ITHACA, N.Y.—As far as City of Ithaca Planning and Development Board meetings go, this was a relatively short meeting at a little over two hours. Nevertheless, it was quite consequential, with two projects and over 150 new apartments approved for construction in the city of gorges. As always, The Ithaca Voice is here to give you the monthly update.

Quick programming note, the board had a bare quorum of four members this month, with Emily Petrina, Mitch Glass, Garrick Blalock, and Chair Robert Lewis in attendance.

Overview of Public Works Flood Prevention Study

We’re doing something a little different to start off this month’s Planning Board meeting — Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne was present to discuss the city Department of Public Works’ plan to do a Flood Prevention Study.

Now, if you ask me what is my greatest reasonable fear for Ithaca, it’s a “100-year” flood on the scale of July 1935something that as the Ithaca Journal highlighted in 2015, could wipe out one-third of the city and cause over $400 million in damage (in 2015 dollars, so probably more like half a billion today). The Flats, the West End, much of Fall Creek and Northside would be devastated by such a flood, especially as the inlet is still clogged with silt. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and it manifests in the revised, expanded FEMA flood maps that have so many Ithaca homeowners up in arms.

Thorne opened by discussing how FEMA has been in the process of updating Ithaca’s 1981 Flood Maps since 2015, and similar to most federal efforts, it takes eons to do. Meanwhile, the city Department of Public Works is reviewing options and pursuing grants to design and build flood mitigations so that the flood maps may not be expanded as much. The map above is the latest proposed FEMA Map — if your property is one of the 1,200 or so owners in the blue, you’re now in the 100-year floodplain and you’re going to have to buy very expensive flood insurance. You can thank climate change and improved modeling techniques for that.

Ithaca has completed a “Hazard Mitigation Plan” and has applied for at least three grants, and officials are hopeful at least one of them will be awarded. At least $1.3 million has been awarded from Sen. Schumer’s office, but they’re seeking $12 million more. Thorne is hopeful that the initial funds can be used to perform design/engineering work, which will likely take a year to complete.

As for the flood mitigations themselves, the plan is dredging on the state level, and floodwalls/levees on the local level. Build better levees along Six Mile Creek and Fall Creek, and do the dredging, and those areas in red are no longer in the 100-year flood zone. Most residential owners will be spared the additional costs of thousands of dollars per year in flood insurance. As one can see, to spare Fall Creek, Northside and Southside, you have to do both. The DPW wants to build flood barriers along the creeks — do that, and the cost benefits to Ithaca residents are immense. Berms along the creeks would be raised up to 2.5 feet along Fall Creek, and 6.5 feet along Six Mile Creek.

Dredging is a state DEC project, and they’re bickering with the Army Corps of Engineers over costs and who covers them (usual disclaimer: I am a DEC employee, but I am not involved in any of this). It is also acknowledged that looking at a wall is not ideal for Southside residents, but the alternative is paying beaucoup bucks every year for flood insurance, and I doubt those views are worth $3,000 to $6,000 a year. Thorne acknowledged this as well, and want to try and make the walls an amenity — functional, but aesthetically pleasing as well, with trails, greenery and so on. For the record, trees aren’t allowed to grow on levees, because if they fall they tear the levees apart.

Cornell students have been tasked to come up with multifunctional ideas as part of a landscape architecture class; after all, we might as well utilize that brain power on East Hill. They were told it must be affordable and “pass muster” with FEMA. They’ll be presenting those later this spring. At this point, we’ll see what happens, but flood walls may be a major municipal project in the near future.

In response to a question from the board’s Emily Petrina, Thorne stated that they do have to justify mitigations to FEMA in order to have flood maps changed. In the best case scenario, where grants are won this year, construction bids would go out in 2024 and work would occur from 2025 on.

“I would be happy if we could get everything in place by 2026,” Thorne said.

The board acknowledged the utility of the project, but also the big aesthetic impacts. Nicholas noted that the hope is that the DEC will do dredging in 2024, especially since the dredging facility has already been built. There’s a lot that needs to be done in order to mitigate the very real, serious flood risk Ithaca faces, and some of those impacts will be aesthetically tough to wedge in.

Site Plan Review

Following Special Permits and the regular public comment, the Planning Board jumped right into 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.

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 3-story multi-family building (501 Cliff Street), approximately 4780 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 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.

So why a small apartment building instead of cottages? A form of value engineering. Costs on materials have continued to go up, as have interest rates on construction loans. A six-unit apartment building will be more cost-efficient per square foot and can comfortably utilize the existing parking lot. In addition, apartments are easy to fill in low-vacancy Ithaca, even in areas with few students such as West Hill. That makes the project an easier sell to financiers, who might be otherwise reluctant to support the offbeat mix of uses in the main building. For what it’s worth, the new building reads as a two-story house from Cliff Street – as the site slopes down, it’s three floors in the back.

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. Tuesday’s meeting was just a presentation, with no voting items scheduled, though the plans will need the Planning Board’s re-approval if they want to build the apartment building.

