ITHACA, N.Y.—Rarely do plans from the same developer change quite so drastically as they have with 261 Lake Street.
As initially planned back in January 2022, the project was to be “Auden II.” It followed what was a well-established formula for DMG Investments of New York. The company first entered the Ithaca market when it bought the Gun Hill Apartments in May 2019 for about $22.4 million. DMG had been quite active in Upstate markets with large colleges, co-developing a 322-bed student apartment building in Albany with a second building currently underway, and opening a 481-bed student apartment complex in Buffalo in 2021.
The Ithaca plan was initially under the same student-focused premise. DMG proposed constructing a modular 4-story building containing 71 residential units with 211 beds. The development was to be an extension of the existing Auden student housing complex, with shared parking and services.
Well, the best-laid plans can still fall apart, and that’s what happened with Auden II. The project faced considerable opposition from Fall Creek over its size, parking impacts, and concerns about potentially disturbing lead-contaminated soil washed down from the former Ithaca Gun factory further uphill. The fact that it was student housing bordering a neighborhood of longer-term residents averse to explicit collegiate overtures didn’t help DMG’s cause.
With a lukewarm planning board and potential hurdles with obtaining the needed zoning variances, the Auden II proposal was halted. The parcels of land were reconfigured to allow for a potential sale of the undeveloped western portion, though any such action would have required a legal arrangement for parking with whoever owns Auden Ithaca. The land and the adjacent Auden Ithaca apartment complex were put up for sale this past February.
Given the push to sell, it was with some surprise that DMG decided in the past few months to give the Lake Street sitr another try—with a completely different design and approach, making for a completely different project.
Initially proposed under the “Air” brand that DMG has been rolling out with its latest projects, the development, now dubbed the “Lake Street Townhouses,” is a much smaller proposal than the multi-story modular building DMG and its project team first considered. In place of a 71-unit apartment building are two townhouse strings with seven and nine units respectively, in three-bedroom and four-bedroom configurations.
That unit size is a sort of grey space where it could work for students, but the townhouses aren’t designed for the student market. As stated at the sketch plan meeting with the city of Ithaca Planning Board earlier this week, the intent is general market-rate rental housing. It could be students, it could be families looking to rent while they save up for a house, or maybe they’re new to the area and prefer to rent while getting acclimated.
Another big difference is the design aspect. Modular buildings, while labor- and cost-efficient, don’t typically allow for a ton of creativity in design. As much as DMG and its project team tried to gussy up the original design with different materials and colors, it was still just an L-shaped box, punctuated with stairwell towers as the building stepped downhill from south to north. There were worst designs out there (heck, even in Ithaca), but it wasn’t about to win any beauty contests.
This time around, DMG is working with a local architect, HOLT Architects, on a low-rise, stick-built (custom) design. That gives more creative range, and HOLT has an established familiarity with Ithaca and knows what will work and what won’t. Initial concept designs show gables, bay projections, stoops, and design motifs intended to blend in with Fall Creek’s residential “vernacular” (the hodge-podge of late 1800s and early 1900s styles that comprise most of its housing stock). Due to the steep slope limiting aerial access, and no masonry stairwells as with the previous design, the fire department advised that the townhouse strings would have to stay under 30 feet in average height.
It was a board pleaser Tuesday night. One planning board member likened the concept to Victorian-era “Painted Ladies” of San Francisco, and hoped that the colors and materials would live up to the rest of the design. The townhomes are being designed to comply with the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement (Green Building Policy).
However, not everything is roses and rainbows here. There are a few tricky aspects to the design of the project. One is parking. The project provides 18 parking spaces at the rear, off of Lincoln Street Extension. That is less than the 28 required by zoning, and their location in the rear yard setback of the lot will require a variance. The project team is exploring building an additional 14 parking spaces at the end of Lincoln Street in conjunction with the city that would serve as public parking for both residents and visitors to Ithaca Falls.
However, that ties into the second potential fly in the ointment – the project as designed, with 18 spaces on-site and 14 next door, would require some sizable retaining walls — after all, it’s a sloped property. In one design study for the walls, the rear retaining wall could end up 20 feet high. It drew enough concern from the Planning Board that Board Chair Robert Lewis expressed a willingness to support a larger parking variance (i.e. fewer spaces on-site) if it meant smaller, shorter retaining walls.
As for environmental contamination concerns, the project team reported that the third-party geotechnical sampling they paid for found subsurface contamination at the far northeast corner of the site, and so that will not be touched at all by the development. However, the section next to Lake Street was found to be safe. This report will have to be given over to the city for review as the project formally applied for and seeks Site Plan Approval in the coming months.
On the project team with DMG Investments and HOLT Architects is DMG Engineering/Design Management Group, the company’s in-house building engineering unit, Passero Associates as Civil Engineers, and Whitham Planning and Design will handle the landscape architecture.