so, and so here we are, a Public Hearing and potential preliminary and final re-approval good for another two years.

For the record, we don’t know who’s going in here; Benderson’s James Boglioli says they have two retail tenants in talks, but was not able to disclose who yet. What typically happens in retail is that the developer will build the shell with the exterior and interior utility rough-ins completed, with the fixtures and finishes left incomplete until a tenant is found, who will then typically hire their own contractor to do that finish work for them.

Matthew Oates, the Engineering Director of Benderson Development, presented the project in-person, which is something of a rarity these days. The building is designed to blend in with Benderson’s other buildings with a combo of brick veneer and EIFS (synthetic stucco) — generally the board dislikes EIFS, but will allow it for box retail buildings because they tend to be remodeled relatively frequently as tenants move in and out.

No one was present to speak at the Public Hearing, and generally, the board had no issues with granting re-approval. Chair Robert Lewis noted that the flood plain regulations have changed since 2020, to which Oates explained that the building uses flood gate doors and is a little elevated from ground level (it had been designed that way even before the flood maps were revised). Some concern was raised about the turn lanes on Fairgrounds Memorial Parkway, where people trying to get to Starbucks would have to drive the wrong way to get there from South Meadow’s north-south access drive; Oates noted that they’d have to work with the adjacent property owner to do a fix, and who pays for said fix. Oates offered that in the short term they could add signage to stop people from doing it, and longer-term have conversations with the city and their retail plaza neighbor to revise the traffic islands.

With that stipulation, and a stipulation to reach out regarding water and sewer connections, the re-approval was granted unanimously 4-0.

Valentine Place (109-111 Valentine Place)

This is a project that went on a long hiatus after receiving SEQR negative declaration in April 2022. Developers John Novarr and Phil Proujansky propose to demolish two existing two-story wood frame houses and construct a four-story 26-unit residential building, approximately 29,320 square-feet in area, as student housing; it’s right next to Collegetown Terrace. 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 the 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. We haven’t seen much opposition to the proposal since it was first floated in late 2021. However, the BZA was opposed to it for not having enough parking, and telegraphed as such before the project could formally seek variances.

As explained by city planners, the plan to use Collegetown Terrace wasn’t going to cut it with the BZA because there would always need to be a business deal in place regarding parking as far as they were concerned, and the BZA worried that if Terrace and Valentine Place were sold to different owners someday, there would no longer be an agreement and therefore no longer be sufficient parking. The developers have since been able to buy adjacent property that would reduce the variance needed for parking from 29 to 20, and allow the building to come closer to meeting the minimum lot size for the number of units sought. The number of units was also reduced from 30 units with 40 bedrooms, to 26 units and 40 bedrooms.

Herman Sieverding represented Integrated Acquisition and Development (Novarr and Proujansky’s firm) before the board. Sieverding noted the impasse that the BZA was at, noting they only had four members at the time, and that the acquisition of a vacant lot of 107 Valentine Place helped reduce the size of the variances requested, which is a factor in BZA review. The building design remains the same.

The board was and remains strongly favorable to the variances requested, stressing that they felt this was an appropriate location for density and the student population was likely to “commute” to Cornell, as well as extensive efforts by the developers to mitigate impacts by purchasing a property to provide parking.

“I am disappointed we have to provide more parking. I think that’s pretty ridiculous, and it doesn’t go unnoticed from my perspective,” said board member Emily Petrina, a clear shot across the bow at the BZA. With the board’s strong positive recommendation, the developers head to the BZA next week.

Cliff Street Retreat (407 Cliff Street)

You might be thinking, “wasn’t this approved already”? Short answer, yes, but they’re seeking changes to the approved plans. The Planning Board granted preliminary and final approval of this project in October 2021, and received a tax abatement for the project. Developer Lincoln Morse is now seeking approval for a redesign on the north end of the parcel, where instead of two stand-alone cottages, his development team would now like to build a three-story multi-family building (501 Cliff Street), approximately 4,780 square feet in size. The building would have a total of 6 units including two hotel units and four two-bedroom apartments. Adjacent landscaping adjustments are also planned.