Morse and Architects Craig Modisher and Noah Demarest of Ithaca’s STREAM Collaborative were on hand to present the changes and garner the board’s initial feedback (I’ll give props to Demarest for having his Cornell degree framed behind him on Zoom, because mine is still in a plastic bag under my bed). Modisher led the presentation of the changes. The apartment building is intended to blend in with the neighbors, and will use wood siding on the first floor and metal siding on the second floor. To their credit, STREAM puts in an effort and typically does nice stuff.

The board’s Mitch Glass wanted to make the parking lot smaller and more aesthetic if possible, and it helps that Incodema has been there so long, mature trees already surround the lot. Petrina supported the changes and felt the project fit the surroundings, Planning Director Lisa Nicholas wanted additional imagery to ensure it was compatible with neighbors, and if there were ways to preserve a couple of the four mature trees that are proposed for removal. The project will be back before the board next month.

The Breeze Apartments (121-25 Lake Street)

Next up in Site Plan Review: the Breeze Apartments 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 siteThe 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, the Board of Zoning Appeals signed off on the variances, and the project has received Preliminary Site Plan Approval. Last night was Visum’s opportunity to earn Final Approval on the Breeze project.

Visum Vice President Laura Mattos was on hand to discuss the project, as was architect Erik Reynolds of SWBR Architects. Reynolds explained the façade material mix and that they were limited in what mechanicals they could actually put on the roof due to deed restrictions.

The board was generally supportive of the proposal. Board member Glass noted that the future of the overlook is less certain, and that’s still being sorted out by Council. With some minor approval tweaks to accommodate the uncertainty over the Overlook, and an added condition to work with the City Forester on screening for mechanicals, the project was ready for a final vote. With a unanimous vote, the project was approved. “It’s an exciting project, I’m excited to see it move forward,” Board Chair Robert Lewis said.

The Citizen (602 West Buffalo Street)

Next on last night’s agenda was another Visum proposal, “The Citizen” in Ithaca’s West End neighborhood. Visum is proposing to demolish the existing two-story restaurant building (formerly Joe’s Italian Restaurant) to allow for the construction of a new five-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.

This project is also in the home stretch — scheduled for Tuesday was a potential vote for Preliminary and Final Site Plan Approval. Senior Development Manager Julia Bucher of Visum and Roberta Militello of HOLT Architects were on hand to discuss the project. The project will now use round columns at the corner than square columns, and the green accent fins will use perforated metal panels. Militello walked through the samples of the materials and explained the features, while Bucher discussed the addition of potted planters and the round columns to “soften the space,” and tables with seating to make the project more pedestrian friendly.

“I like the project and I think it’s going to be good for downtown, but… I do think that the upper part of the building could be better architecturally. I don’t think the green fins are really going to hold up for me, but again, it’s not going to affect my vote for the project,” Glass said.

“We want to make Meadow Street less of a highway and more an urban street, and this is a step in that direction,” Blalock said.

“Everything’s a lot grayer than I hoped…it is a compelling use in a compelling spot, the fins do it for me,” Lewis said.

With a unanimous vote, preliminary and final approval was granted for “The Citizen”. With any luck, the project will be open for occupancy some time in 2024.

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 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 Determination of Environmental Significance, which is approved, allows the project to seek BZA review and Preliminary Site Plan Approval in March.

Architect Georges Clermont, engineer Frank Santelli and owner representative Tony Ewing represented the project. Clermont discussed the landscaping, the new ADA-compliant curbs, and reduced patio size per discussions with City Planner Megan Wilson. Santelli added that there are some details to work regarding stormwater, but they’re on the path to making sure everyone is happy with the project.

The board had little in the way of comment — remember this is a renovation, not a new construction, so a lot of the usual concerns aren’t present here. The SEQR negative declaration passed unanimously, and the project is eligible for preliminary approval at the March meeting.

Other News & Notes

The Planning Board turned to the topic of the “Red House” at 408 North Tioga Street, which the county is proposing to knock down for parking. The Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission is staunchly opposed, and as it quickly became clear, so is the Planning Board.

“I am sympathetic to the cost of salvaging it,” Blalock said.

“There are people who are interested in purchasing it,” noted Director Nicholas.

Lewis wanted to phrase the resolution to encourage the county to sell the site to a willing developer who would renovate the building and bring it up to code. Tearing it down for a parking lot was something they were firmly opposed it — “that’s not what we need here,” said Lewis. “It’s important to retain these smaller, older building to remind us where we came from.” The board agreed to have a letter drawn up stating their opposition to demolition and support for sale.

In other news, the board discussed a retreat and the possibility of starting meetings at 5:30 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. The board generally preferred the 6 p.m. start (as does this reporter). “We have a rhythm that is working,” Lewis noted. However, the board did note that 5:30 could be useful for particularly long meetings; the goal was to just be consistent from month to month. With an agreement to contemplate options, the meeting adjourned.

Brian Crandall

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