ITHACA, N.Y.—With many of these Planning Board meetings, I put on one of my comfy sweaters and pound back enough tea to make a Boston patriot red with fury as I take notes and flesh out an article over three or four hours of discussion and debate. But not this time.

Last night’s Planning Board was unusually short—less than 1.5 hours, which is a quickie as these affairs go. Generally, most projects reviewed were smaller, and had favorable receptions, though not without some concerns and potential trouble down the road of project review. As always. here’s your monthly summary, courtesy of the The Ithaca Voice.

Quick programming note, board members Mitch Glass and Daniel Correa were not present, and with one vacant seat, the board had a bare quorum of four attendees (Chair Robert Lewis, as well as members Emily Petrina, Garrick Blalock, and Elisabete Godden). The agenda for last night can be found here.

Subdivision Review

First up was lot subdivision review—this is when property lots in the city, technically known as parcels, seek legal reconfiguration, which could be anything from being split up into two or more plots, reshaped or consolidated from multiple lots back into one parcel. This month was a fairly simple two-lot subdivision proposed for West Hill at 123 Campbell Avenue, which is currently home to a single-family home on 1.266 acres. The proposed subdivision will divide the parcel into a western slice that maintains the existing residence on the larger proposed 0.731-acre parcel, while creating a buildable, smaller 0.535-acre to the east that would face Fallview Terrace.

It’s a simple split, and the original lot was a consolidation of the two parcels years ago – so this is returning the lot configuration to its original form when laid out in the 1950s. The eventual addition of a new single-family home (the owners said they already have a buyer lined up) in a neighborhood of single-family homes isn’t likely to stir much opposition. Review here was going to be more of a routine paperwork exercise than an arduous endeavor.

The board had little additional comment on the relatively straightforward, low-impact subdivision. Quick note, individual single-family homes don’t need to go through Planning Board review—those are typically reviewed by planning staff. With hardly any discussion, the subdivision was approved unanimously.

Site Plan Review

With the Campbell Avenue subdivision out of the way, the topic of business turned to the typical bulk of the Planning Board agenda, Site Plan Review.

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 exhaustive description of the multiple steps involved within the project approval process, the “Site Plan Review Primer” can be found here.

Long story short, during the SPR process, the Planning Board looks at sketch plans, declares itself lead agency for state environmental quality review (SEQR), conducts a review and issues a negative declaration (adverse effects mitigated) or a positive declaration (potentially harmful impacts, and therefore needs an Environmental Impact Statement), while performing design review for projects in certain neighborhoods for aesthetic impacts. Once those are all discussed and revised to the board’s satisfaction, members vote on preliminary site plan approval and, after review of final details and remaining paperwork, final site plan approval. A project can usually obtain demolition/site prep and even foundation work permits with just preliminary approval, but for something to obtain construction permits for building framing onward, they’ll need that coveted full SPR approval.

Cliff Street Retreat (407 Cliff Street)

Originally, the Planning Board granted preliminary and final approval of this project in October 2021, and the Cliff Street Retreat mixed-use project has already been granted a tax abatement. However, 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 six 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 office, hospitality and residential uses. Within that former manufacturing building, Morse and his team plan 10 apartments, six hotel lofts, and four hotel cottages.

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. On tap for last night was a vote on the modified Environmental Review, and potential approval of the modified Site Plan. Developer Morse joined in-person and Architect Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative joined remotely to present the modifications. Demarest noted that none of the existing street trees would be impacted, though three mature trees on the property would be removed, and replaced elsewhere on the lot with four new evergreens.

The project will also be removing the “mercantile retail” component. Review by the fire department had found the commercial service uses were at risk of using too much water to be handled by the water main.

“It’s not our intent to not do this, it’s just that we’re not going to be permitted to do that at the current water capacity,” said Demarest. For now, it will be treated as flex space, and if the water mains are upgraded they will become retail.

The board was reasonably supportive of the apartment building. “It looks great, I think it’s a right-sized building,” said the board’s Emily Petrina. The rest of the board was either impartial or favorable towards the modified apartment plan.

However, the loss of the retail component was more controversial. The Planned Unit Development doesn’t mandate it has to have a retail component, and from an environmental review standpoint it has negligible impact, which the board noted for the sake of last night’s review. But it was clear there were going to be some words exchanged prior to any approval being given on the modified project itself, which won’t happen until next month at the earliest.

Cornell Chabad Center (102 Willard Way)

Here’s another project seeking changes to the Site Plan after receiving initial approval. The Planning Board granted Site Plan Approval to the Chabad project over a year ago, in March 2022. The applicant is now proposing changes to the approved plans including removing a covered ground-level parking garage, adding on-site parking spaces, removing an approved driveway and adding a circular drive, and small additions to the approved building which will occur in phases. Exterior site improvements and structures still include a patio, an elevated courtyard, an access drive on Lake Street, landscaping, and walkways.

Neighbors to the project spoke in strong opposition to the proposal, saying that Chabad had misled them by telling them the city had already approved the changes (to which they then contacted the city and were informed otherwise by staff), and that the doubling in square footage and loss of parking would exacerbate existing issues.

