ITHACA, N.Y.—Mirabito’s plans for a new service center and Burger King restaurant on East Hill have been waylaid after facing an unenthusiastic and reluctant Town of Ithaca Planning Board last week.
Earlier this year, Mirabito presented sketch plans to the town for a combination eight-pump gas station, convenience store, and partnered Burger King restaurant. The revised 6,450 square-foot proposal also included a car wash (to be built a year later), four electric vehicle charging stations, and a drive-thru to service the 1,800 square-foot Burger King space, which is an unusually small footprint for a restaurant, achieved by reducing interior seating to 10 counter-style seats.
Outdoor improvements include patio seating, sidewalks and lighting, landscaping and improved stormwater facilities. Note that the stormwater “ponds” in the site plan are actually bioretention areas that will be filled with water-hungry, tolerant plantings.
The $3.5 million project would occupy a prominent corner in the town of Ithaca. It would have replaced an existing, much smaller Mirabito store and gas station, as well as the former Burger King restaurant space, both of which date from the 1990s. Given Cornell’s plans for a mixed-use walkable neighborhood in the area, there has been heightened sensitivity about designing a project that both fits Mirabito’s needs and meshes with Cornell’s long-term plans.
The Mirabito property’s lot would be reconfigured to include some but not all of the former Burger King’s acreage, to make for a 1.6 acre parcel for the Mirabito/Burger King combo. An acre of land that was previously the Burger King’s parking lot, owned by Cornell, will not be a part of the new development. Cornell has not indicated a future intent for that acre of property.
Since the sketch plan was presented in February, the new driveways along Pine Tree Road and Ellis Hollow Roads were shifted to be further from the intersection. The stormwater facilities were redesigned with input from town engineers, the underground fuel tank was relocated further from the stormwater pond, and the patio was flipped—from the south side of the building facing Ellis Hollow Road, to the north side of the building, with a tree and shrub buffer now facing the intersection.
Convenience store/restaurant combinations aren’t known for their attractive building designs, though architect Griffiths Engineering did put forth some effort in this case. Griffiths used a modern motif with a combination of fiber cement, stone veneer and Dry-Vit, as well as cornices with roof brackets to try and give it some visual appeal.
Project engineer Jim Ballantyne of Napierala Consulting gave the updated project details to the town of Ithaca Planning Board last week, with Brett Hughes of Mirabito Energy Products joining in remotely. The project team was hopeful for Site Plan Approval at the Planning Board meeting Tuesday—instead, they never came close to a vote.
There was some confusion right off the bat at the meeting, because the site plan and architectural renderings showed somewhat different plans regarding paved and landscaped areas.
“The picture’s misleading, right?” Quipped board member Fred Wilcox.
Wilcox has been on the board so long, his tenure extends back to when the original Burger King was proposed at the site in the late 1990s—which Wilcox voted against.
“The green grass is misleading, but not the building,” replied Ballantyne.
The verbal jousting continued as Wilcox, who is usually quite candid during board meetings, debated Ballantyne on the signage, calling it “gaudy” and adding “it’s gotta go.”
To get all the signage they want, the project team would have to get a variance. To be clear, the renderings presented at the meeting had more signage than the images here, and you can see the proposed signage in the meeting video here.
Wilcox’s board colleague, architect Cindy Kaufman, was also unimpressed.
“If this is the gateway to Cornell, I feel that this architectural expression is doing a disservice,” Kaufman said. “I do appreciate that you’re trying to break up the volume with the different materials, but there’s so much going on without a cohesive design. I’m bothered by all the materials, I’m bothered by the arched windows, I’m bothered by the Dry-Vit on the back […] I’m just surprised that this is okay.”
Kaufman also didn’t like the flat roof, particularly because it and its mechanical equipment would be seen when driving downhill on Ellis Hollow Road.
That back wall was the source of numerous unflattering comments. From a directional standpoint, the unique location and siting means that for most passersby, the back wall is what they will primarily see as they drive or walk by. The board made clear there had to be more of an effort on that front, since the site is in such a high profile location.
Not all the commentary was negative, though. Wilcox said he appreciated the handicapped parking space next to the electric vehicle chargers, and other board members thought there was an opportunity for more outdoor seating on the west side of the building, tucked away from the intersection and parking lot.
As for fitting into the Cornell plans for the East Hill Village mixed-use neighborhood, the message from Cornell, which owns the land and leases it out on long-term periods, was not to worry.
“Unfortunately, the environment we’re in right now does not financially support that large-scale development happening all at once […] with Mirabito, the building is obviously dated and needs to be replaced,” said Jeremy Thomas, Cornell’s senior director of real estate. “We felt that this was the best way to do this, and to integrate with a future redevelopment (of the plaza).”
After the initial hour or so of critique, it became clear there was an impasse and that the project would need to go back to the drawing board for more work.
One of the outstanding issues is that so much of the site design is dictated by zoning, which splits “vehicle fuel and repairs” and “food service” uses on the site. The applicant will have to go to the Town Board in this case, and the members of the Planning Board would have to explain why they’re making an applicant go to such an extent and trying to force the Town’s hand without their prior consent. Wilcox liked the idea, but it did not enjoy widespread support among his colleagues.
“There are lots of criticisms of this proposal, but fundamentally, it is within the scope of the zoning,” concluded board member Bill Arms. “It’s the sort of project that’s been envisaged for this area. It’s not that it’s a completely wrong project, the criticisms are about the details of the project.”
Representing the proposal team, Ballantyne echoed the sentiment, to a certain extent.
“I don’t think anything here is a dealbreaker, just a matter of, listening for your input and make those appropriate decisions. But somewhere along the line, there is a monetary investment question for Mirabito,” said Ballantyne.
Complicating matters further was that as part of the project’s stipulations, Cornell has to approve any site plan and building design, and has yet to do so.
Town Planning Director C.J. Randall focused on revised materials and submissions that would be needed, rather than hypothetical town board votes. She stressed traffic paths, fire apparatus access, clearer stormwater plans, and revised architectural work. Additional renderings of the gas station canopy, roof mechanicals and façade materials would be required as well. With that, the board voted unanimously to table the project.
The next planning board meeting has been canceled, meaning the project team will put something further before the board at a later date.