The proposed building complies with all of the zoning requirements created in the PUD process, and the rest of the project remains the same, turning the 25,297 square-foot former Incodema plant into a mix of small-scale retail, office, hospitality and residential uses. Within that former manufacturing building, Morse and his team plan 10 apartments, six hotel lofts, and four hotel cottages. Plans also call for a neighborhood café, a potential neighborhood bar/lounge for after-hours gatherings, boutique retail spaces modeled after the startup spaces in Press Bay Alley, and boutique office space.

According to the revised Site Plan Review filing, the plan is to build the project and have the Cliff Street Retreat open by June 2024. Last night was the Public Hearing for the revised project, and review of the previously-approved SEQR/CEQR to see what changes need to be made and if any increased adverse impacts are effectively mitigated. Linc Morse was present in person, while architect Craig Modisher of STREAM Collaborative joined remotely.

As Modisher explained, they’re still looking at the feasibility of a trail down to Cass Park, and are willing to explore solar panels on the apartment building. The wood-trim first floor with aluminum panel above is an effort to help blend the apartment building with materials. The colors are not finalized, but Morse promised to provide product samples at the next meeting.

No one had submitted comments or spoke at the Public Hearing for the revised project, and the board felt the treatment of the front façade was appropriate. Morse said they had spoken to the neighbors in the Cape Cod house next door, and that they were comfortable with the proposal. Some debate was had about the Cass Park trail; if it was promised in the PUD, and it’s removed, they’ll have to pay another visit to Common Council. But for the building plans, the board was amenable, and the project will be back before the members next month.

Alpha Phi Alpha Residential House Renovations (105 Westbourne Lane)

Plans for this renovation were first shared by the Voice last spring. 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 square-foot 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 had to sign off the renovations in order for them to move forward. In sum, three committees—Planning, BZA and ILPC—had to sign off on this renovation. The BZA and ILPC now have, which means the project is up for Preliminary and Final Approval this month from the Planning Board.

Architect Georges Clermont, engineer Frank Santelli and owner representative Tony Ewing represented the project. Clermont stated the project will use Grasspave porous grass paver and Santelli added that the village was ready to sign off on the stormwater plan.

With that, practically all the concerns had been addressed. The project was approved 5-0. “Great project, really appreciate you bringing it through,” said Lewis.

Board of Zoning Appeals Recommendations

There were four BZA items on tap for discussion for last night; one of those was 109-111 Valentine Place, which is discussed above. The other three are a pair of requests for modifications for telecommunications equipment on South Hill at 815 South Aurora Street, and an area variance for the proposed new NYSEG substation on South Hill at 220 Grandview Avenue. Not exactly the kind of stuff that makes anyone’s heart race.

“Ordinarily, I am excited to give recommendations to BZA because there’s this thing happening I really care about and want to see happen. Whereas in this particular instance, it’s a NYSEG station, I am convinced that NYSEG will eventually get what they want because they’re NYSEG, and don’t have too much to say to the BZA” said Chair Lewis. He has never been a fan of the project and has angrily called out NYSEG for a half-hearted effort to blend the substation into surrounding properties. “They never moved on the materials, the design was relatively unchanged.”

The rest of the board was not opposed to the variance, and the board has boilerplate language for the telecommunications facilities at this point. Half-hearted okays were granted to all three applications.

Old/New Business

The Planning Board will be doing a working retreat on May 11th to review in-depth topics that they typically can’t go too deeply into during meetings — the pros and cons of façade materials, to talk more broadly about “what makes good design,” per Mitch Glass, “the successes and the challenges.”

There were initially plans to introduce Arnot’s concept plans for the NYS DOT site this meeting, but they requested to postpone until April. With any luck, we’ll bring you a look at those long-brewing plans next month.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at