Architect Jason Demarest (Noah Demarest’s brother, who runs his own firm) presented the changes. The roof deck would be gone and the applicants want to bring back earlier plans for a circular driveway in the front, and there would be 2-3 parking spaces in the front and 2-3 spaces in the back (five total in either setup, a decrease from the ten spaces approved). A proposed office was removed and the mikvah (ceremonial bathing room) was separated to conform better to religious guidelines. The large-group dining room remains largely the same, and a shul, a religious service space, would replace the ground-level parking area and trash enclosure. A widened side driveway would now lead to the trash enclosure in the back.

There were no votes scheduled for last night, just a presentation of the changes. “At face value I don’t see a problem with this…but given the neighbor’s concerns, maybe we could seek out (a public hearing) next month,” said board member Garrick Blalock.

“I like the changes, I think it’s more useful. I don’t see a problem with the garage being used as a space,” said his colleague Elisabete Godden.

The board’s Emily Petrina was a little more cautious. “This invites a lot more people into this space at one time, which has a bigger impact on the neighborhood. I think I’d like some time to think about thoughtfully, how people driving and walking approach it.” Demarest explained that the congregational religious space and the dining space would not be used at the same time, so the size of the human traffic won’t really change from the previous plan, though they may be present at more times during a given week.

“This seems like a pretty warm reception, most of the facades get better with these changes. The circular drive wasn’t on the approved drawings because there was this big, long back-and-forth about engineering. I don’t remember the context but I remember it happened […], we’ll have to go back and look at that,” said Board Chair Robert Lewis. Lewis also felt some discomfort with the front stairwell, which he felt detracted from the architectural quality of the rest of the building. However, he thought it was an easy fix (implying wall detailing, side trellises, landscaping, or something else that would “soften” it). The project will be back before the board for potential votes 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.

Once again, this is a project that has been approved, back in February in this case, and in fact site prep is underway. But while the project is approved, it still needs to file a “Recreational River Permit” application as approved by the Planning Board and host a public hearing for said permit. The proposed footbridge, fencing and island overlook to be jointly developed by Visum and the city of Ithaca needs a state permit for construction, because the portion of Fall Creek by Ithaca Falls is considered to be a “Recreational River”.

Project manager Julia Bucher of Visum and Architect Erik Reynolds of SWBR were in attendance to explain the need for the permit and the latest overlook plan (which has been something of a controversy with the Common Council’s Planning Committee, but that’s another matter you can read about in my PEDC recap here).

Reception to the plans was positive. “This is really complete and feels safe,” said Petrina. “This checks the boxes for me.”

“I agree with Emily, I’m excited about the accessible and inclusive development. I would support the idea of opening to the north, but overall I think this is a really good plan,” added Godden.

The reception was generally positive, and a public hearing is being set for next month’s meeting. The overlook appears to be on the path towards approval.

NYSEG Hudson Regulator Station (220 Grandview Avenue)

Over on South Hill, NYSEG and its contractors are planning to construct a 164 square-foot gas regulator house (shed) with associated support infrastructure. to do this, 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.

The project has been in the works for a couple of years, and is intended to reinforce a high-pressure gas main along Hudson Street due to pressure differentials with surrounding service pipes. The existing structure on South Hill, an underground vault, is at the end of its useful life and can’t be rebuilt at its current spot. Vaults are also obsolete because they’re prone to water infiltration and pose safety hazards to service staff (i.e. people falling in).

Arne Larsen of DDS Companies represented NYSEG before the board. In response to board an staff concerns, arbor vitae will be replaced with white pine or white spruce, thirty feet of sidewalk was added along both Hudson Street and Grandview Avenue. In response to strong concerns from Chair Lewis regarding materials, Larsen and colleagues are proposed a stamped concrete styled to look like a tan brick veneer with patterning between light and dark shades. It would also be covered with an easy-clean anti-graffiti sealant that prevents paint from sticking. Can one tell it’s not brick? Yes. Is it better than painted cinder blocks? Certainly.

“I appreciate the work on the sidewalk and the trees. Personally, I’m not there on the materials, but I don’t know if the board as a whole agrees with me. Daniel (Correa) did say at PRC (Project Review Committee) that we could get there with the right patterning.” Petrina appreciated the neutral brick palette and asked for a small physical sample for the next meeting, which Godden agreed with. They did not want the red-pink, which looked more artificial.

“I think a pretty warm reception from the board for your materials strategy. You’ve gotten some guidance to proceed in the direction you’re headed,” said Lewis. The project will be back before the board in May.

Board of Zoning Appeals

There was one zoning appeal on the agenda for this month, an area variance for 66 Woodcrest Avenue in Belle Sherman. This is just a porch revision and, since it’s a not-voting item, Petrina was allowed to hang around even though it’s a project by her architecture firm. The board didn’t have much to say, generally they support investments by homeowners in their owner-occupied homes. “It looks like a nice porch and it’s totally fine,” said Lewis.

Brian Crandall

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