ITHACA, N.Y.—The Town of Ithaca’s leadership has been consistent about their vision for the Inlet Valley, along Elmira Road/Route 13 between the City of Ithaca and Newfield limits. Quaint shops and touristy boutique facilities have been the focus, but a new business proposal has thrown them a curveball.
The debate is being driven by a proposal from Rudra Management, doing business as Cedar Rock Inc., and represented at Monday night’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting by Michael Lasell of Jefferson County-based MBL Engineering. Cedar Rock is proposing to build a 24,700-square-foot self-storage facility on three acres of undeveloped land at 602 Elmira Road.
Self-storage facilities have undergone a real estate boom in recent years, both nationally and locally. From a planning perspective, they are typically not very controversial, since traffic impacts are low, the buildings are usually low-slung rows tucked away from view, and they don’t represent a heavy burden on utility infrastructure. They are also, conventionally, non-descript buildings without a focus on aesthetics.
Rudra seems to be aware enough of its sensitive choice of locations that the proposal’s six buildings, designed by Line 42 Architecture, use architectural features and window/door arrangements akin to a professional office building, which would be allowed.
While Rudra is based out of suburban Buffalo, the firm is not unfamiliar with the area. Rudra’s Jay Patel built the Holiday Inn Express further up Elmira Road in the city of Ithaca several years ago. Initially, Rudra paid $690,000 in April 2018 for a three-acre chunk of vacant land at 602 Elmira Road, and the seller was an LLC affiliated with a hotel chain. According to Rudra personnel, the initial plan was to build the Holiday Inn Express at 602 Elmira Road.
However, as the business pro-forma attached to the Zoning Board of Appeals agenda indicates, the site has numerous issues that prevented it from being feasible as a hotel. The steep slopes, odd trapezoidal shape, poor soil strength (it was used as debris-fill by the state Department of Transportation in the 1990s) and location on the out-commute southbound side of Route 13 made it unappealing.
In addition, a rival hotel was planned down the road at 635 Elmira Road, on the in-commute side of Route 13 and on a flatter parcel, a proposal which is also now being held up by the new zoning. Other kinds of business, like retail, office space, and a restaurant were also put forth on pro-formas and shown as likely operating losses with negative rates of return due to heavier infrastructure needs and size limitation imposed by the overlay.
On the other end of the conflict is the Town of Ithaca. The town has wanted to redo the zoning in the Inlet Valley Corridor since the 2014 Comprehensive Plan, as was articulated in the 2018 Inlet Valley Plan. The goal has been, for several years, to convert Inlet Valley to a semi-rural neighborhood with an agribusiness, “artisanal industrial,” and tourism focus—purposes that don’t include self-storage facilities.
Eventually, the Town Board approved overlay zoning in February of this year to more directly pursue its goals for the area.
“What the overlay zones do is allow some additional use, take away some additional uses, and add on some design standards for building site layout, height, setbacks, parking locations, and so on,” said Senior Planner Dan Tasman earlier this year.
Planning Board members at the time of the overlay decision had expressed support for the architectural guidance of the overlay, but had more concerns about its revised uses. Route 13 has a number of light industrial businesses that didn’t fit the motif of quaint shops, restaurants and B&Bs that the town was aiming for with the overlay.
The new zoning overlay put Rudra in a bind. Company officials had privately determined they were going to self-storage, but had not announced those plans publicly or submitted them for review and approval by the Planning Board. The zoning changes introduced a new obstacle to the plan, while Rudra was already going through the planning and financial processes.
At the meeting, Lasell presented the project and zoning request to members of the Zoning Board of Appeals, with Rudra Vice President Tom Zawadzki in the audience.
“It’s an uncommon circumstance, and we don’t feel the hardship was self-created because of the change (in zoning) from when we purchased the property to when the zoning overlay was put into law,” said Lasell.
“I did take the time and effort to go through various other uses […] the only thing that came up that would still work and be profitable for that property was self-storage. I ran scenario after scenario, 10 business models altogether […] self-storage was the only one that was profitable,” said Zawadzki.
Zawadzki, who has been a developer for 35 years and joined Rudra in May, stated the primary issue with other uses was that they have higher infrastructure installation and maintenance costs. The site is logistically complex with steep slopes and heterogeneous Department of Transportation landfill soil—the more water, sewer and electric that has to be routed through it, the higher the costs rise.
“The Inlet Valley zoning was already envisioned in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan, but the committee was formed several years after to actually start work on that,” said Town Planner Chris Balestra. “With this particular [rezoning] project, we did notify every property owner within the Elmira Road corridor involved in the zoning change. Each property owner was notified of the process.”
“They (Rudra) made a cursory submission a few weeks before the Town Board voted on the zoning change. Even if they had made a full submission, they wouldn’t have had vested rights,” added Town Attorney Susan Brock.
Brock noted the project was following the architectural standards for the overlay district, and while county planners thought that the project wasn’t in line with the town’s goals, Balestra and Brock noted that, via discussions among town staff, self-storage did fit with the light industrial and low-traffic commercial uses in the northern swath of the Inlet Valley Corridor, which includes Mancini-Ferrara paving, Ithaca Beer’s brewery, and the Soil Factory.
Board members generally agreed that, based on the financial results presented for other uses, it was demonstrated that a reasonable return on investment was unlikely with other uses. Brock stated that it was fair to say in this case that the hardship was not self-created, in that they owned the property since 2018 and that self-storage was permitted when it was bought, but was then lost when the overlay went into effect this year. The property was also unique for parcels in that area given its soil, limited accessibility and steep slopes. The buildings would still need to meet the new zoning’s architectural design standards, which the applicants have shown they plan to do.
Still, the project has yet to be reviewed by the Planning Board, so the Zoning Board of Appeals can’t explicitly approve these plans because the Planning Board may ask for changes during their review. At Attorney Brock’s suggestion, Zoning Board of Appeals Chair David Squires phrased the resolution’s legal language such that the buildings and square footage will not exceed what was shown—effectively, six buildings and 24,700 square feet will be the max allowed, regardless of any other changes the Planning Board makes design-wise.
With some modest further discussion to refine the languages, Squires called for a vote to allow the use variance — the vote passed unanimously. The project still has to go before the Planning Board, but Rudra now at least has that door of opportunity still open to them.